Review of The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen

Title: The Revisionists
Thomas Mullen
Published: 28 September 2011 by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre: science fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 7/10

Zed is a government agent from a future he knows as ‘our Perfect Present’, a semi-utopia built out of the ruins of ‘the Great Conflagration’ – a global disaster that occurs in our own time and begins in Washington D.C. It’s Zed’s job to ‘protect the Events’ – key moments in history that eventually lead up to the Great Conflagration and need to occur if the Perfect Present is to be realised.

Leo too is a secret agent doing morally questionable things in the name of national security. He was kicked out of the CIA after daring to actually ask moral questions about his work, and he’s now employed by a company that handles outsourced intelligence operations.

Tasha is a hard-working young lawyer in a corporation with powerful but shady clients. Her brother was recently killed fighting America’s war with Iraq, and she suspects that the military’s story about his death is just a cover-up for something more sinister and most likely profitable. So when she stumbles across confidential information suggesting that one of her firm’s clients may have let soldiers die just to cut costs, she risks her career by leaking the information to the press.

Sari is an Indonesian immigrant who has practically been enslaved by an abusive South Korean diplomat and his wife. Powerless to do anything about it, she agrees to spy on the couple in return for help.

The stories of these four characters intertwine in Washington D.C., in a post 9/11 world characterised by paranoia, innumerable secret agents, anti-war protests and the question of whether the US government is protecting its citizens or its own power. This plot has the potential to be a dense political thriller, but it turned out to be a sophisticated literary novel about how to deal with the past and the individual’s role in an incomprehensibly complex and powerful system.

In the future world that Zed comes from, the past is both sacred and forbidden. All history is highly classified, and only a few people are given limited access to it when necessary. Even your own past is restricted. When someone dies their loved ones are allowed a brief grieving period before state employees confiscate all evidence of the deceased’s existence from their home and workplace, essentially erasing them from the public mind. The theory is that the past is dangerous. Dwelling on it is psychologically and socially destructive, as proved by the countless conflicts spawned by race, religion, ethnicity, land ownership and anything else with historical roots. When one of Zed’s colleagues suggests that their society should be given access to historical information so they can cease to be ignorant, another protests vehemently:

According to the government of the Perfect Present, the historical Protectors are safeguarding their society’s freedom by protecting the past from any significant change. When time travel was invented, a group of people known as ‘historical agitators’ (hags), tried to use it to prevent some of history’s greatest atrocities from happening.

The hags’ argument is that lives would be saved and tragedies averted, and they’re right in their short sighted way. They choose to overlook the fact that such changes would destroy our Perfect Present, meaning that the Great Conflagration, or some similar event, would still be happening, and the suffering would never end. All the problems we’ve solved, all the broken aspects of society we’ve fixed, all the effort we’ve made to eliminate human meanness and frailty – these accomplishments must be protected, no matter the cost. (p.39)

The Revisionists, trade paperback

Zed clings to this theory because although the Protectors are told constantly how noble their job is, it’s brutal in practice: “We were sent to ensure that awful events unfolded as originally dictated by history, that the hags did not rewrite the final acts of tragedies to make them comedies. […] Wherever we went, countless people died in our wake.” (p.37). Zed is referring specifically to the millions who die because the Protectors ensure that things like the Holocaust or the World Wars unfold as they originally did, but the Protectors also act as assassins, killing any of the hags they find.

The Perfect Present, I think, parallels America’s view of itself. Not that its citizens or its government could so easily call it perfect, but there is nevertheless the assumption that it is better than other societies and must therefore be protected against change from outside forces, even at the cost of countless human lives.

But The Revisionists constantly debates these assumptions, in both the future and present societies. Is either society really the ideal? The Perfect Present has certainly made some improvements. There is no race or religion, and therefore no conflict or division based thereon. Agents like Zed are cybernetically enhanced to the extent that their brains function like powerful computers, so clearly technology has taken a huge leap forward. We’re told that people, on the whole, are happy. Washington D.C. is similar in some ways – there are social ills, but it is undoubtedly better developed than many societies and life, on the whole, is good there.

It’s the level of government control and surveillance in the two societies that makes them seem more like dystopias than utopias. Can a government whose activities include invading citizens’ privacy and assassinating revolutionaries be a good government? Are they damaging what they supposedly protect? The parallel therefore extends to Leo and Zed, the kinds of agents who do the spying and the killing. Are they really doing what is best for their societies, given that what they do is so despicable? I’ve already mentioned all the death Zed causes in doing his job. Leo isn’t an assassin himself, but the information he provides to his superiors is used to capture suspects who are then tortured and killed. His current assignment involves the embarrassingly dirty task of spying on anti-war protesters and tracking down the creators of, a website dedicated to informing the public about some of the US government’s unethical operations. Along the way Leo blackmails Tasha, using her decision to expose corruption against her. He is also the person who meets Sari and convinces her to spy on the diplomatic couple who are abusing her, even though he’s not sure if he can actually help her out as promised.

Both Zed and Leo are forced to question the ethics of their occupations although in doing so they lose the meaning that their work gives their lives. Leo in particular has always rebuked himself as someone who “never did anything” (p.47). He signed up with the CIA in the hope of changing that, but ended up doing things he couldn’t live with. A similar crisis befalls Tasha when she realises that she’s working for the kind of people who may have let her brother and other soldiers die in the pursuit of profit. These dilemmas also bring into sharp relief the characters’ own powerlessness. Actions that they believe might have devastating consequences could actually be almost pointless. At the same time, when they appear to have been influential the consequences are terrible and often reveal them to be pawns of far more powerful forces.

Towards the end, the grand plots are concentrated into more personal concerns. Ideas about society and government give way to thoughts on grief, family, the past and a meaningful existence. Politics are by no means pushed out of the picture, but the story becomes more about the effect that government is having on individual lives and how casually it manipulates and discards them. The characters become increasingly unsure of themselves and although we get a few answers to some of the mysteries in the novel, the whole story seems to fracture into uncertainty, leaving you on shakier ground than when you started. The novel even throws its own genre – science fiction – into question in a single conversation, playing a little mind game that is my favourite thing about The Revisionists.

It doesn’t feel like a world falling apart but rather like one being dismantled so that the characters can escape from the personal dilemmas they’re trapped in and build new lives from whatever’s left. Uncertainty flourish rather than die out, but it’s something they come to accept. It’s not the most exciting of stories, especially if you’re expecting a time-travel thriller, but that should not dissuade you. There’s still a good deal of action and tension, and it’s a well-crafted, pensive novel, something better-appreciated with a little pondering.

Buy The Revisionists on Book Depository

Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Lily Herne
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: March 2011
Purchased copy for review
My Rating
: 5/10

Buy a copy of Deadlands

It’s been a decade since the zombie apocalypse destroyed Cape Town in the middle of the World Cup. The survivors have established a new but distressingly familiar kind of order in heavily walled enclaves while outside, in the Deadlands, the zombie hordes still lurch. But no one is trying to wipe them out; instead, they’re worshipped.

It’s a brillint, unique twist on the zombie story – zombies are the new religion, revered for ‘cleansing’ Cape Town of its violence and corruption so there could be a better life for all (who survived). Believers are known as Resurrectionists, the zombies are respectfully known as the Reanimated (dissenters just call them Rotters), and the ‘priests’ are the mysterious cloaked Guardians whose faces no one has ever seen. There’s no question now about whether or not there’s an afterlife, because it’s right there in the Deadlands, moaning for your flesh.

Lele (Leletia) de la Fontein sees right through all of this crap. She’s a feisty, rebellious 17-year old, although at times you can be forgiven for calling her a brat. But on the other hand, she’s no doormat and most of the time I admire her spunk. She’s just lost her grandmother, not only to death but to the Guardians, who who take all dead bodies to the Deadlands where the zombies will attack and reanimate them. Now Lele and her brother have to stay with their emotionally distant father and their stepmother, who Lele can’t stand. She also has to go to a new school where, in classic YA tradition, she becomes the free-thinking outcast amidst petty, small-minded popular kids who make fun of her. Like any teenager, Lele thinks that her life couldn’t get any worse, but then she gets selected for the ‘Lottery’ – every year the Guardians choose a few teenagers from the enclaves and take them away, for reasons unknown. And that’s when Lele’s real adventure begins.

Now because Deadlands is the first zombie novel set in Cape Town, my home town, I really wanted to like it. Lily Herne is a psuedonym for SA author Sarah Lotz and her daughter, and as a South African I’m proud to see that SA writers are starting to get published in my favourite genres. At the same time however, my review ethic is to be honest even when I’d rather not be, but more importantly to not be condescending by setting lower standards for certain books as if the authors are mental inferiors who can’t really be compared to their peers. South Africa’s education system is doing that to the country’s youth. I hate it, and I’ve never wanted to do anything similar here. Which in this case means I wanted to like Deadlands, and I think it could have been the novel I was hoping for, but at the end of the day it was disappointing.

There are some really cool things about it nevertheless. Deadlands has an awesome political snarl, particularly in the beginning. Today’s ANC government is there in two different forms. On the one hand it’s followed its current path of corruption and transformed into the embassy – the pro-zombie, authoritarian government of the enclaves, with a firm hand on the necks of its citizens, and institutions like Malema High feeding propaganda to impressionable young minds. Like the ANC it’s also full of struggle heroes, but this time they’re from the zombie war.

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

Admittedly, I’m not as well versed in politics as I should be, but I can’t deny that it gives sci fi and fantasy the edge that makes for truly fantastic, memorable reads. Unfortunately Deadlands isn’t all that interested in its own political and religious satire. Once Lele gets chosen for the Lottery and leaves the enclave, Deadlands becomes a more conventional action-adventure novel. She meets a group of rebels known as the Mall Rats who turn her into a teen action hero, and the mystery, religious satire and political intrigue gets left behind. The action-adventure bit is the main part of the novel, but for me it was the most boring and it drags on for quite some time.

What I really wanted was to know more about that zombie cult and the Guardians. Who are they? What are they? And what are they up to? These are some of the most interesting and exciting questions in the story, but the answers are predictable, disappointing or just not good enough. It’s not hard to guess why the Guardians are taking teenagers, but you have to wait until the last few pages of the novel for this to be revealed. Having waited so long you expect the secret to be epic; instead my final thoughts for the novel were “that’s it?”. It would have been so much better if Lele had discovered at least part of the truth about the Guardians early on and then gone up against them in the remainder of the story. This could still have allowed for a sequel-ready ending, which is what we get anyway, with a lame line: “this is the end of my story, but somehow I’ve kind of got the feeling that it could actually just be the beginning” (293).

Speaking of lame lines, there are A LOT of them. Almost all of the chapters end with cliched attempts at intrigue:
“But, as I was about to find out, that was way easier said than done.” (15)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” (28)
“But by then it was too late.” (106)

To make things worse, there are many, many chapters, most of them bluntly ended with lines like these. Deadlands is only 293 pages long, but it has a whopping 69 chapters. On average they’re just 2 or 3 pages of well-spaced text long. It makes the story feel choppy, and as far as writing goes it seems lazy.

I also feel like the Guardians, the politics and the religion receded from the plot because the author(s) got bored this complex material and wanted to get to the bit about the cute, sexy rebel chick kicking zombie ass, raiding the mall, and trying to decide which of the two hots guys falling for her she can trust. Of course Deadlands is a YA novel so that’s exactly what the target audience wants, but there doesn’t have to be an ‘either or’ toss-up between story and substance. A better novel would have integrated the mystery and social satire with the action and romance.

It would also have sewn up some of the plot holes. Like the mall raids. These are pretty common teenage fantasies – having unlimited access to an empty mall so you can take all the cool stuff you want. For reasons only revealed at the end (very very thin reasons) the Guardians have kept Century City mall up and running, even after destroying all other buildings in the city, and the Mall Rats go there to scavenge for books, toiletries and clothes. There’s a HUGE plot hole here. As far as I could tell, the Guardians don’t restock the shops in the mall (how could they?), but the Mall Rats go there perhaps once a week to fill orders from the enclaves. It’s a big mall, but there’s only so much underwear on the shelf at Woolworths; there’s no way they could still walk in there with a shopping list and get everything on it. I got really, really annoyed when they did a book run at Exclusive Books. I worked at that branch for 3 years and I never, ever saw a copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry or Rustum Kozain’s poetry collection This Carting Life. The Norton is too academic and expensive for a commercial store, and poetry collections are pretty scarce because they don’t sell. Nevertheless, Lele finds both easily, and it’s the first time since she was 7 that she’s even been in a bookshop.

There are other gaps. Unless I missed it, there’s no mention of what happened to the rest of South Africa or the rest of the world. I can only assume that the zombie epidemic was global, given that there is no mention of help from anyone outside of Cape Town. As I said before, it’s not hard to guess what the Guardians do with the teenagers, but apparently no one in the enclaves has tried. I don’t even want to get into the implausibility of the Guardians keeping a mall as large as Canal Walk open, lights, escalators, cameras all running.

But, as I keep having to remind myself, this is YA and many fans of the genre probably won’t mind the glitches, the way the social critiques give way to action, or the short chapters and sloppy writing. I couldn’t shrug off the fact that I do mind these things, but I also have to admit that there were parts of the novel that I admired. So if Lily Herne produces the sequel implied in the closing lines I won’t hesitate to buy a copy, but I hope it’s a better read than this one.

The Book Ferret: Bookworm fuel on

I don’t get to go to many literary events. There just aren’t that many in South Africa (or in most places, I imagine) and when you do happen to hear about one, chances are it’s not in your province or it’s not of much interest to you. And the likelihood of meeting international authors is slim. So naturally I got over-excited and went download crazy when I discovered, and their Books tag in particular.

On you can watch and download videos (or audio, if you want to conserve bandwidth) of authors giving talks about their works, discussions on books and writing, and lectures on philosophy, culture and politics. All the cool stuff your mind can’t otherwise enjoy because you can’t afford to fly your body all over the world. How did we ever live without the internet? describes itself as “the leading online destination for intelligent video programs on the people, issues and ideas changing the world”. Check out Neal Stephenson and William Gibson on sci fi, Neil Gaiman on his collection Fragile Things, and authors like Ian McEwan, and Zadie Smith. Find out more about how storytelling is changing in the 21st century or how journalist A.J. Jacobs tried to follow all the rules in the Old Testament (hilarious!). Salman Rushdie has several FORA videos, and he became one of my favourite speakers after listening to him on I also discovered how fun and funny Mary Roach can be –she’s the author of books like Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Since this is a book blog and I am an unapologetic book nerd, I’ve focused on FORA’s book content, but the website offers far more – videos on politics, technology, music, science, art, the environment, religion… just check out their tags.

FORA was free when I first heard about it, and while you can still watch their content for free, I’m afraid you now have to pay for the privilege of downloading it, in either video or audio. Membership is priced at $4.99 for a month and $49.99 for a year. Which is fair, considering the opportunities you get in return.  FORA’s philosophy is “that there are brilliant ideas expressed everyday, everywhere, and [they] don’t want you to miss them”. I’m not going to say no to that.

The Book Ferret is a weekly feature on Violin in a Void that will showcase a cool or interesting book-related find every Thursday. Notable new releases, great bookshops, events, cover art, websites, gadgets and accessories – anything to make bookworms happy.

If you want to join in, grab the Ferret pic at the top of the page, link it and your post back here, and add your name to the Linky list. WordPress doesn’t allow me to show the Linky list in post, so you can also leave a comment here to say what your post is about.

Click here for The Book Ferret Linky

Public Power in the Age of Empire by Arundhati Roy

Public Power in the Age of Empire (Open Media)Public Power in the Age of Empire by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Are ‘democracies’ still democratic? Are governments accountable to the people who elect them? These are some of the questions that Arundhati Roy asks in her brief but insightful speech (this little book is the transcription, and can also be found free online). We live in an Age of Empire, she argues, characterised by economic colonialism and the repression of resistance.

Using Indian and American governments as her main examples, Roy discusses the ways in which governments can manipulate the people they’re supposed to serve, and how elections have the illusion of ideological choice. While people might get the governments they vote for they might not get the governments they want. Or need. In third world countries, the national agenda is often not dictated by the needs of the people, but by the demands of foreign capital and freemarket capitalism which are given the label of ‘reform’. However, these ‘reforms’ lead to mass unemployment and poverty. Faced with the threat of being crippled by capital flight, governments continue to facilitate the economic exploitation of their countries. Consequently, Roy says, it is impossible for governments to achieve radical change. It is only the public that can do so.

In the second half she looks at some of the dangers that resistance movements face, such as their relationship with the mass media and the use of NGOs to defuse political resistance. What I found especially powerful was her argument that public power in the age of Empire can be forced to resort to terrorism (which here is loosely defined as violent resistance) as a direct consequence of governments’ merciless crackdown on resistance in all forms. If governments are not open to change through non-violent resistance, then they are in fact endorsing violence as the only choice of action for an oppressed and exploited public.

Overall I found this to be a very useful, memorable book that should be easy for the most readers to understand. In a very few pages it provides an essential critical perspective with which to view contemporary global politics, particularly the depiction of humanitarian struggles by the media and political authorities. Even if you don’t agree with everything Roy says, this essay does you the valuable service of dissuading you from swallowing information whole and encouraging you to learn more and think more carefully and critically about the way in which countries and global powers are treating human beings.

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