This week I’m recommending Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, which is a bit of a dystopia and a bit of a post-apocalypse and a bit of magical realism and is the latest book I’ve read set in the American Southwest. In the near future, drought has rendered the Southwestern United States nearly uninhabitable. A mountain-high sea dune called the Amargosa has spread over large portions of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Most people have evacuated, but some remain in Los Angeles, living off rationed soda and scavenging from abandoned homes of millionaires. Ray and Luz are two of them, but when they take a two-year-old girl, they realize they need to give her a better life. They set out on a treacherous crossing of the desert, where they encounter a cult-like group surviving at the edges of the great dune sea.
Not full reviews or even necessarily recommendations, just some notes on what I’ve been reading.
I will never read all the dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction out there, but I keep trying. This month I read a very early apocalypse story by Jack London: The Scarlet Plague (free to read online). This short story feels like an ur-story for George Stewart’s Earth Abides (also set in San Francisco). It doesn’t really have a plot; rather, it’s just a description of civilization’s quick fall from disease and a meditation on how easily humanity could return to savagery. Frequent readers of apocalyptic fiction will recognize a lot of ideas that were later fleshed out by other writers, but London should get credit for being one of the first. This might also be considered an early steampunk story, as well. London’s vision of the future–the plague hits in 2013–includes dirigibles and steam power, as well as some radically altered version of U.S. government. However, it’s also terribly classist and sexist. But it’s short enough to read in one sitting and would be of interest to anyone studying this genre of fiction.
I also read Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopia: The Heart Goes Last. (I linked to the NYT review, which I pretty much agree with.) Not every book by a favorite author can be great (with the exception of Jane Austen). Inevitably, a disappointment comes along, and here comes one from an author who is a personal hero of mine. Atwood’s messaging regarding security and freedom is pretty heavy-handed, the sexual content is more than a little disturbing, and the end just left me cold. It feels like a throw-off and certainly in no way resembles Atwood’s more masterful dystopias, Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale.
I do have a book recommendation to post soon, and I am just starting another post-apocalyptic novel: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins.
This week I’m recommending The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s a thriller wrapped up in a dystopia, a realistic and frightening vision of the havoc climate change might wreak on the American Southwest.
In the near future, climate change has brought about drought and constant dust storms in the Southwest, resulting in the collapse of several cities, as well as the state of Texas, and violent clashes among the rest over access to water. Las Vegas is ruled by Catherine Case, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a ruthless and intriguing character who wasn’t in the book nearly enough. Angel Velasquez works for her as a “water knife,” cutting other’s water supplies so that Vegas can have its water. Case sends Angel to Phoenix, a city that is slowly dying, to investigate the murder of one of her undercover operatives. There Angel stumbles into a plot involving double crossers, ruthless California operatives, an idealistic reporter who wants to expose the conspiracy, and a Texas refugee in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone is after the same Maltese falcon . . . I mean, senior water rights, which is apparently the key to controlling the Colorado River.
This is a thriller wrapped in a dystopian setting. This near future Phoenix is choked with dust and awash in brutality. Prostitution, torture, gangs, crazy guys with packs of hyenas as pets–all here. California state operatives bomb dams. New Mexicans string up Texan refugees as a warning. This near future vision of the United States is completely unrecognizable and yet seems all too plausible.
I have never been a huge fan of short stories. I prefer to seek my teeth into something meatier, a novel. Short story collections by a single author have always felt particularly unsatisfying to me. Invariably, the stories vary in quality but share similar themes, insights, and style, so that they all start to run together and no one story stands out in mind. A short story collection doesn’t seem to impact me the way a novel does.
This year in particular, I have read several anthologies chosen for a specific theme, and I’ve found these collections to be much more satisfying reads. It takes a good editor, and I think when it comes to choosing genre fiction, John Joseph Adams has a track record you can count on. He chooses stories from a wide range of authors, ranging from the can’t-miss classics to very contemporary writing. The stories are a well-balanced mix of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and that blend of genre with realistic fiction that can be called slipstream. Adams presents a comprehensive take on his themes that will give any new reader to the subgenre a terrific grounding as well as add several more authors to your reading list.
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a collection of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, which examine surviving the end of the world from every angle, from the religious to the posthuman to the mundane. It’s worth reading just for the classic and rarely collected story “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. This excellent collection introduced me to Paolo Bacigalupi.
Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories is the strongest of the three anthologies I read, a real retrospective of dystopian literature. There are so many essential stories here by world-class authors: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson; “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin; “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick; and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut–just to name a small sampling. A story by a new-to-me author, “Evidence of Love in Case of Abandonment” by Mary Rickert, absolutely terrified me.
Other Worlds Than These: Stories of Parallel Worlds is a balanced mix of science fiction multiverses and fantasy wonderlands, all about people traveling to alternate realities and what they find there. While there are not as many classics in this collection (barring a terrific old story by Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”), there were plenty of new discoveries by such contemporary authors as Kelly Link and Jeff VanderMeer. “[a ghost samba]” by Ian McDonald just blew my mind.
A well-edited anthology can be a great introduction to a genre you’ve been wanting to try and a good way to discover new writers.
I recently was discussing with friends this new survivalist phenomenon. It is not so new, of course, but the meme that the apocalypse is coming soon has gone mainstream to an alarming degree, infecting people who otherwise seemed rational. Everyone seemed to know someone who had fully bought into the survivalist apocalyptic delusions that LaPierre espouses in this article, as one example. These same delusions are propagated every minute on the airwaves, and repetition leads to belief. These people are living in a dystopia entirely manufactured in their own worst imaginings of what humanity can be. They have decided that real life is a Mad Max movie and not what they see outside their own window.
When people manufacture a dystopia out of their most base assumptions about humanity and project that onto actual reality, in some ways they are elevating themselves in the ongoing story of our species. They live in a pivotal time, and by making themselves one of the elite who knows what’s coming and is prepared for it, they are positioned to play an important role in the climax of our shared story. The problem is that that their reality in no way resembles what the rest of us experience every day. And yet we must deal with the all-too-real side effects, which include more guns and gun violence, ineffectual government and neglect of the very real challenges that our species does face.
How easy it is for groups of people to come together and convince one another that the very worst is happening. Imagine what we could accomplish if we came together and convinced ourselves that the very best thing we could do is create a better world, for all of us.