Tag Archives: book

The Handmaid’s Tale: paranoid feminist nightmare?

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian futuristic 1985 novel doesn’t seem to be her magnum opus as it is a relatively short obscure read that feels more like a fast write than a masterpiece. Dream-like, taking place primarily in the main character’s head, The Handmaid’s Tale is a surreal nightmare-become-reality for women in Gilead, the new martial law nation that is the United States’ predecessor after a violent coup.

But where the novel is obscure (yet powerful), the Hulu series is fully fleshed out, forceful, and eventually leaves June’s head to roam freely into other characters’ emotional territories, weaving in and out of their memories of what came before Gilead existed.

Central to the story is the fact that fertility has declined drastically all over the world due to pollution and other unknown factors, to the point where an extremist Christian sect sees it their duty to take over the U.S., subjugate its fertile women, and dictate every detail of its citizen’s lives through threat of death and torture. All in the name of Christianity and furthering humanity, and in the case of the series, reducing carbon emissions in a last gasp to save the planet.

In the political sense, the story is not necessarily anti-Christian – the extremist group could have been any religion – but it’s possible the creators of the series included the carbon emission issues in order to muddy the waters politically and make it harder to accuse them of a liberal bias. What is clear though, is that the series central emotional pull is female empowerment.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “A Woman’s Place” Episode 106 — (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

The men in The Handmaid’s Tale are clearly the winners of this violent overturning of the government. Women were involved, specifically the wives of the now-rulers, but were betrayed by the husbands who, by following the rigid standards of The Bible, have kicked them out of the decision making process. The wives now dress in dark green, are forcefully held in place by codes of conduct, and their only jobs are managing the households while the men come and go as they please.

And this is the crux of the story to me: that men don’t necessarily want the debauchery and depravity to end – they just want to control every aspect of it and dole out favors and privileges to those that prove their loyalty and accept (or at least seem to accept) their new lot in life.

The commander, June’s benefactor and hopefully the father of her baby if she manages to conceive, as that is the limit of her role in the world now, appears somewhat compassionate in his dealings with her, at least in private. But we soon see that he is reveling in his new powerful position. We also see that in his past life in regular old America, his wife was the powerhouse and intellectual in their relationship, writing books and even being taller and more imposing than he was/is.

Some may say The Handmaid’s Tale is a paranoid feminist nightmare. A feminist nightmare it definitely is, but perhaps “paranoid” is not the best word to describe it. Paranoia literally means “baseless or excessive suspicion” and in this case, women have been fighting for sovereignty over their own lives and reproductive decisions for as long as written history exists. Women may currently have more or less equal rights in the U.S. and other western countries but you can travel across the Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East and Africa and see women being subjugated right now. Vaginal circumcision is still common in many places. Saudi Arabia could be seen as a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale: women cannot exist in that society without a male guardian to give them permission for any public activities – they only recently were given they right to drive.

So paranoid fantasy The Handmaid’s Tale is not. Currently men are devising ways to limit reproductive freedom and curtail women’s decision making about their own bodies (and yes, women are devising right alongside them too, as in the series). Things are changing, yes, but all that is needed is a real or perceived threat to humanity, and extremism could be the law of the land. That’s what The Handmaid’s Tale warns against, and what a prescient admonition it is, as sensible a concern as it was in the 1980s.


Michael Hogan, narrating METAtropolis

METAtropolis by Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, & Karl Schroeder

In the Forests of the Night by Jay Lake

METAtropolisI truly love this book.  I’ve listened to it twice and read it once and every time I discover something new that I didn’t take notice of before.

And I love it when two concepts coincide between different METAtropolisbooks I read.  In the Forests of the Night takes an excerpt from the fictional “Bacigalupi Lectures” which describe the rise of many tiny “secret societies”  made up of just two people sometimes, where people trade among themselves and use knowledge to get what they need, truly trusting few but connecting to many.

I’ve also been reading Paolo Bacigalupi.  The Wind Up Girl and Pump Six are set in a future that is post-climate change and strikingly similar to the world described by METAtropolis.  On Wikipedia you can learn that Bacigalupi’s works are considered to be part of the biopunk genre and perhaps METAtropolis is too.

METAtropolis was designed as an audio book, not for print, and the narrators turn it into a completely different experience than if you are reading it.

Michael Hogan, taken from WikipediaWhat makes this such an amazing work of art, this short story, is the tone and depth given to it by narrator Michael Hogan.  I know and love him from Battlestar Galactica, and the beautiful job he does on this story is astounding.  It’s as if he’s reading a poem.  His voice sounds like he should be a legendary western character akin to Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.

This time it’s not the different voices for different characters that makes the narrator stand out, but instead his darkly melodious voice and the seriousness with which he goes about his task.

You can listen to this AMAZING short story by the late Jay Lake on his website, www.jlake.com.

The Curse of Lono, not exactly PC

The Curse of Lono by Hunter S. Thompson (author) & Ralph Steadman (illustrator)

The Curse of LonoI was lucky enough to find this awesome illustrated book at a garage sale along with a slew of other books and graphic novels, all fifty cents each.  I bought quite a load.  This was years ago and I sold most of them on half.com, but luckily I kept The Curse of Lono.

In what I am assuming is the style of Hunter S. Thompson, this book completely lacks any political correctness.

It comes across as an autobiographical story and at the end there is a photo that backs this up.  But it’s essentially about Thompson and Steadman’s trip to Hawaii to cover the Honolulu Marathon, a journalistic endeavor that is supposed to turn into a vacation.  It ends up being a tortuous adventure; Thompson stays over 6 months because of course he revels in torture.

Most of it takes place on the Big Island and if we take Thompson at his word, it is not the

Artwork by Ralph Steadman from The Curse of Lono
Artwork by Ralph Steadman from The Curse of Lono

kind of place a self-respecting vacationing family would want to visit.  I’ve personally been to that island and while it is true it’s nothing like the green paradise of Oahu, it’s not quite the dangerous hell-hole he makes it out to be.  Or maybe I just haven’t visited the right (or wrong) places.

Thompson’s quirky out of the box writing style, full of stretched metaphors and drug-induced descriptions, is engaging and simply funny.  In fact, drugs and his experiences with them are always creating a colorful scene.  He reminisces about smoking opium in Saigon:

“That is still one of my clearest memories of Saigon – stretching out on the floor with my cheek on the cool white tile and the dreamy soprano babble of Mr. Hee in my ears as he slithered around the room with his long black pipe and his little bunsen burner, constantly refilling the bowl and chanting intensely in a language that known of us knew.”

And the lack of PC doesn’t stop there.  He talks at length about “Japs” and other ethnic groups like there’s no tomorrow.  Of course race is a touchy subject in Hawaii (and perhaps nearly everywhere) so it’s pretty ballsy to even go there.  Maybe back in the 80s it was okay to use the n-word, or maybe not, but he does (out of someone else’s mouth).  I have a feeling HST was quite fearless.

“The Korean community in Hawaii is not ready, yet, for the melting pot.  They are feared by the haoles, despised by the Japs and Chinese, scorned by the Hawaiians and occasionally hunted for sport by gangs of drunken Samoans, who consider them vermin, like wharf rats and stray dogs…”

Wow.  It’s a great read, but must be taken with a grain of salt.  The reason it really has to be read though is so you can see the amazing illustrations by Ralph Steadman and how the whole thing works together, including the accompanying text on the death of Captain Cook by the Hawaiians.

Hunter S. Thompson by Ralph Steadman


The Last President by John Barnes

Book:  The Last President by John Barnes

This book is the third in the Daybreak series, which is about a semi-apocalyptic future after a terrorist mind virus destroys modern technology.

The Last President by John BarnesIt sounds fantastical, and I suppose it is in ways, but one of the best characteristics of this book is how the author makes all of it sound very real.  Using dates, times, and locations, he spins a book grounded in realism with some tech talk to back it up.

The problem though is that it is a little bit boring, tedious.  I didn’t care all that much about the heroes of the story and there were so many details that I felt like I really wanted the story to get good most of the time.

(I listened to the book, didn’t read it, so that might play a part in how “boring” it was.  When you are commuting to work you want to be really sucked in by the story so time just flies by, whereas when reading a book you can afford to take in a few more details, going at the pace you want to, simply reading faster at times.  It’s just different, and hard to explain.)

All those details about time, location etc actually enhance the realism of the story, but they also up the boring factor.

This series is pretty complex and Barnes does create a distinct world for the reader to stay grounded in, even if there are too many details which bog down the pace.

One more strenuous compliment to the story: strong female characters.  I would say almost half of the main characters are female (at least the good guys).

In the last post I explained that environmentalists are the bad guys, the ones who get taken over by the mind virus and endeavor to kill everyone on earth in order to let Mother Nature take back over. This was a theme to the extent that at the end of the first two books we equate environmentalism with terrorism.

There is more to it than this.  The mind virus spread easier to some people than others, those with a certain level of beliefs and opinions and principles, depending on how strongly they adhered to those beliefs.  You’ll have to listen to the book to really understand, although I don’t know if I could say right now that I really understand even at this point.  It’s as if it the mind virus has a mind of its own and this is where the “realism” is weakest.  (He explains where the mind virus comes from at the end of the book but I won’t spoil it.  It’s a weak explanation, like it was thrown in there to satisfy unanswered questions.)

The author attempts to explain why the environmentalists got this virus but doesn’t do a very good job of it.  In this third book a character points out, finally: “Daybreakers aren’t environmenalists.”  But the connection is too strong to be broken at this point.

I don’t really recommend this book unless you are starved for material.

Cort, Roland’s teacher (Dark Tower)

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower

Book One: The Gunslinger & The Gunslinger Born (graphic novel by Marvel Comics)

(con’t from the last post)

It’s hard to imagine a world in which someone would choose the character “Cort” from this book to be a teacher of young men. It says something about the world they live in and the challenges Cort’s young students will face.

The Gunslinger BornCort (at left, with a young Roland towering over him) is brought to an even more disturbing light in The Gunslinger Born, a graphic novel based on The Dark Tower. The old teacher Cort is a huge bald villainous-looking (and acting) pig of a man, but he is fighting on Roland’s side and he makes significant contributions to any success they may have against John Farson, the man who wants to use old machines (tanks) to destroy Gilead.

The graphic novel series follows a more linear path than the books. Except for a very brief scene at the beginning (Roland beating it across the desert after the man in black), the book starts with the story of how Roland becomes a gunslinger and continues thereafter to tell his tale.

But back to Cort, the teacher. Roland has nearly killed him in the final gunslinger test and minutes later encounters Marten, his true enemy. His friend Cuthbert, after The Gunslinger Bornseeing the interaction, surmises the reason that led Roland to attempt the gunslinger test early: to attain the weapons that would enable him to kill Marten, the man who is doing terrible evil to his mother and father and their world.

Cuthbert is at right, middle of the page, with Roland and his hawk on top, as he plans his victory over Cort.  (Marvel Comics)

Roland, when asked by Cuthbert why he didn’t just kill Marten right then, quotes his old teacher Cort:

“As Cort always said, run without consideration and fall in a hole.”

Roland continually quotes Cort throughout the series, this hateful character who taught Roland to kill. He taught Roland how to live and succeed in this harsh dark world. In a sense, we owe Roland, and who he is, to Cort, the evil teacher, and King doesn’t want to let us forget it.

In The Gunslinger, Cort physically beats his students, but he falls just short of that in the graphic novels. Regardless, the apocalyptic present of Roland’s childhood comes across loud and clear in both books. The end of the world is coming and Roland will be the only one left.

More on The Gunslinger in the next post.

More about Roland’s “ka” (Dark Tower)

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower

Book One: The Gunslinger

(con’t from the last post)

About half way through this book, Roland is feeling sad about leading Jake to his death.

The Gunslinger“It ends this way, he thought. Again and again it ends this way. There are quests and roads that lead ever onward, and all of them end in the same place – upon the killing ground.

Except, perhaps, the road to the Tower.”

The above excerpt is in the original version of the book (1982) but the new version adds:

“There, ka might show him its true face.”

What’s interesting here is that when King was writing the original words his “again and again it ends this way” is a somewhat prophetic statement to make seeing as he didn’t know how he was going to end the series.

To quote the graphic novel The Gunslinger Born:

“The gunslinger is a creature of what we would call destiny and he calls “ka’”. Ka is a wheel, its one purpose to turn, and in the end it always came back to the place where it had started. The gunslinger’s ka turns toward an inevitable goal… a Dark Tower.”

More about The Gunslinger Born in the next post.

The Gunslinger’s “Ka” (Dark Tower)

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower

Book One: The Gunslinger

(con’t from the last post)

In the last post I described how the man in black made it clear to Jake that he was going to die by telling the gunslinger (in the presence of the boy) that only them two would hold council together on the other side of the mountain. Jake pleads with Roland not to continue but Roland steels himself against anything that will prevent him from continuing his quest to reach the man in black and the Dark Tower. He even steels himself against the boy he has come to love, Jake.

“In the end there was only ka” Roland thinks, and then:

“The price of any betrayal always comes due in flesh… something happened in his mind, an uncoupling. That was the moment in which the small figure before him ceased to be Jake, and became only the boy, an impersonality to be moved and used.”

It’s as if he can turn his “sociopath” switch on in order to get through the day. (Maybe some of us in this world do that from time to time too.)

But it’s not the first time that he uses “ka” as an excuse. In fact he constantly refers to the feeling of ka and the workings of ka.

The GunslingerTo quote the graphic novel The Gunslinger Born:

“The gunslinger is a creature of what we would call destiny and he calls “ka’”. Ka is a wheel, its one purpose to turn, and in the end it always came back to the place where it had started. The gunslinger’s ka turns toward an inevitable goal… a Dark Tower.”

As he and the boy find that the climbing is not hard going up the mountain, neither of them are surprised by this. It’s as if ka has chosen this path and there is no wavering from it, and the boy will play his part in the story because there is no other choice. No other destiny possible.

Roland “felt ka at work on the surface of things and no longer even considered it odd” even when the going was surprisingly easy for a boy of 10.

Everything backs up ka, justifies ka, or upholds ka. Not to sound anti-religious, but it reminds me of people who always come back to God whenever faced with a dilemma or question, or something fascinating or notable. Yes, yes, God did that. Right right. And that’s how Roland is about ka. It answers every question and that’s enough for him.

(Ka is also a Cirque du Soleil production that I’ve seen twice and I highly recommend it. 🙂 )