Tag Archives: dystopian novel

A Lovely Way to Burn: Louise Welsh

“What we should realize is, death comes for us all eventually.”

Louise Welsh’s novel, A Lovely Way to Burn is the first of the Plague Times Trilogy. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the book, as dystopian novels which depict a breakdown of society in a post apocalyptic world aren’t my favourite–mainly because I don’t like to think about how quickly civilization would melt down after some sort of global calamity.  That said, for me,  A Lovely Way to Burn was a riveting read which is primarily a crime novel set against a pandemic flu and the subsequent collapse of civilization.

It’s a hot summer, and London “had a hint of yellow to it,” but it’s not a sunny yellow, it’s a “septic” tint. The scene hints at a toxic, polluted world with dirty air, tainted water, and who knows what else. There are hints of sickness in the streets, and several people are coughing. Shopping channel hostess, Stevie Flint mingles with the crowds on her way to a date by her boyfriend of just a few months, the dashing Dr Simon Sharkey. When he doesn’t show, at first Stevie is just pissed off, and when there’s no apology or excuse forthcoming from Simon, she decides to go over to his flat, gather up the few personal belongings she left there, and drop off the keys.

A lovely way to burn

Stevie finds Simon dead in bed, supposedly of natural causes, and when she goes home she vomits. When she showers, she discovers a widespread rash:

Stevie dropped her bathrobe beside the shower, and stepped naked into the spray. Her body was covered in an angry, red rash that was starting to blister. She remembered radiation victims she had glimpsed in a documentary about Japan. The stained gown lay at her feet, like a dead thing. The atomic bomb had vaporized people leaving their shadows fixed to the wall. 

This is the beginning of a disease known as “the Sweats,” and Stevie is one of the early sufferers and a rare survivor. When she recovers, it’s to discover that the Sweats is ravaging London (and the rest of the world) with an ever rising death toll. Post sickness she is visited by Simon’s sister who gives Stevie a letter she found in Simon’s apartment. The letter tells Stevie that he’s hidden a laptop in her attic, and she has instructions to hand the laptop over to a work colleague and no one else….

From this point on, Stevie stubbornly pursues the truth of Simon’s death, but her quest is set against a pandemic flu, so with the police force severely undermanned, the death of one doctor is of no interest. Stevie is on her own.

Louise Welsh builds pulsing suspense with an expert hand. As Stevie tries to discover the truth, she’s swimming against the tide. Everyone is supposed to stay inside their homes in the futile hopes of avoiding infection, but Stevie travels to question people she’s never met before. The meltdown of society is swift and brutal–from people who attempt to lure Stevie from her car to the man she speeds off from when he tries to wave her down. We see society in freefall: lines of car lights at night as people flee the city, a body hanging from a railway bridge, looters, drug users unleashed at unguarded hospitals, a pub that’s taken over by drunks, whole blocks barricaded against outsiders. “The sweats is a call to all the scum of the earth to crawl out of their holes.

Suddenly she felt as if the wakening streets around her were an illusion that might be peeled back any time, to reveal another, shadow world that could suddenly drag you under without a word of warning.

And perhaps the penultimate frightening scene: the hospital that can no longer find a place to pile the dead:

The dead were everywhere. They were slumped on waiting-room chairs, like a Tory indictment against NHS inefficiency, stretched out on beds, sprawled across desks, or lay where they had fallen, limbs tangled in positions impossible to hold in life. 

I liked the character of Stevie–someone who’s relied on her looks to get things in life, and I liked the way Stevie abandoned this mechanism and instead opted for cropping her hair and donning Simon’s suit. Her looks are a way of opening doors when the book begins, but her looks lost their power as the Sweats gained hold. With death in everyone’s faces, people revert to who they ‘really’ are under the social veneer. We see selfish people, violent people, angry people, and Stevie who has survived, but may be a carrier of death, sheds that old faithful crutch of beauty and relies on her intelligence and tenacity instead.

Ultimately, Welsh shows effectively that when death stalks an entire civilisation, nothing matters anymore: not that promotion you’ve stressed about, money problems, tensions at work: all of that means nothing. Survival becomes paramount. It’s just that everyone has a different idea of how that can be achieved. And when death seems inevitable, people become single-mindedly focused on distractions: drugs, looting, booze, and isolation. It’s not a pretty scenario. The anger of one character who knows she’s going to die seems very real.

A Lovely Way to Burn was a fantastic riveting read that created an intense pandemic scenario I hope we never have to experience. This is a pageturner I finished in a day, and a book that makes my-best-of-year list.

I’ll be reading book 2: Death is a Welcome Guest soon, and book 3 No Dominion is due out next month. I took a look at the synopsis and Stevie is back in book 3.

Max’s review is here

 

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” (from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the debut novel from David Shafer pits three thirty-somethings against  ‘The Committee,’ a powerful, sinister organization that appears to infiltrate every layer of society.  While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a techno-dystopian thriller, it’s a dark-mirrored reflection of the world as we know it–a world in which technology advances have eroded privacy–those aspects of our lives that we have not chosen to share with governments, mega-corporations and/or the world in general.  Novels in this genre take risks and often don’t work, but Shafer carries the day with spiky humour, salient, identifiable issues and realistic characters, normal people who find themselves fighting against the sinister committee. The novel begins very strongly indeed, and when plausibility is stretched a little as the plot deepens, I was happy to go along for the ride.

WTFThis is the kind of novel where discussing too much of the plot will spoil the experience for other readers, so instead I’ll stay on safer ground by focusing on characterization and the author’s tone and style. Readers should not read this with the expectation that all will be resolved (is there a sequel in the pipeline?), so the conclusion may prove frustrating.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (and you can’t miss what that stands for) should appeal to fans of Duane Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie novels: Fun and Games, Hell and Gone, and Point and Shoot. Swierczynski’s trilogy begins with an overweight housesitter inadvertently stumbling across Hollywood Star Whackers. Each subsequent novel takes our hero deeper into a global conspiracy, and once you accept the initial premise, the impossible, the conspiracy theories, the shadowy power-brokers, our deepest fears and paranoias becomes strangely, and terrifyingly, possible, and that’s also the scenario with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

The novel begins by grounding us in the lives of three excellently drawn main characters: Leila, Mark and Leo–all in their 30s and all just a little bit lost when it comes to their place in the world. Persian-American Leila works in Myanmar with Helping Hands a “bush-league NGO.”  Intense and directed, she’s trying to establish a public health program but is making little headway when she stumbles across something she isn’t supposed to see. Bad things begin to happen to Leila and, more importantly, to her family back in America.  She’d chalk it all up to a horrible misunderstanding, some sort of error to be fixed with litigation,  but then she receives the tip that the actions against her family have been deliberately manufactured to divert her from asking questions.

Leo Crane, trust fund kid, failed bookshop owner (“he’d emptied his trust fund like a kid shaking a ceramic piggy bank,”) and fired daycare centre worker ends up in a strange rehab facility after his sisters jointly conduct an intervention. To Leo’s sisters, he’s good-hearted but going off the rails:

He drove a wine delivery truck, he drove a taxi; he was a mediocre waiter, a drunken bartender. The periods of hope and courage came less frequently. And as his twenties became his thirties, the landscape came to feature swamps of gloom doted with marshy hummocks of anxiety. He worked on getting better. He tried jogging; he limited his drinking; he sprinkled seeds in his yogurt. A girlfriend got him into yoga. He practiced having a good attitude. But it was trench warfare. He lost his yoga mat and had to buy another one. Then he lost that one and couldn’t see buying a third. He watched other people claim to enjoy drinking; they baffled him. The same people spoke of hangovers almost fondly, as evidence of their propensity to dissipation. His own hangovers were whole days mined with grim, churning thoughts, He saw therapists and psychiatrists; he tried Wellbutrin, Klonopin, Effexor, Celexa, Paxil, Xanax, Zoloft, and Lexapro. Also meditation, core work, and juice fasts. He cut out meat. Kept a garden. Clawed through months of clean living, then fell back into blurred days like and acrobat into a net.

“Tell me about the people who you say were watching you,” said the doctor.

Oh that. “You mean the paranoia, right?”

“If you call it paranoia, you will think I don’t believe you.”

After being fired from the daycare centre, a job Leo genuinely valued, he started a blog: I have Shared a Document with You–a venue for his conspiracy theory that a shadowy organization engineered a “massive plot to control all the information in the world.”  Certain he’s being followed and monitored, dropped supposedly due to ‘concerns’ by his pot dealer, Leo sinks into paranoia and isolation until his sisters intervene and toy with sending him to a mental health lock-up but finally agree to rehab. But in the rehab unit, Leo begins to wonder just how the doctor there knows all the little details of his life. Is the doctor even a real doctor?  There are brief moments of illumination in Leo’s life when “truth holes [..] flare” in his “field of vision” and appear to connect information. Is Leo paranoid or via his blog was he on to something big?

The third main character is Mark, the author of an immensely popular hip self-help book Bringing the Inside Out.  Mark, Leo’s former best friend from college, a vain, weak, self-centered dickhead catapulted to fame largely thanks to “craven SineCo squillionaire James Straw” whose “devotion” and patronage comes with a price. There’s a complex financial arrangement between James Straw and Mark, Straw’s “life coach” which includes Mark’s promotion of the Node, “SineCo’s newest gizmobauble,”  a “biometric and surveillance device.” Mark sees two diverging paths for his future, and Straw’s powerful friends make it clear that if he doesn’t sign on for the full programme as a SineCo executive, then his brief meteoric career as a celebrity is about to go down the toilet.

Opposing The Committee is an underground network known as Dear Diary which can be accessed in the Darknet through various portals, including one that appears to be a “house-swapping” site. Leila, unaware that she’s already picked a side, and unaware that “she could be extraordinarily renditioned from, like, a women’s toilet,” contacts Dear Diary for help, and then it’s down the rabbit hole…

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a great romp and yet still manages to be surprisingly prescient by maintaining just the right note of quirky, sharp-edged humour and serious, imminent threat. The author presents the 21st century of socialverses, and electronic gadgetry where technology is in every aspect of our lives and runs headlong into surveillance–a world in which “85 present of electronic correspondence (worldwide) and 100 percent of electronic correspondence (English-language) was run through a threat-sieve network commission by the U.S. government but increasingly outsourced to a consortium of private companies.”  This is a world in which special contact lenses exist that implement  “visual-channel-collection technology,” and private security firms possess extraordinary power to reach into and ruin people’s lives. Finally, the book isn’t about left or right politics (a few passages make that clear); the focus is on power.

Why didn’t she know more about computers? That knowledge suddenly seemed more important that feminist theory or eighties’ song lyrics, both of which she was well acquainted with. Computers had risen around her all her life, like a lake sneakily subsuming more and more arable land, but she’d never learned to write code or poke behind the icons or anything like that. She was like a medieval peasant confounded by books and easily impressed by stained glass.

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Lexicon by Max Barry

Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.

Back in 2002, I stumbled across the Australian author, Max Barry’s book Syrup. It was out of print at the time, but I snatched up several used copies and sent them to people who needed a good laugh. The feedback was unanimous, and Max made a few more fans. In 2003, he published Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel in which the planet has corporatized rather than globalized. Then came Company in 2006–a novel that returned to the humour to be found in skewering corporate culture. Machine Man in 2011 took us into science-fiction territory with a scientist who begins replacing his body parts with better, factory-made replacements. Max Barry’s novels mine society’s paranoias and the issue of individualism within a society/corporate structure that endorses, encourages and rewards conformity. And this brings me to 2103’s Lexicon, Max Barry’s fifth novel.

LexiconYou’d have to be deliberately avoiding the news not to hear/read recent stories about privacy. The battle for ‘Privacy’ is over, so we can shed a tear and feel a bit nostalgic. Privacy is a nebulous term, and anyone suspected of a crime loses that thin veil that kept their private life out of the public eye. Ok, so you’re not a criminal; these days with terrorism as the argument, we are all suspects. I’m thinking here about data mining and data collection: our phone conversations, our e-mails, anti-war protests, even our routines and habits:  Carnivore, Prism, NasrusInsightMagic Lantern, the MQ-9Reaper (great name btw). We live in fantastic times; it’s the sort of world imagined by Philip Dick.   Trust Max Barry to mine this rich field and produce a prescient, brilliant, intelligent, dystopian novel:  Lexicon: a nightmarish look at the ultimate privacy invasion–a book that pushes the boundaries of reality, and yet is so close, too close to an uncomfortable truth that the last frontier of privacy, the brain, is under assault. But we still have free will, don’t we?

The fact was, if you paid attention, people tried to persuade each other all the time. It was all they did.

And what if those persuaders had an unfair advantage, an incredible ability into the insights of your personality and decision making. What would happen if you could be persuaded to do anything?

Emily is a homeless 16 year old, hustling with cards on the street of San Francisco when she’s approached by a stranger who poses as a market researcher who claims he’s looking for “people who are persuasive and intransigent.” Emily accepts an offer to do “a round of tests,” and if she passes, she’ll attend a private school that teaches “persuasion.” The school, run by a shadowy organization, is a vetting ground for those with an exceptional talent for persuading others, and Emily is told this isn’t a regular school, the usual “government-run child farms” with a predictable curriculum. But neither is this school for salespeople; it’s something much more sinister:

She learned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was the order in which people optimally satisfied different types of desires (food-safety-love-status-enlightenment). She learned that leverage over people’s desire for knowledge was called informational social influence, while leverage over people’s desire to be liked was normative social influence. She learned that you could classify a person’s personality into one of 228 psychographic categories with a small number of well-directed questions plus observation, and this was called segmentation.

During Emily’s second year, she learns how to categorize people into types and identify which “persuasion techniques are more likely to work” on the various personalities. While learning how to identify types and manipulate other people, Emily is taught not to reveal anything about herself to others as personal information can open you to ‘persuasion.’ Graduates of the school are renamed and become “poets,” the most talented, gifted persuaders with an incredible ability to identity people by segmentation, and they are given a set of words that can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type. Naturally, for poets, desire is seen as a weakness and relationships are forbidden, and this is where Emily makes a mistake….

Alternating with Emily’s story is the story of Wil, an Australian who enters a bathroom and is sucked up in a battle for power between rival poet factions. Kidnapped by a poet named Eliot, Will is told that “eighteen months ago you survived something you shouldn’t have,” and that because he survived the incident at Broken Hill, a town declared a toxic disaster zone, he is an “outlier“–someone who is “immune” to segmentation and persuasion. Eliot believes that Wil, who has no memory of Broken Hill, holds essential, key information that will stop the power-grab of the much-feared rogue poet, Virginia Woolf.

Throughout the novel, Barry introduces conspiracy theories and various paranoias to fuel the tale, and the narrative is interspersed with forum comments, news articles, and various incidents that make the headlines

I’m not saying that there’s something here with this specific incident, but I see this ALL THE TIME. If you watch TV news, every story is like this: ‘There was a fire and the owner was in financial trouble.’ They’re not saying he burned down his own place. But that’s what they’re trying to tell you.

That bothers me because we think we’re being clever, putting the pieces together, but it’s a set-up. We’ve only been given pieces that fit together one way…..”

While I miss the humour of Company and Syrup, Lexicon is the most original book I’ve read this year. The novel is a brilliantly conceived novel of ideas that are fresh, bold and just imaginative enough to feed our concerns regarding the invasion of privacy. Towards the end, when the novel became pure chase & kill thriller, the plot seemed to lose control, but this may be an issue with my kindle version more than anything else as I was unsure of the timelines for some of the chapters.

It’s been interesting to watch Max Barry’s career over the years, and Lexicon is a fascinating entry in this unique writer’s oeuvre. Max Barry always surprises and he always delivers. Well done, Max. 

Review copy

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