Category Archives: dystopias

Gold Fame Citrus by Clair Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus

I downloaded Gold Fame Citrus (hereafter GFC) after listening to an EXCELLENT podcast on climate change and literature from On the Media called “Apocalypse, Now.” That’s also were we found Borne. Unlike so much of cli-fi (fiction about the future of climate change on earth), GFC eschews the eschatological lingo of “the flood” [see Atwood’s The Year of the Flood or Waterworld or Robinson’s New York 2140] for the language of desiccation and desertification. In GFC Southern California– and much of the US Southwest– has turned into a massive dune sea called “The Amargosa.” It is in Watkins imaginative descriptions of the Amargosa that this book shines. Like Mord in Vandemeer’s Borne, the Amargosa, while created by human action, is a wild and almost living thing that exerts its influence and even desires without our full understanding or ability to compel. The Amargosa, mirage-like, shimmers into and out of focus and understanding across the short novel’s pages.

Less compelling, from my point of view, are any of the characters in the book. There’s a good bit of old fashioned US Southwest cult fiction in this book, and that’s nice. But the protagonist, who irked me to the point I can’t remember her name right now, is HARD to get behind. My mom tells me this was the point, and that “she’s just a typical millennial.” Maybe my mom has a point, and I am to close to the myopic, selfish, lazy millennial stereotype myself to grok all of that.

Recommend… with a glass of water nearby.

Availability: COSMOS (Print & Audio) USMAI (Print)
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Recommended
Challenge: A book with a color in the title.

Borne by Jeff Vandemeer read by Bahni Turpin


Go read some Vandemeer– but I’d say start with either The City of Saints and Madmen or his Area X trilogy before Borne (personal preference). But Borne is good and typical Vandemeer– fascinating, creepy, hybridized sci-fi fantasy realism that grips you until there’s nothing left to read. Or listen to, as was the case a few weeks ago while Kaitlyn and I were cruising past the endless fields of Canola is Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Borne is the story of a climate and GMO destroyed future where all kinds of discarded “biotech”– organisms made by a Monsanto-esque company and discarded in a poor city, run amok. Chief among the biotech (and the most interesting character in the story) is Mord, a colossus of a bear that can fly and commands the fear and respect of all the city’s inhabitants. Mord is a capricious and unknowable god that tramples on the grapes of city life without knowable rhyme or reason. Rachel, the stories protagonist, scavenges salvage from Mord’s robe-thick hairs that catch and carry up small bits of destruction as he roams the city. And in Mord’s fur Rachel finds Borne.

Rachel, Borne, and even the bear-sounding Mord are brought to life by Bahni Turpin’s excellent narration. Kaitlyn and I try to imitate her Borne voice on the regular, and we’re getting better at it. You should listen to this eerie and well-executed sci-fi and try for yourself.

Availability: COSMOS (Print & Audio)
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

Four: A Divergent Story Collection by Veronica Roth

It took me a little while to decide on a number book …. 2061 (it had been too long since I read the first two), one fish, two fish (seemed a little too short), any Stephanie Plum book (could not remember which ones that I had read). I enjoyed the Divergent series of books and I was curious as to why there was another book, so Four: A Divergent Story Collection seemed like the best choice.

The book is divided into four main chapters (maybe they are short stories) and there are also three “scenes”. The first three chapters take place before Divergent and the fourth (as well as the scenes which are just scenes from the Divergent book told from Four’s perspective) take place during Divergent. Four should be read fourth even though it starts before the first book since I think it would take away some of the surprise. It is the same world, same overall plot, and it just adds a slight bit of background and point of view from Four – I don’t think it really adds to the overall story and it doesn’t really have the same discovery that you enjoyed while reading Divergent.

For huge fans, it is probably great as another fix, I found it enjoyable but I don’t think it added to the series, so … recommended. Note – I highly recommend Divergent.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Andy Ashenfelter
Rating:  Recommended
Challenge: A book with a number in the title.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm

I devoured this short novel (or “a fairy story,” as described in the subtitle) on a recent Saturday. Without knowing too much about the allegorical elements of the Russian Revolution, this book is a bracing read about power and authority run amok. The unbearable tension rises from the setting of a bucolic farm populated by sentient, communicative animals (like your favorite Disney film) and its subject matter. To see a totalitarian regime emerge in this setting — to see tyrants amassing power and wealth at the expense of other, less sophisticated denizens — struck a chord in this current moment. Orwell charges the reader with the sense of injustice and unfairness of it all (“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”). This time around, I also thought a lot about the use of power and how that power is explained to others. What an incredible book.

Availability: USMAI, SMCM, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating: Must Read

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