Word of the Worlds March 2017

March 2017

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2016 was "surreal." For 2017, my money is on "dystopia." Shortly after the inauguration, 1984, that classic high-school-assigned-reading story of dystopia, rocketed to the top of bestseller lists nationwide. And for good reason. It's a great book with a lot of unsettlingly prescient aspects: newspeak, Big Brother, doublethink, and more. President Trump’s prolific lies, his refusal to concede even when confronted by evidence, and the spin attempt to explain those lies away as “alternative facts” fit neatly into Orwell’s dire, dour tale. (On a tangent, Ursula K. LeGuin most excellently and definitively clarified the difference between “alternative facts” and the fabrications of science fiction in a letter to The Oregonian. This was in response to a boneheaded reader’s attempt to lump Spicer, Bannon, and Trump in with legendary scifi writers like Arthur C. Clarke and LeGuin herself.)

As many have pointed out, 1984 really only gets some of it right, and there are many other books whose vision of doom and gloom have proven just as--if not more--accurate. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presents a more American version of the totalitarian state where dominion is achieved and maintained through entertainment, distraction, and consumerism. And recently Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale came roaring back into relevancy not because of a TV show in the works but because of, among other things, an Oklahoma lawmaker’s comments to the effect that women were “hosts” for their babies. 

As a genre, dystopic fiction has always been about the hypothetical. In fact, turning to Merriam-Webster again, dystopia is defined as “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized, often fearful, lives.” Writers of dystopic fiction project what they see around them forward, speculating on the ramifications of a current course of events or way of thinking. The Handmaid’s Tale lashed out at anti-feminist movements during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and Octavia Butler’s Parable books written during the 90s were born of mounting concerns over environmental stewardship, corporate interests, and religious fundamentalism .

This is why classic dystopic fiction novels, for all their predictions, can feel outdated. Set in the future, they are nevertheless about the present. Orwell’s 1984 London was an extension of 1940s London, grimy and half-starved by war-time rationing. It’s worth revisiting these great books (and via the generosity of some of our customers, we’ve been literally giving away copies of 1984), and there are many, many, many lists right now, but here at DIESEL we want to encourage readers to take note of some of the current visions of dystopia being written. They’re coming from all over the world, and they’re voices in the wilderness calling attention to things happening around us right now. Just remember one thing: as Naomi Klein points out, while it’s easy to despair at all the clouds on the horizon, the important thing is to do something. Read more, get out there, and get active.

Check out our list of Dystopia Beyond 1984 after the Book Reviews section below.

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Book Reviews

Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome
Serge Brussolo

The Deep Sea Diver's Syndrome is exemplary scifi. It has a cinematic quality that somehow calls to mind both Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 60s Parisian noirs like the great Le Samourai. As a story about entering dreams, Inception will be the inevitable comparison, but where Nolan's dream worlds were stale and rather unimaginative, the oneiric capers of David, the dream-diver, are absolute trips. His dream heists are slippery, indistinct but for the details immediately focused on, apt to change without warning, and influenced strongly and wildly by errant thoughts. Through this thrilling and gorgeously written tale of a desperate man against the ropes, Brussolo examines the value of art and the artist, the real vs. the ideal, the loneliness of existence, and happiness as an end to justify any means. -- Chris P.

Norse Mythology
Neil Gaiman
Norse mythology was primarily an oral tradition, only being compiled in prose and verse years after Christianity had driven the worship of the old gods out of northern Europe. If you find yourself bereft of viking friends but still want to get a feel for what it may have been like to hear those stories told beneath a blanket of stars, in an ancient forest, then Neil Gaiman's new book may be just for you. It is simple, straightforward, and as close to a verbal retelling as the written word can be. This book is perfect for those who want to get a view of the tales that have influenced so much of Gaiman's fiction. -- David C.

All Our Wrongs Today
Elan Mastai
I keep trying to tell myself I am through with male fantasies, but then I get sucker punched by a really good one.

Mastai must either be super woke or just have amazing instincts, because he dances right up to the edge of a number of problematic elements that usually drive me insane (including much of what enraged me about The Lives of Tao), and then he tweaks them, or subverts them just so. This is a very, very clever book; it's a finely crafted instrument that Mastai has strung with tons of tropes -- which he then twangs and plucks and makes dance in a unique, deeply satisfying way. I found it romantic and poignant and philosophically challenging.

Mastai approaches time travel in a manner I'd never encountered in any other story -- although weirdly, not long after I read it, I picked up The Man From Primrose Lane, which utilizes a similar concept, but completely defangs the idea. Similarly, the recent Dark Matter plays with alternate universes and identity much as Mastai does in All Our Wrong Todays, but again, I found Mastai's version toothier and more dynamic. That said, if you liked either of those books, I think you will love this one.

All Our Wrong Todays is a book by a man, about a man, in which the female characters are all secondary to the male protagonist's story and don't really have agency -- and yet, it's also such a rich, human story that I pretty much do not care. Would I prefer to read a version of this book with a woman at its core? Absolutely. But mostly I'm just so happy that this one exists. -- Anna K.

 

Dystopia Beyond 1984
(Contemporary voices, contemporary concerns)

First let me say, by all means, please read 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, It Can't Happen Here, We, The Children of Men, and all those classic works of dystopic fiction that maybe you last encountered as an assignment. Having said that, don't miss these recently published books that cast our current ills forward and speculate the way only fiction can:

 

There's a reason Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal's seventh novel made the longlist for all of France's prestigious awards and won the Grand Prix du Roman when it was published in 2015. Explicitly paying tribute to Orwell's classic, Sansal combines omnipresent surveillance with religious authoritarianism in this tale of a man in search of a city free of religion's yoke.


The Peripheral - William Gibson
Two timelines crash together in Gibson's latest book: a near-future that seems all-too near where pharmaceuticals are commonplace diversions and there are few jobs to be had, particularly in America's rural South; and a far-future were the world has been largely depopulated post-Singularity, and reality TV has been taken to an unsettling new level. Once again, Gibson hits us with a bold, speculative imagination that verges on prophetic.



Radiant Terminus - Antoine Volodine
Antoine Volodine (aka Lutz Bassmann, Manuela Draeger, and many others) is a bold, experimental writer like no other. For years, he has been creating a web of works that cross-reference each other, a fictional literary movement (post-exoticism) that his alter egos practice, and a vision of a surreal, apocalyptic, dystopic future. His latest book takes place after the fall of the Second Soviet Union, when radiation poisons the land, and in a small, remote commune, a petty despot tyrannizes family, friends, and foes alike.  


A Planet for Rent - Yoss
So thinly-veiled a critique on Cuba's "Special Period" in the 1990s that Yoss still can't get this book published in his home country, A Planet for Rent portrays a human population dominated by vastly superior aliens. But the real villains are the people of the Planetary Tourism Agency, a human puppet government that sells out its own people to the alien overlords.

 


The Queue - Basma Abdel Aziz
Opaque bureaucracy a la Kafka's The Trial meets Orwell's vision of government usage of doublespeak at full force. While The Queue doesn't really have any scifi to it--the unnamed Middle Eastern city strongly resembles Cairo post-Arab Spring--its grim portrayal of hope in the face of futility makes it resonate in a way at once disturbing and familiar.