Category Archives: dystopias

American War by Omar El Akkad

American War

In the 2-3 years I’ve been contributing to the summer reading blog, I don’t think I’ve ever gone below “recommended” with a review. Today is the day. I mean– it’s a book. We should read books. But despite my high hopes, American War is not one of the books I’ll relish rereading. Let me explain:

Omar El Akkad’s debut novel takes an ambitious, if not straight up audacious, gambit. It is the story of the SECOND American civil war. In the novel that war takes place between the North and the South (who call themselves “the Reds”) from 2074-2092. While most of the story is told by an omniscient 3rd person narrator, it is interspersed with various “artifacts” from the war itself; first person accounts of key battles, diplomatic cables, that kind of thing. Real Sullivan Ballou stuff. I liked that.

So why is America tearing itself apart with drone warfare, suicide bombers, and even biological weapons? Climate change! The country has been destabilized by severe climate change, and when the North (now based in Columbus, OH because in this future SMCM and DC are underwater) decides to ban fossil fuels once and for all the South secedes to keep their petrochemical heritage. We learn of the war, and why it was fought, primarily through the eyes of Surat Chestnutt. Surat experiences the horrors of war, and will ultimately become a significant figure in the history of that war by fighting to the Lost Cause. The drama, one would think, is learning how Surat learned to join the fight for the Southern Cause.

Now you’d think I of all people would be telling people to read this. I’ve written a whole dissertation on the literary intersections of climate change, US militarism, and race. This should be exhibit A in my book manuscript. And god help me, I probably will have to write about it some day.

But it’s flawed– perhaps fatally. While the ideas motivating the story are interesting, and Surat’s spiral into extremism is an interesting choice for a focal character, the reader will find almost zero character development of Surat or the others fighting for fossil fuels. Who knows why the southerners like fossil fuels so much that they will end up killing 110 million people? Moreover, and more egregiously, who knows why the South sheds almost every vestige of its racism, gender discrimination, and gains a very open attitude to same-sex couples in the next 50 years. In this story the North apparently never had any of that, so they don’t have any of that either. And that makes this all preposterous. Throughout the book we are told that the South is still fighting “the Old War” that it never could stop fighting, but not once does the specter of slavery or logics of white supremacy visit this story. Surat, as the daughter of a Mexican-American father and African American woman, is embraced wholeheartedly by a South who went to war for white supremacy once, and a second time for… the right to drive a fast car? And given that we all live in a culture that routinely kills (openly or through covert slow violence) for the right to burn coal, oil, and gas, you’d think Akkad could have done a great job fleshing out the worldview of fossil fuel fanatics. But the book doesn’t. We’re to take it all on faith. And by the time America is consumed in the war, it’s hard to feel a pang of interest after 500 pages (I got the large print edition by accident).

Recommended with severe reservations. Like a confederate flag on a public building, I’d tear this off the shelf and leave it in the dustbin of history.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Recommended with Reservations
Challenge: A book published in 2017

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven
Station Eleven opens just before a pandemic hits the earth, wiping out the majority of the human population. The majority of the story takes place post-pandemic, in a world without electricity, cell phones, and modern transportation, though the story does flash back to give the reader a glimpse of what happened in certain characters’ lives prior to and just after the pandemic. Having said that, it seems as though the book would be extremely depressing–but it’s not. The story focuses on small groups of people surviving in different ways, and their stories are surprisingly hopeful.

One of the main characters, Kirsten, is a young girl when the pandemic hits, and when the reader meets her again years later, she is performing with a traveling Shakespeare troupe whose motto is “because survival is insufficient.” Of course, the power vacuum created in such a world is bound to draw out bad actors, and Kirsten becomes the target of a self-designated “prophet” who uses terror tactics to gain and keep control over people. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s uplifting (for an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story). This is a fantastic book–a “Must Read!”

Read more reviews of Station Eleven.

Availability:  COSMOS, SMCM, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Kelly Smolinsky
Rating: Must Read

1984 by George Orwell

19841984 fits the general theme prevalent in dystopian society-focused novels that have become so popular today. I’d always heard things about it from various friends who read the book in high school as part of their English curriculum, but had never read it myself. The story details the life of Winston Smith, a party member living in London, Oceania who is discovering the truth about the party and its idol, Big Brother (famed in popular culture by the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”). The majority of the characters made me want to grab them by their shoulders and shake some sense into them. Even with those irritations, the plot was extremely compelling and the writing was very nicely done (concise, yet descriptive).

I greatly enjoyed the book and was looking forward to the ending, up until the final section, Part 3. This book is not for the faint of heart, sensitive, or those who are highly empathetic. What Winston is forced to go through during the third part of the narrative is extremely upsetting and will most definitely cause you to shudder numerous times, though you will most likely be unable to put the book down until the section has come to a close. If you are looking for a book with a fairy-tale happy ending, this is not the book for you.

Availability: COSMOS, SMCM, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Breanna Thorne
Rating: Recommended with Reservations
Challenge: Title with a Number in it

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

Parable of the TalentsOK- so this is the second and final novel of Butler’s Parable books. The first is The Parable of the Sower and I’m 99% sure there are some old reviews of that in SMCM summer reading blogs past. It’s a great book. Check it out. But that’s that, and this is Parable of the Talents [published in 2000], which I recommend, but not nearly as lovingly as Parable of the Sower.

Really, all I am going to say about this book is this: it’s set in a near future dystopic world where people are poised to elect a boisterous, faux-religious, jingoistic non-politician that exploits American’s fears and bigotry. His name’s Jarrett, and his election slogan is (I’m not kidding):

“Help us to make America great again” (Butler 20).

Laura Oye Olaimina, the leader of the small community, Acorn, doesn’t trust this Jarrett fellow, and for good reason. Radical fundamentalists emboldened by Jarrett’s demagoguery soon enslave, torture, rape, and kill “heathens” and “witches.” Butler spares little detail in describing the monstrous actions of the “Christian Americans” (the self-given name of Jarrett’s followers) and, like Parable of the Sower, one could call large sections of this book outright grotesque and brutal. But like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the graphic violence and oppression are part of a larger social commentary that all good sci fi is engaged in.

I liked that this book calls into question some of the taken-for-granted goodness and laudable traits of characters we meet in Parable of the Sower, and that it doesn’t rehash all the same things (“tortured economies and ecologies”) that are highlighted in Sower. There’s plenty to delve into in considering religious extremists and demagogues.

Make reading great again! Read Parable of the Talents.

Availability: SMCM USMAI and COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

How to Build a GirlHow to Build a Girl follows a teenager, Johanna Morrigan, as she builds herself. Unhappy with her life living with her broke and depressed parents and four siblings, Johanna creates Dolly Wilde as a way to change the fate that she is destined to receive.

By the end of the book, Johanna comes to the realization that she has built herself in the wrong way. “So what do you do when you build yourself – only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again.”

How to Build a Girl deals with the anxiety of growing up and facing what the world hands you amidst the excitement and variety of life. Johanna learns not to be complacent with the things she is unhappy with, but to change them instead.

This novel includes quite a bit of sexuality and heavy topics such as self-harm and addiction, but they are all used to teach Johanna how to build a better self. “And, like all the best quests, in the end, I did it all for a girl: me.”

Availability:  SMCM, COSMOS, and USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Jessie Vislay
Rating:  Recommended

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven

If you like post apocalyptic stories with a hint of science fiction, this is a book for you. I personally don’t gravitate to fiction stories, but this one was pretty good. I wanted to find out what happened and how it all connected together. However, I was hoping for just a bit more in the end.

Read more reviews of Station Eleven.

Availability:  COSMOS, SMCM, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Joni Schoeny
Rating:  Recommend with reservations

The Water Knife Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife

At this point, I’m willing to suggest we may have supersaturated the market in apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps its just me, because that’s pretty much all I read, but between YA dystopias, cli-fi collapse narratives, petro-collapse-chase-scenes, genetically engineered dinosaurs, and your good old-fashion zombie uprisings, readers are utterly immersed in end times. So when I say Paolo Bacigalupi’s new novel, The Water Knife, isn’t all that particularly original (especially compared with his previous post-eco-apocalypse works), I’m not saying that it’s not worth a read. It is. It’s a sci-fi noir thriller akin to Bladerunner… without the rain, with the tears.
It’s the near future, and the South West is just about out of water. Multinational companies, mostly based in China, build large bio-dome type enclave cities amidst the new century’s dustbowl. Legal, extra-legal, and down-right criminal methods are used to cut water from communities and shunt the precious liquid to the ruthless and tenacious. Reading this in a tinderbox dry Willamette Valley in Oregon this summer was a bit nausea inducing… but that’s the goal of any good sci fi novel: to make you more attuned to the world you already live in.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Recommended
Challenge: A book published in 2015