An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.

 

elevation

Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.

 

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.

 

The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.

 

You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.

 

Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.

 

You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.

Helen-Brain-garden-fence

Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.

 

Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.

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Interview: David Horscroft on bisexuality, psychopaths and violence

My bookclub recently read Fletcher by David Horscroft, one of the latest sff novels published in South Africa, from Fox & Raven Publishing. Set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world, it’s written from the perspective of K Fletcher, a murderous psychopath who investigates a murder-suicide and gleefully commits a lot more murder along the way.

I’ll admit that Fletcher proved to be a bit too much for me, but it did start an interesting discussion about unlikeable characters and psychopaths. I started chatting to David about it, and he kindly agreed to let me pick his brain on the subject.

avatarWelcome to Violin in a Void David! To get started tell us a bit about your novel and the world it’s set in.

It’s the almost-apocalypse. In 2012, poor containment procedures resulted in a haemorragic outbreak of global proportions. Two years later, and the world is only just starting to steady itself. Entire countries have been wiped out, Europe has descended into civil chaos, America has been crippled and Russia has somehow ended up as the most stable surviving country. Southern Africa is a desolate bloodbath, with the northern territories still being scourged by viral resurgences, civil struggles and opportunistic looters from what used to be the first world. Israel has completely annexed the Sinai Peninsula, and no one has heard a thing from China in almost sixteen months. Across the world, cities burned and rioted, and the ones that survived have only done so by cordoning off vast swathes of land into anarchic gutterages.

This novel has very little to do with these troublesome two years. Enter K Fletcher, stage left.

Fletcher is several things: problem drinker, slutty dancer, private investigator, corporate saboteur and discrete problem fixer. Fletcher also happens to be one of the most prolific murderers the world has ever seen.

K doesn’t deal with morals, but rather with puzzles: anything to stave off the boredom between each bloody, thrashing kill. One such puzzle involves a murder-suicide: man-kills-wife, man-kills-self, cue tears. But Fletcher is not convinced that it’s that simple, and ends up finding connections between the husband and a far more dangerous entity: the standard Evil Dystopian Corporation in the form of the munitions company RailTech. The book follows Fletcher’s investigation as they shake down, slice up and choke out any unfortunates in the way.

Fletcher

Photograph by Ruth Smith (@photo_bunny24)

 

Readers may not notice this (I didn’t!), but K Fletcher’s gender is never revealed. Why did you choose to write the character this way?

It was actually my goal from the start, simply for its own sake: I wanted to see if it was possible to write something of a decent length wherein the gender of the main character was ambiguous to the reader. It’s tricky: the level of violence K exhibits is stereotypically seen with male offenders, so it was a lot of fun to see how I could bring out the feminine side too. Fletcher is also the perfect character for this: a naturally volatile, aggressive personality is really fun to write when you’re completely unbound by societal expectations of something as often-silly as the gender of your character.

It’s also interesting that Fletcher is bisexual. On a practical level, bisexuality is another way of obscuring gender, but it also had me thinking that you don’t often see gay or bisexual characters who are really badass or openly psychopathic. Any thoughts?

I’d tend to disagree that you don’t often see bisexual characters which are psychopathic, but I’ll get to that in a tick. Bisexual and gay characters are starting to make appearances in mainstream media: several playable and non-playable characters in the Borderlands series, Admiral Jack Hardness (Dr. Who?, Torchwood), Omar Little (The Wire) and Frank Underwood (House of Cards). The main villain in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, was casually bisexual; in fact, there was a brief implication that 007 himself had gone through an experimental phase at the very least.

It’s starting to creep in, with the classic resistance (especially, as you’ve spoken before, in the SFF sphere). But there’s a common thread that I can’t be the only one to note. Bear with me for a second, and consider the following list:

Everyone mentioned above (minus Omar Little)
Dr. Frank ‘n Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
Oberyn Martell and Cersei Lannister (Game of Chairs)
Lisbeth Salander (Millenium trilogy)
Chloe (The B**** In Apartment 23)
Dorian Gray
Anyone in The Vampire Chronicles
Pretty much any evil protagonist written by the Marquis de Sade

All these characters have two things in common: they’re all degrees of bisexual, and they’re all sociopaths. Some are murderous, others are simply violent, and some are just largely harmless troublemakers, but they all share those two traits.

Why? Is this the bisexual version of the gay-lisp: an unfair stereotype that we’re all shifty, amoral psychopaths? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s the other way around: psychopaths strike me as far more likely to be bisexual. It makes sense for sociopathic characters to be bisexual: someone so inured to social convention and so aware of the power of seduction would be extremely likely to be bisexual, even if only for utilitarian means. As M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath puts it, it’s not so much bisexuality as it is gender indifference. The sociopath doesn’t see gender; rather, they see someone to manipulate and prey on.

This preconception extends way back into history. Lilith (of the Bible, not of Borderlands) is bisexual, having sex with both Adam and Eve. Loki chooses partners of both sexes. There’s apparently even an Aztec god called Huehuecoytl (thanks, TV Tropes) who is a gender-changing bisexual with a penchant for causing trouble just out of pettiness or boredom. Sound familiar?

Maybe that’s even why bisexuals get such flack from both the exclusively straight and gay communities: maybe humans instinctively distrust bisexuals since we instinctively see it as a “Sociopath Here” flag. It’s clearly pretty ingrained into our collective psyche.

If that warning triggered while you were around someone like K Fletcher, it might just save your life.

Fletcher is a very violent, unlikeable character, at least in the sense that their actions are typically questionable (e.g. frequent drug abuse), if not outright abhorrent (e.g. murdering a child on a whim or holding a woman prisoner for amusement). What was your approach in writing a character like this?

The book is written from Fletcher’s perspective, and I always made sure to write in as authentic a Fletcher-voice as possible. It was more important to me to have an authentic character than a likeable one, and I think Fletcher makes as much sense as this kind of character can, despite the madness and impulsivity.

What this means is that Fletcher is wholly unapologetic. The character wouldn’t care what you thought about them. In fact, the same personality type would probably go out of its way to shock and horrify those around them. That’s why Fletcher is perpetually spouting off violent thoughts and saying things like “Hey, remember that time I killed everyone in that orphanage, that was heeee-larious.” It’s almost a little cartoonishly evil at times, but I can imagine Fletcher giggling and getting off on people getting uncomfortable about that.

Once I got used to pulling no punches, it became very easy to write in Fletcher’s voice. I started writing this book for myself long before I even considered taking it to a publisher, so once the blend of flippant atrocity took form it was something I could easily step in and out of. I can be a bit of a sick twist myself, at times, so I’m sure that helped… a lot.

Unlikeable characters have stories to tell. They might not be well received, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them, and it definitely wouldn’t stop a character like K from doing so.

Doesn’t this mean that Fletcher actually does care what people think, albeit in a twisted way? They don’t care about being hated, certainly, but evoking fear, shock and horror is essential because that’s what Fletcher thrives on. They’re not totally indifferent.

I think there’s a difference between caring what people think, and how people react. I wouldn’t expect Fletcher to care what people thought about them in the long run, but when they’re interacting with the character it’s almost like a form of mental torture. Fear, shock, horror, revulsion: these are all instinctive reactions. Even lust is an instinctive one (considering Fletcher’s thing with occasional seduction).

If someone jumps out from behind a curtain with a knife, you don’t think: “Wow, this person seems pretty unpleasant. I can’t say I’m very fond of who they are and what they’re trying to do.” You don’t think at all. Your brain kicks into instinct mode and overrides any thinking.

Fletcher does this on a literal level when engaging in violence, and on a lesser level when engaging with people. Saying horrifying things is, to them, the social equivalent of jumping out swinging a meat cleaver, with the same fruits in the form of the instinctive skin-crawlage and discomfort.

So no, I don’t think this means that Fletcher cares what people think, when you consider that thinking is a very intellectual approach to a force of nature like K. Invoking fear and repulsion is simply the social equivalent of feeling someone struggle and thrash as you beat them to death with a claw hammer.

One of the things I found interesting but difficult to handle is the fact that there are no good guys, or at least no group or person who “should” come out on top. K goes up against an evil corporation called RailTech that murders its own employees and tests weapons on poor African villages. K, however, is just as evil on an individual level. Was this a consequence of the broken world in which the novel is set? Or did you have some other purpose?

A core motif in Fletcher is this concept of the “grinning flesh”, which K uses to refer to humanity in general. In their opinion, the almost-apocalypse didn’t change humanity; rather, it just took off humanity’s collective mask of sanity. It shows: the vaulting depravity of the Midnight Hour and the unfettered expansion of brutal mega-corporations such as RailTech show us that the good people are going crazy, and the bad people are profiting. Fletcher is both bad and crazy: this new world makes a lot of sense.

It’s the authenticity angle, all over again. Good people simply don’t stand a chance against Fletcher, unless they sacrifice a bit of themselves to stack the odds a little, like Vincent. You’re stuck with the only contenders being the ones who are willing to get their hands dirty, which can leave readers feeling either torn between wanting K to win or die, or indifferent as to what happens at all.

I’m OK with that, I guess. It’s still a bit weird to me that Fletcher got published at all. In the same way that unlikeable characters have stories to tell, those stories may often contain plethoras of other unlikable characters. At least there’s a conflict: for example, I think “Everyone is Shitty” is a more engaging stance than “Everyone is Hugs”.

I sometimes found the violence of the book alienating; K kills frequently, cruelly, and indiscriminately. Some random stranger could easily get their throat torn out just because Fletcher is bored or annoyed. However, I appreciated the fact that the violence was never sexual. Did you have any particular reasons for avoiding this sort of violence?

The violence is meant to be jarring. It’s meant to be there as a wake-up call to anyone who is cheering for Fletcher: “I am not a nice person.” But there’s no reason to avoid it, since violence is such an important part of K’s existence. Murder makes Fletcher feel alive and powerful like nothing else.

Sexual violence, then, doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying Fletcher would have anything against rape; rather, the character simply has no interest in it. As they say themselves: “cheating is pointless if the game is the goal”; Fletcher kinda gets a kick out of being sultry and seducing people. It’s a power trip: “I’m going to seduce you into taking your clothes off for someone who has killed more people than you’ve left-swiped on Tinder.” Violence doesn’t help that goal, and inherently destroys any mental manipulation. Similarly, if Fletcher wants to murder someone, rape would be unnecessary as it wouldn’t be a direct contribution to the finality of their death.

Don’t mistake the lack of sexual violence to be an indicator of some moral compass. Fletcher has simply realized that fucking and filleting are two incompatible forms of entertainment.

I’ve asked quite a few questions about what a terrible person your main character is, so tell me, what do you like about K Fletcher?

I like several things about Fletcher, which worries my team of psychologists greatly. It makes sense, though: sociopaths often have some traits we admire, and a narrator like Fletcher would exacerbate those traits in themselves. Why do you think Bumblefrond Cucumberpatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes has won him such acclaim? People want to be Sherlock. People want to be the cold, calculating sociopath who can stare down death, crack wise and solve the mystery before tea.

In that regard, I like Fletcher’s honesty (with themselves and the world). I like their curiousity and glibness. I definitely admire the character’s resourcefulness, and can relate to that boredom they constantly feel. The snark was fun to write, too.

I like the fact that K kept Valerie and Vincent around, because I really enjoyed writing about the dynamic between those three.

I’m probably a bad person to ask that question of: considering I did as much as possible to really adopt Fletcher’s voice while writing, a little part of me wants to shout “Fletcher’s great! I especially love the face-puppet part. With the actual faces and the actual puppets.”

It’s probably wise for people not to have dinner alone with me.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?

Nothing tangible in the writing sphere: a few potential Fletcher stories and a nice zombie premise.

I’m mainly bundled up in my programming at the moment: playing around with fun cryptography systems for high-risk websites.

Thanks for your time David!

 

David is a South African programmer with a wide range of fascinations, including biology, medicine, psychology and technology. He spends most of his time obsessing over pet projects and is a sucker for bad puns, good vodka and interesting people.

You can find David on Twitter @forealiously.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddamTitle: MaddAddam
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #3
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 03 September 2013
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Genre: science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic literary
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 8/10

Like Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam has two timelines. The present timeline picks up after Toby and Ren rescued Jimmy and Amanda from the Painballers. They return to the Maddaddamite camp, with all the curious Crakers in tow. The groups of humans and posthumans live together peacefully, since the Crakers are designed sleep outside and eat leaves, and therefore do not require any of the humans’ resources. With Jimmy unconscious as he burns with fever from an infection, Toby takes up his task of telling the Crakers stories. Zeb takes some of the other men out on periodic scavenging trips, and hopes to find Adam One as well.

It’s a peaceful existence compared to the horrors of the previous two books, but Toby can’t forgive herself for “set[ting] human malice loose in the world again”. Thanks to her God’s Gardener teaching she could not bring herself to kill the Painballers, and even shared food with them. When the confused Crakers pitched up, they untied the Painballers who immediately escaped into the forest. They now present a renewed threat to the humans, the Crakers and the extremely intelligent pigoons, who react with grief and anger when one of their own kind is killed.

The second timeline tells Zeb’s story, which he tells to Toby, and which Toby simplifies into a kind of children’s story for the Crakers. Zeb, as it turns out, is Adam One’s brother and they grew up with a fanatical and abusive Petrobaptist priest – the very wealthy leader of a powerful but absurdly stupid religious sect that believes “God’s Holy Oil” and spouts slogans like “Solar Panels Are Satan’s Work” and “Serial Killers Believe in Global Warming”. The ecological version of the Phelps Family.

Adam was the golden boy, but Zeb was beaten and locked in the punishment closet, an experience that led him to develop the skills of a sneak thief. Despite the differences in the way they were treated, Adam and Zeb were close, united in hatred of their father. With Zeb’s hacking skills and Adam’s planning, they stole their father’s money and escaped, following the myriad paths that eventually led to the God’s Gardeners, and often brought them into contact with Crake.

Zeb and Adam’s story reminds me of Jimmy and Crake’s, with their dysfunctional parents and enduring bond. Adam is a lot like Crake. He has a brilliant mind; not as brilliant as Crake’s perhaps, but similarly amazing and frightening. He’s also inscrutable. He struggles a bit with human interaction, but otherwise displays a cold, calm intelligence, in sharp contrast to Zeb’s exuberance.

Like Jimmy, Zeb had many lovers and no loves, but possesses a much more practical skill set and a stronger survival instinct than Jimmy. His story takes him all over the place, reinforcing the worldbuilding. He works as pilot doing food drops for endangered bears, in the Compounds as both a janitor and a computer programmer, in Scales and Tails as a bouncer. He meets Crake as a child, and we learn a bit more about Crake’s influences. At this stage of Zeb’s life, it’s too risky for him to spend much time with Adam, so we don’t see much of him and only get the bare bones of his plans for starting the God’s Gardeners.

These stories are too complex for the Crakers, but Toby quickly develops an understanding of how their minds work and simplifies the stories as necessary. There’s a lot of humour in the Crakers’ storytelling time, as she repeatedly asks them to stop singing and keeps having to come up with simple or silly answers to their many questions.

These stories are not just a form of entertainment. They clearly have a kind of religious importance, despite Crake’s attempt to design the Crakers without any proclivity for religious belief. Ironically, Oryx and Crake have become like gods to them, and the stories are like myths. Toby has to think on her feet and adjusts or makes things up as she goes along, but you still have a sense of how important her words will be to the Crakers. In addition, Jimmy inadvertently set up a storytelling ritual that the Crakers expect Toby to follow – she must wear Jimmy’s red baseball cap, talk into his gold watch (Jimmy said it was for speaking to Crake), and eat a fish that the Crakers catch for her (Jimmy’s way of getting an easy meal). None of this is necessary, but the Crakers’ insist on it, and you can easily imagine all this becoming part of a future religion: Oryx and Crake as gods, Zeb, Toby and Jimmy as prophets, priests wearing red caps and eating a fish before the sermon. And when Toby starts teaching a sweet young Craker boy to write….

The Crakers also prove to have some mystical qualities to them. They have the ability to ‘see’ when people are dreaming, when their minds are wandering. While Jimmy is unconscious with fever, they describe him as taking a long walk away from them. When someone dies, they can describe the consciousness journeying further and eventually leaving. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, and I rolled my eyes a bit when Toby was in a quandary and decided to meditate at Pilar’s grave (a friend from the previous book who reappears in Zeb’s story) to ask the dead woman’s spirit for advice. The novel however, doesn’t scoff at these more mystical occurrences. I guess it suits the changes in society – the world has been destroyed and renewed. Hard science has been its downfall. The survivors must look to older methods of coping, and the Crakers can tap into other aspects of existence.

The Crakers can also speak to the pigoons, which adds an interesting new dimension to the story. In the previous books pigoons were ethical conundrums and dangerous predators. Now they’re more complex. They’re basically people, and the humans need to treat them as such if they have any hope for a future.

And the human race could persist, even if it’s in a posthuman form. After the first two books, it seemed that humanity was doomed, assuming the whole world had been as badly affected as North America. The handful of survivors would hang on for a bit, then die out. However, Atwood offers up the possibility of a more functional future with a society composed of humans, Crakers and even pigoons. The humans in the story are all God’s Gardeners or MaddAddamites, so they at least have the skills and experience to survive in this postapocalyptic world. The Crakers are turning out to be more than just the “creepo naked people Crake made” or “walking vegetables”, as the MaddAddamite scientists refer to them. The pigoons, with their human brain tissue, prove to be even smarter than anyone assumed. They have language, emotion, ideas, suggesting the possibility of a better relationship between animals and humans. On the other hand, though, they also make me think of the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm, with the possibility that pigoons will simply be considered superior to other animals.

There are little worrying details like this, in the midst of the largely positive outlook. How will people like the Painballers affect the future? If a human society thrives, will it be regressive or progressive? Already we see traditional roles being set up, with the men going out with guns, while the women start thinking about childbirth. Is it a good or bad that the Crakers are developing religion, especially considering the fact that Crake tried to eradicate religion as one of the causes of misery and cruelty?

Overall, I found MaddAddam to be a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. It ends on a slightly more conclusive note that book one or two, even though it leaves us with plenty of questions to consider. Personally though, I think it’s my least favourite of the trilogy. It doesn’t have the massive impact of Oryx and Crake or the fantastic character stories of The Year of the Flood. Adam is a brilliant, enigmatic figure reminiscent of Crake, but while Crake was intriguing, Adam is too far removed from the plot. He’s a fascinating character, but unsatisfying to read about because we learn so little of him. Toby is a strong protagonist, and she finally acts on her feelings for Zeb, but then proceeds to get a bit too jealous and whiny about other women he’s slept with. One thing I admired about The Year of the Flood was that the many characters felt distinct, even though some of them had small roles. This time, the main characters stand out but most of the others just blend into the background.

However, MaddAddam is still a more elegantly written sci fi novel than most. The great thing about this series is that it takes a more literary, character-based approach to the post-apocalyptic and dystopian genres. I wouldn’t call it “thrilling” as the marketing-speak does, because that’s not the point. There’s violence, action and suspense, but for the most part this is an intimately human story. Don’t miss it if you’ve been following this series.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the FloodTitle: The Year of the Flood
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #2
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury (my edition)
Genre: science fiction, dystopian, literary
Rating: 8/10

The Year of the Flood‘s plot runs parallel to Oryx and Crakebut it’s set in the pleebland slums, rather than the secure, sterile Compounds of the scientific elite. The pleeblands are where everyone else lives. It’s violent, and rife with diseases and infections (some of which come from the Compounds who test viruses or make money selling cures).

The story follows the God’s Gardeners, believers in a green religion founded by Adam One, with leaders known as Adams and Eves. The Gardener’s faith is a pacifist, eco-friendly interpretation of the Christian Bible. They are strictly vegetarian, respect the lives of all creatures, shun technology, recycle absolutely everything, avoid the processed food and medications produced by corporations, and spend their days living a quiet agrarian existence amidst the chaos of the pleeblands. They lament the gross environmental destruction wreaked by Corporations, and await the Waterless Flood – the apocalypse.

Of course, we know from Oryx and Crake that this Flood will take the form of a plague designed by Crake. It comes in Gardener Year 25, which is when the novel opens. Toby is hiding out at the AnooYoo Spa where she was working. Many of the treatments are edible or at least useful, she’s got a rifle for protection, and draws on her Gardner knowledge to grow food. Ren is locked inside the quarantine room of Scales and Tails, the strip club where she worked. Being locked up saved her from the riots that followed the outbreak of the plague, but now she’s counting on her childhood friend Amanda to find her and unlock the door before she starves to death.

Punctuating this present-day narrative are the Gardener Years 1-24. Each year/section begins with a sermon from Adam One and a hymn, then follows the stories of Toby and Ren. The Gardeners rescue Toby from a rapist who was certain to kill her. She’s not a true believer, but she adapts to their lifestyle and finds a home. Ren went to live with the Gardeners as a child, when her mother ran away from the Compounds with a Gardener named Zeb. She later made friends with Amanda, a smart, tough pleebrat, and invited her to join the Gardeners.

It’s not as dramatic as Oryx and Crake, since it covers the same time period, and focuses on the people who are disempowered and, unlike Jimmy, have very little contact with the forces that define their society. And I prefer Oryx and Crake if only because it had the kind of impact on me that very few novels could ever match. Nevertheless, The Year of the Flood is a superb piece of painfully dystopian science fiction in its own right, and a beguiling literary novel. Oryx and Crake was a bit different for Atwood in that it had a male protagonist. With The Year of the Flood she’s back in her element with two female protagonists and a larger cast of female characters. Like Oryx, they live in a world where sexual predators are a constant threat, and Toby’s story of sexual abuse is reminiscent of Oryx’s, as is Ren’s decision to become a sex worker at Scales and Tales. Ren actually sees Oryx when Crake brings her to Scales and Tales late in the novel, and Ren immediately recognises her as a fellow sex worker, charming the people around her while hiding her own identity. In that moment, she seems to understand more about Oryx than Jimmy was ever able to.

Ren has her own disappointing experiences with Jimmy, who becomes her lover when they’re teenagers but eventually gives her his damaged-boy-who-can’t-commit speech. Toby also spots Jimmy as Snowman, leading the singing Crakers from the Paradice Dome to the shore. They’re so bizarre that Toby assumes she must be hallucinating. I think it’s the first time we see Jimmy from another perspective, and the first of several occasions when we get a fresh perspective on exactly how dysfunctional Jimmy/Snowman is.

The novel often intersects with Oryx and Crake like this, filling in little details. Besides Jimmy and Oryx, we encounter other familiar characters like Glenn/Crake, Jimmy’s mother, Bernice (Jimmy’s crazy roommate who set his shoes on fire), and MaddAddam. There are lots of familiar details of the world – Extinctathon, Happicuppa, ChickieNobs, AnooYoo, pigoons – and a few new things, like liobams (a lion/lamb splice) and Mo’Hair sheep (genetically engineered to grow human hair in a wide range of colours, although the wigs sometimes smell like meat).

As a child, Glenn had a connection to the Gardeners, many of whom are scientists who escaped the Compounds, and it’s clear that his actions were strongly influenced by their ideas. Adam One describes how the Waterless Flood will wash away the “Exfernal” world, destroying what man has built so that the natural world can flourish again, which what Crake attempted to do with his plague. His design for the Crakers also reflects the Gardeners’ lifestyle in some ways – they’re purely vegetarian, non-violent, and live happily with the bare minimum of industry. In some ways the Crakers are a perfected version of the Gardeners, who they smell bad, look scruffy, complain about inconveniences, need technology, and often break their own rules.

Obviously the one thing Crake didn’t like about the Gardeners was the whole idea of religion, which he tried (and failed) to eradicate in the Crakers. And although the Gardeners have many admirable ideas, their faith still suffers from the kinds of absurdities and hypocrisies common to religion. They’re wary of writing, but use the bible. They consider knowledge to be poisonous, but benefit greatly from the knowledge of the scientists among them. They rely on things they scavenge, which in some cases means living off things they consider evil.

Not surprisingly for a small community full of social misfits and outcasts, they also have problems with sexual harassment and abuse, but women and children are told to keep quiet about these things. Sharing personal problems is discouraged, some serious psychological problems are dismissed as a form of meditation, and voicing doubts is taboo. Toby in particular finds this troubling, but because she lives in constant terror that her rapist will find her and kill her, so she has no intention of leaving the Gardeners.

But then again, Atwood hasn’t written a world where anyone’s figured out clean, noble answers to the massively complicated problems plaguing society. It’s easy to be thoroughly evil – like a corporation that razes rainforests to plant coffee or a man who rapes women to death – but fixing a world full of these evils is almost unimaginable. A few people, like the man/group MaddAddam that is created in this novel, are bold enough to rebel. Only Crake, the mad genius, actually takes any major action, countering a million horrors with one massive one.

Most people, like Ren and Toby, are caught up in this world they have little control over, and the appeal of The Year of the Flood is this grassroots perspective. Which is not to say they’re weak – Amanda, Ren and Toby all show amazing resilience and adaptability, unlike Jimmy, who was always a bit unstable and degenerated into a sickly, naked nut job waving a gun at three strangers on a beach. If the ambiguity of that ending bothered you, by the way, rest assured that The Year of the Flood will take you back to that beach and resolve that scene, leaving the final book, MaddAddamto pick up the story from there.  As always with Atwood, it’s beautifully written and a pleasure to read, but also brutal and terrifying. This trilogy envisions one of the most disturbing futures I’ve ever read, but the books are so amazing I can’t look away.

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie WillisTitle: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 9 July 2013
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This is one of the most likeable short story collections I’ve read. Usually I like half to three quarters of the stories, or I have to go back and skim over some before writing my review because I’ve already forgotten what they were about. But I enjoyed almost all the stories in this collection, and I hadn’t forgotten them by the time I got around to writing the review.

They’ve all won a Hugo or Nebula award (or both) and they’re all on the lighter side of science fiction and fantasy, focusing on the characters’ relationship and personal dilemmas with just a touch of something speculative. Each story comes with a few comments from Willis. She admits to being wary of commenting on the stories, as that could spoil them in the same way that a magician’s trick is ruined once you know how it works. But having taken into account the potential for her comments to undermine the story, I think Willis managed to make them insightful without being detrimental.

And the stories themselves are great reads. In a speech transcription at the end of the book, Willis talks about why she reads:

But when the interviewer asked Beatrix Potter what her greatest wish was, she said, “To live till the end of the war. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!” That’s exactly how I feel. It’s how I’ve always felt. It’s why I started reading in the first place: to find out what happened to Cinderella and to Peter Pan, to find out whether the twelve dancing princesses got caught and whether Peter Rabbit made it out from under Mr. McGregor’s flowerpot and whether the prince was able to break the spell.

I think this captures the appeal of Willis’s stories as well – they’re enjoyable because they hook you by making you want to know what happens. You could argue that this is the case for all stories, but I often find novels and short stories appealing for other reasons. Sometimes it’s the writing that grabs me, or I want to follow a quirky character. Sometimes I already know what’s going to happen but I want to see what spin the author will put on it. Other stories are about the ideas rather than any plot. These things all have their merits, and they apply to Willis too, but mostly I enjoyed her stories because they had that good old-fashioned storytelling appeal that just never gets old.

In “A Letter to the Clearys”, a young girl returns home with her dog after picking up a letter at the post office. It seems fairly mundane, except for odd hints at the dangers she faces while walking and the increasingly disturbing implications of this letter from family friends.

“At the Rialto” gives you the first taste of Willis’s wonderful humour. It’s set at the Rialto hotel in Hollywood, where a group of physicists are trying to have a conference on quantum physics but can’t get the model-slash-actress at the front desk to do anything useful, or find the right rooms for the lectures. The Kafkaesque absurdity of the whole experience functions as a reflection of quantum physics itself, with it’s counterintuitive nature and weird paradoxes.

“Fire Watch” is set shortly after the events of Willis’s novel Doomsday Book, a time-travel story where history students are sent back in time as part of their studies. In this story, a student who has been training to travel with St Paul learns that he’s actually going to St Paul’s Church to work with the fire watch during the London Blitz of World War 2, putting out incendiary bombs when they hit the building. I didn’t love The Doomsday Book, so I wasn’t too excited about this story, and it left me a bit alienated because I’m hopeless when it comes to history and had never heard of St Paul’s or the fire watch. That said, I was almost in tears by the end, all because of two simple words. Any author who can have that effect on me immediately wins my admiration.

“Inside Job” was one of my favourites and the most compulsively readable story for me. It’s about Rob, a journalist who debunks New Age therapists in Hollywood. He works with Kildy, a gorgeous actress who defies all the stereotypes of being stupid and superficial, although Rob has never quite grown accustomed to the idea that she’s really as intelligent and as interested in his work as she seems to be. Kildy finds a new mystery for them to investigate – a trendy new spirit channeler who seems to be unintentionally channelling a ghost who shares Rob and Kildy’s scathing opinions of the channeling and other New Age crap. But the whole idea of channelling a ghost who doesn’t believe in channelling involves a rather troubling paradox and Rob faces the problem of not believing in something he might actually want to believe in while finally being forced to address his doubts about Kildy.

Admittedly, my other favourites were actually the ones with less emphasis on plot, and more on humour. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is a delightfully absurd story about the poet Emily Dickinson, written as a parody of an academic paper complete with footnotes and references. The paper argues the theory that Dickinson chased away the Martians from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. After her death. It’s utterly ridiculous and loads of fun.

“Even the Queen” is also delightfully crazy, set in a world where women have done away with menstruation except for reproductive purposes. The narrator’s daughter joins a pro-menstruation movement – the Cyclists – that emphasises the essential femininity of doing things naturally. The best part of the story is a hilarious lunch meeting with a group of women and a representative from the Cyclists.

After “Even the Queen”, the collection took a bit of a dip and the last three stories were good but not great. “The Winds of Marble Arch” is a personal mystery about a man travelling around the London Underground, where he keeps getting blasted by terrible foul-smelling winds that leave him filled with fear. He and his wife are visiting London for the second time, and although they have much more money this time around, they just can’t find the same sense of fun and adventure that they enjoyed before. I liked the mystery and personal struggles at the start, but after a while it became a story about a man using the tube, and the final reveal was disappointing.

“All Seated on the Ground” is, quite surprisingly, a story about how violent and disturbing Christmas carols can be. A group of surly aliens lands on Earth, but they don’t do anything except glare disapprovingly at the people who try to talk to them. People lose interest in them as all efforts at communication continue to fail, and the most recent committee is a hopeless hodgepodge of random specialists trying whatever ludicrous thing they can think of. A journalist, Meg, finally gets on the right track when the aliens respond to a Christmas carol, and she notices how the aliens have the same disapproving gaze as her aunt.

“The Last of the Winnebagos” ends the fiction on a stronger note. It’s quite a sad story set in a world where dogs are extinct and hitting an animal with your car is a criminal offence. The narrator is travelling for work when he sees a dead jackal on the side of the road, bringing back tragic memories of the death of his own dog in a car accident, while also getting him tangled up with a somewhat authoritarian animal-protection society.

The only story I didn’t like was the surreal “Death on the Nile”, about three couples on a rather miserable trip that takes them through Europe to Egypt. The narrator has elected not to say anything about the glaringly obvious fact that her husband is sleeping with one of the other wives, one husband is constantly drunk, another always sleeping, and the third woman is always reading to them from guide books. The premise sounds fine, but I found the unpleasantness of the trip too discomfiting to read and the increasingly surreal nature of the characters’ experiences just didn’t do anything for me.

The collection ends with three short speeches – Willis’s 2006 Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech, and two Grand Master acceptance speeches. In these she speaks about her love of books and reading, and the writers that inspired her. They’re nice pieces for tugging at the heartstrings of booklovers, but I personally would have preferred something a bit more academic. The speeches must have been wonderful to listen to on the occasion, but on the page they’re a wee bit fluffy. One would have been enough for the collection.

The one downside to this collection is that, unlike other sff, it’s a bit short on ideas. Only the Emily Dickinson story and “Inside Job” really have an sff-ish idea driving the narrative. In the other stories ideas are just vehicles or catalysts for character-based stories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since sff readers often look to short stories for interesting ideas and experimental writing, some might find this a tad disappointing.

I didn’t though. It might not be the most thrilling collection but it’s got a lovely congenial sort of appeal and I think most of the stories are going to stay with me.

Guest Post: Anne Charnock on writing the POV of A Calculated Life

I recently read and reviewed A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock, and I liked it so much that I contacted Anne and asked her if she’d write a guest post telling us a bit more about her book. What struck me most about the novel was that it was a character study of Jayna, a human being designed to function as a machine, who tries to broaden her understanding of the world. I asked Anne to describe her experience of writing from the POV of this kind of character. 

Welcome to Violin in a Void Anne!

Charnock 2Thanks for inviting me on to your blog, Lauren! I’ll do my best to answer your question and I hope I don’t go off at a tangent.

Writing from the point of view of a hyper-intelligent human presented me with a significant challenge! From the outset I decided that my protagonist, Jayna, would be ‘an innocent abroad’. I set her out on a journey and along the way I wanted to reveal a gradual change in her worldview. Through the opening chapters of the novel, her natural curiosity shifts towards something more questioning; she becomes more critical. Ultimately I wanted Jayna to shed her innocence. I suppose it’s comparable to a coming-of-age story in which a young person becomes aware of their place in a larger, less-than-benevolent, world.

To be a bit techy first: I felt a first-person narrative would be doomed to failure. How could I possibly emulate her intelligence? A more experienced writer might attempt that challenge. But, instead, I adopted a ‘third-person limited’ POV. In other words, the reader follows only one character, Jayna, rather seeing the world from several characters’ POV. In fact, this limited third-person narration is fairly close to a first person POV compared to third-person omniscient narration. (Saul Bellow’s Seize The Day is a good example of a third-person limited POV and I used his novel as my guide when I redrafted my manuscript).

My strategy was to reveal Jayna’s worldview through her interactions with other people. Dialogue played an important role. The reader recognizes her misinterpretations and misunderstandings. A major strategy was to create situations that were tricky for her to handle. So In the first chapter she unwittingly upsets a colleague and in the fourth chapter she leaps to a wildly incorrect conclusion. She is aware that in her dealings with other people she’s ‘getting it wrong’ and she strives for improvement.

wrap cover

In your review of A Calculated Life, Lauren, you noted that Jayna has a fascination with children. I created an early turning point, in terms of her developing psyche, when a colleague brings her young son to the office. Soon after this event, Jayna asks herself what would happen if she acted like a child, lived in the moment, with no care for the consequences. Her resulting action is dramatic within the overall tone of the novel.

It was important that I revealed Jayna’s changing mindset through her actions, that is, by showing rather than telling the reader! I particularly enjoyed this—allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Having said that, I did reveal Jayna’s thoughts from time to time, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness.

You are perfectly correct in your review that this novel is a character study and that it is toned down and introspective compared to many other dystopian novels. Looking back I can recall many years ago watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford and Sean Young. This is one of my all-time favourite films. But even though I loved the all-action nature of the film with its male protagonist, Deckard, I was fascinated and haunted by Rachel, the replicant. I remember thinking at the time that Rachel’s story, rather than Deckard’s, seemed the more interesting, and certainly the most heart-breaking even though her story was less ‘dramatic’. Maybe an early seed for A Calculated Life was sown then.

____________________

Anne’s Bio:

My writing career began in journalism and my reports appeared in New Scientist, The Guardian, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune and Geographical, among others. I was educated at the University of East Anglia, where I studied environmental sciences, and at The Manchester School of Art.

Despite the many column inches of factual reporting, I didn’t consider writing fiction until my career turned to visual art. In my fine art practice I tried to answer the questions: What is it to be human? What is it to be a machine? I wrote A Calculated Life as a new route to finding answers.

Where to find Anne:
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Check out the book trailer for A Calculated Life

A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

A Calculated LifeTitle: A Calculated Life
Author: Anne Charnock
Published:  24 September 2013
Publisher: 47North
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

I requested this novel after is was nominated for The Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award (debut novel) 2013, and I think it’s one of the more interesting takes on the dystopian genre.

In a futuristic Manchester, Jayna is a simulant, a genetically engineered human designed to have superb analytical skills but only basic social skills and almost no social life. She has been leased out to a predictive economics company, where her talent for identifying patterns and processing data have been highly profitable for her superiors.

In one of her previous research projects, Jayna found a link between north easterly winds and violent crime. The correlation looks pretty solid until a family is murdered during a westerly wind. Although this warrants no more than a brief discussion with her superiors, Jayna is determined to improve her work. She decides that her world is too small and her experiences too limited. She processes colossal amounts of information, but all of it comes from stats and documents, while she lacks the personal understanding to flesh it out. She wants to expand her knowledge by behaving more randomly, interacting with more people, and having more varied experiences.

This sounds like an admirable endeavour, but Jayna quickly realises that it could be a dangerous one too. She and her peers start hearing reports of simulants who were sent back to the Constructor to be reprogrammed after committing offences like “Poor time-keeping, sneaking into restaurants, sexual liaisons”. These things are perfectly normal for other humans, but are considered serious flaws in the simulants, who were designed to function like machines and stick to highly regulated patterns of behaviour.

Jayna has never questioned this, but as she explores a world she’s never seen, from the rich to the poor, learning about adults, children and families, she starts to put her own life as a simulant into perspective, and begins to understand her society as the dystopia it has become.

The world of the novel is built fairly slowly and with a minimum of info dumping, but it’s relatively simple. The most important thing to understand is that society – at least in England – has been altered by cognitive implants that improve brain function. There are also inoculations to protect people from things like addiction as well as disease, and as a result violent crime has become rare. Most people with implants are bionics – normal people with enhanced cognitive functions. The simulants are more specialised, artificial versions. They are genetically engineered to have specific skills. Jayna’s model, for example, is highly analytical.The implant then further enhances those cognitive abilities because it’s working with a better base.

Then there are the organics – basic humans with little or no enhancements. The organics are typically people who can’t afford or aren’t permitted to have implants, and as a disenfranchised group with inferior cognitive abilities, they are stuck on the bottom rung of society. You might think that the simulants could be the most powerful because they’re the most intelligent, but they’re virtually slaves, human machines kept on a leash. Society is geared to benefit the bionics, who are wealthy, free, and highly intelligent (but not in a freakishly simulant way).

Jayna doesn’t think about society in these terms though; it’s just something that you come to understand as she learns more about the world around her. The novel is essentially a character study, putting you in the life and mindset of a simulant, and that’s what makes it an interesting read, rather than any of the dystopian aspects. Jayna never had a childhood, and she has no family. She lives in a “rest station” – hostel-style accommodation for simulants. Her meals are only supposed to come from authorised sources – the canteens at the rest station or the office. She may not take unauthorised trips to certain areas. She has a small allowance for recreational purposes, but receives no salary. It’s lights out at the rest station at 7:30pm, and she’s asleep by 8pm every night. She’s designed to have no interest in sex, but has been tweaked to be more personable than the last model, so she’s better suited to working with other people – the perfect cubicle drone. Her behaviour is no doubt monitored, although we don’t know to what extent.

Despite the way she’s designed and regulated, Jayna has determined little streaks of personality that shine through. She keeps stick insects. She’s fascinated by children, with their boundless energy and irrational behaviour. Despite her seemingly robotic characteristics and the occasional faux pas, Jayna comes off as kind and thoughtful. It’s not easy for her to understand other people, but she makes more of an effort to do so.

This makes her character an odd mix of strict rationality and awkward curiosity. It’s both sweet and sad to see how excited she gets at the opportunity to observe a colleague’s child at work, to see her try to change her life by doing some tiny random or irrational thing, or learn about people by attending a barbecue at her boss’s home.

It’s fairly subtle, toned-down dystopian fiction. The dystopian elements are neatly woven into the world and seen from the POV of a character who is only just starting to think about these things critically and who struggles to do so. Jayna’s story doesn’t lend itself to particularly dramatic events, although many of her new experiences are extremely dramatic or compelling to her. One of the most exciting moments is when she sees a violent fight break out. On another occasion she starts running and says “the world shook” because she’s never run before. Although she slowly begins to resist the social system she’s trapped in, it’s very much a personal resistance. It could be the seed of something much bigger, but the novel focuses on the simpler narrative.

I really like this about it. Most dystopian stories are brash and sensational. The tragedy of it is always in your face, pushing at least one rebellious character to fight the system in what could be a Hollywood blockbuster. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but I like this introspective version, which is more like an art house movie.

It does have some flaws – there’s a plot strand that’s left dangling and I’m not sure how I feel about certain aspects of the ending. But that’s just nitpicking. A Calculated Life is a strong debut. Recommended.