Around Thanksgiving, LitReactor published a list of “10 books to make you feel thankful.” At #10–SUFFER THE CHILDREN! For which I’m thankful too. Thanks for the call out, LitReactor!
Naomi Alderman’s THE POWER is a novel about the final battle of the sexes that results from women undergoing an evolutionary change in which they gain the power to wield electrical current with their hands. Suddenly, men become the “weaker sex.” Women push back until a complete societal reversal occurs, as they gain not just the power to hurt men at will, but all of the other power that comes with it. I found this story, a big ideas novel written in the tradition of THE HANDMAID’S TALE (and as powerful), a work of genius that got me thinking on several levels. The novel came out in 2016 and won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.
The story starts off clunky. A man named Neil, a member of a men’s writing association, is writing to Naomi Alderman, a popular author, in the hopes she will beta read his work of historical fiction. What follows is his novel, told mainly from the perspective of four people: an abused girl who becomes a powerful leader after founding a religion based on a feminist reinterpretation of the Bible; a girl destined to play a minor role in a London crime family, who rises up to become a mafia don in her own right; a female mayor who rises to become one of the most powerful people in America; and a male journalist who travels the world documenting it all. Alderman’s decision to use Neil (and herself) as a device for introducing the novel is a bit off-putting due to the style change and the wait to get down to it, but in the denouement it ties together and really works.
The story of women around the world suddenly gaining power over men initially leads to what one would expect (and hope) to happen. Repressive societies like Saudi Arabia undergo revolutions, men catcalling and sexually harassing women comes to a dead stop, sex slaves liberate themselves, and other events occur that are, well, satisfying to read for anybody who hates these things. All good, right? As the gender reversal accelerates, however, Alderman takes a gutsy path with the novel: Women start to act like the worst of male behavior. Rape, humiliation, stereotyping, subjugation, rewriting history and religion to promote a single gender, stealing creative work, this is what some women do after they get all the power (pursuing a similar premise as portrayed in the film WHITE MAN’S BURDEN). While reading THE POWER, you’re going, hey, payback’s a bitch, then, wow, maybe women really would become the worst of the “patriarchy” if they ran the world (an assertion that power universally corrupts), and then, jeezus, in the real world, women have to put up with a lot of crap. The ending is conclusive but open, and while acknowledging the truth is unknowable, the denouement suggests what happened, or at least confirms what the world is like in the present, in a final clever note among many.
Overall, I loved it for what it was–a gutsy big ideas novel about gender and power spiced with terrific action set pieces. Recommended if you like speculative fiction that tugs your brain strings. If you read it, like it, and want more, TV rights were acquired by Jane Featherstone (Sister Pictures) in an 11-way auction and will be turned into a TV series with global distribution.
After watching HIGH-RISE, I became interested in reading the novel by JG Ballard. While I enjoyed the movie, the novel was much more coherent and didn’t suffer from the lack of a strong throughline. Both stuck with me after finishing them.
HIGH-RISE documents the rapid decline of an ambitious 40-story London high-rise designed with 1,000 apartments and numerous services, including pools, gyms, schools, stores, and supermarkets. The story focuses on three men–Dr. Robert Laing, a divorcee living in the middle floors, Anthony Royal, an upper crust architect who’d designed the tower and now lives in relative luxury on the top floors, and Richard Wilder, a TV documentary journalist who lives in the lower floors. The residents are offered an autonomous environment where they need never leave, and indeed as time goes on they become increasingly isolated from the outside world.
While the building is designed to cater to their every need, it’s clear the residents are rats packed in a cage. Petty frictions and subconscious anger over noise, children, animals, elevators, parking spaces, and later electricity outages splinter the building into three groups–top, middle and bottom–which act out in petty acts of sabotage that escalate into organized violence amid a great deal of partying and rising collective madness. Laing, Royal, and Wilder all find themselves giving in to their basest impulses and embracing their inner animal, joining in the tribalism, depravity, and violence. As the groups exhaust themselves, all groupings break down until it’s virtually every person for themselves, and the residents survive (or not) on a virtually animal level. They’re suffering, but they’re fully alive, and they remain obedient to a strange but consistent logic that they must see it through to the end.
I often have a love-meh relationship with Ballard’s work. In so many ways, he’s brilliant, but his characters are often detached, acting as passive observers to incredible destruction or decline. In this novel, the characters are full willing participants in the mayhem, asking the reader to join them in the fun. HIGH-RISE is one hell of an engaging story, read with voyeuristic excitement, and with a strong theme that civilization is a thin veneer on humanity’s animal past. Ballard suffered as a child in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai in WW2, and was highly impressed by how a sudden world-ending event so quickly transformed the people he knew and how they lived and behaved.
HIGH-RISE is a short read, full of interesting ideas, and fascinating in its execution. Recommended.
In 1918-19, the Spanish Flu burned its way through the world’s population of two billion in less than two years, killing more people than died in combat among the 19 nations involved in five years of fighting during World War I.
As World War I was ending, an even bigger threat loomed—the Spanish Flu, which followed in the wake of mass troop movements during the war, and ravaged the armies on both sides of the trenches. In fact, the Spanish Flu may have played a decisive role in ending the conflict; it is believed that the flu dramatically weakened the German Army and caused its last great western offensive to fail in 1918, bringing the war to a close.
In the spring of 1918, Spain, a neutral power, did not have wartime censorship and so was the first to report the epidemic that subsequently became known as the Spanish Flu, the Indian Flu, the Naples Soldier and other names around the world. The flu, however, was thought to originate in Canton, China, although the first recorded cases occurred at a U.S. Army base in Kansas. At first, the flu seemed mild, although millions caught it, eight million in Spain alone, including King Alphonso XIII.
As summer turned to fall, it turned deadly. The flu burned its way through every continent except Antarctica. Doctors were helpless against the scourge. Public authorities shut down public places such as churches and theaters. Some even passed laws against sneezing in public. People wore gauze masks in public. Wherever the flu struck, people displayed the best and worst of human nature—courage, charity, fear and prejudice.
In October, the epidemic peaked in the U.S. and Canada. Thousands were dying every day. Then the number of cases declined until the Spanish Flu disappeared the following July.
Some 22 million Americans got sick and more than 675,000 died out of a population of 103.2 million. As a result of the Spanish Flu, the average life expectancy of Americans dropped by 10-13 years. Globally, the Spanish Flu killed 40 to 100 million people, or up to five percent of the world’s population of two billion. About one billion caught it. Based on today’s population, this is the equivalent of more than three billion people catching it and 130 to 320 million people dying.
I was happy to get an advance copy of Tyrell Johnson’s THE WOLVES OF WINTER (Scribner, January 2018) through NetGalley. It’s part apocalyptic tale, part coming of age story, and I really enjoyed it. Apocalyptic fiction has taken on a bit more of a literary bent lately as both a natural part of its evolution and to give it more mass appeal, and Johnson’s novel is one of the good ones.
The story begins with Lynn, a 24-year-old woman who lives with her family in the Yukon wilderness. The world has ended after a series of global wars and later flu pandemic, and while living up north is rough, its isolation and food supply of fish and game make it one of the best places to be. For Lynn, who came here when she was a child, it’s now home. Lynn was the best part of this first-person narrative novel. Johnson makes her an appealing flesh-and-blood character with a terrific voice and worldview that is part naive, part pure pragmatism. While she’s tough enough to survive and do what needs doing in the story, she’s no superhero.
In the first part of the story, we’re introduced to Lynn, her family, and their lifestyle, which I found thoroughly engaging and realistic. The dialogue is terrific. When a mysterious stranger disrupts their isolation, he is gradually welcomed but warns of other strangers coming who pose a threat. The stranger, it seems, is important, and so is Lynn. I found myself rooting for our heroes to win, pages zipping past.
The wars and the flu all come across as somewhat generic, though the end of the world’s cause is far less important than how people survive it. As the conflict deepens, all of our protagonists are revealed to be extremely important in what came before and what may come after, which robbed the story of some of its grounded and local feel. For me, it kind of dragged close to the end, and the protagonists were surprisingly successful given what they were up against.
Despite this, I really liked the read. Johnson’s world building is perfect, the set up is excellent, the characters are great and worth rooting for, and the action, conflict, and adversity are all exciting and drive the story forward in a realistic way. It’s a great apocalyptic novel that for fans of the genre will feel familiar but built as a great literary story told by a likeable character with a great voice.
A FB friend recently turned me on to IN THE FLESH, a British zombie series that aired in 2013 on BBC3. I got the DVD through Amazon, though I hear it’s available on Hulu. This is a first-rate zombie drama that really grabbed me.
In this series, the UK has survived the zombie apocalypse and is trying to rebuild. The authorities have come up with a cure and have rounded up the zombies into processing centers where they slowly become conscious again, though their bodies are still dead. Most are suffering from trauma, as they have flashbacks to the horrific things they did while they were “rabid.”
As zombie fiction evolved, this became a popular trope some years ago, and IN THE FLESH nails the concept perfectly. Keep in mind, though, this is a pure drama about the aftermath, with little actual zombie action to speak of. In the rural town of Roarton, we have a family welcoming home Kieren. The military focused on the big cities, leaving rural defense to local militias called the Human Volunteer Force, or HVF. The HVF is resentful and angry the zombies are being re-assimilated into society and that they’re losing their status as champions of the village. Kieren’s sister is HVF and hates the sight of him; his parents must keep him hidden. These and are concepts, involving Kieren and other characters you come to care about, are handled with great depth and drama, and though the first season is only three episodes long, it really grabbed me.
Great stuff, and I look forward to checking out the second season, which is longer at six one-hour episodes. Unfortunately, the series didn’t get a third season when BBC3 went off the air.