Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel ReadyTitle: Shovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh
14 January 2014
Crown Publishing
science fiction, thriller, noir, dystopia
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Spademan used to be a garbageman, but that was before a dirty bomb and a series of other terrorist attacks killed his wife and turned New York into an empty toxic shell of a city. Now he’s a hitman. Which is also a kind of waste disposal.

His latest mark is an eighteen year old runaway named Grace Chastity Harrow, who is now going by the name Persephone. Her father is T.K. Harrow, a wealthy and powerful evangelist who Persephone has somehow betrayed. Spademan likes to keep his jobs as simple as possible, but this one quickly becomes complicated when Persephone reveals a secret that stops Spademan from killing her. It’s classic noir – the dame in distress whose troubles tug at the cynical protagonist’s hardened heart and get him tangled up in a more complicated and dangerous plot than he expected.

In this case, it’s because Persephone knows some disturbing secrets that would ruin her father’s holier-than-thou reputation and thwart a highly profitable new scheme that he’s set up – a highly realistic, biblically accurate virtual-reality heaven. By protecting Persephone, Spademan essentially opens his arms to some very powerful and utterly ruthless enemies.

I don’t read (or watch) much noir fiction, but from what I know of the genre I’d say that Adam Sternbergh has captured the tone perfectly. The writing is lean and edgy, simultaneously blunt and razor sharp. Sternbergh strips Spademan’s narration down to the brusque basics. He doesn’t even use quotation marks, which is easy to get used to but can be confusing. Sometimes you have to backtrack and figure out who is speaking, or if Spademan is just thinking rather than speaking aloud (and if you’re reading an ebook with messed up formatting that doesn’t have line breaks in the proper places – like a pirated eBook, for example – you’re fucked).

But I think the lack of quotation marks suits the blunt style and Spademan’s equally blunt character. He the typically dispirited anti-hero of noir fiction, the bad guy who takes it upon himself to be the good guy in a corrupt world.

Spademan is very strict about keeping his interaction with his clients down to the most basic requirements. He doesn’t want to know their reasons. He doesn’t need to justify what he does or live with it, because that’s what his clients have to do when they hire him. He is just a bullet, an action.

He kills men and women because he doesn’t discriminate, but he draws the line at children – he’s not that kind of psycho. His weapon of choice is a box cutter – easy to obtain and easy to hide but very effective. It kept reminding me of the very real terrorist attacks that happened in New York – planes crashing into the Twin Towers after being hijacked by men wielding box cutters. If this association with terrorists is deliberate, I wonder why Sternbergh chose this weapon for his character, who still hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife in a terrorist bombing. However, it does have a very apt sense of anger and disillusionment about it. It’s an unassuming but efficient weapon with which the disempowered defeat the powerful. I love this line from Spademan:

I may have once had some thin faith in something like cosmic justice, but now I believe in box-cutters.

It’s a belief that serves him well in this ravaged New York, where radiation poisoning is a daily threat. I wouldn’t call this a post-apocalyptic though, because the bombings were restricted to New York. The rest of the world, and the rest of America, is carrying on as usual, except for any problems caused by the loss of New York (but the novel doesn’t get into that).

The bombs didn’t actually kill that many people. Instead it killed New York’s tourist industry, and that eventually killed New York. Most people left, but many stayed – the poor, stubborn squatters, people with unusual business requirements, and of course dodgy underworld types who profit from lawless environments. There are also loads of wealthy people who don’t really live in the city because they spend most of their time in a virtual reality known as the limnosphere. This is basically a customisable online space, and while you’re in there your body is lying in a bed with a bunch of life-support tubes. The warehouses in the industrial area of Tribeca are full of rich people in beds.

I find this a tad unlikely though. If you’re going to spend all your time in virtual reality, then it doesn’t matter where you live, but if you’re rich, why not do it in a safe environment with reliable medical care, instead of a toxic lawless city? Many of Spademan’s marks are withered bed-ridden dreamers; he just walks in and slits their throats while they sleep. The seedier dens that cater to less upmarket clients make sense, but not the luxury versions.

Despite that snag however, I do like the concept of the limnosphere, largely because of spoilery stuff that I won’t reveal. And a rather likeable character who appears as a hot avenging angel when he’s needed most. Part of the plot plays out in the limnosphere, although Spademan prefers to avoid it having been addicted to it in the past.

His history is full of dark and tragic details that Spademan reveals over the course of the narrative. One of the words used to describe the book in the blurb is “tender” which I thought was a bit odd until I learned more about Spademan. It doesn’t detract from his edgy character, but it does add a wounded human side. I won’t give you any of the details; it’s nicer just to read them yourself.

Other words used to describe the book include “gritty, violent, funny, riveting”, and although I’m not so sure about the “funny” part, I agree that it’s all of those other things. A good quick and dirty thriller.

Downsides? Yes, there were some things I didn’t like. Sometimes, and particularly towards the end, a lot of information is withheld from the reader to maintain suspense, and with the terse writing style things start to get confusing.

The are also few women in the story, and although some of them are central to the plot, they have little or no control over it. Like Spademan’s wife, who is important largely because she died.

Persephone is the most important female character, not to mention the character whose actions set the plot in motion, but she is relegated to the role of damsel in distress in what is primarily Spademan’s story. In fact, there are two occasions in which the characters analyse the situation and decide that this is essentially a struggle between Spademan and T.K. Harrow, with Persephone as little more than a pawn. She does at least end up playing a more active role than pawn and proves to be extremely fucking deadly with a knife, but she still gets sidelined way too much. Sternbergh might be sticking to the conventions of the genre, but he didn’t have to go that far.

Common gender pitfalls aside though, it’s good read. Check it out.

Writing Joburg – A guest post by Abi Godsell

Abi Godsell is a South African author whose debut novel – Idea War: Volume 1 – will be released this month by Wordsmack, a digital publishing house specialising in African speculative fiction. Idea War is a YA dystopian novel set in Joburg, and I invited Abi over to share her thoughts on living and writing about the city. Welcome Abi!


Abi, medium

I count myself as very lucky to be living in a city that I love. It’s not something that everyone has. What’s more, Johannesburg isn’t just the place that I live either. It’s the heart of both my work as a writer and as a student of Urban and Regional Planning, so I’m triply lucky.

It’s why I write the way I do, locating stories in very specific places. At least, this love of city, and wanting to share that love is one of the reasons.

I have the, probably rather silly, hope about how people will read it. I hope that someone sometime, reading a piece of mine, say, a fight scene on a street in Idea War, would take a look at the map showing where it happens and recognize a landmark in the text and suddenly say “Hey! But that’s my street! I drive that street to the veggie shop every Saturday.”

And maybe the next time they drive it, they’ll look at it a little more closely and see it as just a little cooler.

Don’t ask me to tell you what the streets are actually like though, in this city I live in and love and write, because the picture wouldn’t be a very accurate one. At least, not accurate for anyone other than me. That’s the thing about Jozi, it isn’t one city, it’s thousands.

“A story about Johannesburg? Are you insane?” an acquaintance told of friend of mine when she mentioned that we were thinking about such a project. “What do three sheltered white girls know about Johannesburg? I’ve seen things in this city that you couldn’t possibly imagine!”

And he had. Well, not things that we couldn’t imagine, but things that we hadn’t seen, faces of the city that we’d never met. Angry, broken, painful faces, well out of our life-experience. We didn’t live in his Joburg, and he didn’t live in ours. That’s what it’s like working here, there are as many different Johannesburgs as there are Johannesburgers, and you’re always mindful of that. Even if there aren’t people to remind you of how small your city experience is, you’re always mindful. If you walk or work or write here, you move through spaces, listen to languages, see scenes, read signs that you don’t understand, because they are not part of your Joburg. No matter how well-travelled you are, or how well-connected or how long you’ve been around, your city won’t contain even a hundredth of all there is. No single person’s Joburg can.

It’s that that makes this such an incredible place to set stories.

You see, my friends and I weren’t insane, thinking that we could write a Joburg story, being who we are. (At least, I believe we were not insane, and will go on believing that, else I’d have to find a new line of work.) We just knew that we didn’t have the whole story, because there isn’t just one. I think, density wise, stories-per-square-kilometre, Johannesburg must be one of the richest places in the whole world.

Writing here feels a bit like cheating. It’s not as though I have to make up a great deal. The city I live in is built as much on stories as on gold-dust. The Neon Lions in Newtown, the metal pigeons in the shadow of the Family Court, the last curlicued iron lamppost at the edge of Parkhurst, the rusting-metal rainbow on the gates of George Harrison Park, brown hyenas in Bryanston, vultures on apartment roofs in Hyde Park. It’s all there, and that’s even before you start talking to people about the stories of their cities.

It’s more of a substrate than a setting for the stories I write. Rather drab, generic plots and vaguely dissatisfying characters grow up and fill out for me, when I sit with a map and say “but what if this happened there?”

That’s the second reason why locating stories in very specific places is so important to me. The setting is so much more than a stage. It’s a force that enlivens and enriches, forms and shapes. My writing simply couldn’t be half of what it is, if it wasn’t nourished, and taught by my city.


IWmediumThe Idea War

Callie Baxter is 16, and damned if she’s going to just sit tight and accept the invaders who have occupied her city. She’s worked hard to keep her fledgling group of passionate and righteous rebels alive, but as they uncover the new government’s most heinous plot yet, she realises she has only just begun to understand the pain of loss, and the true cost of growing up.

Idea War: Volume 1 is the first installment in a thrilling new urban series which outlines the story behind the fight for the soul of a future Johannesburg.

The city represents a shining example of recovery to the outside world, but can a small group of determined teenagers overcome the decay that has taken root at its core?

You can follow Abi @Cyanseagull or check out her blog Worlds and Words to find out more about the book and Johannesburg as a setting.


Elysium: Why is Max white?


*A spoiler-free discussion*

I really enjoyed Elysium. It’s one of the few sff movies I’ve seen recently that is more than just an action movie. Its story about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots – now so distant they’re not even on the same planet – is old, a bit simplistic and rather heavy-handed, but it still makes an impact. Blomkamp’s gritty, violent style of filmmaking really brings home the brutality of the poverty divide, and doesn’t really allow you to entertain the fantasy of living with the privileged 1%. Obviously, everyone would prefer to live on Elysium rather than Earth, but the decadence and selfishness of the habitat is so realistically excessive that the thought of living there actually made me uncomfortable.

The plot is a bit buggy, but I’m willing to forgive that. I like the awkward relationship between humanity and machinery. And yes, Elysium is also a great action movie – I loved the fight scenes and the special effects. But it’s an action movie with substance and that raises it above its peers. The hero isn’t a sexy martial arts expert who delivers stunningly choreagraphed death in a way that makes hardship look cool – he’s an ex-car-thief in an exoskeleton who’s fighting because he’s going to die if he doesn’t, and suffers greatly all the way to Elysium. I think I like this movie more than District 9.

But there is one serious question I have to ask – why is the hero a white guy? Yes, I know Hollywood is biased in favour of the straight white western male, but in this case the bias looks ridiculous, and considering the racial overtones of the movie, it could have been better.

According to the plot, Earth has become a slum thanks to overpopulation, overconsumption, climate change, etc. The world’s wealthiest people have escaped to Elysium – a high-tech habitat in Earth’s orbit. Elysium is a paradise of mansions, pristine blue swimming pools, perfectly manicured lawns, and beautiful overdressed people. They have everything they could want, including healing pods that can cure any disease and fix any injury. Every home has one, and this technology is at the core of the plot and its attack on elitist healthcare policies. The rich can be instantly cured of absolutely anything; the poor will suffer and die because there aren’t any health pods on Earth.

Now, the movie is cast so that almost all the characters on Earth are POCs (people of colour) while everyone on Elysium is white (except for one Indian guy – President Patel. Yeah.) To put it in oversimplified terms, the privileged few are white, the oppressed masses are black.

The major exception is Matt Damon’s character, Max. Max grew up on Earth, a lone white orphan boy in a population that’s primarily Latino and black. He’s a fairly ordinary person, no more skilled than anyone around him. He lives a meagre existence and works in a factory that makes the robots for Earth and Elysium – the same robots that beat him up early in the movie for looking suspicious, and who would shoot him if he set foot on one of Elysium’s perfect lawns. He’s forced to be an agent of his own oppression, just like lots of other people. Max gets a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at work, forcing him to find a means of getting to Elysium where a health pod could cure him – a quest that becomes increasingly revolutionary. Lots of other people are in a similar situation. Lots of other people are criminals, like him, who have the contacts and skills to do what he does.

So why, once again, is it that a white man has to step in and save humanity? Especially when he’s almost the only white guy around? Have we not had enough of this shit? Watching the movie, I was reminded of this article on ‘Why film school teachers screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test’, and this quote in particular:

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

And isn’t that exactly the case in Elysium? Why can’t the hero be black or Latino when the majority of society is? When every other character involved in the rebellion is a POC, why is it still that they can’t get actually achieve anything without Max, the white guy? If the hero was black, would the fight with Elysium look – to some people – less like justice and more like a barbarian invasion?

Just to be clear, I like Matt Damon and I enjoyed his performance. I just think the character should have been cast differently. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with his character being white, but when viewed in the context of an overwhelming bias in favour of white heroes, it’s a problem. Also, I know that it’s not impossible for this character to be white. Obviously there are still lots of white people on Earth – they’re not all rich enough to live on Elysium. The nun who helped raise Max and the factory manager are cases in point. And President Patel surely isn’t the only POC on Elysium. Rather, I’d say that the movie’s casting is a means of reflecting the fact that the wealthiest and most powerful people on Earth are mostly white, and the poorest and most disempowered are mostly non-white. As I mentioned before, the way this is done is simplistic, but not invalid.

The racial issue is emphasised by Sharlto Copley as Kruger, an Elysium special forces agent on Earth, tasked with things like shooting down ships full of people trying to go to Elysium. Based on Copley’s performances in District 9 and The A-Team, it seems he excels at playing crazy characters, and this time he makes a truly terrifying villain as an Afrikaner straight out of Apartheid-era South Africa. His penchant for violence, particularly violence against the oppressed, coupled with his strong Afrikaans accent, misogyny, overbearing demeanour, and use of racist terms like “boytjie” (meaning ‘little boy’ but used to refer to a black adult man) and “blackie”, holds a kind of deep-seated historical terror even for someone like myself, who was born when Apartheid was dying and enjoyed opportunities my parents were denied. Racism is still alive and well in SA, and contemporary versions of Kruger can easily be found in the more remote areas of our country. So on the one hand I grinned almost every time he used words like “kak” (pronounced “cuck”, meaning “shit”) or “lekker” (good, nice, but also a sweet/candy) or said something in a way that sounded particularly South African, because Afrikaans is part of my culture too and seeing South Africanisms in a big budget movie is a rare treat. And on the other hand, Kruger scared the shit out of me in the way that any crazy white supremacist would.

Perhaps Kruger’s significance is something best appreciated by other South Africans, but he really reinforces the underlying issue of a white/non-white power divide, while acting more explicitly as the guard dog of the wealth/class division. The fact that director/writer Neill Blomkamp is going so far as make a statement about racism with his casting choices and characters like Kruger, makes it that much more disappointing that Max’s character is white, whether that was Blomkamp’s decision or the studio’s requirement. A white hero and white villains, controlling the fates of POC victims who only play supporting roles.

Now that I’ve got that critique out of my system, I have to add that, although Elysium is guilty of bowing to Hollywood’s straight white western male bias, it’s a hell of a lot better than its peers that do the same. Because at least the issue is clearly on the table, and it’s giving you something to think about even if it’s making its point with a sledgehammer. Most of the time the bias just slides by as norm or as tradition and it’s easy to forget it’s there. I’m sure conservatives will be in an uproar about this movie because it makes statements about race, wealth and privilege that they would prefer not to hear. The one very positive thing I can say about casting Matt Damon as Max, is that at least no one can seriously argue that the movie is trying to say all white people are evil. Ok, no doubt some people will say that anyway (and even if Max were black that would be missing the point completely), but it helps to forestall that particular bit of close-mindedness with a strong counterargument. If the movie was more sophisticated it wouldn’t need to do that, but for a big-budget action movie it’s more progressive than what we could normally hope for.

“Immortality Will Kill Us All”: The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Title: The Postmortal (US title) / The End Specialist (UK title)
Author: Drew Magary
Published: 30 August 2011 by Penguin USA
science ficiton
Source: eARC received from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 8/10

In 2019, the human race discovers a holy grail – the cure for aging. It’s a surprisingly simple process – a series of quick, albeit painful injections. It completely changes human existence, but hastens humanity toward extinction rather than delivering the blissful eternal youth that most people envisioned. In 2090, after an event called “the Great Correction”, a worker for The Department of Containment discovers a digital library containing sixty years worth of text files written by a man named John Farrell, apparently for a blog or online journal. John’s files tell the story of the cure  and its devastating consequences. He was one of the first people to get the cure, before it was legalised. Later in his long life he became an ‘end specialist’, a government-sanctioned euthaniser who killed those who were tired of immortality (or in this case, ‘postmortality’).

Through John, author Drew Magary does an amazing, meticulous job of imagining how a cure for aging might affect the world. No doubt every review of this novel will include a discussion on this aspect of it, but I was too impressed by it not to discuss it as well. The assumed benefits of eternal youth are obvious; that’s why most people get the cure as soon as they can. What The Postmortal explores instead, is why “Immortality Will Kill Us All”.

There are myriad ethical and political considerations. Initially the cure is illegal, causing protesters to demand that it be legalised, arguing that governments are letting people die by not doing so. But is withholding the cure to aging the same thing as letting people die? On the other hand there are ‘pro-death’ anarchists and conservatives, some of whom react to the cure with violence – mutilation, bombing, murder. The most important of the ethical problems is how an ever-increasing population of postmortals is going to find the resources to live through the years to come. Because of the cure “there aren’t going to be future generations anymore. […] There will only be us. One infinite generation, forever growing and reaching an unknown and incomprehensible size”. And, as one anti-cure town mayor points out, “[t]hey all want to live forever and don’t have the faintest clue how they’re gonna eat a hundred years from now. Well they’re going to find out soon that their country ain’t gonna help them. They’re gonna find out that every man is his own country now.”

UK Cover

Naturally there are religious objections to the cure, with the pope condemning it and complaining that “Death is the only thing keeping us in line”. Of course he fails to sway the world and I wouldn’t buy that line either, but the cure nevertheless has profound effects on human culture and behaviour. Marriage becomes too much of a commitment for most people. Saying “I’ll love you forever” or “until death do us part” is fine when one is talking about a few decades, but the thought of being bound to one person for centuries is horrifying. People start to scorn those who have children, because they’re creating more mouths that will have to be fed forever. Jail sentences have to be reconsidered because prisons can’t afford to keep inmates locked up for centuries, but at the same people are concerned that rapists and murderers can walk away from long sentences without having changed at all.

Some consequences have no major ethical dilemmas attached to them, but are disturbing nevertheless. People will have to work forever to support themselves. The doctor who gives John the cure warns him that he “will never die a natural, peaceful death […] your demise will inevitably come at the hands of disease, starvation or a bullet”. John’s friend Katy tell him “you’re now always going to look the way you look at this exact moment […] This is how you’ll look when you die […] It’s like I’m looking at your corpse.” Ten years later John looks at a series of photos he’s taken of himself over the years and says “I haven’t changed. I haven’t grown. […] It’s as if I haven’t lived at all.”

The book is full of great quotes that achieve an incredible gravity in the context of the cure. It’s not like people don’t experience any of the benefits of not aging, especially in the early years but all of these are easily swept away as the world becomes overcrowded, dilapidated and chaotic. John lives in the USA, so the narrative plays out there, but the blog-post structure of the story allows him to incorporate other forms of media, such as news articles, transcripts of speeches and emails that occasionally give us small glimpses of what’s going on in other countries. You don’t learn that much about what’s going on outside of American though, and almost nothing about the developing world. The USA goes from being a first-world to a third-world country but what about those places that were third-world to begin with? The cure is expensive, so there were no doubt countries whose citizens could not afford it – how did they react? Would you even want to be postmortal if decades, perhaps centuries of poverty awaited you?

Arguably, including information about these things could have slowed the novel down, but I would not have minded because I was curious. Nevertheless, it’s still a great story and Magary uses his narrative structure well. Normally when a narrative is composed of entries from a journal or log, the author is forced to take some awkward artistic liberties by including long conversations that the character supposedly (but implausibly) remembered in detail and transcribed for the sake of the story. Magary neatly circumvents this awkwardness with a little clause in a fictional note about the text: “[John] Farrell was a remarkably fastidious record keeper. He used the LifeRecorder app to preserve and transcribe virtually every human interaction he had, and he incorporated many portions of those transcripts into his writing”.

If, while reading, you also find it odd that narrative composed of very personal blog posts makes no mention of things like hits, comments or blogging in general, keep in mind that the opening note has this covered too: “for the sake of brevity and general readability, [the files] have been edited and abridged into what we [The Department of Containment] believe constitutes an essential narrative, the fundamental goal being to offer incontrovertible evidence that the cure for aging must never again be legalized”.

Long before the end of the novel I had been reluctantly convinced of this – that the human race could not handle a cure to aging. It didn’t stop me wanting it for myself, but I think that’s the kind of selfishness within most humans that makes the cure such a disaster in the novel. People just think of life as they’re enjoying it, continuing for centuries, if not improving. On the contrary, The Postmortal offers a compelling, well-written exploration of exactly how terrible it would be for humanity to realise one of its greatest fantasies.

Buy The Postmortal at Book Depository

Lauren and Lu review Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Author: Lily Herne
Published: March 2011, by Penguin SA 
Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult, Zombies
Source: Purchased copy for review
Plot Summary
It’s been a decade since the zombie apocalypse destroyed Cape Town in the middle of the World Cup. The survivors live in heavily walled enclaves, while outside, in the Deadlands, the zombies still lurch. No one is trying to wipe them out or find a cure, because the zombies are worshipped in a disturbing new religion. Every year a Lottery is held and a few teenagers are chosen as offerings to the mysterious Guardians, cloaked figures who live in the Deadlands and have power over the zombies. Lele de la Fontein is a feisty 17-year old who sees through all this crap. Her grandmother has just died, and she and her brother leave the rural part of the enclaves to live with their father and stepmother in the urban section. Lele hates her stepmother, her new school, the religion, and the increasingly dictatorial politics of her new home. But she gets given an escape route she doesn’t want to take, when she’s chosen for the Lottery and sent out into the Deadlands with the Guardians.
Please note that the following review contains minor spoilers
General Impressions
Lauren: This is one of those books where my rating was a toss-up between things I really loved, and things I absolutely hated. What I loved – the political and religious satire, and the fact that it’s set in Cape Town, where I lived for most of my life. What I hated – the writing, and the fact that the book more or less abandons some of its most interesting content (politics, religion, the mystery surrounding the Guardians) for random action scenes and raiding the mall. Not that I don’t like action and wouldn’t want the chance to raid a mall, but the book could have integrated all these things. For example, the action scenes could have been part of their attempt to find out who the Guardians really are, but the characters practically forget about this until they stumble across part of the truth at the end. So it’s not like the book didn’t interest me; rather it got me really interested in some things, and then wandered off in a different direction, with me going “hey, but what about the…”.
Lu: At first I thought that I might not like this book as zombies sound like a terrifying subject, but the author made it work! With just the right amount of horror, mystery and post-apocalyptic feel, you get drawn straight into the story and you will be delighted by the twists and turns.

You can easily visualize everything in this book and I think that it would make a terrific movie or TV series. I must say I liked all the references to movies, books etc. (the main character even donning a Team Jacob t-shirt at one stage). It made the world seem more real and some of the characters sound like someone you would know.

The ending leaves some unanswered questions and I really hope there won’t be a love-triangle in the future! I think any South African would appreciate its grittiness as well as the South African slang and references. The novel is exciting, fast paced and makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. The only complaint I have is that I felt like I have heard aspects of the story before.

Lauren: I think the reason it would make a good movie and that it often feels like you’ve heard this before, is that it was written with the movies it references in mind. When reading I thought that it played out like a YA action-adventure-horror movie that happens to be a novel. It was co-written by a teenager though, so that kind of makes sense.

Lu: So it’s true that the novel was written by a mother/daughter combo?

Lauren: Yes – it was written by Sarah Lotz and her daughter Savannah.

Lu: Very Interesting!

Lauren: In the opening chapter, a strange funeral is being held for Lele’s grandmother and Lele is both very sad and angry about this. The chapter ends with the line “I was trying not to think that somewhere, out in the Deadlands, Gran was getting up” (7). When I read that I was so impressed. I thought wow, that actually feels really creepy, while at the same time it gripped me emotionally because of the funeral that preceded it. I thought I was in for a really awesome read. But after that chapter the writing just disappointed and often irritated me. Practically every chapter ends with some lame, cliched line about what’s going to happen next. For example:
“But, as I was about to find out, that was way easier said than done.” (15)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” (28)
“But by then it was too late.” (106)

It reached a point where I just wanted to scream at the book every time a chapter came to an end. The chapters are also all extremely short (often just 2 or 3 pages), so you read one of those lines every few minutes and it was infuriating. I didn’t like the short chapters either; it made the narrative feel very jumpy and disconnected.

Lu: I love short chapters! It makes for easy reading for me. I didn’t have a problem with the writing, but I wondered how some authentic SA words would go down with overseas readers

Lauren: SA slang might be confusing for overseas readers, but some meanings can just be deduced from context. At any rate, Deadlands is not available outside of South Africa (yet). It really should be though (with a glossary and perhaps a few footnotes) – I think this is the kind of novel that would be very popular (zombies are in right now) and I’ve seen quite a few non-SA readers showing interest in it. Plus, Lauren Beukes’s Arthur C. Clarke win no doubt inspired some international interest in SA speculative fiction.

Lu: I do hope it gets released in other countries!

Political and Religious Satire
Lauren: My favourite thing about this book. What I particularly like is its take on religion. The zombies are seen to have ‘cleansed’ Cape Town of violence and corruption. Believers are called Resurrectionists, the zombies are respectfully known as the Reanimated, and the ‘priests’ are the mysterious cloaked Guardians whose faces no one has ever seen. The afterlife is now a certainty – once you die, you’re given to the zombies and you rise from the dead to become one of them.

To me, this reveals the function behind religion – it’s designed to make sense of people’s lives for them, especially when life seems cruel and senseless, thereby giving them comfort. But it’s absurd too. I mean zombies! They’re so gross, with barely a semblance of humanity or intelligence, but that doesn’t stop Cape Town’s survivors from making them part of their belief system and actually worshipping them. No doubt it takes a lot of propaganda and mental acrobatics for everyone to accept that, but then again, religions can make people accept the most bizarre things.

Deadlands also gets really bold with its politics. Today’s ANC government is there in two different forms. On the one hand it’s followed its current path of corruption and transformed into the Embassy – the pro-zombie, authoritarian government of the enclaves, with a firm hand on the necks of its citizens, and institutions like Malema High feeding propaganda to impressionable young minds. I also have to say that I though the idea of an educational institution with the name Malema was hilarious, but disturbingly plausible. Like the ANC, the Embassy is also full of struggle heroes, but this time they’re from the zombie war.

Then there’s the ANZ – the anti-zombians – a rebel faction that’s more like the ANC of the struggle years, although they’re criticised for their violent methods, which sometimes get innocent people killed. The Embassy is of course trying to shut them down, much like the real ANC’s increasing hostility towards dissent and opposition, as they turn away from their own revolutionary ideals towards the racism and small-mindedness that characterised the oppressors they once fought.

Lu: Well you are not going to get any argument about what you just said. I fully agree and I found it so fascinating! Haha I also loved the name “Malema High”, I thought it was brilliant!

What I also found interesting was how most people pretended to believe (probably even more than we know) for fear of rejection and fear of the Guardians. Which totally defies the point of religion. I think most people know there is something going on with Guardians, they are just too scared to rock the boat. And why should they? The ANZ is doing it for them, even if they use questionable means.

I think this shows just how society really functions. Most of us are happy to sit back and let someone else fight our battles for us. Even if we see corruption and blatant wrong-doing, we would rather say nothing for fear of being criticized.

Lauren: On the contrary, I’d say that fear is a big part of religion – fear of punishment, fear of God, but also religion as a way of dealing with fear of the unknown and the fear that comes from your own lack of power. What’s interesting about the Resurrectionists is that they use the source of fear – zombies and infection – as a means of comfort and structure in the face of fear.

I agree with your point about how society functions. And because the societies in the enclaves lack the gross inequalities of South African society today, it’s much easier to bully people into complacency.

Lauren: I thought Lele was a bit of a brat. It’s great that she’s feisty but she takes too it too far sometimes, to the extent that she’s simply moody and uncooperative, and I disliked her for it.

Lu: I didn’t dislike Lele, but I also didn’t like her. I didn’t like it that she threw her toys each time something didn’t go her way, such as when she walked away from Ash and Saint just because she was moody. She does all of this to her disadvantage and she makes people’s lives difficult.

But she was ‘real’. I hate it when characters are written to be so pure and ‘can do no wrong’. In real life people act childishly in situations (mostly difficult and unpleasant situations) when being a bit considerate would have gone a long way. Which makes me think that the authors wanted Lele to be realistic.

Lauren: I remember the scene with Ash and Saint because it really irritated me too – she’s out in the bloody Deadlands with zombies wandering around but she buggers off on her own just because she doesn’t want to play nice?

But I agree, it is better that she’s more realistic; you can form some kind of connection with a bratty character, even if you don’t like them, but perfect characters can be inaccessible.

The Love-Triangle!
Lu: I don’t like Thabo, but I thought Ash was pretty cool. But please please for the love of pie I don’t want a love triangle in the sequel.

Lauren: I liked them both, but at the end I preferred Ash too. I think it’s largely because Thabo is aligned with the ANZ while Ash is a Mall Rat. The ANZ is a bit shady. The reader’s favour is more likely to lie with the Mall Rats – I mean, they’re basically a group of teen action heroes who live free, raid malls and kill zombies, as opposed to being tied to a hardcore political faction (not exactly romantic) that never actually touches the zombies. Also, Ash has that angsty-mysterious-guy appeal. Initially, Thabo is attractive because of his confidence and rebellious attitude, but he chooses the wrong faction and his character deteriorates, while Ash softens and becomes more empathetic. And of course, Lele is able to spend much more time with Ash, while seeing Thabo can be difficult.

Lu: Agreed, Thabo’s character ends up looking like he’ll do whatever it takes even if it is hurting other people.

Lauren: I thought you’d enjoy a love triangle though…

Lu: I have recently read way to many love triangles. I think for some authors it a cop out because they can’t think of a decent plot.

Pop Culture References
Lu: So you must have been a fan of the “Team Jacob” t-shirt 😛 ? or the Twilight novels being used as weapons?
For some reason it felt like the book was trying to be Ninja Turtle-ish. Or is that just me?

Lauren: Lol, I don’t have much of an answer here. I have no interest in either Jacob or Edward, so the T-shirt was just one reference among many. Ditto the books. I really hate Twilight, but by the time I read this it was out of the limelight and I was tired of talking about it, so the novels being used as weapons wasn’t a big thing for me either.

Ninja Turtles? I didn’t watch much of it when I was a kid (never had M-Net), so I don’t know. However, I can say that at times the book felt like it was trying hard to be like all the action and horror movies it referenced.

Lu: I don’t remember much about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But like the Mall Rats they lived underground and had a master to train them in martial arts and whatnot. But I might just see it like this because Ginger mentioned at points.

Lauren: Oh yeah, that makes sense. I liked all the pop culture references, mostly because I’d seen/read or at least heard of almost all of them. Not sure how good it is for the book in general though; that many references can be alienating if you don’t know what they’re talking about, and some could date very quickly.

Would you read the next book in the series?
Lauren: From some of the tweets I’ve read, Sarah and Savannah are working on book two. And yes, I would read it. The things I liked about the novel make me feel optimistic about the next one, and the things I disliked are not so bad as to dissuade me. Plus, I really do want to know more about those Guardians. I know from reading Exhibit A that Sarah is a great writer. Savannah needs more experience, but that just means she has lots of potential.

Lu: I would definitely read the next book. I can’t wait to see what happens with all of the characters! This is my first time reading a novel by these two authors, but I am excited to read their other works.

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Lauren and Lu’s Reviews

Lu from A Muggle’s Magical Book Blog and I are very different readers. She’s easygoing, I’m demanding. She loves YA and paranormal romance, I don’t. I love sci fi and dark fantasy, she just dabbles. I want good writing and interesting ideas, while Lu is happy with a great story, interesting characters and a few twists. Together we’ll argue our conflicting points of view in joint reviews and you get the benefit of two perspectives instead of just one.