Thursday, February 24, 2011

Religion meets dictatorship in a fantastic adult dystopia

Most of the future dystopias of modern literature seem to follow the communist Russia path. Religion is nonexistant, there’s generally a personality cult around the leader, and the revolution that led to the current situation happened so long ago that no one remembers firsthand how life was before.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, reverses all of these common themes. Offred, our narrator, still remembers life before the revolution, and the descent from a modern society to the conditions as they are now. She remembers the day the military showed up at her office and her boss was forced to fire everyone. She remembers the day her bank card stopped working and all of her assets moved into her husband’s name. She remembers how quickly her husband seemed to enjoy the power that the new laws gave him, and the benevolent protector role he assumed.

She remembers the failed, last-ditch effort of her family to escape the country, where she watched her husband be shot and her daughter be taken away from her.

This is also a religious dictatorship. Whatever biological or chemical warfare was used during the war before the revolution, it has left the people nearly unable to conceive or carry a healthy child to term. This revolution and the society that was formed under it is based off of corrupted Christian bible scripture. Women are subservient to men in every way. The only reason for many women’s lives, known as Handmaids, is to be breeding stock for the upper class or more important men, with the barren but obedient women known as Marthas, working as servants in their households.
After the revolution, couples in traditional Christian families were allowed to stay in their family units, especially if they already had children. Second marriages, however, went against the new interpretation of God’s wishes and were voided. Children from these unions were taken away to be raised by proper families, but the women had value as well, since they’ve been proven to be able to have a child.

Proven fertile by these illegitimate children, they were given a choice: become a Handmaid or become an Unwoman. Handmaids are given to important, high-ranking men whose wives have been unable to provide them children (because it’s blasphemous to suggest that it might be the man who is infertile). The other option was to be classified as an Unwoman. This is the fate reserved for the most disobedient women, as well as those who were unable to bear children, having been sterilized or beyond childbearing years before the revolution. All Unwomen are taken to what is essentially a death camp, have their hair (and symbol of femininity) shaven, and forced into hard labor.

Of course, no matter the reeducation given, there will always be dissidents. New people are regularly featured hanging from The Wall with their crime emblazoned on their chest. Crimes range from Homosexuality to Judaism to Reading. Mandatory attendance at hangings, stonings, weddings, and births are the main entertainment for the masses, along with religious ‘study’ and prayer.

The story of The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred, as she learns that perhaps the government does not have as tight control over the country as it seems, and she remembers more and more about her life before, that she’s tried to forget.

As amazing as this book is, along with all of Atwood’s novels, I do have a problem with the author herself. She absolutely insists, even in her later novels that do have a technological aspect to them, that her works only be classified under ‘speculative fiction.’ She sees science fiction and fantasy to be the ghetto of the fiction genre and wants no part of it. This type of literary snobbery has crushed the confidence of many a genre writer in college or at workshops. Someday, perhaps, genre fiction will be welcome outside of Clarion, but not while people like Atwood are in charge.

Beyond that small personal problem, however, The Handmaid's Tale is an amazingly well-written, thought-provoking story with a fascinating world, and it's an absolute pleasure to read.

Highs: Top notch writing quality, truly thought-provoking

Lows: The appendix, while helping to give the story perspective, also raises more questions than it resolves

Verdict: If a high school or college teacher didn't make you read it, seek it out on your own

Further Reading: Oryx and Crake, Shadow of the Wind

Monday, February 21, 2011

Manga Monday: So...what gets marker of skin again?

Note:  Yotsuba&! Volume 2 is, of course, the sequel to Yotsuba&! Volume 1.  The review of Yotsuba&! Volume 1 is here.  Otherwise, read on!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Manga Monday: Do self-aware robots deserve human rights?

It’s a scary thing when a new author gets his hands on a venerated series. So much can go wrong when another author tries to follow the vision of another.  Sometimes, the author interprets the series and characters differently than most of the fans, and takes the series in a completely different direction ‘to make it his own.’  Others simply don’t have the writing and plot skills to live up to the original author’s quality.  Readers always want more stories from worlds gone by, though, so the reader can’t help but be excited and hope that the source material is respected.

So far, all that and more have been done in Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Volume 1.

This isn’t a child’s book. The series is nominally a sequel to Astro Boy, but it is absolutely intended for adults who grew up watching Astro Boy as children.  Topics such as human rights, the death penalty and the emotional and psychological effects of war are addressed in just the first volume of this series.  It’s a much darker series than Astro Boy ever was, but it’s so far from the main storyline of Astro Boy that it still works.

The story focuses on Europol robot detective Gesichta detective robot, and one of the 7 most advanced robots in the world. They all fought in the same war as Astro Boy (or Atom, as he was known in Japan and is referred to here) and each has come out of the military different.

The story starts with the murder of Mont Blanc, a beloved robot. Det. Gesicht is put on the case to find his killer. Along the way, we meet North No.2, a robot with a passion for music who never wants to again, Brando, a Turkish robot wrestler who raises a family of little robots off prize money he wins as a fighter, and the wife of a police robot who was destroyed/killed in the line of duty.

We also meet a Hannibal Lecter type robot, the only one to have killed a human.  He’s being housed in the basement of the building in which he was captured, that has now been turned into the one and only prison for robots.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and not much of it is happy. Robot rights is a new concept, and hasn’t pervaded the public mindset yet. This story blurs the lines between humans and robot and what it means to be each.

Highs: Well paced, well plotted and unforgettable characters

Lows: Minimalist artwork at times help drive emotional impact, but at others can be ambiguous

Verdict: A must read for fans of literary manga

Further Reading: Ghost in the Shell, Black Jack Volume 1

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A mother's loss becomes an international incident

Over here in the US, we’re very luck that we border fairly reasonable countries.  We had some issues with Cuba a generation ago, and Mexico might be having some problems, but generally we’re not doing to badly with our next-door neighbors.

Japan, on the other hand, isn’t quite so lucky.  Just to the northwest is one of the most insular and unstable countries in the world.  A country with a history of dictator-for-life leaders even though the country is nominally communist.  A country where the leaders have ludicrous riches while the citizens not only cannot support themselves, but are starving while donated food rots in storage.

That country would be North Korea.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least 13 Japanese were abducted, mostly from coastal towns, with the intent of using them to train Korean spies to pass as Japanese citizens.  Although the rest were adults, Megumi Yokota was only 13 years old when she was kidnapped on her way home from school.  The police found a few of her belongings, but there is no other sign of what happened to her.

What follows in Sakie Yokota’s North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter is a decades-long quest by her parents to discover what happened to their beloved daughter.  It took North Korea until 2002 to officially admit that they had abducted Japanese citizens for their training camps.  Until then, the local police made the painful suggestions that perhaps Megumi had killed herself or simply run away.  Her parents, especially her mother, could no accept any of these theories, and never gave up their fight for justice.

As a piece of literature, however, it leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Revelations are few and far between, which is how life is.  Because of the long stretches without any new information, the book tends to drag on and seem rather dry, as the mother can only tell us about the lengths that she’s gone to find her daughter without any success.

The book also isn’t focused on the international aspect of the conflict.  There’s still a book out there to be written that focuses on all the people abducted by North Korea.  Citizens from South Korea, Japan, and even Russian and Europe have all disappeared.  This book is solely focused on the one family.

I also hesitate to criticize her directly on the quality of the writing.  Vertical is a fairly small publishing company, and is not used to publishing novels or nonfiction.  It could easily be the fault of the translator that the writing comes across as so stilted and formal to American ears.  It could also be the writing style of the people of Sakie Yokota’s generation.  In general, Japanese speech among adults is more formal than in the US, so that might be how their writing is as well.  An especially good translator would have changed the cadence of the writing to what the region’s readers are accustomed to, but that might not have been done here.

All around, the information is interesting and not found anywhere else in the US.  While the writing is a bit reminiscent of a Dateline NBC episode, it’s an in-depth look at how mothers in other countries cope with some of the hardest events in life.

Highs:  The government finally starting to pursue the case as a kidnapping

Lows:  Dealing with local police

Verdict:  Worth reading for the information, though not necessarily for pleasure reading

Further Reading:  The Reluctant Communist, Pyongyang

Monday, February 7, 2011

Manga Monday: More Ramen? Really?

Neko Ramen Volume 2:  Curry Is Also Delicious is, of course, the sequel to Neko Ramen Volume 1: Hey! Order Up!.  Check out the review for Volume 1 here.  Otherwise, read on!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A fantasy and fairy tale book that just doesn't make it

There are a lot of fantasy novels that retell traditional fairy tales and folklore. Some give them a modern setting, such as Orson Scott Card’s Enchanted or Vertigo’s Fables series. Others combine several pieces of folklore into one story, as in the Parasol Protectorate series and Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy. The only way to differentiate between stories in this genre is quality, and I am sorry to say that Mercedes Lackey’s Firebird just doesn’t rise to the challenge.

In places the story comes so close to shining. At first, Ilya Ivanovich is a fairly sympathetic character. Essentially orphaned at birth, he not nearly as vicious , or stupid, as the rest of his father’s sons. At age three, he is taken under the wing of Mother Galina, the woman in charge of the dairy, who gentles him and encourages him to be more than his brothers are turning out to be. He also spends quite a bit of time with Father Mikail and Ruslan, the priest and shaman or Ivan’s realm. Unfortunately, along with either trying to save Ilya soul or teach him about the spirits of the land, they spend an equal amount of time patching him up after the beatings that his brothers hand out.

Lackey, does a fantastic job building up the world of Ilya. We learn just enough about the side characters, the serfs and servants in the house, and even Ilya’a ancestors in the crypt, to really want to more about the lands under tsar Ivan’s rule. It’s as if Lackey is setting up a series set across the generations of rulers and people of this land. I would have loved to read that series.

Instead, we follow the adventures of Ilya himself. Admittedly, the trouble he gets into while still at home and the solutions he comes up with are pretty clever and fun to watch. I can even forgive him the rather excessive skirt-chasing as simply something that rich boys his age do.

The story starts seriously going downhill when he leaves home and starts adventuring. We meet more characters that deserve their own stories to be told, and as the supporting characters get more interesting, Ilya gets less so. Even with all the ill luck in the world, he still finds even more trouble for himself with his silly skirt-chasing. Eventually, he pretty much deserves whatever disaster befalls him next, because he can’t leave well enough alone. By the final pages I have lost all sympathy for our poor hero, and almost find the ending a letdown.

Mercedes Lackey is a master of fairy tale fantasy. This amazing talent is seen in her Elemental Masters series. Unfortunately, all the pieces never come together in Firebird, and we are left holding a mediocre book in a series that could be fantastic, but will probably never come to being.

Highs: Al the side characters, but especially the “odd couple” of Father Mikail and Ruslan

Lows: How do people as intelligent and educated as Ilya just keep doing stupid thing?

Verdict: The first two thirds are worth the reading time, but don’t bother unless you’re stuck without anything better

Further Reading: The Fire Rose, Enchanted