Tag: dystopia

Green Was The Sky

Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

‘No thicker than turkey foil,’ he said, remembering the crinkling sound as he’d smooth it over mounts of meat and baking sheets. How they used to spend carefree hours in their unspectacular but divinely functional kitchen, whipping up something from virtually nothing, giggling inanely over the even more inane writings on the wine’s label, and referencing uncool of cookery books, to produce the most retro of meals.

Cal continued his staring for a short while, then a longer while, till his hunger pushed him in the direction of his food stash. His selection: a tin of stewed rhubarb pieces, or a tin of creamed chicken soup. Both watery, nutrient-deficient, and foods that would never have made it anywhere near his usual shopping trolley. But the trolleys were as irrelevant to life now, as the concept of food preferences were. He reluctantly selected the rhubarb. It would see him through till the following morning. He’d then hope for a break in the luminous skyfall, would breakfast on the cold soup, and would be forced to leave the shack. It had been a welcome shelter from the piercing, burning cold, but, food supplies exhausted, he had no choice but to say goodbye and to make his way to forage for supplies.

And that was precisely what he did with head cowed and heart just the same. The skyfall was stopped but had left behind oily blue-green puddles, and Cal ensured he avoided each and every one. Even welded protetive metal footwear offered little protection from the skyfall’s caustic nature.
Cal counted each step, though he’d no reason to do so. He was sane enough to question why he did it, but no longer sentient enough to be aware of the answers.

The plain through which he walked had once been a field of potatoes, but the acid had cracked and eroded and warped and pitted the surfaces, removing and destroying organic matter. Each of Cal’s steps uneasily taken, and he manouvered with great care, so his going was slow and methodical. It didn’t matter. There was nowhere he needed to be, nobody he needed to see.

He’d barely counted to 30, and was still well within access of the shack where he’d spent the last two days and nights, when the surface under his foot gave way slightly, and Cal’s right ankle wobbled. In panic, and acting purely on instinct rather than sensibility, he reached down to steady himself. He retracted in agony as both hands, his right thigh, knee and buttock, his lower back and then his elbow, his shoulder, and his head fell onto and into the seeping, caustic surface.

But no soul heard his cries. No comrades would rush to his assistance. No wild animals would feed on his emaciated, fried carcass. No bacteria would reduce his bodily remains, to leave no trace. Nobody would mourn. Nobody would cry for him and miss him.

Cal would, at least die quickly, and was relieved to be removed from the agonies of this life. His final thought was of how things used to be and of coming here, the worst decision he had ever made. He’d been excited when, after a long and rigorous process, he’d been selected as Captain of the Pioneer Crew. The crew’s mission had been the colonisation of a beautiful, brightly coloured planet. It had been proved to have a perfect earth-like atmosphere of an almost perfumed quality, and so materials for shelter and agriculture had been deposited during the training process of Cal and his 149 colleagues. And yes, it was a beautiful planet. It was perfect, in fact, and shelters were erected, relationships were solidified, and female crew quickly became pregnant, as was always the intention.

But, in the planet’s cycle, and the one thing the colonisers didn’t know, came the irregular and sudden skyfall. It explained the soil’s infertility, and the lack of mature greenery. It explained the lack of settlers, of wildlife and even of insects, despite the apparent perfection of the place. With no way of return, the twenty young colonisers were reduced and destroyed one by one by the inhospitable skyfall. Cal was the last. He was the captain going down with the ship, just as had his chosen wife, their unborn child, and all the others. His life DID flash before him as his frail frame melded with the planet’s surface. And all was over.

#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #spacetravel #dystopia


Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Concrete loomed overhead, offering nothing other than relief from the endless burning rays of the sun. It was one of many vertical slabs, inconceivably unsupported yet unwavering, which sprouted from the sand and paving stones like geometric lifeless trees.

Four young people walked towards the nearest monolith. In contrast with others around them, they did not walk independent of each other, but walked as as a group.

Esme knew this particular monolith well. Her father had told her many times of skyscrapers from his youth, and how this construction was bigger than even the tallest he had before experienced. This nameless block of grey had been the first to be constructed in their city.

Esme turned to look at her three companions.

‘Are we ready, people?’

Three faces stared back at her, their words unrequired and the acquiesence confirmed simply by three nods of three well-loved heads.

‘You know we won’t get away with it? That this likely means the end?’

Again, another three nods.

‘Right then. Let’s do it.’

Esme’s three companions left her to take their carefully pre-planned positions, one at each corner of the concrete structure. Though communication wasn’t possible owing to the distance and due to the impregnated concrete’s role as blocker of all distance related sound waves, there was no reason for Esme to believe that their pre-prepared mission wasn’t being carried out. Each young person had traced their path independently on many occasions, and Esme knew that within a count of 800, all four would be in position and ready to take their agreed action.

She took a deep breath and delved into her pocket. How she longed to know what it had been like in her dad’s day, when every person, near enough, was connected with the world via a small rectangular device they’d keep in their pocket or bag. Since the concrete cataclysm, no connection was possible, owing to the masts being ripped away and to the new federal crime of owning a mass communication device.

In her pocket she kept one forbidden item – and her fingers wrapped round the smooth, flat stone. She couldn’t see it, but knew it was painted with the words ‘To my Daughter With Love’.

‘I love you,’ she said out loud, and she knew that the concrete would be listening to the same words from each person in her group as each one stood at the structure’s four corners.

She spoke the words again, and again. No louder, no quieter, no more sure and no more unsteady. Unwavering. Unabashed.

Esme and her companions independently articulated their abstract love despite knowing that to do so was the ultimate federal crime.

The declaration of love had been outlawed even before her birth, following a series of insane 21st century electoral frauds and government leadership disasters. A Prime Minister’s insistence that the world be reconstructed according to his own incomprehensible principles had led to the vilification of the genuine, the good, the caring, the empathic, the ethical…
And within just twenty five short years, it had led to this.

Love was unallowed. Marriage unallowed. Affection between friends unallowed. Love of God unallowed. Love of nature aunallowed.

What had been denoted as the ‘hate crime’ of declaring love was legally indicative that there must be a flipside – an unloved – and this led to the new statutory crime of discrimination and prejudice against the unloved and non-tribe members. A logical follow up to this was that all declarations of alignment, affection or support were outlawed.

All that was allowed was obedience to the billionaire mindmakers, and most citizens complied.

But Esme loved Melanie, and was loved in return. Freya loved Dan, and received back his love in spades full.

Being the people they were, and Esme being her father’s daughter, the quartet could not accept the law as it was.

Love had always been legally sanctioned, that’s what her dad had said. He’d said it out loud too, and that was why he was no longer able to join Esme and her friends in their protest against the societal restrictions.

Not one of the four young people were sure of what would come of their protest, but each and every one knew that they had no choice but to stand, to face into the corner of the monolith, and to declare their love for each other, for their kinsmen, for the city, the country, the planet…

Who knew what would happen next. What knew what their punishments would be.

These were questions that could not be answered, but as the miniature cameras positioned within the concrete monolith registered their criminality, the four young people knew they had no choice but to make their protest and show their love. And behind Esme a small crowd gathered. She turned to see Joe, an elderly neighbour, with shoulders shaking and tears running down his cheeks, whisper over and over, ‘I loved you, Edith. I really did love you. I still love you. I will always love you’.

And Esme continued speaking. Her schoolfriend, Jay, slipped her hand into Esme’s. ‘You’ve got some balls, kid,’ she said, then ‘I love you. I love you. I love you’.

It was only an hour later when the authorities arrived to arrest Esme, her lover and friends, and four expanding crowds of brave supporters and onlookers.

She submitted willingly, knowing that Melanie, Dan and Freya would do just the same.

For her father had taught her how sometimes worlds progress in the right direction, but that sometimes they don’t, and it takes the actions of someone strong to put things right along the way. Esme was happy to be one such person and to have led the latest love-based mass protest.

‘I love you,’ she said to the guard who fastened her handcuffs, but as expected the guard only smirked through his facial visor before leading her away.

#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #dystopia #love

‘The Road’ (by Cormac McCarthy)

Questions and answers from Masters Degree in Creative Writing

This is perhaps the most stylistically distinct book on the reading list.  The novel’s typical sentence structure is unlike any others in this unit, matching a pared down prose style with an austere, unadorned world.  Yet despite its literary minimalism, it would also be true to say that McCarthy is a lyrical writer.  Do you think McCarthy finds poetry in sparseness? 
I do feel that McCarthy finds a lyricism and poetry in sparseness.  Sections I particularly felt illustrated this include pg 210 “They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder.  The wooden and the true.  They stood listening.  The smoke stood vertically in the still air.  No sound of any kind.  The leaves were soft from the recent rains and quiet underfoot” (repetition of ‘stood’, concentration on movement and lack of movement – vertical smoke, still air, silence, quiet leaves, rotation, etc).  The sparse sentence – “The wooden and the true” could be interpreted in a great many ways, so the seeming simplicity doesn’t always simplify intended meaning.  Much seems to be more like prose poetry than standard descriptive prose. 
Also, I consider the following to be really endearing writing – “He’d a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer in a house and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs was missing but still they played sometimes by firelight wrapped in their blankets”.  It has almost a breathless quality, lacking in punctuation, but it is both sparse and lyrical. 
Many of the other novels we’ve looked at employ elaborate prose styles – polysyllabic, hypotactical, linguistically playful – whereas McCarthy uses a pared down and noticeably paratactical style.** Does this make McCarthy’s language any less charged?  Is The Road’s compression and concision in fact more powerful and/or provocative than the contrasting prose styles on this unit?
Pared down writing of a type referred to as ‘paratactical’ is undoubtedly the intentionally selected style for this novel.  According to an article on literarydevices.net, the function of parataxis is that it is “…useful in explaining a rapid sequence of thoughts in poetry and prose.  They could evoke the feelings in a similar way as though they happened at once.  It is a helpful device when describing a setting.  In simple word, parataxis helps the readers to focus on a particular idea, thought setting or emotion.  Also, cultural theorists use it in cultural texts where a series of events are shown side by side”. 
To get inside the mind of a complex person in a complex society (for example, the characters in “Arlington Park”), description and connection are required.  The psychological intensity needs description.  However, in “The Road” the society has been reduced to desperation levels and the human beings equally so.  I feel therefore that the short and snappy prose is both powerful and provocative.  Its lack of description and frippery simply mirrors the world in which the characters all live.  It makes the reader uncomfortable and miserable, and that is how this probably should be.  It also enables the reader to connect with the difficulties of the man and boy, in a way that detailed introspection may not.
Why do you think McCarthy writes in this particular style?  Think especially of the novel’s sentence structure – sentences that often read like individual clauses subtracted from larger sentences, so that something seems to be missing either from the beginning or the end of the sentence.  Does this make the novel’s images seem isolated, or does the prose work by a slow process of accumulation and accretion?  What is the effect of parataxis?
I believe that this style is used intentionally.  The world of the book is fragmented and the prose is too.  To some extent the imagery in the novel is a series of tableaux, but are connected by the isolation and desperation within.  I don’t feel the prose works because of accretion and accumulation but certainly the endless style consistency does add to the numbing effect of the writing.  Perhaps there is some element of accretion owing to the fact that the book does work towards a climax (the death of the man), at which point it ends. 
Can you find any notable uses of simile or metaphor? How does McCarthy use these devices?  Does his minimalistic style lend itself to lyricism, or is a significant effort of modulation required?
The beginning of the book uses these devices when the man is dreaming – “Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls.  Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast”.  Interestingly, the very final paragraph of the book (pg 307) uses these devices – “On their backs were vermiculite patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back.  Not be made right again.  In the deep glens where they lives all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery” – regarding trout in the streams.   
Regarding the rest of the book, there are far less than might be expected in a book of this length and depth.  I wondered if perhaps this encourages the reader to consider that still in the man’s mind there is a lyricism and appreciation of beauty and coincidence etc, and towards the end, we get this again and feel a little more hopeful – as if we may be looking towards new beginnings and new adventures to be had, etc. 
Parts of the book which do use metaphor etc, tend to refer to thoughts of the past or the future – pg 43 at the waterfall – “He’d stood at such a river once and watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacoloured water except as they turned on their sides to feed.  Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave”. 
The novel has very distinct tones (ominous, forbidding, weighty, almost biblical) and textures (rough, hard, mineral), and uses a consistent palette of greys and shades (ashen, leaden, ‘the gunmetal light’ [p. 4] …) How does McCarthy evoke these qualities, and to what effect?
McCarthy evokes the darkness and misery of the novel not only by the use of stark sentences, but also by the use of stark words – bleak, black, limp, long, cold, grasping, grudging, scared, shuffled, frail.  It just goes on and on.  The first time I read this book I was completely unable to finish it as I was very vulnerable at the time.  Finishing it this time, feeling stronger, I nevertheless did find the tone of the writing to be biblical in its inevitable apocalyptic portrayal and the ultra down-at-heel nature of the characters.  There were no kings in their towers, and no slaves etc.  Each person is as miserable and scared of each other as the next.  Also as one example, there were many little things – like when the man goes through a house and finds an apple on the ground outside. Pg 127 “He’d stepped on something.  He took a step back and knelt and parted the grass with his hands.  It was an apple.  He picked it up and held it to the light…”.  There is an air of miracle and of the parting of the red sea: the apple symbolises the purity of fresh food (now dried and withered) and the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden. 
The novel isn’t broken down into chapters, but is instead made up of short blocks of text.  Why do you think McCarthy has chosen to structure his narrative like this?  And what affect does this have on you as a reader?  How does it affect narrative qualities like pace and suspense?  Does it add or remove a sense of scale (e.g. a sense of the relative importance or impact of specific moments)? Does it make it harder for the writer to modulate between different moods, emotions, experiences, different levels of significance?
There is no end and no real beginning to the story.  The short blocks of text give us a feel of a lack of structure to days and to lives, and to the grim monotony of their daily misery. 
I am not sure if pace and suspense are altered as a result of the block rather than the use of chapters etc.
Perhaps it does make it harder to discern the different moods, levels, emotions, significance etc.  But I actually think that the sameness of absolutely everything makes even small real events stand out a little more. 
How does McCarthy use dialogue?  What effect does containing snatches of dialogue in short isolated sections have?
Dialogue is presented as part of the prose, with no defining punctuation.  Unlike “NW” and “Arlington Park”’s treatment of dialogue, I did not find the unusual treatment in “The Road” to be pretentious and irritating.  I actually found it to be the absolute best option. 
Using the short dialogue sections does make things interesting.  It makes the reader feel that silence is the status quo and conversation of any kind is exceptional so therefore deserves its own section.
Why the removal of some punctuation (particularly in words like ‘cant’, ‘didn’t’ etc)?  And what is the effect of removing speech marks?
The effect of removing speech marks almost seems to be a depersonalisation of the humans, and mixes their utterances with standard prose.  The people are as much a part of the desolate scenery as the deserted houses landscape is. 
I suspect that punctuation was removed in order to make the reader more aware of the sliding effect of the misery – in other words, all senses of grammar and punctuation is lost because civilisation is also lost. 
How do thoughts of the man’s past life filter through into the present?
They tend to filter through regretfully as dreams, more than as positive reflections. 
How does McCarthy fill us in on the past, on both a cosmic scale (e.g. what has happened to the earth) and a local scale (the past life of the man and the boy)?  Is the narrative method oblique or direct?  What role does mystery play in the novel?
There is a lot of unclearness regarding what has actually happened to the earth and the people on it.  The mystery element is actually beneficial to the way the story plays out.  We don’t need to know about the people and the places and what happened.  We just need to know that it did.  We also need to know that everything, even the earth, has lost its identity and the oblique narrative expresses this well. 
How does McCarthy frame the book’s philosophy, ideas, symbolism?  Is there profundity in the novel, or is it too strained/forced? Does the narrative slip into allegory at all (e.g. the boy and the man stand for something larger)?  (The section pp. 178-85 listed in the close-readings below is worth looking at in these respects. Is this a parable?  A fable?  Or just a story?)
I don’t feel that the profundity of the novel is strained and forced.  Yes, I believe that the boy and man do stand for something larger – but they don’t need to.  They stand on their own as characters.   The quote on pg 179 is interesting “People were always getting ready for tomorrow.  I didn’t believe in that.  Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them.  It didn’t even know they were there”. 
Who says this on p. 209: ‘Do you think that your fathers are watching?  That they weigh you in their ledgerbook?  Against what?  There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.’ ? And the section on pp. 279-80 beginning ‘He got up and walked out to the road’ to ‘To seal my mouth with dirt’; and the novel’s final paragraph? What is happening to the voice in these moments?
My first assumption was that the man had been responsible for the quote about fathers watching.  My afterthought was that it could have been the narrator breaking through. 
In these sections, the novel becomes more allegorical and more fantastical.  It is harking back to better times and looking forward to better times – temporarily removing the characters from the misery. 
How is time treated?  Think of the many painful moments that last and linger, and then how suddenly a series of days will simply pass in a clause (‘In three days they came to a small port town’ p. 280); or how the harrowing thought of the boy unable to leave his dead father is stated with no ornament (‘He stayed three days’ 301).
Time is treated as a fluid entity that is almost incidental.In a place where there is no reliance on jobs, on punctuality, or keeping appointments etc, the time itself is not necessary to be considered.So, the boy staying with his dead father for three days indicates that’s the time it took him to deal with it, rather than some arbitrary boundary that needs to be bidden.
**(Parataxis is when sentences and/or clauses are kept short and declarative, usually orchestrated by coordinating conjunctions [most commonly ‘and’] rather than subordinating conjunctions [‘therefore’, ‘because’, ‘so that’, ‘which…’, ‘perhaps’ etc].  Hypotaxis occurs in more complex sentences, often made up of multiple clauses which use subordinating conjunctions and qualifications.  Henry James’ writing is a prime example of the hypotactical style, and Ernest Hemingway’s of the paratactical.)

#cormac #cormacmccarthy #desolation #dystopia #review #theroad #thoughts

‘The Heart Goes Last’ (by Margaret Attwood)

Questions from Masters Degree assessment

Make a list of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. What might you learn, in your own writing, from the strengths? How would you handle the novel’s shortcomings?

Strengths – Funny, inventive.It gets me thinking that sometimes it works when you think outside the box in terms of plot etc.Simplistic writing, not flowery or complex , which works with the feel of the piece.
Weaknesses – Overly long, finishes outside the community when I feel it would have been stronger finishing within it, too many interconnected strands so it is easy to get lost within them.I would have simplified the plot, added more detail for the plot elements which were important and reduced those which were not.I also didn’t feel that the subsidiary characters were always believable.For example, Jocelyn didn’t seem at all feasible as a surveillance character, and the love affair between Phil and Charmaine was patchy and not all that believable either.
The Heart Goes Last combines a third-person narrative perspective with free indirect voice. This perspective alternates between Stan and Charmaine, keeping the reader close to one character or the other at different points in the narrative. Why might Atwood exploit this approach in her novel?
Free indirect voice in many ways merges the voice of the author and the protagonists, which inevitably gives an element of intimacy to the rendering of the two main characters in this case.  So, is seems clear that the free indirect voice was chosen at least partly for this reason. 
Add to that, the change of emphasis between Stan and Charmaine, and it seems that the reason behind this is the ability to get into the characters’ heads and see events from each of their individual viewpoints.This is especially important because there is a lot of secrecy regarding work, inner thoughts, affairs and so on.Without using this tool it would have been really difficult to get an overall picture of what was going on with each of the two main protagonists, and the story wouldn’t have been disclosed as effectively.
How effectively are Stan and Charmaine’s ‘voices’ distinguished from one another? What techniques or approaches does Atwood use to make Stan and Charmaine’s sections distinct from each other? Could Atwood have made more effort in this regard, in your opinion?
Stan’s inner voice tends to consider quite a bit of exterior related stuff, for example, he’s tied up with political situations, the future, considerations of philosophies and social issues etc.  Charmaine’s inner voice is more contemplative and every-day.  Because I didn’t really appreciate the differences in style between the two voices (though I did between the two characters) I guess that this indicates the author could have made more effort to differentiate.  However, it wasn’t until I read this question that I realised this is what had happened, so it didn’t detract from the story from my point of view.  The authorial style within the book was consistent and the characters were differentiated, so that worked. 
Do you consider The Heart Goes Last to be a ‘stranded’ novel, like some of the other texts we’ve studied on the unit (NW, Arlington Park)? What similarities and differences can you identify? What advantages and limitations do these various forms of stranding offer to the novelist?
To some extent, many novels are stranded novels, as the reader is controlled by the author regarding what they can see and where they can travel within the created world etc.  Some books are more stranded than others.  NW – stranded within an estate which is hard to escape from even when you have, and stranded within one’s own unsatisfactory lives.  Arlington Park – stranded within comfortable confines, but just as much locked in as others.  Road – stranded within an almost limitless physical environment, but within the limitations of availability of food, of safety etc.  This book?  Stranded in the car, stranded in Consilience, stranded again in the world of the Positron Survivors support groups etc. 
Is that all we are? He thinks. Unmistakable clothing, a hairstyle, a few exaggerated features, a gesture? How credible are Stan and Charmaine, their desires, their ambitions, their relationship? They are clearly presented as fallible by Atwood. Do their flaws make them difficult to like? Did your opinions of them change as the novel progressed?
That definition ties in with the way a writer might begin to create their characters – with a few defining and interesting features.  However, these features are not what makes a character – a character is made more rounded and more believable with the addition of flaws, quirks, and unusual character traits.  Stan and Charmaine initially seem to be likeable characters, and I fully understood how they both ended up where they did.  Their reasons seemed perfectly understandable.  Once they settled in Consilience I stopped caring as much about them, because their lives seemed not as real and as interesting.  By the end of the book I really couldn’t care less about the marriage and other events.  The only thing which I did care about was that Charmaine hadn’t had the brain adjustment forcing her to love Stan.  It had come naturally.  That was quite sweet.  It was also good that Charmaine, who appeared not all that strong at the beginning of the book, strengthened as time went on, and became a little more liberated.  But I have to say that I didn’t really care about the characters even though I quite enjoyed the book.  Charmaine’s initial acceptance of their new life at Consilience is quite believable too.
What purpose do the frequent reminiscences about Grandma Win serve in the narrative? How does she affect our understanding of Charmaine, for example?
Grandma Win is a hearkening back to better and easier times, when the minutiae of life were as important and the bigger issues.Pg 377 “It’s better to close the lid when you flush: Grandma Win told her that.Otherwise the germs fly around in the air and go up your nose”.These are such small issues, in comparison with what else is going on in the world of this novel.
“Smile and the world smiles with you, Grandma Win used to say.Cry and you cry alone” (pg 129).Grandma Win represents a simpler time, when truisms did apply.Perhaps it works so well because Consilience is also outwardly looking backwards to simpler times (1950s/60s America) though it fails because it isn’t real and because it isn’t true to the implied aims.
But also, Charmaine’s references to Grandma Win make her seem more human and more likeable as a character. I could understand why this element of her character might be perceived as an annoying naivety, but I felt it also gave a good narrative tool as she was obviously more easily caught up in what’s going on around her, and more easily taken in than other characters might have been.
Comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness. She prefers the more dramatic shows where everyone’s getting kidnapped or raped or shut up in a dark hole, and you aren’t supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to be upset, the way you’d be if it was happening to you. Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people. (17)
Taking the above quotation as a starting point, how would you characterise The Heart Goes Last? What is the overall mood of the novel? Is it a work of comedy, tragedy, something else? Does the increasingly slapstick tone of the novel detract from your experience of reading it, or from the novel’s more serious messages?
I wanted to say that this was a work of black comedy, but that isn’t strictly true.  Black or dark comedy usually makes light of or fun of a subject matter that’s either taboo or untouchably serious.  Well, this book doesn’t really do that.  Neither is it a typical bleak apocalyptic horror novel, a technology-based futuristic book, a romance etc.  In other words, it is difficult to classify.   
The Marilyn Monroe lookalike who has been programmed to fall in love with the first thing she encounters on waking (a teddy bear), the Elvis impersonators and so on, also bring to mind a 1920s farce, and I think that’s relatively near the mark.M John Harrison reviews the book online for The Guardian and says “Jubilant comedy of errors, bizarre bedroom farce, SF prison-break thriller, psychedelic 60s crime caper: The Heart Goes Last scampers in and out of all of these genres, pausing only to quote Milton on the loss of Eden or Shakespeare on weddings. Meanwhile, it performs a hard-eyed autopsy on themes of impersonation and self-impersonation, revealing so many layers of contemporary deception and self-deception that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry”.Farcical comedy of errors with elements of crime and prison break in a dystopian setting.Not straightforward but it does work, despite itself.
Is Atwood’s novel a work of genre fiction? Literary fiction? Both? Explain your reasoning.
Wikipedia’s definition of genre fiction is: “Wikipedia’s definition of literary fiction is”…
So, the question we’re being asked is whether this book is more about sharing a story (genre) or about giving us a message (literary).Upon initial reading I did feel that the message was stronger than the story, but the story itself does definitely stand up in its own right, despite its flaws.Two people begin the story in a dystopian world, living in their car.They are drawn towards an alternative which is half prison and half utopia, and that is the option they select.I suspect most dystopian and post-apocalypse novels contain this combination of literary and genre, but by their very nature, the message is just as important as the story.
We have already seen how Cormac McCarthy reveals the world of The Road elliptically (indirectly, suggestively rather than through exposition) and the effects that this has upon the novel. How directly, or fully, does Atwood reveal the conditions of, and causes for, the status quo in The Heart Goes Last?
I did not note that Atwood reveals the causes of the fictional word state particularly in this book, but the conditions resulting from the breakdown are fairly well explained.Personally, though, I always prefer when there is little or no explanation.For example, in The White Horse by Alex Adams, I found that the lack of explanation for the state of affairs in the world was actually beneficial.I preferred it, as I did with The Road.Too explicit, and it runs the risk of losing reader interest because the reader would then concentrate their criticisms and efforts on stuff like saying, well that could never have happened.

On a related point, how convincing did you find the fundamental contrivances of the plot: the Positron scheme, and so on. How convincing was this vision of post-recession America? Does Atwood do enough ‘world building’, in your opinion (Positron, Consilience, Las Vegas?)

Las Vegas is not well detailed, but that’s understandable as it is a place of which most people have their own opinions.Love it or hate it, LV has a reputation of freedom and excess, so seems a fitting place of emergence after the discipline of Consilience.
Consilience – according to Google, is “an agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities”, and it was a well chosen name. Consilience is the name of the commune town with a 1950s ethos and atmosphere that has been deliberately created (as this was a ‘happy’ era for many).So, Consilience fits with all of that.
Interestingly, a positron is “I feel these names are really well chosen and appropriate for the places and concepts involved.The names fit whether we’re aware of their meanings, or not.
How did she get into the Surveillance business? he’d asked her, for something to do at the breakfast table.“I was an English major … It’s where all the plots are. That’s where you learn the twists and turns. I did my senior thesis on Paradise Lost.” (110)  How did you respond to the pace of the plotting in The Heart Goes Last? Is it evenly paced? Did you find the story to be as compelling throughout?
I am not sure about the pace of the plotting.  At times it seemed too speedy – for example, the transition between living in the car and moving to the town, and at other times, it just seemed to go on and on and on  – the period of time when Charmaine was in the prison for an extended period of time, for example, didn’t work for me, and I lost interest in the story for a while. 
What is the novel about, in your opinion? Does it seem to have a clear ‘theme’? Is it overstuffed or confused?
I felt the basic theme of this novel was quite simple.  It was a choice between a dystopia and a pleasant prison, and the choice wasn’t always cut and dried.  However, I do think that there was a lot to it.  The love affairs, the weird sex robots, the escape, organ harvesting, Charmaine and her administration of lethal injections, etc etc etc.  I do feel the plot would have benefitted from being somewhat streamlined and simplified.   
What did you make of the ending of the novel? Are the loose ends tied up too neatly, in your opinion? Did you find anything problematic in the ending?
The injections which Charmaine administers ensure that the heart is the last organ to stop functioning.  I actually feel that Atwood wrote this book without much heart, especially towards the end.  It was one of the first things to go.
I remembered most of the novel a week after reading, but didn’t remember the ending.I had to re-read it, and when I did I wasn’t surprised that it hadn’t stuck in my mind,.The voluntary re-imprinting just seemed unfeasible, the fact that Conor was involved all along, equally so, and the character of Lucinda Quant felt as if she’d been added to the mix earlier on just so she could assist at the end.It was an eminently forgettable ending.
I would have much preferred the book’s conclusion to have been more open ended, with Charmaine and Stan still Positron-based, and considering options for the future.
#book #dystopia #margaretattwood #review

John Marched, but for What?

John was accustomed to fighting his own demons, but this was different – this was forced battle with the demons of others. 

His feet slammed rhythmically and heavily onto the high street’s tarmac, as he stumbled occasionally into potholes and puddles. Every torturous footfall led him further and further from those he loved. It seemed there was little choice but to continue the march. 

His flimsy excuses given grovelingly at the rebels’ enlistment office had borne no results, and neither had his efforts at feigned illness at the doctors. He had neither flat feet nor mental issues. Neither was he in a profession which would get him out of the march and back to safety. It seemed his ‘demons’ were not enough.  Everyone had demons nowadays, he knew that, but most were nebulous and delicate – they were demons of the ‘what if’ variety, or of the ‘political anguish’ variety. Though different, John’s demons were real, and his demons didn’t want to march.

As his feet tramped heavily in his ill-fitting boots, he knew for certain that he was no freedom fighter. He was one of life’s accepters, or cowards, perhaps – choose your word according to your political persuasion. He would prefer to embrace the differences, amalgamate with the opposition – the victorious battle winners – and adjust to a life different from the one he’d known before. After all, when a country is conquered by a greater power, what can a single person do?

Give in and give ground? Yes. Give up, if need be.

Pre-conquering, their lives had epitomised wonderful western freedom: a freedom his grandfather had been willing to die for, and John was the archetype of leaving things as they are and enjoying his east coast English life. It was a simple seaside life, with no recourse to politics or militia or men with big flags and bigger egos.

Surrender, to his granddad would have been the equivalent of burning in hell, but to John, it was simply surviving in Hull.  He accepted life as they knew it.  Accepted what life had become. Believed the changes could work, even.  

His daughter, who believed in nothing other than unicorns and wonderment, demanded that he stay. ‘Don’t march, daddy,’ she’d begged. She wanted to wake to the fuzzy fluff of a toy raccoon’s face, not to the gunfire of rebellion.  That was why he was here. Not for the country and the other soldiers, but for the child who wanted the world to be nicer and prettier, because she was the only one in this great, big overtaken country who he could rely on.

The rebellion unit (ridiculously named ‘The Paths of Destruction’) was marching out from Hull today, and from every other major area of population across the entire country.  He’d heard of uprisings in the tiny Welsh village where his family usually spent their holidays, and of crowds assembled at railway stations and car parks throughout all the cities still standing. 

Marches were to be televised by the few remaining independent TV channels, and would be broadcast with accompanying stories of uprising amongst the country’s young men. No longer allowed to fight for their country in war, they instead were to fight for their country’s freedom on the streets.  But the new government shut down the independent news channels, confiscated film equipment, and jailed the rebel leaders. And still, underground, the marches were planned, each participant aware of the risks, but accepting of them too.  All except John.

There would be some life or death decisions occurring that day, thought John. Many of other marchers would welcome conflict if it arose. That’s what scared him the most. He wanted only to be left behind in glory, to return to his little family. 

But the marchers didn’t care who they took with them. They didn’t care how many would fall, as long as freedom would eventually prevail.  Freedom’s high cost. It’s pointless cost, thought John.  Who cares about principles when so many lives are on the line.

Four days later, John lay whimpering, surrounded by murdered friends and comrades. They’d been marching for three days with only minimal rest and refreshment, when the trained government troops caught up with them. Their basic weapons and boyish enthusiasm had crumbled against the fully armed foes. 

They had walked into the trap: the trap of love for one’s country all gone wrong.  He wished he’d assumed an alias. He wished he’d considered what could happen when handheld, miniature nuclear missiles could be deployed en masse by government against its own people. He wished that people had thought and remembered what had happened in the past, when men went to the front to fight with honour and pride. And when so many didn’t return. 

The people had dealt with betrayal on top of betrayal.  The government had told so many lies. 

Four days later, John lay on the cold ground. It seemed he was in a barn. It seemed he was the lone survivor. He heard nothing and saw nothing, just a sea of darkening red and green bodies.  But there were odd noises in the dark. Perhaps farm animals, he thought.

But then, just as he was rousing himself to pick his weary body from the ground and investigate, he realised the noises weren’t from animals. They were fire trucks: trucks taken by the government and filled, not with water but with something far more frightening. John had to run.

He broke out of the barn’s back door, still with nobody stirring on the ground. He thought little of leaving his friends behind. There was nothing any rebel could do now, other than to run.

The following morning, there was no buzzing from government fire trucks, there was no shouting, just the sounds of nothing. After an night in the woods, terrified and almost frozen to the bone, John began to make his way back to his home, and to his little girl with her fluffy raccoon. 

On empty streets, he was alone, apart from three herons and two small bears, feeding off the streets’ dead.  

He walked past his local newsagent’s shop. Their wall was damaged and was gushing a liquid. He wasn’t sure it was water. His friends, Amahl and Sofia were nowhere to be seen. 

Inside each and every house or shop window, all he saw was the glittery glow of liquid. He’d seen it before, outside the barn.  Embalmment from the outside in.

Why was he here? Why was he the only one who seemed to be alive. He didn’t deserve it and didn’t want it. He was just a joiner. He made fitted bedrooms. He was a simple family man, without brains or valour. His head itched and he was hot and sweating.

Humans feel loss of dignity and embarrassment the most, that’s what he’d always been told. Don’t put people down. Don’t be a pain. But today it wasn’t like that. There was no dignity to have been lost. There was no audience for embarrassment.  

All he could think of was his little girl. His warm breath on his daughter’s neck as they cuddled, and how he knew he would discover her face up in her bed, her life once full of accidents waiting to happen, now empty. Now gone.

The march was pointless, but it had been all he could do to protest.

He would rather have died, he thought, as he sat outside his family’s home watching the inevitable glimmering liquid within.

He remembered his daughter saying ‘People aren’t amazed enough. People need to be amazed’ and he cried. He was not amazed. He was broken. They all were. And he wished he’d fought more.

‘White Horse’ by Alex Adams

There was a lot about White Horse I really enjoyed.  I loved how the unbelievable fantasy type elements of the abominations (two hearts, tails etc etc) weren’t made to be the focus of the plot, which was very much more about character and psychology.  When the lab man ate the mice I was surprised but not shocked, so I suppose the bizarre seeds must have already been sown.
I’m not sure what it was – probably the doomsday elements – but the book held my interest from start to finish and I completed it in three days on and off.  I very rarely complete a book so speedily, so this says a lot about how much I cared about the characters and was hoping for a positive outcome, some kind of medical or other breakthrough which might reverse the disastrous trend. 
I have to confess that there wasn’t much I didn’t like about The White Horse, though I found the character of the Swiss somewhat unconvincing.  However, he/she was convincing enough for me to be gutted to discover he/she wasn’t dead.  I know this book has many parallels with other dystopian classics, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and group members will have no doubt picked up on the plot similarities with The Testament of Jessie Lamb.
There were some pieces of really beautiful dark prose that drew me in very much.  For example, “We’re all just meat puppets with an invisible hand inside us, making us dance and live.  When that hand slips off the glove, we collapse and that is the end of everything”.  And, less gory, I particularly enjoyed pg 133 – “Dark is louder than light.  Under the guise of night, the underbelly of nature reveals itself.  Creatures slither and slink so as to not attract the attention of their natural foe”.  It’s nothing complex or overly clever, but I felt the writing was deep and rich and enticing. 
I adored the idea of the jar which could have been an ancient horrifying artefact, or a Pandora’s box containing the evils of the world, but which  ended up being the result of science and disastrous experimentation – another kind of evil.
I would give this book a 9/10 because it was fascinating to me and held my interest by enticing my dark side.  Unlike Jessie Lamb, I thought this was well written and also reminded me of Catherine Chanter’s The Well for its unexplainable and unfathomable world changes and sadnesses. 
#alexadams #dystopia #fantasy #review #whitehorse