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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Crumbs: post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi

Crumbs-posterCrumbs wandered onto my radar as a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi movie. It’s actually written and directed by Spaniard Miguel Llansó, but it’s set in Ethiopia (where Llansó lives for half the year and does most of his filming), with an Ethiopian cast, and it’s in Amharic with subtitles. It’s an experimental take on the genre and a completely new film experience for me, so my interest was piqued. Luckily, it was screened in Cape Town at That Film Focus, the film component That Art Fair, which took place in February this year.

 

In a far-flung future, humanity has lost its will to survive. There are no children, which immediately brings to mind the despondent, violent chaos of Children of Men, but the wars that this world has suffered are now over. Society has become the quiet, demented realm of the elderly, with a distorted sense of history and culture. Ethiopia, once densely populated, is depicted with vast, empty landscapes and abandoned settlements. People idolise the toys of a lost world and trade them for cash in a mysterious, cluttered pawn shop, although nothing is nearly as valuable as it used to be. They’re just cycling through old routines, perhaps. Nor is it clear why there are Nazis in masks wandering around. Not that “Nazi” necessarily means anything here; they could just be men in uniform wearing the swastikas they found somewhere. A spaceship hovers inexplicably in the sky and we’re barely told anything about that either.

Crumbs-soldier

The tiny, hunchbacked Candy and his beautiful young lover, Birdy, live in an old bowling alley and watch the ship closely. They’re scavengers who have quietly scraped together an artistic, spiritual life, although the objects of their devotion are unique to this plodding world. Birdy creates art from discarded plastic and scrap metal, and the couple worship at a shrine built around a picture of Michael Jordan and a bottle of Coke. Their most prized possessions include an orange plastic sword (manufactured by “the last pure artist”) and a Michael Jackson record (although no one knows who he is any more).

The couple believe that they are from another world, and when the spaceship above them comes to life, switching on the bowling machinery to eerie effect, Candy leaves on a mission to find a way on board so they can go home. His goal is to find Santa Claus, because Santa can make your wishes come true. He takes the plastic sword for protection and the Michael Jackson record to barter with a witch whose help he needs.

Crumbs-Candy

This sounds comic, but it’s all deadly serious to the characters, and although the movie has some humour, it’s mostly quite earnest, which just makes it even weirder. And Crumbs is really weird. Have you seen the trailer? I suggest you watch it so you have an idea of what to expect, although it’s more intense than the actual movie. Most viewers will be stumped, and many might find it too alien to enjoy.

For me, it’s strange in the kind of way I could (sort of) enjoy without fully understanding, even though I tend to be quite pedantic about these things. The crunch of Birdy’s footsteps over gravel (one of my favourite sounds) provides a gently hypnotic soundtrack as he traverses arid landscapes and abandoned buildings. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), although in this case the surreal quality of the film comes from the people rather than the landscape. Candy’s journey is slow, occasionally interrupted by bizarre and sometimes hostile encounters. It works, I think, because its confusing and unnerving qualities are countered by its calm tone and Birdy’s solemn determination. Now that I think about it, some of the movies I dislike for their weirdness were those whose absurdities are amplified by humour or intense energy in the form of action, pacing and/or emotional drama: it’s too jarring, too much to take in when I want room for contemplation.

Crumbs-art-Birdy-shipAlso, having lived in Ethiopia, Crumbs doesn’t feel entirely opaque to me; I see traces of the country’s contemporary urban life in the movie’s loony world. All the toys make sense: Addis Ababa, for some reason, has tons of toyshops. The shopping centre down the road from my house had about five or six, which was a crazy number in relation to the size of the shopping centre and the limited variety of stores.

My guess is that toys and other kids’ paraphernalia are among the easiest things to import, along with clothing and electronics. I say ‘import’, which implies a planned process, but it looks more like Ethiopia is a dumping ground for retail leftovers, made-in-China junk or whatever random merchandise shop owners are able to bring back in their suitcases from trips to more affluent countries. The result is that you’ll find clusters of teeny shops shops selling mostly indistinguishable assortments of mostly crappy stuff.

Of course, this is all western-world merchandise, and I imagine its ubiquity feeds the general anxiety about the effects of that world on tradition. Ethiopia has a robust culture and the majority of its people are deeply religious, but it’s nevertheless a poor country invaded by rich expats, so there’s every reason to worry about its unique and age-old qualities drowning in tat.

In Crumbs this fear has been realised: Abrahamic religion has been replaced with toy worship and western icons. Candy isn’t looking for Jesus but for Santa Claus. At the bowling alley, with its Michael Jordan shrine, Birdy prays to the saints Einstein, Hawking, Bieber and McCartney. The only enterprise we see people engage in involves pawning toys and other bits and bobs that are revered but simultaneously decreasing in value. A voiceover by the pawn-shop owner about the history of each artefact reveals how completely garbled the past has become, while also suggesting that we might be equally deluded about our own contemporary cultural practices.

Insights aside, I didn’t leave feeling like I had a good grasp of the movie, and I’m not sure I’d watch it again, except to share the experience with someone else and discuss it. But it is certainly a movie worth talking about.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxTitle: Bird Box
Author: Josh Malerman
Published: 13 May 2014
Publisher: Ecco
Source: own copy
Genre: horror, post-apocalyptic
Rating: 8/10

Just in case you don’t read the whole review, let me say this – fucking WOW. One of my favourite 2014 reads, and just as tense, disturbing and terrifying as I could hope a horror novel to be.

Bird Box is divided into two timelines. In one, Malorie lives in a house with two four-year old children, known only as Boy and Girl. She hasn’t seen or heard another living person for years. There are blankets covering the windows. None of them ever leave the house without a blindfold. The children have never seen the sky or left the property. Since their birth Malorie has trained them to listen, to survive blind. Because today, after four years of preparation and indecision, Malorie and the children will leave the house forever and travel blind down the river, to a sanctuary that might not even exist anymore.

In the other timeline, the beginning of this apocalypse coincides with Malorie’s realisation that she’s pregnant. At first she dismisses the news stories of grisly murders and suicides as just another media uproar, but the reports only intensify, and they start coming closer and closer to home. No one knows exactly what’s happening, but after several months a theory develops – there are creatures out there, and one glance at them causes people to attack anyone nearby before killing themselves.

The world falls apart, and eventually Malorie gets desperate enough to respond to an ad about a nearby home offering safety to anyone willing to make the journey there. At the house, she finds a small group of people surviving through cooperation and careful security measures. They have tinned food, a well for fresh water, and a river behind the house that supplies the neighbourhood with electricity. Not only does Malorie find her material needs temporarily sorted, but she finds strength and inspiration in her housemate Tom, a kind, friendly man with the focus and commitment needed to keep their group alive.

But you know, you know, it’s all going to go to shit. Because four years down the line, Malorie is alone in the house with two small children who she can’t even bring herself to name. She’s arranged the furniture and picture frames to cover up the horrific stains she couldn’t clean and cannot bear to look at. Things were once ok in that house, but no matter how careful the housemates are, they will eventually run out of food, and they cannot avoid the creatures outside forever. The creatures never attack people, but they don’t have to. One look at them and you turn into a murderous, suicidal psychopath.

The obvious assumption is that the housemates will get cabin fever and turn on each other. It’s a cliche that I don’t mind too much, but I’m glad this story explores a different route. Naturally, there are tensions and fights, but for the most part the housemates keep it together. So you wait to see where it all goes wrong, and it’s pretty nerve-wracking.

Malerman uses simple scare tactics like this, and I found it deeply, disturbingly effective. For sighted people, the loss of such a basic faculty is extremely debilitating. It’s also very easy to imagine and relate to, and I think that’s part of what makes this book so creepy. Just close your eyes and imagine that there’s an intruder in the house, or that every sound you hear outside is something that could kill you. You can understand the stress and difficulty of a blindfolded character entering a house and spending hours feeling around to make sure that it’s empty, bumping into the dead bodies of previous occupants, covering and closing the windows so that they eventually feel safe enough to open their eyes. And knowing that, even then, they might have missed the thing that will kill them.

You also know that, because the creatures are almost completely silent, they could be watching at any time, walking right beside the person fetching water from well or making the treacherous trip to a neighbouring house for supplies. Some of the scariest moments in the novel come when characters realise that there is something right there with them.

It’s a testament to the terror of hidden monsters. Too often I find horror books and movies disappointing once the monster is revealed and/or the killer’s reasoning is explained. Part of the problem, I think, is that horror is very subjective and what one person finds frightening another person finds unconvincing.

Bird Box however, explores the idea of monsters as utterly incomprehensible. The theory is that “[t]hey’re like infinity […]. Something too complex for us to comprehend” (43). To look at them is to go mad and destroy yourself, because your mind simply cannot handle what it’s seen. Thus, Malerman eschews the whole problem of the reveal, and focuses purely on the devastating fact of the creatures’ existence. We can’t see them, we don’t know what they are or why they’re here, and we don’t need to because they’re already so frightening.

That said, the novel can be extremely graphic. Malerman’s writing style is simple and clear, focusing on brute realities. When people die, they die horribly. As with the monsters and the blindness, this is handled very well. The gore never feels gratuitous or excessive, but it’s always as shocking and tragic as it should be.

The threat of violent death is ever-present, but not because any of the characters are bumbling idiots, thank god. This plot doesn’t need anyone to be absurdly stupid to function. Another thing I like is that the children are highly capable characters with an active role to play. Usually they’d be liabilities, especially at only four years old, and the main character would be faced with the challenge of having to protect these beloved but useless people. Boy and Girl, however, have been so rigorously trained that they’re far better suited to this post-apocalyptic world than Malorie is. Boy’s hearing and memory is so acute that he can listen to Malorie walking around the house and then list forty to fifty locations she went to and sounds she made. So even though they’ve never seen anything outside the house, Malorie needs the children as much as they need her.

Similarly, she needs her housemates in the earlier narrative. Survival depends on their continued cooperation, but she also comes to care for these people who took her in even though she was carrying a baby they would have to deliver and feed. And, as the reader, I cared about them too. Admittedly, some are a bit flat because they’re just there to make up the numbers. but they’re decent people and I was worried about what would surely happen to them.

It’s a tense read – the certainty of disaster inside the house, the uncertainty of the journey down the river. At a key point in Malorie’s journey, she will be forced to open her eyes to take the right route. It’ll be the first time in four years that she sees the outside world, and if she sees a creature she will kill her children and herself. Most of the time there’s just danger without disaster, but when disaster strikes, it’s harrowing. And throughout, there’s the blind terror of creatures no one can let themselves see. I have some criticisms – like the flat characters – but they’re mostly nitpicky or at least didn’t spoil the book for me. This story was exactly the kind of experience I want from horror novels, but almost never get. It’s really got to me, but in a good way. It left me lying nervously awake in the middle of the night, replaying the scariest moments, thinking “Fuck, that was so good.

I have no idea why I like to do this to myself, but if you suffer the same paradox, then you should go read Bird Box.

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.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeTitle: Oryx and Crake
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #1
Author: 
Margaret Atwood
Published: 2003
Publisher: 
Virago Press (my edition)
Genre: 
science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic
Source:
 own copy
Rating: 
10/10

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.

Equations of Life by Simon Morden

 

Equations of Life by Simon MordenTitle: Equations of Life
Author: Simon Morden
Series: Samuil Petrovich #1
Published:
 1 April 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre: 
science fiction, post-apocalyptic
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
5/10

Samuil Petrovich keeps a low profile. After escaping the nuclear fallout in St Petersburg, he lives a spartan life in the post-apocalyptic London Metrozone. He’s just another immigrant, just a postgrad student, not worth paying attention to. In truth, he’s a genius when it comes to physics and computers, and he’s got a SECRET PAST that he’s kept neatly covered up for the last few years.  The last thing he wants is to get noticed.

But then Petrovich sees a young woman about to be kidnapped and instinctually moves to rescue her, dodging bullets and running from gangsters until his weak heart fails him and he’s rushed to hospital. The woman turns out to be the daughter of Hamano Oshicora, a Japanese mobster with criminal operations all over the city. Oshicora is extremely grateful to Petrovich and wants to reward him. Detective Inspector Harry Chain wants to know who Petrovich is and why he’d put himself in hospital for a stranger. A Ukrainian mobster named Marchenko wants Petrovich dead for ruining his chance to kidnap Sonja Oshicora. Sonja herself is now drawn to her cute young rescuer. And Petrovich is getting way more attention than he’s comfortable with.

He tries desperately to avoid getting involved with any of these people but instead he keeps getting more tightly wrapped up in their troublesome affairs. In addition, he and his research partner are on the verge of making world-changing breakthroughs in physics. Then something called the New Machine Jihad comes along and threatens to put London – if not the world – through a second Armageddon. Instead of just disappearing like he planned to, Petrovich reluctantly tries to do the right thing and save the city.

 

I decided to split this review into two parts, one for the first half or so of the novel, and one for the second. I felt quite differently about them, and most of what I want to discuss about the novel falls into one of the two sections.

So, Equations of Life starts out quite well. The London Metrozone is a post-apocalyptic society, but not a dystopian one. It’s recovered somewhat from Armageddon, a series of nuclear explosions set off two decades ago, in European cities. Obviously life isn’t the same, especially if you’re a poor immigrant, but on the whole it’s not too bad – there are cars (including self-driving models), a university, restaurants and cafes, decent infrastructure, reliable telecommunications etc.

I’m a bit sketchy on the political details, because Morden avoids info dumping and his characters have no reason provide a detailed explanation of global politics. What I do understand though is that Japan has been destroyed and America essentially destroyed it, or at least a political movement/party in the USA called the Reconstructionists did. For the sake of his lost homeland, Oshicora is creating a highly realistic VirtualJapan in which the Japanese diaspora will be able to hold on to some experience of home.

He asks Petrovich to help with the project, but Petrovich politely declines on the basis that getting involved with gangsters will be fatally bad for his health. He plays the situation very carefully, so that Oshicora is not offended but has great respect for him. In general though, I thought that Petrovich wasn’t really as cautious as the blurb suggests. He avoids attention, but once he finds himself in compromising situations he lets his temper flare. He tends to hurl a combination of brutal honesty and Russian invective at the rather dangerous men who have him at their mercy at various points in the novel. I thought this made him a more interesting character though; I had pictured someone older and rather timid, but Petrovich is smart, smart-mouthed, and often daring. What I don’t like about him is his tendency to do all his swearing in italicised Russian. And since Petrovich can barely utter two sentences without cursing in Russian, this quickly gets very irritating. It’s also a tad incongruous – he speaks perfect English otherwise, so I don’t see why he’d switch languages to swear.

Anyway. Another interesting character is Sister Madeleine, a genetically (I think) enhanced nun who is two metres tall, wears some pretty awesome body armour under her habit and carries a massive pistol. She’s a proper nun – vows and all – but she’s also a bodyguard for her church’s priest, who is targeted by the gangs of a nearby ghetto. Sister Madeleine saved Petrovich and Sonja Oshicora when Petrovich’s heart gave in, and from then on the two have a an uneasy kind of connection. with the result that Madeleine breaks her vows to help Petrovich when the shit hits the fan.

 

Which brings me to the second, less positive part of the review, about the second, less interesting part of the book. After a certain point – when the New Machine Jihad starts going seriously destructive, I guess – the book gets and chaotic, silly, and wasteful. Some of the more interesting ideas set up earlier in the novel get used in boring or relatively minor ways. I’d guessed early on what the New Machine Jihad was, only to find that it was actually a more dull version of what I’d assumed. Petrovich’s research partner Pif (Epiphany Ekanobi, a physicist from Nigeria) has done breakthrough work that Petrovich then builds upon, but it doesn’t have any real bearing on the plot. I hope Morden is at least saving that seed for later books.

The whole thing just descends into an absurd action/disaster plot. Petrovich runs around the city – sometimes accompanied by Madeleine – trying to stop villains, save victims and not die horribly as the city is destroyed by machines and the people turn violent. He gets the shit beaten out of him then keeps going like a good reluctant hero should. It reads like it would rather be an action movie than a book and drags on for far too long. Morden mentions in the acknowledgements that this novel began as a series of short stories set in this world, and it’s in this part of the novel that the seams start to show. There are too many ‘episodes’, too many different encounters, which is understandable if Morden tried to fit all those stories into a novel shape. Understandable but untidy.

As he runs for his life, Petrovich’s character becomes increasingly implausible. Note that he’s a skinny young man with a weak heart. Saving Sonja Oshicora puts such a strain on it that he had several heart attacks on the way to the hospital. He needs a new heart, and spends the rest of the novel worried about the twinges in his chest. And still he makes it through numerous heart-stopping fights and other dangers. I don’t know where he got the skills to survive either.

You have to wonder why Petrovich is willing to put himself through all this. Turns out he’s looking for redemption: he did bad things in his past and he’s trying to make up for it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Petrovich has to profess his determination to save Sonja, the Metrozone, the world, etc. with as much blustery Hollywood bravado as he can muster. It’s so ridiculous, like this moment when Petrovich learns that Sonja is in danger again and decides that he’s going to stand and fight instead of running away:

 “I am the one who decides when I’m going to die, you little shit. You want this done the hard way? Fine. I will take you down. I will cause you so much grief and pain that you’ll wish you’d never been born. And you can tell Sonja this: I’m coming. One way or another, I’ll save her. Have you got that?”

Petrovich also claims that he decided to “spit in the face of destiny” that he wants”to make a difference”, that he “made a promise I have to keep” even though it might all cost him his life at the end. He keeps chucking out lines like this, although the ones i hated the most came from Madeleine, explaining why she chose to risk her life helping Petrovich:

I’m possessed by some overwhelming madness that forces me to desert my vocation, my sisters, my duty, my priest—and go with you instead, you foul-mouthed, unbelieving, weak, selfish criminal who by some freak chance or divine plan has not only captured my stone-cold heart but seems to embody the virtue of hope in a way I have never experienced before, inside or outside the church. That’s why.

I cannot take this seriously. I’m not interested in reading any more of it either. When I started Equations of Life I thought it could be one of the few series I actually stick with. By the end, I’d decided to stop at book one. I liked the Petrovich I met at the beginning, but I have no interest in the clichéd, hard-headed bravado-spewing hero who he proved to be later on. Guys like that are all over the damn place and there are far more exciting ideas to be found in other novels.

The cover is really cool though; I almost bought the whole series once, just because they look so good.

Review of The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian

The Office of Mercy by Ariel DjanikianTitle: The Office of Mercy
Author:
 Ariel Djanikian
Published: 21 February 2013
Publisher:
 Viking
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.