Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeTitle: Oryx and Crake
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #1
Margaret Atwood
Published: 2003
Virago Press (my edition)
science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic
 own copy

This is the first time I’m giving a book a 10/10 rating on Violin in a Void. While I’ve reviewed excellent books that could rival this one, I’ve reserved the highest rating for books that also make excellent re-reads. I think the best books are those that won’t fade with familiarity but actually become more enjoyable as you get to know them better. Oryx and Crake is the first such book that I’ve reviewed.

That said, it’s incredibly bleak, and I’d forgotten exactly how dark it gets. But while it scares and horrifies me, it’s also such a pleasure to read because of the elegance of Atwood’s writing and the sophistication of her vision. The narrative is split into two future time periods that also happen to fall into two sub genres – post-apocalyptic and dystopian. In the post-apocalyptic narrative a man named Snowman is a lone survivor of a global catastrophe for which he holds his friend Crake responsible. In his loneliness, he imagines the voice of his lover Oryx teasing and comforting him. But like Crake, Oryx is long gone. Snowman lives in a tree, wraps himself in old bedsheets, and scavenges meagre supplies from the remains of human civilisation. He is also the increasingly unnecessary guardian of the Crakers, a race of bio-engineered post-humans designed by Crake to inherit a ravaged earth.

The story of how this all came to be is told in the non-linear dystopian narrative, beginning when Snowman was a child named Jimmy. His world – our future – is characterised by bio-engineering, artificial food, extinction, climate change and environmental destruction. Great advances in medicine are matched by the creation of catastrophic viruses. The scientists who work for giant bio-engineering corporations live privileged lives in highly secure-compounds designed to save them from ever having to go out into the disease-ridden ‘pleeblands’ where the masses live.

As Atwood herself has said, “Every novel begins with a what if  and for Oryx and Crake she asked “What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?” (Curious Pursuits, 2003, p.323). The questions are primarily ecological, and the answer to the first one is the dystopia where Jimmy’s story begins. The answer to the last questions is: Crake.

We first encounter him as a creepy child, a genius who seems to be studying everyone, who hides his feelings, and has secret plans that Jimmy never fully understands even when he’s caught up in the aftermath as Snowman. Oryx, the woman he loves, is similarly elusive, and somehow they’re both a part of the ruined world he lives in now.

Because he’s a “word person”, Snowman turns Oryx and Crake into myth for the Crakers. They are the Children of Crake, and the animals are the Children of Oryx, respected and never eaten. With the world reverting to its natural state, the Crakers give the impression of return to Eden, to paradise – they’re incredibly innocent without any violent tendencies or any knowledge of the world before. They’re also pretty damn weird. Crake designed them with myriad animal traits to keep them close to nature and avoid violent conflict. They wear no clothes (their skin is thick and UV-resistant), they eat leaves, purr like cats to heal injuries (yes, cats’ purring can do that). They’re designed to be free from lust, jealousy, racism and religion. The Crakers are basically Crake’s attempt to fix everything that was wrong with the human race and then make his own improvements on the basic design. It’s really interesting to see how he’s played god here.

Snowman of course, is stuck with the original design and isn’t suited to the world humanity has so badly damaged. This post-apocalyptic world of Atwood’s is more subtle than others I’ve read. Snowman simply finds himself at the mercy of the natural world as it consumes a dead civilisation. He sleeps in a tree to stay safe from predators. Because of climate change, he must to take shelter from the unbearably hot sun and daily storm. Things he probably never thought much about have become serious dangers or annoyances – ants, bug bites, sweating, starving to death. Simply scratching open a scab might lead to serious infection. Loneliness is driving him mad, and he finds little company among the strange Crakers.

The post-apocalyptic world is in many ways a version of the dystopia that led to it. While Snowman fears nature, Jimmy grew up in a world where humanity destroys and modifies nature. Jimmy’s father works for OrganInc, a company that creates pigoons – bio-engineered pigs that grow skin, organs and even brain tissue for human transplants. After the apocalypse however, the pigoons roam free. They could tear Snowman to shreds and eat him, and they’re extremely smart because of the human brain tissue they were designed to produce. Equally dangerous are the wolvogs – vicious wolves designed to look like friendly dogs.

The food that Jimmy eats is often pretty gross and almost always artificial. Dairy products seem to be a thing of the past, and you get crap like “cheese food” instead. There are the disgusting “Chickie-Nobs”, a kind of bland KFC-style junk food made from bio-engineered ‘chickens’ that are just fat bodies with mouths. No heads, beaks or feet because none of those things are needed to produce meat. Often when natural foods like real eggs, fish or meat appear, it’s described as a rare and expensive luxury. On the other hand, rainforests are destroyed to grow Happi Cuppa coffee.

Equally revolting is the media that Crake and Jimmy consume. They don’t watch movies and TV series, but watch videos online – animal snuff, assisted suicides, executions, child pornography. Disturbingly, none of this seems to be considered particularly abnormal. Two teenage boys watching hundreds of hours of real executions and kiddie porn is portrayed like two teenage boys watching normal TV and a bit of porn today.

Jimmy only pauses to consider what he’s doing when he first sees Oryx. At the time she has no name, she’s “just another little girl on a porno site” (103). But she turns to the camera and Jimmy imagines that she looks at him with contempt. For years, Jimmy is haunted by the look on her face and the way she seems to judge him.

It’s appropriate that the first feeling Oryx evokes in Jimmy is a kind of moral shock. While most of the novel reveals the environmental consequences of problems like overpopulation, Oryx is a testament to the more human side – stark poverty, trafficking, child abuse. After Jimmy has met Oryx and started sleeping with her, she tells him her life story – how she was sold into slavery by a mother who couldn’t afford to keep her and went from selling flowers to tourists, to following men into their hotel rooms, and then onto the kind of child pornography where Jimmy and Crake first saw her.

This is disturbing stuff, although Oryx tells it in a gentle matter-of-fact way that makes it easier on everyone. Jimmy actually doesn’t like this, because, in his opinion, she’s too forgiving of the men involved. She feels sorry for some for being so pathetic, she’s grateful to her pimp for looking after her, she giggled at men’s penises because she thought they looked funny. This is not what Jimmy wants to hear, “all this sweetness and acceptance and crap”. He wants her to cry, to say how traumatic it was, and to hate the men who abused her so that she can be the victim and he can be her saviour. And that bothers me about him.

But honestly, I don’t know how to feel about Oryx’s character either. She’s so elusive I can’t quite grasp her. Then again, my feelings about the other characters can never be simple either. Crake is both monstrous and admirable. I find him hateful at first, but out of all the characters, he’s the only one who both expresses anger at what humans are doing to the world, and actually manages to do something about it.

Jimmy is our connection to the story (he’s a “word person”, ideal for the job), and there are many reasons to empathise with him, especially when we see how neglectful his parents are. His mother is deeply depressed, agonising over the ethics of the work she and her husband have done. You might identify with his, while hating her for the way she treats her young son. Which leads you to feel sorry for Jimmy, but then he also watches child pornography. The thing is, he’s probably the character most similar to you as the reader – an ordinary person, who just gets swept along in the habits of society, no matter how repulsive those are. Jimmy/Snowman is not someone who will change the world or even oppose it.

The world does get changed however, and you could argue a great deal about the ethics that go into that, into genetic engineering, and the design of the Crakers. Will our extinction be the only thing that stops us murdering our world? Are the Crakers a better kind of human? Would you call them human at all? Is it ok for Crake to play god by creating them, or for any of the scientists to splice together species or grow human organs and brains in pigs and then eat them? Atwood leaves you with a thousand things to think about and not all of it is bad – there’s a lot of science that’s just really awesome. Still, the results of Atwood’s what ifs are so plausible it’s terrifying. Few novels have hit me as hard as Oryx and Crake does with its vision of the future, it’s exquisite writing,  and unforgettable characters. I will read this again, and again.

Ideally, I’d also like to say that everyone should read this book, but I know it’s not for every reader. While I take great pleasure from it, it’s not a fun book in any way, and it’d be completely wasted on readers only looking for entertainment. I find that it’s a smooth, easy read, but at the same time this is very much literary sci fi that deserves your attention, not just something you can breeze through.

If you’re a serious science fiction fan who enjoys the genre for its ideas and its vision, you can’t not read this. And I don’t give a crap what Atwood says about this not being true sci fi – it is. It’s some of the best sci fi I’ve ever read. Books like this are why I love this genre, why I love fiction, why I love reading.

Review of The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian

The Office of Mercy by Ariel DjanikianTitle: The Office of Mercy
 Ariel Djanikian
Published: 21 February 2013
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Just over three centuries ago, the world writhed in chaos. Grossly overpopulated and under-resourced, societies across the globe collapsed into violence and squalor. An elite, now known as the Alphas, sought to end the suffering. Their solution was the Storm, an act of mercy that wiped out most of the world’s human population. The Alphas survived in bunkers across the world and rebuilt human society, refusing to repeat the mistakes of the past. The bunkers were transformed into high-tech self-sufficient settlements that function according to reason and science, with the values of “World Peace, Eternal Life, and All Suffering Ended”. The citizens live according to an Ethical Code that follows utilitarian principles and seeks to elevate humanity above the urges and inclinations of nature, which are destructive rather than useful in a modern society. It’s all rather cold and clinical, but in America-Five, the settlement where this story takes place, citizens never have to worry about getting food, shelter, excellent medical care or a good education. In the meantime, their scientists are constantly finding ways to extend the human lifespan, with the ultimate goal of achieving eternal life.

But every ‘utopia’ has its dystopian flaws. Not all humans live inside a settlement. A scattering survived the Storm, and now live in primitive tribes across the lush natural world that has been able to thrive in the past few centuries. Because they are subject to all the hardships, dangers and terrors of living in the wild, their very existence goes against the utilitarian principles of the Ethical Code. Their lives consist of more pain and suffering than pleasure, so the settlements seek to alleviate that suffering, by killing the tribespeople in “sweeps” – targeted missile strikes. In the three centuries since the Storm, the 158 domed settlements scattered across the North American continent have succeeded in sweeping over 8 million tribespeople and look forward to the day when the tribes have been eradicated.

Our protagonist, 24-year-old Natasha Wiley, works in the Office of Mercy where her job is to monitor tribes and find the ideal moment to sweep them. After each sweep, a small team is sent Outside to inspect the site, ensure that there are no survivors and replace the cameras. Natasha is considered too young and inexperienced for such a mission, but her beloved mentor Jeffrey recommends her for the next outing. Natasha finally realises her dream of going Outside and experiencing the natural world for the first time. But things go awry and Natasha encounters a group of tribespeople. For the first time she sees them as healthy, strong humans who want to live even though they don’t have a high-tech settlement to live in or bioreplacement to extend their lifespans. She stops seeing them as “desperate animals in want of relief” and looks for ways to reconcile the ethics of America-Five with helping the tribes. With a few like-minded allies, she sneaks out of the settlement, risking her life and her career to change the world for the better.


The Office of Mercy caught my eye because the blurb promised a dystopian story combined with science and philosophy. It sounded like a more thoughtful, engaging novel than this trend-genre generally seems to offer these days, especially since most dystopian fiction seems to be bland, commercial YA fodder. I’m happy to say that The Office of Mercy delivered what I’d been hoping for. It’s not as good as it could have been, and there are many things I would have refined or changed, but I like that it avoids being as simplistic as other novels I’ve read in this genre, and offers a thought-provoking ending.

The worldbuilding tends to be done in long, dense infodumps, but it’s not hard to read and it’s fairly consistent. The sweeps are one example of this. America-Five and the other settlements could easily kill the tribespeople in many ways, but their methods are designed to prevent suffering. If the tribespeople were to find out about the settlements or the sweeps, or if only some members died while others lived, they would suffer dread and grief. The settlement would be causing more pain. Thus, the Office of Mercy waits for a moment when all members of the tribe are gathered in one place, and then fires a bomb called a nova to kill them all before they even have a chance to realise what’s happening.

Another of the governing principles of the Ethical Code is the injunction to transcend nature and all its evils. Citizens strive to resist any irrational impulses like being afraid of the dark or greedy for food. These things are leftover instincts from when all humans lived in tribes like the ones Outside and had to fight wild animals while trying to avoid starving to death.

In addition, people no longer need to have sex or suffer the pains of relationships, because babies are grown in tanks, and new generations are produced only when there are sufficient resources to care for them. Relationships are tolerated but not encouraged and citizens can satisfy their sexual urges in virtual reality. This is the cause of some anguish for Natasha – she is in love with Jeffrey, but he is the kind of model citizen who would never let a sexual relationship get in the way of living a fully ethical existence. In America-Five, the happiness of the individual is less important than working toward the happiness of an entire society.

For Natasha though, the most important feeling to avoid is Misplaced Empathy – her tendency to feel sorry for the tribespeople she helps kill. The error in this is that she is imagining their deaths from her own perspective, from a comfortable life that is worth living and with the knowledge of the nova strikes. The tribespeople on the other hand, are believed to live dreadful lives that Natasha cannot even begin to empathise with, and they don’t know about the novas so they cannot fear them. Feeling sorry for them is “immoral and dangerous” because it may prevent Natasha from killing the tribes and reducing the amount of suffering in the world.

This is a clear starting point for rebellion. It’s only by building a mental “Wall” that the citizens can commit genocide so easily. Despite the contemporary disdain for religion, the Alpha’s Ethical Code functions a lot like a religion and similar doctrines in that it encourages people to do terrible things to others with the belief that their actions are important and morally good. Natasha has a history of mental ‘weakness’ in building Walls, so seeing the tribespeople in person is particularly devastating for her.

One of the things I like about this novel though, is that it’s not a simple matter of evil America-Five vs. innocent tribes. America-Five has as many pros as it does cons and the Alphas are philosophers rather than a group of dictatorial lunatics. They really have made a great deal of good social advancements – the settlements are not plagued by disease, poverty, starvation, or a lack of education. Unlike similar societies in dystopian fiction, they don’t have institutionalised inequality in terms of race, gender, beauty, religion, intelligence or physical prowess. There is hierarchy based on age, but it’s mild and reasonable. There is no ban on free speech. Such things would go against the Ethical Code. The people of America-Five are a normal, racially diverse bunch and although their lives will look rather sterile to most readers, it’s infinitely better than most societies today.

Nor is Natasha the usual glorified revolutionary. When she goes Outside she is overwhelmed by the beauty of nature (which is particularly lush now that the human race has stopped destroying it) and the thrills and dangers that the settlement has stripped from life. Her rebellion has moral grounds, but it is also profoundly naive at times, as she idealises something that is really no more than a novelty for her. She’s like a child who wants a pony but has only seen them on TV. For a while Natasha’s ideas actually make the novel sickenly sentimental and my rating was dropping steadily until the ending redeemed the book for me. It gave me a lot to think about regarding the impossibilities of utopia and what we might have to do to get close to something resembling paradise.

The Office of Mercy could have been a great book, if it wasn’t so unrefined (perhaps because this is Djanikian’s first novel). I already mentioned the frequent, clunky infodumps. The characters are all rather dull, and the first word that comes to mind when I think of Natasha is “watery”. Certain parts of the plot are intentionally weak so as to demonstrate Natasha’s naiveté, but then there are also parts that simply stupid and illogical, distracting me from my reading as I stopped to fume and fuss in Kindle annotations. Then there’s that old and utterly infuriating American bias that tells us there are over 150 domed settlements across North America, but only states once that there are “other Alpha-inhabited continents”, because who gives a fuck about any place that isn’t America?

But yeah, if you like the dystopian genre though, it’s worth checking this novel out.

Up for Review: The Office of Mercy

The Office of Mercy by Ariel DjanikianThe Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian (Viking)

Blurb (Goodreads and NetGalley):

Weaving philosophy and science together into a riveting, dystopian story of love and adventure, The Office of Mercy illuminates an all-too-real future imagined by a phenomenal new voice in fiction.

THE OFFICE OF MERCY takes place three hundred years after an intentional global catastrophe, known as the Storm. Orchestrated by a small group of idealistic young people, the Storm was a last-ditch effort to remake civilization—to start over—after conditions on earth had deteriorated considerably. In that sense, the Storm was a success. Today, people live in high-tech, mostly underground settlements, like America-Five, where everyone’s needs are provided for. There’s no hunger, no money; and cell-replacement programs guarantee all citizens healthy, long lives.

On the top floor of America-Five is the Office of Mercy, where twenty-four year old Natasha Wiley works. Natasha’s job is to track and kill the nomadic descendants of the scattering of people who survived the Storm, and who now roam the wilderness in tribes. Most citizens consider the Office’s work of eliminating the rampant suffering outside their walls to be the paradigm of modern, ethical behavior. Yet Natasha harbors growing doubts. When her beloved mentor, Jeffrey, selects her to join a special team to venture outside the settlement, her allegiances to home, society and above all to Jeffrey suddenly collide.

Along with a band of misfits, Natasha enacts a plan to escape the confines of the settlement and uncover for herself the true effects of her office’s policies. She is willing to wager her safety, her promising career and, eventually, her faith in the values that she has worked for and believed in all her life.

The Office of Mercy will be published on 21 February 2013 by Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

Buy it: Amazon I The Book Depository
The novel at Penguin

About the Author
Ariel Djanikian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 with majors in English, chemistry, and philosophy. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, and she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter.
Her writing has appeared in The L Magazine and The Paris Review DailyThe Office of Mercy is her first novel. – NetGalley and author’s website.


Review of Pure by Julianna Baggott

Title: Pure
Series: Pure #1
Julianna Baggott
2 February 2012
YA, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, science fiction
review copy from Tammy at Women24.com

Ten years after the Detonations that destroyed America, survivors breathe the ash of a damaged world and bear the terrible deformities and mutations that the nuclear bombs have left them with. Pressia lives with her grandfather in the remains of a barbershop, clinging to faint memories of the Before. She finds herself going on the run from the OSR, a militant group that forcibly recruits all teenagers from the age of 16. Like most other survivors, Pressia wishes she could live inside the Dome, the clean, safe haven where a few were lucky enough to be sheltered during the Detonations. The people of the Dome are ‘Pure’, untainted by burns and mutations.

Bradwell doesn’t share this dream about the Dome. He is a rebel who knows the truth – that the Dome’s creators are the ones responsible for the Detonations; that they used the bombs to ‘cleanse’ the earth so that they could one day emerge to rule a rejuvenated Earth.

Inside the Dome, Partridge enjoys the privileges of being a Pure, but at the cost of his freedom. His world is clean but tightly controlled and closely monitored, and he is subjected to mandatory genetic modification. His cold, calculating father is the leader of the Dome, while his loving mother supposedly died a martyr, trying to help ‘the wretches’ outside get to safety when the bombs hit. But Partridge knows that he is being lied to, that the stories he has been told about his world are propaganda. When he finds reasons to believe that his mother is still alive, he escapes from the Dome to find her.

His journey collides with Pressia’s and Bradwell’s, forming an uneasy trio of teenagers who are reluctant to trust each other but have to forge some kind of alliance if they expect to survive all the monsters that come after them. They puzzle through the clues that will lead them to the truth, heading out on a path that will either lead to revolution or the triumph of tyranny.


Pure surprised me. It’s grotesque and brutal, and I mean this in a good way. There was a point when YA dystopias sprang up like weeds, and, as with the YA fad of romances between humans and sexy mythical creatures who looked like humans, I imagined that the resulting dystopias would be implausibly glossy, with only the bare minimum of thin dystopian features written in to allow the authors to cash in on the trend. YA dystopias, I thought, were probably just the latest settings for otherwise conventional action-adventure-romances.

Pure has action and adventure, but it’s gritty and tragic. At first it seems like the usual love triangle is forming, but in fact there’s no real romance. And unlike most YA novels, many of the characters are not just physically imperfect but physically deformed. The Detonations had horrific effects to the people who were caught in the explosions. All of them were fused to nearby objects, plants, animals, or other people. Pressia was holding a doll, and her hand is now a doll’s-head fist, a relatively minor deformity. Bradwell has birds fused to his back, their beaks digging into his flesh, their wings fluttering. There are ‘Dusts’ – humans who fused with the earth and live underground, rising up to drag humans and other creatures down with them. There are ‘Beasts’, who fused with animals. ‘Groupies’ are two or more humans fused together.

And those are the least disturbing of the examples. There is a group of mothers fused to the children they clutched when the bombs went off. Stunted by their mothers’ bodies, the children will never grow up. Some women limp along with children joined at the hip; others have babies forever attached to their arms.

One character, known as El Capitan, has his younger brother (who was brain damaged in the Detonations) fused to his back. Unable to ever part, El Capitan knows that eventually one of them will be unable to take it anymore and will kill the other, causing the death of both.

There is no hope that future generations will be born Pure; all the changes will be passed on. The bombs that were set off were not standard nuclear weapons but “a cocktail of bombs” (44) with “nanotechnology to help speed up the recovery of the earth – nanotechnology that promotes the self-assembly of molecules” (45) and apparently allows creatures and objects to bond genetically. I have no idea whether this is actually possible, but it makes enough sense to me for the purposes of the story. Pure describes a world of human made monstrous. With creatures like Dusts and Beasts, it’s fair to ask whether they’re human at all. Characters like Pressia have to deal with the fact that the objects fused to them have become a part of their flesh. For example, Pressia once tried to cut the doll’s head off her hand, only to find that it bled as if she’d slit her wrist. And maybe, she admits, that’s exactly what she wanted to do.

Partridge isn’t happy either, but for very different reasons. The Dome is clean and safe to the point that life in there is sterile. Everything is controlled and everyone is closely monitored. All boys are given mandatory genetic enhancements to improve them physically, mentally, and make them more submissive. Partridge’s brother Sedge killed himself when he could no longer handle life in the Dome, an act that is considered noble because it helps keep weaknesses out of the gene pool.

Heavy stuff for YA, and there’s quite a lot of it – accounts of the trauma experienced during the Detonations, the suffering of the fused, the brutal things the characters are forced to do to survive and achieve their goals. But I’m not complaining. I liked this about the novel; it had a satisfying weight to it and the grotesquery did not feel gratuitous. However, I will say that the plot and characters seemed to lack something. It’s a good book, but not all that compelling. I admired many of the details in the world and the writing, but somehow the whole was less impressive than I expected. The plot needed a greater sense of urgency, and as the story progressed the characters became less interesting than they’d been at first.

Still, it’s an impressive creation. Or at least the parts that you see in the novel are impressive. The worldbuildng falters when you consider the backstory and that bloody American bias that I can’t believe we still find in stories with a supposedly global scope. Before the Detonations, American society had already become a dystopia defined by “the convolutions of church and state” and a return to traditional gender divides. Church attendance was monitored. The privileged lived in compounds protected by armed guards. Women were expected to belong to the ‘Feminine Feminists’ group, which enforced misogynistic gender roles under the guise of liberation. The whole regime was known as ‘The Return to Civility’. Those who didn’t comply were quietly carted off to asylums. The Dome is a continuation of this, especially with its ugly religious longing for purity and perfection.

This is all good and well; in fact I’d like to read a prequel that shows how this society came about. I’m wondering, for example, what happened with all the non-Christians. But more questions arise when considering the Detonations. They were not organised by the military or the government, but by a small group of elite scientists, so how did they get access to so much sophisticated nuclear weaponry? Surely that doesn’t go unnoticed by the authorities. And then, did they just bomb America, or the entire world? The former sounds highly unlikely and the latter seems impossible. So what happened to everyone else? Are there other Domes?

There are characters who should have this information, but don’t reveal any of it (although there are other reveals). Pressia and Partridge have been kept in the dark, but I’d expect them to at least ask some of these questions. I’m getting tired of books where anything that happens outside America isn’t considered worth more than a sentence or two. I can accept that we’re just being told the story of what happens in the USA; what I can’t accept is the way the majority of the world is ignored.

I hold out the hope that the sequel, Fuse (due in February 2013), will offer explanations. I have my reservations about Pure, but they’re outweighed by my enthusiasm for its stronger aspects. It delivers far more than I expected from this genre, particularly in it brutal post-apocalyptic world. The writing is strong, with a few moments where you have to pause to consider what you just read. The YA market could do with more of this.


Buy a copy of Pure at The Book Depository

Review of Seed by Rob Ziegler

Title: Seed
Rob Ziegler
Published: 15 November 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction, biopunk, dystopia, post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 7/10

It’s the 22nd century. The world’s oil supplies have finally dried up, but humanity has done the damage and the climate has risen by a devastating 5⁰C. North America is a wasteland, with most of its people reduced to starving migrants wandering across the land in the constant search for food and water.

The only viable course of food is Sartori – a massive, sentient, bioengineered city made of living flesh and bone. Its inhabitants are all post-human, genetically engineered beings whose main purpose is to design, produce and grow seed – a climate-resistant seed whose crops are now America’s only means of survival.

Then Pihadassa, a Sartori Designer (geneticist), defects from the living city in order to play out her own plans for sustainable life. Among the migrants, Pihadassa becomes known by the rumour of ‘the Corn Mother’ – a woman who will save them all from starvation. To Brood, a Latino teenage orphan, it’s just a rumour. He and his austistic brother Pollo, along with Hondo, an old man, get by as small-time thieves and Brood has no interest, or faith, in a search for a different life. Nevertheless, circumstances put him on the path to the colony that the Corn Mother is supposedly establishing, where fresh food is freely available.

Also on the hunt for Pihadassa is Agent Sienna Doss, the soldier who never Fucks Up. The US government – or at least the remaining scraps of it – want to get the Designer under their control so she can create seed for them. The government resents the power and necessity of Sartori, especially since its only remaining function is to distribute seed around the nation – a function Sartori could easily perform on its own. It’s a government “afraid of its own obsolescence” and Pihadassa represents an opportunity for it to reclaim power.

In the meantime, within the flesh walls of Sartori, Pihadassa’s mate Sumedha suffers the pain of his partner’s absence, while continuing with a series of genetic experiments that will affect both Sartori and the future of the human population.

Brood, Doss and Sumedha’s stories slowly move toward each other in an interesting and relevant novel that depicts a painfully plausible environmental future, the possibilities of genetic engineering, and the many ethical conundrums that are inevitably raised.

This review has been a difficult one for me to write, because there’s a hell of a lot going here. I’ve outlined the structure of the plot, but in fact it takes a while for it all to get put into place. Much of the first half of text is devoted to world-building and getting to know the characters. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does slow the overall. The characters  themselves undergo a lot without moving the main plot forward all that much until the last third or so. For example, we spend a lot of time with Brood, who gives us a glimpse into what is now the life of the average American – endless travelling across a hot, dusty landscape, the constant threat of violence, and hunger that’s as much a part of life as breathing.

Doss on the other hand, enjoys a relatively privileged life as a government agent. She has a diet of “vat-grown chicken breast and weirdly perfect Sartori vegetables”, has well-made clothes and shoes, and is in good shape to do the many violent things the government requires of her. Normally I admire strong female characters, but I have to admit I didn’t particularly like Doss. She’s an archetypal American soldier – brash, gung-ho, and cold; patriotic but increasingly jaded. She’s not the type of character I generally have much interest in, and I felt no different here.

The most interesting character was Sumedha, Pihadassa’s mate, partly because he gives us a perspective on the best part of the novel – Sartori and all its related genetic creations. I’ve encountered other structures made of flesh in science fiction, but the scale of Sartori and its situation in a barren land makes it especially alien and amazing:

The city spread out below, an intermingled series of bending muscle towers and soft domes twined abruptly with the concrete, brick and plexi of the old city. Shadowy bone latticework showed through translucent skin. A thousand hearts beat oxygen and heat into a thousand buildings, pumped waste out onto the compost heaps along the northern fields. Far beneath Sumedha a group of landraces moved slowly on their hands and knees along a snake scale street. Their rough voices sang as their hands polished the scales with fur brushes. Sumedha closed his eyes and touched the wall, sure he could feel the city’s pleasure at the touch of its children’s brushes. A warm sensation spread through his body…Love. He opened his eyes and the helix [DNA] danced. Each building a different expression of its strange and brilliant will, yet part of a whole that fed sensation down lush nerve matrices to the center, here, to Satori tower, where Sumedha stood touching flesh, almost connected. Over it all stretched the dome, a mother’s womb shielding the city and its children from the mad seasonal swings of a climate knocked from its axis.

Sartori manages to be both grotesque and beautiful, depending on how you feel about its organic structure. People sleep cradled in flesh pods or amniotic sacs. Opening a ‘door’ involves a muscle contraction that parts flesh. Light comes in the soft glow of biolumes under the skin, and in some cases the colour changes to reflect the mood of a room’s inhabitant. Most of Sartori’s energy comes from photosynthesis, and the skin of the dome turns green and gurgles with sugar production in the hot sun. During winter it grows fur for warmth, and the rooms too have floors covered in soft fur.

Sartori’s inhabitants include Designers, advocates and landraces. The landraces are worker clones, designed with an instinct for labour. The advocates are perhaps the coolest creatures in the book, but also the most vicious. They’re designed for security purposes and although they look mostly human, they have the DNA of a variety of predators spliced into them. The advocates have a constant, barely controlled lust to kill things with their bare hands (their fingers are hard and sharp and can easily rip out throats).

Then there are the Designers, Sartori’s geneticists (responsible for creating seed, landraces and advocates) and general managers. Sumedha is one of these, and I appreciated the complexity of this very alien character. As a post-human creation with carefully designed instincts, outlooks and ways of communicating Sumehda was difficult to relate to but fascinating nevertheless. He and the other Designers have faces “so perfectly proportioned it made the rest of the world feel distorted”. They communicate not only through speech but through touch, smell, and their ability to ‘read’ DNA. They have an intensely sensual relationship to each other and to Sartori, to the extent that Sumedha experiences Pihadassa’s absence as much more than just an emotional loss. Their attitude to life in general is also one of deep appreciation and fascination, an attitude that’s an essential part of their design. The creator of Sartori insisted that if life on earth were to continue in the wake of all the environmental disasters humanity has caused, then human beings not only needed to change morally or ethically, but genetically.

While I admire these things about the Designers, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they also come across as very cruel. Although they value life deeply, individual lives mean little to them, particularly the lives of humans and the ‘lesser’ genetic creations, such as the landraces. You get the impression that Pihadassa and Sumedha often view humans as nothing more than a combination of DNA strands to be studied and if necessary, killed and dissected. Sumehda, for example, is running a series of experiments on a young girl he has genetically engineered. He does without compassion, ignoring her protests that what he does hurts her. At one point her amputates her arm (under anaesthetic, at least) as calmly as he would take her temperature. He’s also paying a group of gangsters to bring him migrants who are suffering from a disease called ‘ theTet’. He needs them for his experiments, and doesn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that these people are locked up in cages and live in filthy conditions.

This plays into the novel’s ongoing debate about genetic engineering and the use of a being like Sartori. Clearly, it presents wonderful possibilities, and might even be a necessity in an ecologically damaged world.  However, it is dangerous in the hands of someone as cold as Sumedha. Pihadassa offers a more viable alternative as she wants to return to a more natural existence in which “the mother shapes the helix, as she has always done” with only a little genetic management on her part. But it’s clear that Pihadassa is not exactly the loving ‘Corn Mother’ of the migrants’ rumours, so who then, should guide future developments? Of course the government wants to do that, but you know that’s just a struggle for power and has nothing to do with ethics.

Other issues come into play as well. Is it right to engineer beings like the landraces? They’re designed to enjoy manual labour, but are not acknowledged as individuals, as real people. The same question comes up with the advocates, who are nothing more than organic killing machines; they do not seem to want anything else but the chance to kill.

While I like the idea of a post-human future (it’s part of what makes me a sci fi fan), Seed cools my enthusiasm even as it ignites it, offering a sobering picture of the future. It’s a good book and an impressive debut that I appreciate for its ideas and the depiction of bioengineered life forms.On the downside there’s a large cast of characters, a complex plot and a lot of information about the world of the novel so reading can feel a bit of a chore at times. There’s a great deal of action and violence, but it doesn’t exactly transform this into a page-turner. However, the characters are refreshingly diverse, well-developed, and the world itself (Sartori in particular) is intriguing and relevant enough to keep me interested, if occasionally confused. Speculation about the future of human and animal life on our planet offers some much-needed food for thought regarding our lifestyles today, while revitalising the post-apocalyptic movement in fiction with some great ideas. If you’re interested in the recently defined biopunk genre or fiction that tackles issues of climate change, environmental sustainability and genetic modification, then I recommend you get a copy of Seed. 

Buy a copy of Seed at The Book Depository

Jeyn Roberts on her debut Dark Inside and a giveaway!

Jeyn (pronounced “jen”) Roberts grew up in Saskatoon, Canada. She started writing at an early age, but when she was twenty-one she moved to Vancouver with dreams of being a rock star. For the next several years she played in an alternative/punk band called Missing Mile. A former singer, songwriter, actress, bicycle courier, tree planter—Jeyn graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Writing and Psychology. Shortly afterwards, she moved to England, where she received her MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. An avid traveller, she’s been around the world, including teaching in a high school in South Korea and writing novels in her flat in Vancouver. She’s taken some time out to chat with me about her latest addition to the YA dystopian genre, Dark Inside.

Welcome Jeyn, and thanks for joining me on Violin in a Void.
You’re a new writer on the YA scene, but there already seems to be a lot of excitement about Dark Inside. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the novel?

Sure. What can I say about myself? I love to travel and explore. I’ve been lucky enough to live in three different countries in the past decade. I’m hoping that number grows because I love learning about new cultures. I hate to sit still. I love being outdoors. And I like to do animal rescue work when I have free time.

Dark Inside is my first novel. One day everything is normal. Then the earthquakes begin and a terrible evil is unleashed. Overnight, the darkness inside is released and people are turned into crazy killers. No one is safe. Mason, Aries, Clementine and Michael are four teenagers who are just trying to stay alive. This is their story.

Macmillan is marketing Dark Inside as dystopian fiction, although I would call it apocalyptic, as it’s not about a dystopian society but rather about the destruction of society altogether. What drew you to this genre, this kind of story?

I think it’s very terrifying. For me, isolation is quite possibly the scariest thing around. It’s even scarier when there’s nowhere to run and hide.  What happens when the people who are supposed to keep you safe are gone? It’s also the sociological aspect. How will people behave when there are no more rules? I find it all fascinating.

The catastrophic earthquakes and psychological changes of Dark Inside leave behind survivors of all ages. However, the story is told from the perspectives of teenagers and almost all the major characters are adolescents as well. What made you choose their perspectives, their experiences over other possibilities?

I really just like writing for teens. There are so many great YA books on the market right now. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? One of my teachers once summed it up perfectly. She said there will always be someone inside of us, pushing towards the surface, with a story that needs to be told. I guess all my inner voices are teenagers.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing style and the structure of the novel? For example, the narrative is composed of five voices – Mason, Aries, Clementine, Michael, and a mystery voice whose chapters are labelled ‘Nothing’.

I don’t particularly think I have a certain writing style. I tend to write in all styles. Currently I’m working on a first person/present novel.  But when I was in the early stages of Dark Inside, this is what felt right. ‘Nothing’ was the first character I created. But then Mason and Aries came along. Clementine and Michael followed. I liked being able to have them in all parts of North America because I felt their journey would be the most important part.

With its mass destruction coupled with tragic but hopeful human stories, I think Dark Inside would be an incredible experience on the big screen, especially for YA fans. Would you be interested in a film adaptation?

I sure would! Currently I have a film agent (the same agent who sold The Hunger Games).  So hopefully there will be a movie in the future.

The novel leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the how, why and what next of this apocalyptic scenario, and the ending feels like another beginning. Does this mean that there’s a sequel in the works? If so, is there anything you can tell us about it?
There is indeed a sequel in the works.  It will be out next spring. I’m currently working on the final edits. Personally I think it’s even better than the first book. You’ll get to learn a lot more about each character, and quite possibly learn the identity of Nothing. There are some great new characters including a university student named Raj and a failed leader called Ryder. But that’s all I’m giving away. Don’t want to spoil it!

Will the next novel pick up where Dark Inside ends? Should readers get ready to witness the rise of a new, dystopian society created by the humans who’ve been transformed by the darkness within them?

The next book picks up three months after Dark Inside ends. It’s close to Christmas but no one is feeling very festive. Everyone is trying to adjust to this brand new world. The Baggers are starting to rebuild society and forcing survivors to work for them. They are rounding up people into camps and killing everyone who refuses to obey. Relationships are being formed and broken. There’s even a bit of romance.

Thanks so much for the interview Jeyn!

Jeyn’s been on a blog tour since 22 September, and if you want to know more, take a look at the tour schedule, where you’ll find all the relevant dates and the urls of some great YA blogs.

You can also find Jeyn online:


Dark Inside is out now. US readers will have to wait until 1 November before they can buy it in print, but the Kindle edition is already selling on Amazon. If you’re interested, you can read my review of the novel here.

And now for the bit you’ve all been waiting so patiently for – the giveaway! Macmillan Children’s Books is giving away two copies of Dark Inside to Violin in a Void readers.

To enter:
1. Follow Violin in a Void via WordPress, email (sign-up in the sidebar) or Twitter (@Violin_InA_Void).
2. Leave a comment on this post.

Terms and Conditions
This competition is open internationally.
Entries close on Sunday 9 October at 12pm GMT+2. The winners will be announced on Monday, after being selected using random.org.
Following by any means other than the three listed above doesn’t count, and I check all entries.
The prizes are sponsored by Macmillan Children’s Books, and as a result I will be passing the winners’ postal addresses on to my contact there so that they may send you your books. Distribution of the prizes is therefore the responsibility of the publisher.

Good luck everyone!