Archive for dystopia

Tales from the Loop

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2020 by xi'an

Yet another indulgence during the coronavirus quarantine was watching the series Tales from the Loop (on Amazon Prime), a science-fiction show mixing the mundane with the supernatural, as far as space opera as one can imagine. No superheroes or super-villains, but simple glitches in an otherwise sleepy Midwest small town, operating a synchrotron that opens possibilities beyond the rules of physics, especially about time. A sort of minimalist dystopia. Some critics complained at the pace or the lack of plot, which is completely beyond the point imho, as the inner life of the characters overwhelms the need for action, if any, and leaves one with bittersweet regrets in the same way closing a Maupassant or a Brontë novel makes one feel sorry for the characters and their lost opportunities. Amazingly, the idea for the show started from the eerily beautiful digital paintings of Simon Stålenhag, where he inserted rusting robots and other futuristic but decaying elements in otherwise old-fashioned (I mean from the 1980’s!, with floppy disk computers!) semi-urban landscapes. The main characters are often children and teenagers, who either perceive better than their elders the surreal capacities of their environment or are yet able to question reality into a learning experience. Rarely a happy one, although the episode corresponding to the above painting is a moving exception. Each episode is directed by a different person, including Mark Romanek (who filmed the dystopian Never let me go) and Jodie Foster for the last one. Which explains for different moods from one to the next although there is never a discontinuity in the narrative. And the hauntingly beautiful music is from Philip Glass. Highly recommended!

ready player one [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by xi'an

This book was presumably suggested to me by an Amazon AI based on my previous browsing, and I got intrigued enough by the summary plot and the above cover to order it while in Austin and read it on the way back to Paris. The setting of the story is a catastrolyptic near-future (2044) where gas is a luxury and most of the planet is unemployed and spends its time in a all-immersive free-access virtual reality. Five teenagers join million others in a quest to win a fortune… Against an evil corporation that seeks this fortune and control of the virtual universe. The story revolves around this quest, with some forays in the real world, and a reflection on characters who only know each other via their avatars. Other books based on videogaming come to mind, from Ender’s Game to Neuromancer, to Diamond Age, to REAMDE… But this one is much more focussed on the nature of video-gaming and on the feature of such of a society. I enjoyed the book to the point of staying up late for several evenings in a row, even though the plot is somewhat weak at the societal level, i.e. in describing the economic dynamics of such a society, but setting the games, movies and music themes within the 80’s is obviously catering to readers like me (although I miss a large part of the references). The book was published in 2011, so this is not any recent publication, but there is a movie by Steven Spielberg coming out soon.

Wool (book review)

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , on August 19, 2013 by xi'an

Thanks to Nicolas Chopin, I took Wool to Croatia as part of my summer read survival package! This book actually started as a short story, then as short stories, written directly for Kindle by the author Hugh Howey, and the printed book is “only” a post-processing of those short stories. Two more books are planned in the series. Look out for spoilers in the following!

“And that’s when Juliette realised what she must do. A project to put the wool back from everyone’s eyes, a favor to the next fool who slipped up or dared to hope aloud. And it would be easy. ” Wool

The plot of Wool is rather standard: a group of people forced to live in autarcy in an underground shelter because of a contaminated outside world. The shelter (called the silo) is highly functional and unravels to be designed against the outside contamination, which leads some inhabitants of the silo to question the reason for being stuck there for generations, with  no memory of the catastrophic events that led to this collective internment. Some among those wonder hard enough to challenge the authorities of the silo and, while most of those are exiled outside to a quick and painful death, one manages to escape and eventually uncovers the truth. Or part of the truth.

While I generally like those post-apocalyptic and closed universes where the inhabitants have to recycle and reinvent everything from the available material, a modern version of the Robinson (Crusoe vs. Swiss family) novels, I am a wee disappointed with this aspect of Wool, because the silo was supposedly created towards this goal of hosting a group of people for centuries and thus should have the proper amenities, without technicians loosing track of things like radio transmission in so few generations. (Of course, there is this special drug inoculated to [almost] all inhabitants of the silo that is erasing past memories but…)  The power struggle in Wool also sounds weak in that the domination of the IT unit should have been more obvious from the start. Reading the prologue to the second volume, Shift, I wonder how well it connects with the first one, if it may be trying too hard to explain the past and how the silo was designed with the catastrophe in mind. Overall, it reads more like young adult science fiction than a major book. But it was nonetheless enjoyable for a summer read!

The Windup Girl

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by xi'an

“The scientists here carry the haunted look of people who know they are under siege. They know that beyond a few doors, all manners of apocalyptic terrors wait to swallow them.”

The book by Paolo Bacigalupi was standing among a shelf of recommended reads at Waterstones near UCL, during my last visit there, and the connection with William Gibson made on the cover pushed me to buy the book. Plus the Hugo and Nebula Awards. And the cover, of course. I took advantage of this trip to Hamburg to read The Windup Girl and I found the book definitely a great read.

“Flotsam of the Old Expansion. An ancient piece of driftwood left at high tide, from the time petroleum was cheap and men and women crossed the globe in hours instead of weeks.”

The Windup Girl has indeed some flavour of Gibson’s Neuromancer and Stephenson’s Snow Crash, however the story is more psychological and less technological than those two classics. There is a darker tone to the novel, as Earth is suffering both from the end of oil and from various food plagues that destroyed most crops, not mentioning deadly new viruses. The new powers are the big genetically-engineered-seed producers, while part of the World has been eradicated. (The power is now produced by genetically engineered mammoths called megodonts.) And pollution is strictly kept under control.

“It has the markings of an engineering virus. DNA shifts don*t look like ones that would reproduce in the wild. Blister rust has no reason to jump the animal kingdom barrier. Nothing is encouraging it, it is not easily transferred. The differences are marked. It’s as though we’re looking into its future.”

The story is set in Thailand, which has somehow miraculously salvaged a huge seed bank and which manages to keep those crop companies at bay. Of course, things are deteriorating as the book begins, otherwise there would be no story. What I like the most about The Windup Girl is this bleak vision of a harsh future, set in Asia and told through four different story threads belonging to completely separate cultures (Thai, Chinese, American, and new-Japanese), thus avoiding the usual ethnocentrism of such novels. As mentioned above, the story is definitely not as technological or geeky as cyberpunk novels and it does not even qualify as genepunk, as the amount of genetics involved in the story is somehow limited (except for three newly created races all impacting the plot). But the dystopian universe created by Paolo Bacigalupi is definitely both convincing and mesmerising, while not requiring so many suspensions of belief. The characters are all well-set, with the proper degree of greyness in their ethics, and the political manoeuvring is realistic. I also feel The Windup Girl is quite in tune with (my) current worries about the future fate of humanity faced with rapid climate change, an increasing frequency of natural disasters, and correlated insect invasions. At last, the relation of some of the characters to (Thai) Buddhism is an interesting peculiarity of the novel. So a book truly worth recommending! (In Spanish, the title of the book is La Chica Mecánica, which I find less appealing that the multilayered Windup Girl! The multiple covers on this ‘Og page are actually virtual covers suggested by fans, follow the links to get the whole story.)