Tag: dystopia

Nov 05

My Name is Jonas: The Giver by Lois Lowry

Children's Fiction, Coming of Age, Dystopian, Frightening, Psychological 21

Hello there, Bookworms!

I hope you’re all well rested after “falling back” this weekend. For those of you who don’t live in areas where Daylight Savings Time is observed, I hope you got extra sleep anyway. Sleep is wonderful.

This week I’m going to focus on The Giver by Lois Lowry. Why does one book need a whole week of attention? It doesn’t! But there are sequels! And I’ve read them all. Now you shall be subjected to my opinions on them. I know you’re excited!

The cover of this book scared me a bit as a child. Who was that? Why did the Santa look alike look so sad? Who ripped the cover? What’s going on?!

The first time I “read” The Giver was in the fifth grade. I say “read” because I didn’t actually read it, the teacher read it to us a chapter at a time… Earlier this year I was craving some more dystopia (seriously, I have a problem. I only want to read about screwy alternate realities…) I decided I needed to read The Giver again since it was creeping up on 20 years since I’d heard it the first time (I’m getting old, dammit.) Number The Stars was one of my favorite books as a kid, so I figured anything Lois Lowry wrote would probably be pretty good, even from an adult perspective.

Okay, so here’s the basic premise. We’re introduced to a 12 year old boy named Jonas and we learn about his home. His community is very orderly and prescribed. There are no cars- everyone rides bicycles (how lovely for the environment!) Children work volunteer hours around town and everyone seems to be quite pleasant… It sounds pretty Thomas More Utopian, right? Then little things start to seem… wrong.

There are no animals, except the fish in the hatchery (and thanks to Kurt Cobain, we know “it’s okay to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings…” What? I’ve already TOLD YOU about my grunge phase. Expect a Nirvana reference from time to time, y’all.) The children are assigned their future jobs at a special ceremony when they turn 12. Color doesn’t exist. Emotions like love seem to be non existent. Everyone is perfectly pleasant, but in being pleasant, they’re missing a lot of the best parts of being human. (This book came out way before Pleasantville was released, but I cannot help but draw comparisons. The nice but slightly off community? The lack of color? The lack of passion? The only thing The Giver is lacking is Don Knotts… May he rest in peace. He lacked the gravity to have played The Giver anyway.)

Reese Witherspoon and I share a birthday. Obviously people born on March 22 are destined for fabulousness.

Jonas is clearly different. He seems to question things a little more than his friends do. His eye “color” is light rather than dark. While his friends seem to have clear ideas of where their future careers will lie, Jonas is only confused. I has no idea what the future has in store for him, and in such an orderly society, that’s highly unusual. During their 12 year ceremony, the powers that be SKIP OVER Jonas. That’s enough to freak everyone out. Everyone assumes it was an oversight, but oversights DON’T HAPPEN in the community. Just as the 12 year ceremony is about to conclude, the council doubles back and points out Jonas. Jonas has been chosen for a special job. He’s to apprentice with the mysterious Giver. Nobody in the community seems to know exactly what the Giver does, but they know it’s an important position. Jonas is… terrified.

As it turns out, The Giver is responsible for remembering all the bits of human history that might make the community unpleasant. Every citizen of pubescent age and older is prescribed “pills.” It’s never explained what the pills do exactly, but it seems to me that they’re a mix of sexual suppression and sedative. Actually, they seem a bit like Huxley’s soma, plus the addition of the no sex thing. There is NO SEX in the community. The babies come from “birth mothers” who are kept in a secluded area. The whole idea of the birth mothers confuses me a little… Girls chosen to become birth mothers are typically picked because they show no aptitude to do anything else. They’re taken to this dormitory type area and pampered until they’ve given birth three times. They’re then released to do manual labor. But… If this community is so flipping smart, wouldn’t it be counterproductive to use the less than brilliant girls as breeding stock? I mean, genetically speaking. I suppose they could be using donor eggs (except we learn in the 4th book that they aren’t using donor eggs.) Also, where do they get the sperm since the men are all on pills to make them have no sexual desire? None of this is probably appropriate for the age group this book was written for, so I suppose I shouldn’t dwell. But, Ms. Lowry? Could you throw a girl a bone here?

Oh man I’m rambling today. The Giver! Yes. So Jonas starts his training, and The Giver starts “giving” him memories. Some of them are nice, like colors and music. Some of them are horrifying like war and death. The community doesn’t discuss death. At a certain age all citizens are “released” to a non specific “elsewhere.” Jonas eventually learns that being “released” is a euphemism for being euthanized. Yep. Once people are pass their usefulness, they’re killed. Seedy underbelly, much? As if this wasn’t enough for a 12 year old kid to take on, his father has been bringing home a child (his dad works in the nursery) who is failing to thrive. The kid, Gabe, appears soothed by Jonas. He’s also got Jonas’s strange light colored eyes as well. After Gabe has lived with the family for a while and still failed to present himself as an untroubled citizen, it’s deemed that he will be released.

Jonas, realizing what being released means is horrified. He’s begun to see all the cracks in his seemingly perfect society and the death of Gabe solidifies his resolve. Jonas decides to LEAVE. Jonas packs up Gabe and some supplies and takes off past the limits of his community. As it turns out, whatever scientific bubble the community has used to make the weather perfectly pleasant and conducive to their lifestyle doesn’t extend forever. The book ends with Gabe and Jonas on the verge of hypothermia sledding down a snowy hill during a blizzard toward some (likely hallucinatory) lights. (As an adult, all this scene makes me think of is Orson Well muttering “Rosebud!” Citizen Kane. The weasel made me watch it. You should too.)

That’s Rosebud. In a black and white movie. Full circle.

I got a whole heck of a lot MORE out of this book as an adult than I did as a 10-year-old. The biggest thing I remembered from when I was a kid was wondering how scientists managed to take color out of the world and being convinced that Jonas and Gabe died at the end. As you probably presumed from the fact that there are sequels to this story, that’s not exactly the case. This book is great. Sure, I have unanswered questions, but I think it’s a great story that really gets the brain juices flowing. If you like dystopias and you haven’t read this, you should. If you read it as a kid, you should read it as an adult. If you resent me for giving spoilers all over the place… I’m not really sorry. Okay, maybe a little sorry.

Have any of the bookworms out there read The Giver? What did you think? Were you even aware that there were sequels? (Because I wasn’t, until Amazon told me. I love you, Amazon!)

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Oct 31

Books That Scare Me: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Dystopian, Religion, Women's Studies 39

Happy Halloween, Bookworms! Today we’re going to discuss one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book combines several of my biggest fears. First, I have an irrational fear of cult activity. I’m ALL ABOUT freedom of religion… Until your religion tries to take over a government. I also fear those who would take my autonomy. I know that it sounds ridiculous in 2012 to think any American male would seek to take away my right to vote, own property, or… read. Frankly though, that isn’t true the world over.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the USA after a militant Christian group seizes power from the government. Actually, they sort of show up and machine-gun Congress… (I would absolutely not take this book as an attack on Christianity… It’s an attack on theocracy of any kind, but given Atwood’s audience she wisely assumed that biblical references would be most familiar.)  This story is told from the point of view of Offred. Offred was once a typical American woman. She was married with a child and had a career and money of her own. It’s never really explained how it came to be, but it’s strongly implied that something (perhaps radiation?) has rendered a large portion of the female population infertile. Once the cult government takes over, they sift out the “fruitful” females and assign them to “deserving” men as handmaids. Any of you read my review on The Red Tent? The idea behind “handmaids” is Old Testament. Jacob has two official wives, Rachel and Leah. Rachel has trouble conceiving, and sometimes Leah just gets tired of popping out babies. Their solution is to bring on “handmaids” to conceive children in their stead. Like… rent-a-uterus. So the righteous yet infertile women get to have husbands and raise families… But the handmaids are the ones who actually have to birth the children… And suffer through the super creepy copulation ritual Atwood outlines. Gross. (Although, really, it’s sad for the “righteous” women too. They sure as heck aren’t fond of the copulation ritual either.)

The Handmaids are also required to wear a bizarre red costume and a weird white wimple. I guess peripheral vision is also off limits.

Offred and the other handmaids in this tale are stripped of their names, their identities, their possessions, and their families. Literally, their names are changed from things like “Katie” and “Sandy” and “Lauren” to Of-insert-husband-here. So like, assuming my weasely husband was my “master,” I’d no longer be Katie, but Ofjim.  They are treated as breeding stock and denied even the right to READ. Literally. The handmaids are in charge of some of the market duties and the new society has gone so far as to replace shop signs with pictograms to keep women from reading. KEEPING WOMEN FROM READING!!!  The horror!!!

Thanks, Margaret Atwood, Children of the Corn hadn’t quite scared me enough. Just add the scariest cult EVER to the mix. Margaret Atwood is a completely amazing writer, and also Canadian. Politically, at least from my limited (seriously limited, I hate politics) understanding, Canada tends to be a bit more liberal policy-wise than the USA. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that Atwood is quite liberal ideologically either.  In fact, there’s mention in the book of an “underground female-road,” that spirits oppressed women from “Gilead” into Canada. Don’t worry, Ms. Atwood, I’m not offended that you made my home country into a scary dystopia. The book was too awesome to take offense. Anyway, this book was written in the 80s and Atwood was freaked out by the rise of the televangelist, who are often quite traditional when it comes to women’s roles. I can’t really blame her for being a little afraid of televangelists. I find Jack Van Impe quite frightening, myself.

People listen to that guy. They like send him money and believe him when he says ‘robits’ will bring about the end times…

This post is not about politics though. It’s not about religion either. I’m also not saying that televangelists want to machine-gun Congress and impose theocratic rule. I’m totally NOT CONDEMNING anyone’s universal right to believe in what they hold to be true… Unless what they hold to be true means that I don’t get to read, because I’m NOT okay with that. Seriously NOT OKAY with that. (Apologies to anyone who reads this who happens to love Jack Van Impe. You’re entitled. It’s just he makes funny faces that make for amusing screen caps. And he pronounces “robot” funny. I have a very animated face as well. It’s a good thing I’m not on TV.)

Have any of you bookworms read The Handmaid’s Tale? What did you think of it?

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Oct 10

I Am Legend… Wait For It… Dary. (By Richard Matheson)

Dystopian, Vampires 12

Happy Halloween Month, Bookworms!

I’m gearing up for The Walking Dead premiere next Sunday, so I decided to read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I saw the Will Smith movie, and while not overly impressed, it was certainly tolerable, and since books are always better than their movies, it seemed like a good bet. This book was awesome. But it was about vampires, not zombies. Luckily, Matheson’s vampires aren’t sexy, sparkly, or suave, so they may as well have been zombies. Zombies that can sort of think. Terrifying.

This book was crazy good! I could not put it down, I seriously read the whole thing in a day. Here’s the doomsday scenario- the population of earth is crippled by a mysterious disease. This disease slowly kills the hosts and they rise from the dead looking to consume fresh blood. Robert Neville, as far as he can tell, is the only man left in Los Angeles. He’s immune to the disease for whatever reason. He’s tormented by loneliness and the loss of his wife and young daughter to the disease.

Neville has a pretty sweet setup, he’s got a generator and plenty of food. He’s got a fortified home, a greenhouse full of garlic, and a collection of records (Yep. Records. This apocalypse was in 1975.) He’s also got a lot of whiskey, and nobody can blame him for drinking too much. I mean, what do you do without a soul to talk to? No family, no friends, no network of weirdos to talk to online. Every living being (living being a relative term) is trying to kill you. I’d be mainlining whiskey too.

Like I said earlier these Vampires aren’t like your traditional vampires. They’re not like zombies either. There is a distinct difference between Vampires that are “alive” and those that are “dead.” The fully dead vamps are pretty zombie-esque. But the living ones? They’re something else entirely. Though they have become reliant on human blood for nourishment, they haven’t gone entirely catatonic, brain-wise.

I’m going to shut my face right now, because I don’t want to ruin this. If you like zombies, vampires, dystopias, or a combination of the three, read this book. It’s an awesome read and totally seasonally appropriate. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up! Also, if you don’t watch The Walking Dead, you need to start. And you can start on Sunday.

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Oct 03

Banned Books Week: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Banned Books, Classics, Dystopian 29

Happy Hump Day, Bookworms! It’s no secret that I love a good dystopian novel. When I’m having a bad day, I like to tell myself things like, “This sucks, but at least I wasn’t forced to fight other children to the death in a televised competition.” Or “This really sucks, but Big Brother is just a crappy reality show.” Sometimes it’s not even a dystopia thing, it’s a, “This sucks, but I totally have indoor plumbing and deodorant! Celebrate!”

To continue our celebration of Banned Books Week, we’re going to discuss one of the all-time-greatest dystopian novels, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. This was written in 1931. It was banned in Ireland in 1932 (quick turnaround, right?) The American Library Association has a huge list of American high schools that have challenged this book as required reading. Parental complaints over the years have included that the book shows contempt for religion, marriage and family. (I can’t disagree with that except that Henry Ford, he of the assembly line, is a godlike figure to these people. So they don’t hate religion… Just YOUR religion.) Among other things, parents objected to the idea that this book made promiscuous sex sound like fun. (I don’t agree with that sentiment either. It wasn’t “fun” so much as required… And our protagonist isn’t really into it.)

Everybody loves a bleak dystopian future scenario!

Fast forward to London in the year 2540 (or the year 632… After Ford.) The human race has become mechanized. All conception and gestation of children takes place assembly line style in test tubes and jars. All children are genetically coded to belong to a particular class. The classes do NOT intermingle. Everyone is sleep hypnotized throughout their formative years so they’re conditioned to believe their particular caste has the best lot in life. There is no nuclear family, and the basest human instincts have been exploited. Multiple sexual partners are required, and if anyone begins to get a little bit cranky, a wonder drug that sounds like xanax plus valium plus ecstasy called “soma” is administered. That helps any ne’er do wells who might get their undies in a bunch to simmer down.

In any “utopia,” there’s always a black sheep. This black sheep is named Bernard Marx. He’s a top tier brain, but rumors abound that he was exposed to alcohol accidentally as a fetus, because he’s short and not as handsome as the rest of his peers. As a result he has a massive inferiority complex. He’s also a psychologist, so he understands in more detail than most exactly what conditioning goes on in order to maintain their peaceful society. This just fuels his discontent.

While on vacation, Bernard witnesses a society of “savages.” Apparently not EVERYONE was on board with the soma induced happy land of the new world order, so there are isolated pockets of tribal peoples who live without modern conveniences. They also (GASP) give birth to their own children. And have a semi organized religious tradition that has nothing to do with drug fueled orgies. As it turns out, Bernard and his buddy come across one of their own lost amongst the tribes decades ago. She was stranded without her birth control, so her socially approved dalliances led to a birth. The woman and her (now grown) son are rescued by Bernard and his compadre and returned to their society in London. The woman soothes herself with excessive use of soma, and dies in a drug induced haze. Her son is devastated and completely confused and horrified by the new society. Of course, Bernard starts hanging out with the wildling, and gets himself into all manner of trouble.

Okay. Stop for a minute. This sucker was published in 1931! I mean, some of these ideas are still pretty radical today. The book resonates 80+ years after its publication, and not in a “where’s my flying car, Jetsons?!” sort of way. Do you even know what was happening in 1931? The Great Depression. Television didn’t exist yet. Birth control pills weren’t invented yet (which leads me to wonder what exactly Huxley was imagining the egg producing women were using to prevent births…) There was no polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization was decades away… Huxley was kind of DaVinci-esque in his prediction of future technology.

In essence though, I think Brave New World boils down to being a cautionary tale. Huxley was worried. Worried that humanity would go all hedonistic and forget about all the good wholesome things that make the world go round. I love this book, and I think Huxley was a genius to have written it. BUT. Every generation since the beginning of time has thought that “these kids today” would be the end of civilization as we know it. Ooooh that Rock-n-Roll! Get off my lawn! You kids have no respect! When I was your age, I had to WALK to school. In 8 feet of snow. Uphill both ways. And I was HAPPY TO DO IT! (I’ll be 30 in March, I’m practicing my Angry Old Lady-isms. My husband is already well versed in his Angry Old Man-isms. I was reading this to him and he shouted, “The Jersey Shore generation will bring about the apocalypse!”)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not especially scared that Huxley’s future will come to pass. Unless, of course, someone invents soma and releases it into the world’s water supply… Dun dun dun!!!!!! It’s October, y’all. I’ve got to Halloween it up a little. What would your Utopia look like, Bookworms?

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