Night of the Living Dead / *****

909_bd_box_34x490_originalI’ve seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead more times than almost any other horror movie (with the possible exception of Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the few films I put on equal footing with Romero’s stone cold classic). Every time, I worry that I might enjoy it less, that this might be the time that I question whether my love of it is unjustified, and every time, I love it even more, finding more and more evidence that the original Night is one of the greatest horror movies ever made – a film that’s undeniably of a time fraught with anxiety and fears about racial unrest and an unpopular war, and one that reflects those worries, making it impossible to look away.

It’s this aspect of Night that I found myself thinking most about on this rewatch (which, incidentally, was also my first watch of Criterion’s new 4K restoration – it is a knockout, plain and simple, and a revelation). In so many ways, Night of the Living Dead is a film that bridges two eras of horror. We begin in the 1950’s, with camp, exaggeration, and mannered performances; we end in the 1960’s, with no justice, no easy answers, and no flinching from the nightmare of the world. (A lot of spoilers are going to follow; this is more of an essay than a review.)

Look, for instance, at the opening scenes of the movie. A brother and sister arrive in a graveyard to pay their respects to their long dead father. The film looks cheap and B-movie level, at best, at this point. The performances are broad, the dialogue mannered, the banter overwritten. That first zombie attack? It’s ridiculous. It’s a man basically playacting as Frankenstein(‘s monster), with a death that’s so bloodless we don’t even know if it’s actually a death, followed by a hurried, not particularly urgent escape.

So far, so good. This is familiar territory for 1950’s monster flick fans. A lot of fun; in theory, it could be scary, but mainly, it’s silliness, and a good time at the movies.

But then the film starts to change a little. Just a little, though. Sure, there’s Barbara, portrayed by Judith O’Dea in a mannered, B-level performance of hysteria, anchoring the movie squarely in the genre of the 1950’s. Nonetheless, there are signs that things aren’t quite what we think. A surprisingly graphic corpse rotting upstairs. The arrival of our new hero – Ben, an African-American man, whose blackness feels revolutionary, and yet the film leaves it uncommented upon. More than that, there’s the sharp contrast between O’Dea’s performance and that of Duane Jones, who feels more naturalistic, grounded – more in line with the naturalistic feel of performances we were starting to see in the new Hollywood wave. Still, setting aside these brief moments, the whole thing generally feels like a low-budget monster movie, and that’s no bad thing. For a while, our characters are talking inside a house, rather than fighting zombies. They’re making plans, and the glimpses of the zombies are brief and sporadic.

Obviously, the film is going to change, and change drastically, after the end of the time in the house. On this watch, though, I was more and more aware of how Romero was gradually tossing in more and more elements of 1960’s film, letting them sit in sharp contrast to the 1950’s elements. The cast continues to split, with most of our protagonists turning in 1950’s square performances, but there’s a greater and greater sense of divide between them and Jones. That finds a mirror all the way down to the various newscasts, which vacillate between War of the Worlds-style commentary and visceral newsreel footage, the latter of which features yet another grounded, realistic performance by George Kosana, playing a local sheriff who’s leading zombie-killing posses.

What’s more, there’s a creeping dread that what’s outside isn’t as safe as we thought it was. The news reports start drifting from 1950’s cheese (“The dead have begun to walk!”) to more brutal, disturbing claims of cannibalism and mutilation. The brief zombie forays get more violent, with one intruding hand being slowly torn apart by a hammer. There’s a sense that the child downstairs might not survive the night. In other words, there’s a slowly growing sense that the rules as we know them aren’t applying anymore.

And then, our heroes make an effort to fill up a truck with gas, and all hell breaks loose. Our teenage couple dies – not in a bloodless knock to the head like Johnny in the opening’s scene, but in a ball of flame that burns them alive. Ben is nearly left to die thanks to the cowardice of the surviving white male lead. Suddenly, the film isn’t fun anymore. People are dying, and not in safe ways.

All that before the zombies literally tear the victims apart, chewing and feasting on their flesh in gory, graphic ways – ripping the flesh off of severed hands, fighting over slippery intestines, and worse, thanks to the truly disturbing foley work.

Even in a day and age where zombie gore is nearly passe thanks to shows like The Walking Dead, there’s something shocking and unforgettable about Night‘s gore, and it’s in no small part because of how long the film takes to get to it. Before the gore, there’s been a sense that we’re in an old monster movie. After the horrifying death of the teenagers and their graphic dismemberment, though, we can’t hide from this world anymore – the rules as we know them seem to have been thrown away.

What could be more appropriate than that for a movie made in a decade where the facade was ripped off of race relations, forcing Americans to grapple with their own complicity in oppression and cruelty? Or for a decade in which footage was coming through on the nightly news of wartime violence, uncensored and unedited, to say nothing of the wartime crimes being committed?

From there, there’s no going back. A child brutally and graphically murders her mother, stabbing her over, and over, and over, and over, until we just want it to stop. Ben – our hero, our protagonist, the one decent man – kills a man, not because he’s a zombie, but because he almost let him die. It’s murder, plain and simple, and even with Ben’s successive killing of a mother and child because they’ve turned, there’s a sense that we’ve crossed another line, one in which morality is gone, too. Barbara? She doesn’t make it either, pulled away by her own brother. Even those we love turn against us in Night, making us question whether we can truly know what’s in anyone’s heart. And in the midst of all of it, we catch a glimpse of that zombie from the opening scenes. He’s unchanged – still lurching, no more graphic than he was – and yet, he’s not funny anymore. None of it is. Is it just part of the way the film comes full circle, ending where it began? Or is it a darker comment on how this horror has been underneath the surface all along, and we’ve just been blind to it – the same way so much of America was blind to the horrors of war, or racial intolerance?

And then there’s the ending. Not giving his an audience even a moment to relax as he builds to the unforgettable final moments, Romero fills the scene with loaded images: cops holding back straining German Shepherd dogs, wandering patrols in grassy fields picking off people one by one. It’s impossible to see these patrols and not find them horrifying, no matter if intellectually we tell ourselves that they’re hunting zombies – it’s too close to what we’ve seen on the news every night, and the enjoyment they’re feeling is too nauseating,

Too nauseating, even before they shoot Ben as an afterthought. No big music sting. No teased hope. Just a short, brutal death – a betrayal of any hope that good might win, and an image whose resonance hits home even after 50 years. (Maybe more so, in a world after countless examples of black men killed for the color of their skin.)

And then, Romero cuts to newsprint-style credits, but even there, there’s no escape. We watch as Ben – our hero, the voice of reason, the survivor – is impaled by hooks, tossed on a blazing inferno. The still images give way to a towering inferno of corpses.

Cut to black, and our journey is complete. We started in the world of the 1950’s. Threats were childish, and we could joke about them. The world made sense. Heroes would win, villains would lose, and order would be restored. There were risks and uncertainties, sure, but the world tended towards justice. White heroes would thrive, would be brave. Villains were easy to identify.

But we end in the 1960’s. We have met the enemy, and he is us (an “us” that might be “humanity in general,” or just “suburban white people”…or maybe both). Racial violence is impossible to ignore. The authorities are not our saviors. The world doesn’t make sense. Death is ugly. Humans are cruel to each other. You can try to cling to the old ways – like Barbara did, acting as though this is nothing but men in rubber suits and it’s all going to be fine – you won’t make it. But even those who adapt, like Ben, sometimes have no chance. And sadly, even fifty years later, every bit of it still hits home relentlessly. Authorities still kill black men without remorse. Men with guns kill and feel like big men because of it. War makes every brutality acceptable. Humanity is willing to turn on itself at a moment’s notice. In other words, despite us “moving forward” as a human race, every bit of the ugliness and nastiness uncovered in the film is still relevant and trenchant today.

And that’s far, far scarier than any zombie ever could be.

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The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin / *****

lathe-of-heavenEven before her recent passing, I’ve known that my lack of experience with the works of Ursula K. Le Guin was a shortcoming I needed to rectify. The only book of hers I’ve read was The Dispossessed, a book I admired a lot while ultimately finding a bit dry and didactic. (It’s also a book I plan on revisiting soon, ideally after reading some more Le Guin and now that I know what to expect, to see if I feel differently about it.) And, as authors paid tribute to the legendary author in the wake of her passing, one novel that I saw mentioned again and again was The Lathe of Heaven, which I knew nothing about.

And, man, am I glad I checked it out. Often viewed as Le Guin’s tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick, The Lathe of Heaven undeniably feels a lot like a Dick novel, with a surreal hook used to explore philosophical questions about reality and who we really are. But as you’d expect from Le Guin, there’s no shortage of more social questions raised here, from the nature of peace to the dangers of global warming, all done within a great narrative that twists and turns underneath you.

The hook is simple enough: there’s a man named George Orr (yes, the half allusion is probably intentional) who is scared to dream, because his dreams become real. But what makes this hard to prove is that his dreams don’t just create reality; they rewrite it, making whatever he dreams not only true, but making it always have been true, so that no one remembers the change but him. That’s true until George goes to court-mandated therapy, where his therapist seems to be aware of the change – and his ability to possibly control George’s ability.

Like she did in The Dispossessed, Le Guin explores any number of ideas about utopias, the role of the individual in society, the question of the greater good, and her concerns about utilitarianism. At what point should the individual give way for society? Where is the cutoff between acceptable sacrifice for the greater good and too much? And what is the responsibility of one person to give it all for the world? But whereas The Dispossessed engaged with these ideas in the forms of detailed discussions, The Lathe of Heaven lets them remain more subtextual, unfolding as a battle of wills between George, his therapist, and a lawyer George brings in to help him. More than that, The Lathe of Heaven unfolds as a bizarre thriller of sorts, with reality constantly bending and shifting underneath us, and Le Guin able to explore the ramifications of so many changes, and what it would take to fix some of the problems in our world.

It all adds up to a great book, one that I really enjoyed. And if it’s a bit derivative of PKD, well, that’s okay, because Le Guin makes it her own, following the political and social ramifications of her conceit, not just the philosophical ones. It’s a book I really enjoyed and absolutely couldn’t put down, and has me eager to dive into more of an author I don’t feel like I ever properly appreciated in her lifetime.

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Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.

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The Changeling, by Victor LaValle / *****

9780812995947One of the things I most love about Victor LaValle’s work – and there’s a lot there to love – is the way he so ably mixes complex, relevant themes with original, strange tales on genre fiction, allowing the two to play off of each other. From the racial explorations and secret societies to Big Machine to the class and mental explorations of The Devil in Silver, LaValle grapples with difficult, important questions, all while crafting narratives that subvert your expectations and embrace their genre roots wholeheartedly. LaValle’s most recent – and most celebrated – work, The Ballad of Black Tom, did both of these things, telling a Lovecraftian horror story that also served as a critique of Lovecraft’s toxic racism.

All of which to say, it’s not a surprise that The Changeling has more on its mind than simply a crackling good genre tale, though it’s undeniably that. Nor is it surprising that the novel speaks to concerns of race, of ethnicity, of class, and even of toxic masculinity. What is surprising, though – and part of what makes The Changeling so excellent – is that LaValle’s focus is on something as intimate, heartfelt, and earnest as fatherhood. Yes, LaValle is still fascinated by bigger social issues – there’s a huge way in which the book is about fatherhood in the face of gender expectations of our modern world – but at its core, this is about something universal and fundamentally human.

It’s also, of course, a fantastic piece of genre fiction, one that starts simply enough – with the meeting of a boy and a girl – before slowly turning into something far darker and stranger. It’s the story of a rare book dealer named Apollo, his librarian wife, Emma, and their first child. It’s a wondrous moment in any parents’ life, but as Apollo basks and glows with pride, Emma starts to feel less and less comfortable and more frightened – and then things take a horrific, nightmarish turn.

What follows is a strange, unsettling journey into something that lays beneath the polished veneer of modern parenthood – into fears and anxieties, into toxic relationships and vicious misogyny, and even into old legends and fairy tales. And if you know the significance of the title, some of it won’t be a surprise, but much still will…but what ultimately results is almost a dark, primal fairy tale, one in which archetypes battle and morals are unclear, where lessons are taught and the cruelty of the world is laid bare. That it somehow manages to be a fairy tale and simultaneously an intensely contemporary story is only further testament to LaValle’s skill and ability to mix genre.

Just as he did in Big Machine and The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle effortlessly swings between grounded, realistic fiction and strange, inexplicable horror, horror that’s all the more effective for how abrupt his shifts are. Because, yes, The Changeling is a fairy tale about parenting, but it’s also a horror story, both about the evil that humans do and about something darker and more primal – and it’s quite possible that the human evil is far, far worse, especially as LaValle carefully positions it into our modern world (when one vile character starts spouting off about “beta males” and “cucks” late in the book, it feels horribly inevitable).

But what makes The Changeling work is that more than any of those things, it’s the story of a man who loves his son and would do anything for his family. And that lets the book hold up all of the social commentary, all of the thoughtful points, all of the allegories, because more than any of that, it works as a story of a man driven by love – a character we care about, and whose trials and challenges resonate with anyone who’s ever feared for their child.

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Recent Read Round-Up

What with one thing and another lately (mainly it being the end of the school year, which results in a hectic time for me), I realized today I’ve been letting some of my recent reads pile up without having been reviewed. So, today, let me go over four books I’ve read in the past week or so – three copies provided for review, and one for class purposes.

thehalloweenchildren-ebook-largeThe Halloween Children, a collaboration between Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss due out in June, boasts a pretty great structure, and for about 90% of its length, that structure and the unfolding dread of the book will keep you hooked. It’s the story of what happened one Halloween at a suburban apartment complex, with the tale told by two different narrators: a husband and wife duo, writing at two different times. The husband seems to be writing after all of this happened; meanwhile, the wife’s narration is as everything unfolds, in the form of monologues to a marriage counselor. To say the marriage is dysfunctional would be an understatement; there are power games between the two of them, distrust, and favorites between the children (split along gender lines). But through it all, Freeman and Prentiss keep the tension raising, leaving us wondering how these parents are unable to see how wrong and strange things are getting with their children – and in the complex as a whole. And all of it is intriguing and weird, playing like a horror variation on Gone Girl, where we’re not sure which, if either, of our narrators is reliable – that is, until the ending, when everything comes apart. Without getting into spoilers, The Halloween Children ends up throwing both of our narrators under the bus, leaving us unsure whether much of anything happened, before bluntly spelling out a ham-fisted moral and lecturing the reader. It’s a fizzle of an ending, which is a shame, because it’s an engaging, fast read up until that point. Rating: ***

Dean F. Wilson has become a reliable presence in my review book rotation, and a welcome one; over the past couple of years, I devoured his Great Iron War, finding myself swept up in the rich world that he created. 17399863So when Wilson offered me a chance to check out his fantasy series, it wasn’t much of a choice for me – I knew I was on board. Nonetheless, I think I was surprised and deeply impressed by The Call of Agon, which is the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Telm trilogy. This is high fantasy in a Tolkien vein, make no mistake about it; there are epic poems, old legends, numerous races, and dialogue – and narration – that can feel stilted, even archaic, until you get into the rhythms. And yet, once again, Wilson mixes well his world-building and his character work, populating an astonishingly complex and rich fantasy world with interesting characters who veer from their archetypal nature slowly but inexorably. The Call of Agon can feel slow and dense at times, and I can’t say that there weren’t a couple of times that I felt a little overwhelmed with the world-building, the history, and some of the speechifying going on with some of the characters. And yet, the story hooked me in, giving me interesting, flawed characters that I found intriguing, and letting its fantastical epic play out in unexpected, interesting ways that broke from convention appealingly. The Call of Agon may be almost too high fantasy for its own good, but none of that detracts from the incredible world-building, the great character work, and the compelling story that draws you in. And once again, Dean F. Wilson has hooked me in. Rating: ****

Sometimes, a gamble on a review copy pays off. Such is the case with Ray Else’s cover109911-mediumOur Only Chance: An A.I. Chronicle, a book whose description intrigued me enough to check it out. It’s the story of the first true A.I., an entity named Einna. Programmed by a brilliant young woman named Manaka, Einna is a technological breakthrough, but her creation raises any number of questions, ranging from the practical (is there a difference in Einnas if we duplicate the program?) to the metaphysical (does Einna have a soul?). Else’s novel navigates these questions ably and adroitly, tying them into the plot, which involves not only Einna’s evolution as a thinking creation, but the shady Yakuza ties that give the business the money it needed to get started. When I requested Our Only Chance, that Yakuza element made me think that I was getting something more cyberpunk than I got; nonetheless, Our Only Chance won me over surprisingly quickly, letting its story develop and raising fascinating questions without ever becoming preachy or didactic. Instead, Else follows Einna’s quest for self-actualization and lets it dictate the novel’s ideas and thoughts, letting the questions feel organic but no less thoughtfully approached. Indeed, that Yakuza element ends up being the one distracting element of the book, turning the ending into something a little more disappointing than it otherwise would be (without getting into spoiler territory, it turns the book’s final philosophical question into a moral one; moreover, it weighs the scales so heavily that it becomes not even a debate). Still, it’s rich fare, and if it feels like it could use a little more fleshing out, well, that’s to the book’s credit – not enough books leave you feeling like there’s more to say. Rating: ****

Finally, thanks to my recent class curriculum, I’ve been covering Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and it led me to be curious about Huxley’s follow-up, Brave New World Revisited (available for free at huxley.net). 81ldr2bwow7lA series of essays written over 25 years after the initial publication of Brave New WorldRevisited finds Huxley looking at his novel and assessing how accurate he was. His basic thesis? If anything, Brave New World was optimistic in thinking it would take us a few hundred years to get to that point; to the Huxley of Revisited, we’ll be there within decades. Revisited isn’t a novel, and it isn’t interested in being easily accessible; this is political theory, biological discussion, historical analysis, and more, all filtered through Huxley’s unique perspective. Revisited finds Huxley comparing his novel to Orwell’s 1984, discussing how Hitler and Stalin both change – and fail to change – some of his original ideas, noting the growth in advertising and television jingles, and just generally realizing that time has only made Brave New World more and more relevant. Sadly, the same applies to a modern reader, who will find some pain in Huxley’s comments about the perils of democracy being open to manipulation by sound bites and emotional bias, the willingness of people to be distracted by fleeting entertainments while real problems go unaddressed, and the unease of a society to ever be questioned. Yes, some of Huxley’s issues are out of date – he remains preoccupied with subliminal and hypnopaedic teachings, neither of which ever proved successful or worth continuing. But that goes for surprisingly little of this book, which instead draws out much of what makes Brave New World so uncomfortably relevant, allows Huxley’s brilliant and odd mind to shine through, and leaves you uncomfortable and disquieted about the state of the world. A compelling, powerful companion piece to a depressingly relevant novel. Rating: *****

Amazon: The Halloween ChildrenThe Call of AgonOur Only Chance | Brave New World Revisited

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley / *****

bravenewworld_firsteditionIt’s been maybe 15-20 years since I first read Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s iconic dystopian novel about a society engineered from birth for stability and calm. At the time I read it, I was a bit disappointed; while the world Huxley created was interesting, I couldn’t help but hold the novel up against Orwell’s 1984 and find it lacking. Mind you, some of that had to be Orwell’s themes of language and words – catnip for an English major – but even so, I largely dismissed Brave New World as a lesser, less interesting book, and moved on.

Coming back to it all this time later (and putting it more in its proper chronology, as a work that could not have helped but to influence Orwell), there’s no denying that I underrated Brave New World in many ways, even if I still don’t love it the way many do. Like many dystopian novels, the central premise of the novel – the astonishing society that Huxley has created – can’t help but overshadow the middling plot, which feels a bit haphazard at times, and undeniably becomes didactic and preachy at others. (Before you say it: re-reading 1984 last year reminded me that Orwell has his own issues with plot and preachiness, to be sure. So I’m well aware of the issues.)

But for all of that, none of it really keeps Brave New World from feeling astonishingly ahead of its time – vivid, modern, and frighteningly relevant in so many ways. From the mass-produced entertainments to a tiered society engineered from birth to keep people in their proper place, from a medicated calm to a need to consume every new product, Brave New World doesn’t just feel relevant; it feels prophetic, hitting hard in ways that I didn’t remember or appreciate on that first read. Much of that, of course, comes to the ways that Huxley spends so many early chapters immersing us in his strange world: touring the birth centers, hearing the methods used to build castes, eavesdropping in on the sleep teachings – all of it helps to build Huxley’s vision of a world dedicated to stability, order, and structure. And that’s before we start dipping our toes into the bizarre sexuality on display at any given point…

So where does Brave New World fall short? For much of the early going, it’s great, giving us a Winston Smith-style hero who doesn’t fit in to this society, and wants to push against it all in ways both quiet and outspoken. It’s when Huxley abruptly shifts us to a new protagonist, I think, that the book stumbles; it ends up feeling like a jarring swap, a bump that throws out our investment in Bernard and this world, and forces us into a new perspective more closely aligned with our own feelings about this place. If anything, this secondary protagonist is a stronger one, and a more gripping one…so why take so long to introduce him, and why leave Bernard behind to the degree that we do? It’s a frustrating choice, and one that I still think holds the book back from being as great as it could be.

But, still, for all that, Brave New World earns its place in the canon and then some, simply by virtue of its rich imagination, and the thoroughness of its world. Even beyond that, there’s the intriguing character beats – I had forgotten, for instance, the way that one character’s dialogue so heavily draws on Shakespearean allusions, but done in such a way that it constantly reflects on the character in ways both direct and indirect. There are the religious themes, the economic comments, the blending of sex and violence – Huxley’s book is nothing if not ambitious, and if it can’t always tie it all together, you can’t help but forgive it for making the attempt in the first place. No, Brave New World doesn’t work flawlessly; no, it doesn’t quite hold up to Orwell’s towering achievement. But taken on its own terms, it’s a fascinating, ambitious, incredibly rich book, and one that’s hard to imagine the current wave of dystopian fiction existing without.

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Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.

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