Book Review: Unwind

unwindBy Neal Shusterman

This is another book I picked up in my random ‘smash and grab’ from the teen section in the local library. Of the books that I borrowed, this is perhaps the best and most haunting.

The premise is that in the future, there’s a war between the different sides of the abortion debate that concluded in a compromise that pregnancy could not be terminated but that children between 13 and 18 could be harvested for organs as long as 99.4% of their body was used in transplants. The theory here was they would still be alive, just divided. It’s a horrible thought but knowing what atrocities have been justified in the past, it’s just the science that makes it far fetched.

The great thing about this book is that it provides a reasonable excuse for the society to justify the disposal on individuals that fall within the age bracket. Neal does a great job of the setting and establishing the horror for those selected. The story is centred around three children who have been sentenced to this fate.

What works is the variety of reasons that are given for parents and guardians committing their children to being unwound. The main character Connor is handed over for unwinding because his parents could not control his behavior. The book starts with him finding the order and escaping. Risa is the main female character and she lives in an orohange being raised by the state. They evaluate her academic progress and decide to unwind her in order to respond to budget cuts. The final main character, Levi, is being sent as a tithe. He has religious parents and as the 10th child, he is their 10% tithe (of course they never stop to consider that Levi himself is donating 100%).

Through the book there are other children and Neal finds many, many reasons for his society to find children expendable. One is the result of a messy divorce where the parents could not agree on custody. Another child is an orphan sent to live with an aunt after her mother dies and the aunt decides unwinding is the best option so that she can get her hands on that child’s inheritance. The list goes on. It’s sobering to realize that there are without doubt, people in the world who would take the easy way out with their children if it was available to them. Perhaps this is the reason I liked the book so much, the credible story (“You’ll still be alive, just in a divided state” and “change is hard”) allows for denial that everyone buys into. As humans we have lived with denial in the past, have a look at the justifications for slavery during the worst of the transatlantic trade.

If you are looking for something that changes a single aspect of our society and created a picture about how we would behave, then this is the book for you.

As a book is it part one of a four part series but the book stands alone. It’s an excellent read and literally one that I couldn’t put down.

Book Review: The Registry

theregistryBy Shannon Stoker

Another book picked up during my smash and grab of dystopian fiction, this  time from the adult (non-teen) section. It was a bit of a surprise to see this in the Sci Fi section as it really reads like a teen dystopia.

The book has the premise than in the future, the relationships between men and women are regulated. Women at 18 becomes listed in the registry for men to buy as wives. If they are not purchased after a year then they are married to the Government (become low grade workers). Men have an obligation to join the military and only have the right to a wife when their service is complete. The society is very conservative and the rules are applied rigorously.

The execution of the premise is messy. It really is. There’s too many holes for it to be believable. Firstly, the society described is too uniform. The U.S. is a diverse place and the book seems to have turned it into a white mono-culture (there’s no hint of other races). Secondly, the structured and rigid nature of the society is so at odds with the modern U.S. it’s hard to see how they would get from the modern society to what is depicted. The selling of women into marriage doesn’t make sense. The expensive ones get sold and the cheap ones don’t and end up in government service? Really, doesn’t seem like a free market in action. I’m sure the lower socio economic classes would happily take a cheaper wife. Men are pushed out of the household, often at birth to be raised by the state. By whom? Really? It ignores the strong need that many men feel to have a son. I just can’t believe that these tough, hardened military men would boot out sons (that they could relate to) and surround themselves with daughters (with the main motivation being profit from their sale into marriage). Really the whole thing ignores basic biology.

The characters are a strange lot. The main character, a girl trying to escape an arranged marriage is manipulative and naive. That’s fine. The boy that helps her is a strange fish. Originally introduced as a trustworthy and sympathetic farm worker, he has rather unexpected and explainable bouts of violence. He just not consistent and there’s no explanation for it. The villain is the man that pays the bride price for the main character. He’s too over the top. OK, I get that it’s good to hate the villans but he’s to over the top that he erodes credibility of the story. He throws a law enforcement officer out of a helicopter without consequence. Like really? It’s a different society but if the laws were that permissive, it would be wild west.

Essentially, this is a variation on what seems to be a common theme of dystopias that remove rights from women and see how it goes. An interesting and valid topic to explore to be sure but if the story isn’t credible, then it undermines the whole thing.



Book Review: Tarnished 

tarnishedBy Kate Jarvik Birch

I picked up this book in a random ‘smash and grab’ from the teen section in the local library. Well, to be fair, I borrowed them with my library card but I picked them from the shelves indiscriminately so it felt like a smash and grab.

The story is about a girl, artificially raised in a facility to be a pet for the rich. The premise is that in the future, we can create artificial people who are conditioned to be pets for the rich. It starts out with her having just achieved her freedom by escaping to Canada and then proceeding to undertake the difficult task of attempting to be reunited with her love interest back in the States where she came from. Problem is, in the United States she is classified as a ‘pet’ meaning she has a non-person status and is treated as property. The parallels to chattel slavery are rife.

The story itself is readable and enjoyable enough though the plot holes get larger closer to the end of the book. It’s things that seem to make sense at face value but don’t stand closer scrutiny such as a high tech companies reliance on paper files (as an example). Also, some of the characters are a bit too world wise for people who cannot read (reading is not part of their training).

What the book does very well and in a subtle manner lays bare the ongoing patriarchal nature of our society. As a reader the premise seems natural. The pets are all girls and youth and beauty is the main attribute that is valued by their owners. The rich didn’t own male pets nor did the company that bred and trained the pets sell a male version. Pets that escaped made their way in the world based on the beauty at the behest of the men and women that ran the black market.

As a thought experiment, consider, if people could be created and conditioned what would big business do? Where would the market be? Female? Check. Young? Check? Attractive? Check. Trade them in for a new model as they get older? Check. In short, if we were to commoditize any demographic of human, it would be pretty young girls. These are also the target for people smugglers. As a society, we have a long way to go.

Some of the characterization needed work, especially around motivations. Some of the actions that the characters took didn’t make a lot of sense given the situation they were in. Sometimes the author provided a motivation in the form of a statement from the character in question but even then, I struggled. The worse case is the antagonist, the owner of the main character pet. He seems to want her back to make some sort of example of her. This doesn’t make sense to me. Of you have a problematic dog either you discipline it, sell it on or, if you can do anything else, you put it down. The issue I have with his desire for revenge is that it dilutes the premise. If you consider her a pet (essentially not human) then why the desire for revenge. To me, it weakened the novel, not by much, but it was noticeable. Are they human or not in the eyes of the public? It would have been a stronger novel if that had been more consistent.

A final point of interest is I was initially left with some ambiguity around her motivation. She wants to return to her love interest, the son of the man who ‘owns’ her. Was this driven by love or her conditioning. This was a great question that did get resolved and is probably only ambiguous because I started with the second novel in the series (Perfected is the first).

Worth reading? Definitely. See how easily you slip into the ‘pretty young things are the right ones to buy’ mentality. It’s a great eye opener.

Book Review: Herland

By: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Interesting at first, it never developed the conflict or tension to grab me and carry me to the end.

I saw this was having a free promotion on Amazon so I grabbed a copy. One of the seminal works of fiction to include a matriarchal society, it fitted the bill for my review programme as it covers gender equality and accordingly, I started reading it with gusto.

The books started well enough with the three male protagonists uncovering a land populated entirely by women. But then things went downhill and it’s not the author’s fault. The book was written for another time and a whole lot of the message that the book was looking to deliver wasn’t stuff I needed to be sold on. Women can do anything and everything which the book then started to show in painstaking detail.

This is a major problem with the book in that it fairly soon leaves plot behind and goes into a detailed explanation of the society and culture of the fictitious country Herland. Written in 1915, the level of detail and explanation made a lot of sense. Woman can be leaders, and workers, and planners, and rational with a demonstration for each that proved it in context for the story. The problem was, I already believe all this stuff so the book read like one huge over-explanation. By halfway I was getting tired. By the two thirds mark, I was scanning rather than reading. By the three quarters mark I was skipping pages. The problem is that the author seemed unwilling to add any faults into the society she had created. Perhaps she was concerned that the faults would define the society in the mind on her male readers and therefore chose to exclude them. The is perhaps a reflection of the time that the book was written. The result was she created a society of robots. Women who had no real faults, who accepted the society and fitted into their role with only a hint of troublemakers and hardly any criminal element to speak of. It killed any sense of meaningful risk, stakes or conflict and therefore robbed the book of attention grabbing power.

In conclusion, it was interesting at first for historical purposes but can someone please write a modern alternative, this one hasn’t dated well.

Book Review: Daughter of the Revolution

Daughter of the Revolution
by Becca Patterson

DoTRThis was a great little YA science fiction romp with some thought provoking social commentary. Set in a distant future, I liked the way it portrayed the challenges that youth faced.

Originally the book made my list as I believed it would hit the social commentary about equality criteria. It was put to me as set in a matriarchy. What was interesting was that the matriarchal nature of the setting was actually quite subtle. Enough of the main characters were male that the full matriarchal nature of the setting remained in the background and it was only made obvious by the number of minor characters that were female. It seemed that female was the default for any minor characters. It didn’t give a sense of female privilege and it didn’t make me question any of my male notions on life. In fact it seemed to me like the setting was based around equality.

Where it did shine was in the commentary on youth and the increasing demanding world that they inhabit. They don’t become full citizens unless they graduate. Given the much harsher life those that don’t graduate college experience it’s a great analogy for the struggle that the young face today. Another interesting facet is children can be adopted out to corporations. Again, given the crippling nature of sued the loans, it’s another great analogy. In some way, I wish it had explored these concepts more.

The plot itself is wide ranging with a lot of danger and conflict for the characters. It’s a nice mad dash across that systems with enough twists and turns to keep the story moving. The characters are likeable though perhaps a little too effective given they are essentially schoolkids.

It certainly makes it into the softer side of science fiction with FTL travel (they’d travel between star systems) and enigmatic aliens called ‘Others. It still made the reader think. Characters were tied to their tablets (smartphone anyone?). All in all a good read.

I am open to review requests for certain specific genres.

Things will never be the same…

For centuries, we have labored under a polite fiction, the fiction that political candidates win over the electorate with rational policies and arguments. This has been proved massively untrue by the events in the U.S. where a come from nowhere demagogue has used pretty much raw personality  to become one of the two main contenders.

Initially Trump ranked tenth with only 3% of the votes but through sheer force of personality, and unrealistic populist policies such as a ban on Muslims and a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, backed by numerous policy flip-flops he is now the Republican Party Presidential Candidate.

The genie is out of the bottle. Where Sarah Palin peeked under the carpet, Trump strips off the veneer and exposes the awful truth, that politics is just like anythings else, won by soundbites and emotion.

Perhaps this is the beginning of the end. As politicians absorb the lessons from this election, expects things to head in a new direction. Perhaps politics will start to use some of the same tricks used in other industries such as the fast food industry.

We may get an election or perhaps two based on the current fiction, but in 2028, will the winning candidate be endorsed by a line of bikini clad models? The only one who can stop this is you, the voters, by caring and listening and thinking things through. There’s never been a more important time to be a voter and protect your democracy.

Writing Inspiration: Isn’t allowing the most colourful and engaging candidate with the best sound bites win, the same as voting at random.

Hands off the Steering Wheel

The other day I needed to drive across town to pick up a parcel. The depot was in a part of town that I don’t normally visit so, as usual, I secured the phone in the hands-free cradle and let Google tell me what to do. I had two choices,via the motorway or via the back streets. I chose the backstreets simply because the first set of lights made it a minute quicker.

As I drove I reflected that Google must have chosen those routes knowing the traffic profile and time of day. Otherwise how could it have got the timing of arrival so accurate.

As I drove, the streets were empty and strange. These were streets that I had never seen before and would never have visited any other way. What would I have done without Google? I would have used a map. Taken the motorway and taken the closest exit ramp then used the map from there rather than the complex route Google chose. I’d have been another car on the motorway clogging it up. As I looked around, I saw all this unused infrastructure – empty streets when the motorway was probably loaded with cars.

Auckland has a traffic problem. The motorways clog up too quickly and here I was on empty streets. Perhaps the answer is Google, Google maps and driver-less cars. Take the choice away from people. They put in a destination and Google gets them there – no choices, Google decides the route. That way all this infrastructure gets used more efficiently. Don’t build more roads, just better use the ones that we have.

The fine of the future “driver had his hands on the steering wheel.

This is great inspiration for a short story, one that I would like to call, “Just Drive.” Perhaps one day I will write it. Rebellion against authority by doing something we currently take for granted. But which is right, using infrastructure effectively or the freedom of choice to sit, crawling, on the motorway?