Tag Archives: Dystopian

Golden State by Ben H. Winters

Century | 2019 (24 January) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Golden State by Ben H. WintersThe laws of Golden State require a certain kind of enforcer and Laz Ratesic, in his 50s, a veteran of the special police, is one of the best there is. Perhaps there has been only one better – Charlie, Laz’s brother. Laz is a Speculator. He can detect lies, just from an inflection in the voice or from the smallest movement of a face muscle and from them he can construct the truth. It’s an extraordinary skill and a vital one, too, because in Golden State to lie is illegal. Telling just one lie can result in years of imprisonment or even exile into whatever it is that lies outside the confines of Golden State. Nobody knows what’s out there. Like the past, it’s not knowable and isn’t to be questioned. But nobody wants to go outside.

Laz believes in his job. He’s proud that he’s so good at it. He believes it’s for the common good. But just because people can’t lie, it doesn’t mean that other crimes can’t be committed and one day he is sent on a case that will change everything. With a young partner to teach in tow, Laz is sent to investigate the suspicious case of a man who has fallen from a roof to his death. Nothing about the death makes sense, not least the discovery of an actual work of fiction, which tells a story – a lie. But that’s just the beginning.

I’m a big fan of Ben H. Winters’ novels – I loved the apocalyptic trilogy, The Last Policeman – and so I was very keen to read Golden State. This time we’re taken to a dystopian city in the future. It’s a place that reminds us of California, although nobody in Golden State would have heard of such a name. The powers that be strongly believe that that Golden State is held together by truths and so everybody greets each other, not with a pleasantry, but with an irrefutable truth. Truth is almost a religion, depositories of truths are regarded as temples.

There is some fascinating worldbuilding at work here. Ben H. Winters describes the different areas and public buildings of the state so vividly. We see people going about their everyday lives – Laz particularly cares about food – and it almost seems normal until you realise how small this world is, how unquestioning it is, and how susceptible to manipulation it is. People watch CCTV instead of normal television; a novel is non-fiction; all one’s thoughts, deeds and transactions are written up in one’s Day Book. I was so intrigued to learn what remained beyond Golden State but that is a speculation forbidden to all in Golden State but Speculators.

Laz is a strange one. You’d have thought that he would be difficult to warm to, he’s such an enthusiastic agent of the dystopian state. And there is such unkindness, not to mention barbarism, in the sentences that are handed down to people who utter a lie or, through illness, are unable to fathom the truth. Yet I did like Laz very much, especially as the novel goes on and he starts to question the tiny world around him.

I must admit that I did get a little lost with the actual case itself. It’s complicated and, as you’d expect with conspiracies, little can be taken at face value. There is also a twist which I didn’t really care for. Having said all that, everything around the case really did appeal to me, especially the way in which it all ends. I love Ben H. Winters’ ideas. How he can create fearful worlds or situations and put people into them who could seem ordinary but become exceptional. And if you haven’t read The Last Policeman trilogy yet, do!

Other reviews
The Last Policeman
Countdown City (The Last Policeman 2)
World of Trouble (The Last Policeman 3)


Vox by Christina Dalcher

HQ | 2018 (ebook: 21 August; Hb: 23 August) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Vox by Christina DalcherIt’s one thing knowing that you’re not able to speak more than 100 words in a day without a severe punishing electric shock, but it’s another thing entirely knowing that your young daughter is also not allowed to speak, just at the time when she should be enjoying the discovery of new words every single day and shouting them out loud to her parents and brothers – brothers who are allowed to say just what they like and are growing used to a world in which women have no rights at all. Jean McClellan will do anything to fight for her daughter’s future, to fight against her silence.

I love the premise of Vox – a dystopia set in America during the very near future in which an extreme rightwing president has decided to end the rights of women. The ‘bracelets’ that women wear to limit their words to 100 a day are just the most visible sign of their oppression but it is making itself increasingly known in every area of life. Jean used to be Dr McClellan, a leading linguistic scientist in the fight against aphasia, a brain condition that – rather ironically – leaves the victim speechless. Now Jean is her husband’s chattel. But she is given a way out due to her background and she won’t be going back again.

Vox is told in the first person, present tense by Jean, and this is undoubtedly part of what gives the story its impact – Jean’s fury and frustration, contrasting with her tender love for her children, especially her daughter, make it all seem horrifyingly real, even possible. It also gives us a heroine we can get behind. Jean also tells us about other silenced women she has known, as well as the men, including her own husband, and what they are doing about it – if anything at all.

I became hugely fired up reading Vox! It made me rant! The injustice and indignity of it all. The first half of the book particularly appealed to me as this new fascist America is revealed (so far the rest of the world is safe) and we witness its impact on the daily lives of men and women. It’s fascinating, even without the parallels that one inevitably draws to the anti-Jewish laws of Nazi Germany. I was engrossed.

The second half of the novel was less successful for me because in these chapters we moved into the lab, science takes over, and the scope of the story narrows. I love science in my science fiction but I think that the main strength of Vox is speculative, in the society it portrays and in the voices that have been silenced, a really enjoyable element of the first half of the book. Although one does have to wonder how plausible it is that 50% of the American population were silenced so easily and quickly.

You can read and enjoy Vox as pure entertainment, and it certainly is entertaining, but it also serves as a timely non-preachy reminder that we must stay alert.

Steeple by Jon Wallace

Steeple | Jon Wallace | 2015, Pb 2016 | Gollancz | 249p | Review copy | Buy the copy

Steeple by Jon WallaceSteeple follows on from Barricade and, although its story is self-contained, you wouldn’t want to read the second without having read the first. And so the review below assumes that you’ve read Barricade.

There’s not much left to Britain since it was torn apart in a war between humans and the artificial creations they built to make life easy – Ficials. The land is lawless, many of the few who survived suffer from a disgusting contamination illness that turns their skin and organs blue, and London is drowned. The Steeple was once London’s crowning glory – an enormous, sky-touching tower for the superwealthy, a self-contained vertical city, engineered and built with the help of Ficials. But now the Steeple barely stands, teetering over a London in ruins, inhabited by all manner of survivors (most of whom are utterly terrifying and hideous), but nevertheless the subject of religious superstition and venal greed – one not necessarily excluding the other.

Kenstibec was once a Ficial, an artificial organic life form of immense strength and resilience with the power to heal from the most catastrophic wounds in no time at all. Kenstibec had been an engineer in the old days before the increasing hostility between humans and Ficials demoted him to butler and taxi driver. But now even that is in the past. Kenstibec has become Ken, he is now nothing more or less than a human, with a body as frail as everyone else’s. But even harder to deal with than that is his understanding that he is now no different from the humans around him that he had been taught to regard as little better than insects. A Ficial is not supposed to like humans. But when one particular human that he has come to know well through no fault of his own suggests that Ken comes along on his dangerous, possible suicidal mission to discover the hidden riches of the Steeple, Ken reluctantly agrees. The human in question is Phil but Ken knows him only as Fatty. Once Fatty looked at Ken with nothing but fear in his blue-tinged weeping eyes but times have changed for both of them.

Steeple is the follow-up novel to Barricade, a dystopia as dark as its humour, and immensely entertaining despite the underlying tragedy and despair of this destroyed Britain. It’s good to see Fatty and Ken again. Fatty is calmer, even better at scrambling for survival than he was before. As with Barricade, the story is narrated by our inhuman human, Ken, but the change in Ken is obvious. Fatty is becoming a person to Ken at last, even perhaps a friend.

Without doubt, the relationship between Ken and Fatty is a real highlight of this novel. We’re only given one side of the story, Ken’s, but Fatty has clearly warmed to Ken (it helps knowing Ken doesn’t want to pull him to pieces any more), and the dialogue is great! Ken seems to have developed a sense of humour, along with an unhealthy obsession with a dog that everyone else wants to eat. Having a non-human, who is trying cope with being human, narrate the story is an ingenious touch by Jon Wallace and it means that we warm to a Ficial in a way that would have been impossible with a human narrator.

Not, mind you, that we’re entirely on the side of humans in Steeple. Some of the people that our increasingly bloody and desperate heroes meet along the way are absolutely diabolical. I almost had to read some of it with my eyes closed. There is ample gore here, doled out by some of the most revolting people I’ve encountered in a novel for quite a while.

The premise of Steeple works extremely well. The action is more confined than it was in Barricade with much of the novel spent within the Steeple itself. The tower reminded me a little of Judge Dredd, giving off a similar kind of mood – claustrophobic, dangerous, full of traps and menace. But this is no ordinary tower, as is hinted at in the flashbacks which flicker throughout the book.

Steeple is a short, thrilling read. I had my nose glued to it and finished it in a day. It is thoroughly exhilarating, its dystopia as dark as can be but lit by the fantastic writing, tight structure, edge-of-seat action sequences and the deliciously warped humour. At times it is surprisingly emotional and touching. I really enjoyed Barricade but if anything Steeple is even better!

Other review

Depth by Lev A.C. Rosen

Depth | Lev A.C. Rosen | 2015 | Titan Books | 290p | Review copy | Buy the book

Depth by Lev AC RosenA few decades or so from now, the polar ice caps have melted and the eastern seaboard of America is underwater. New York City survives above twenty-one floors, everything below that is drowned within dangerous, storm-powered waters. But New York City continues to thrive, not least as a refuge from mainland America’s new draconian moral laws. The drowned city is effectively a separate country, a hub for intercontinental business, trading and smuggling. The buildings and the city’s mass of boats are linked by flimsy bridges and water taxis – death is just a misjudged footstep away.

Simone Pierce, the daughter of a policeman and detective, is a private investigator. She likes to think she’s one of the best, ready to do her utmost for clients without crossing that line that others she knows might wander over. Simone thinks of herself as friendless but she has three good friends – Caroline, the brusque and brittle Deputy Mayor, Danny, a hacker she protected who is fully integrated with the internet, and Peter, a policeman and schooldays’ friend whose bed she left without a goodbye. Simone has two cases on the go – Linnea St Michael believes her husband Henry is having an affair with a mysterious Blonde. As Simone chases Henry’s liaisons across the city she begins to have her doubts. Simone’s other case has been put her way by Caroline – Alejandro deCostas is an anthropologist or archaeologist from Europe who believes that floors below the twenty-first level still survive water-free within New York City. He is after treasure. He is also extremely goodlooking and a welcome distraction from the slippery Blonde.

The worldbuilding and mood in Depth are thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a dystopian future but with a difference. We’ve seen drowned cities before but this watery New York City is different – it has money floating around, there is futuristic technology, there is a functioning local government and police force, there are restaurants to suit every pocket. But the centrepiece of these restaurants is often the seascape of a drowned past. The bleakness comes from the distant mainland with its homophobic and misogynist laws. New York City is now closer in many ways to the progressive and technologically-advised East or the cultured and far-sighted Europe. The city is far enough away from the mainland to have its own codes. It is a place where people can break the rules.

However, I don’t think that Depth is entirely successful and the main reason for that is that the worldbuilding and the excellent characterisation are let down by the plot. The mystery is predictable and contrived, and it is also full of coincidences. It’s soon pretty clear what the main puzzle is about and it’s also obvious that there will be no loose ends and that everything will conveniently connect to everything else. On a side note, I also couldn’t understand why a great flood and the ensuing devastation would result in an America in which women are forbidden by law to wear trousers.

Having said all that, I enjoyed Depth very much. Its atmospheric and rich portrayal of a drowned New York City, with the lethal waters waiting to claim new victims, was complemented by some fascinating characters. The story is told in the third person and I liked that. It gave more than one character the chance to shine. I really liked Simone. She is a strong personality, flawed and very human, who lives and breathes on the page. Likewise, Caroline is a joy to spend time with. Her grumpiness concealing genuine affection really appealed to me. The chief detective Kluren is another intriguing female figure. There’s a strong sense that there’s a story there waiting to be told. It’s interesting that this novel has a fair few imposing, fascinating female characters, much more interesting in my opinion than the male characters.

The dialogue is smart and witty, the movement is fast, and the world is chillingly lethal – at least until the twenty-first floor when suddenly we find ourselves in a futuristic world in which life has most definitely found a way to prosper. I do hope that Lev A.C. Rosen will return us to Simone and her world.

The Well by Catherine Chanter

The Well | Catherine Chanter | 2015 | Canongate | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Well by Catherine ChanterThe Well is a haven, an Eden almost, in a Britain on which rain no longer falls. But at this one particular farm, named for its unfailing well, the rain still falls at night, just enough to keep the grass green, trees in leaf and the farmland fertile enough for crops and animal feed. When Ruth and Mark bought The Well they had no idea that they were buying more than an escape from London. But, in the years since, as Britain dried up and life changed, their fate became tied completely to their home, keeping them there while drawing others to it as well.

The Well, though, becomes famous for more than just its inexplicable rain and fertility. As the novel begins, Ruth is returned to The Well as a prisoner under house arrest. She has been found guilty by the draconian emergency water laws but, perhaps no worse than that, she is suspected of murder. In a story narrated in the present tense by Ruth, we are slowly allowed into this troubled woman’s world and memories. We are shown The Well past and present – once the happy home of Ruth, her husband Mark, her daughter Angie and Angie’s young son Lucien and now a prison containing just Ruth and her three guards, each of whom Ruth dehumanises with imagined names.

But the past was never that perfect. Ruth is an unreliable narrator. There is a strong sense that her memories are wishful thinking and as they parade before us it’s soon clear that everything was going wrong long before Ruth and Mark arrived at The Well. To some, Ruth is a witch, a murderer or, most especially in the eyes of her husband, a mad woman. To others, Ruth is linked entirely to The Well. To them she is a saviour, someone holy, just as The Well itself is a new Eden. A succession of visitors arrive at the farm – travellers, a religious female sect, a priest, guards. We see them all through Ruth’s eyes and we witness how they change her. But it’s a blinkered, distorted vision, not least as it is revealed to us by a woman near enough destroyed by grief and guilt.

The Well is a powerfully compelling read. Its portrait of a disintegrating, destructive marriage makes for painful reading, lightened by the brief moments Ruth spends with her grandson. Ruth’s relationship with Angie is a difficult one, much of its problems not fully revealed to us. The past is not a place where Ruth feels happy. There is scandal in the past, involving Angie and another involving Mark. The Well was supposed to save Ruth from this.

Ruth’s search for salvation is a strong theme – she seeks it with the enigmatic mystical nuns and with the priest. This adds to the mystery of The Well – is it an Eden? If it isn’t, why does the rain stop at its boundaries? And why, if it is somehow holy or unholy, is it such a place of death, despite its life-giving green? Is it evil, or good or simply the place of a weather phenomenon explicable by science?

The dystopian mood matches Ruth’s depression and despair. This is not a light read. Ruth’s mind is not always a pleasing place to spend time. But it is a fascinating one. The writing is beautiful, richly evocative of this strange place and this haunted woman. Our feelings towards the people surrounding Ruth are made instinctive due to the power of the prose. But some figures are ambiguous and surprising. It’s difficult to get to know Ruth. Not surprisingly she wants to lay down her feelings but she chooses what to tell.

I felt uncomfortable reading parts of The Well. It’s a challenging read at times not least because it is so relentlessly sad. It requires the reader to be in the right mood and, if they are, then it is extremely giving. This is an intriguingly created world, full of intentional holes and blurred colours, set within the wondrous and unknowable nature of The Well itself.

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Pages: 320
Year 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Ship by Antonia HoneywellReview
In the near future, Britain is on the very edge of collapse. Waters have risen, the environment is sated, no longer able to support the population – the young have no memory of apples or oranges. Everything that was worth living for now belongs in museum cases. The Nazareth Act was an attempt to cut the population. Everyone without an identity card is dispossessed, living in camps, old public buildings, with no hope at all. And then one day the Government crosses the line – camps are blown up, the public buildings gassed. For 16-year-old Lalage Paul and her family, it is time to leave London and Britain. They are the lucky ones – privileged and influential, Lalage’s father Michael has bought a large yacht. It can carry them and a few hundred of those in desperate need, selected by Lalage’s philanthropic mother, to safety and a future.

Life aboard the ship is difficult for Lalage. The appalling news from the mainland just gets worse until the passengers of the ship decide to cut their connection with Britain and with the past. The antennae is cut down. No longer can they receive transmissions from what was once home. And on the encouragement of Michael, their strong, determined and paternal leader, they decide to cut away the past entirely, throwing their memories overboard, determined to forget their grief, misery and the loved ones left behind. It’s time for a new start. But Lalage cannot forget a past she never knew. She wants to go back and fight. Lalage is the rebel aboard the ship.

After a few chapters of worldbuilding, focusing on the streets and buildings of central London, The Ship tells the story of Lalage’s shipboard rebellion. Despite the fact that the ‘captain’ is her own father, Lalage can no longer feel the same connection to him that the other youngsters aboard can. Events have cut her adrift not only from the land but also from her family. She is driven to return to London and, despite finding romance aboard the ship, nothing is strong enough to keep her eyes seaward.

The Ship is Lalage’s story, narrated by Lalage, and so the reader’s response to the novel very much depends on their response to Lalage herself. I suspect that she will be loved by many. She is brave and strong, yet vulnerable and afraid, but she is determined to stand for what she believes even if it means she stands alone. Lalage is a teenage heroine, fighting the rules of society, adults, even her family. It is indeed true that adults on the ship, notably Lalage’s father, are hardly steering a true course. Michael Paul is as driven as his daughter and some of his ideas are totally objectionable. There is never any doubt, though, that he loves his daughter.

However, throughout, Lalage is unable to see the other point of view. She is not old enough nor experienced enough to have witnessed the true cruelty and barbarism of the society they are leaving behind – the taste she’s had has been enough to fire her blood but the others aboard are traumatised by the misery and grief they have had to endure for years. Nor can Lalage remember the earth when it was fertile and productive, when floods hadn’t destroyed the cities, and countryside wasn’t barren or grey. There are refugees aboard the ship who have no reason on earth to want to turn back. The behaviour of many of the adults on board is odd, almost cultish, but my sympathies are entirely with them. There’s an especially touching moment when some of the adults huddle together in secrecy to remember London, attempting to rebuild it in flour and water. But their quiet moment of memory is destroyed by Lalage’s exuberant call to arms.

The Ship is a well-written dystopia which mostly takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the vessel, the walls of which this young, lost heroine strains against. The theme of remembrance is dealt with especially sympathetically, adding a depth and sincerity to the novel which is really quite powerful. While The Ship wasn’t entirely for me – I think I may have read several too many young adult dystopias – I think younger readers will love it.

Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 288
Year: 2015 (26 February)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Death House by Sarah PinboroughReview
The Death House exists out of time, on a remote island, its skies visited on rare nights by gorgeous northern lights. The Death House is lots of different things to the children who live in it. It is a boarding school, a prison, a hospital, a place of separation from home and family, the house where they are taken to be watched. Sooner or later, the children know, they will exhibit symptoms, they will be unique to them, but they will mean the end. Eventually, every child will fall ill, he or she will be removed from their dormitory and taken to the sanatorium. No-one ever returns from the sanatorium. These children are the Defectives. There’s nothing to do but wait.

Toby was living a perfectly normal teenage life until a school blood test identified him as Defective. Now, living in the Death House, in a dormitory where nobody wants to get close to anybody else but finds that they just can’t help it, Toby comforts the younger children but there is a rage in him. It expresses itself in the competition which all dormitories feel towards the others. Each dorm wants to stay intact, untouched by symptoms, for longer than any of the others. Instead of competing for house points, this is a boarding school where children make wagers on their very lives. But for Toby everything changes when Clara arrives, a girl so full of life that it seems impossible that she should be among them. Nothing will be the same for Toby again.

The Death House is an extraordinarily beautiful tale. It is haunted by tragedy, it’s made exquisite by sadness, but it is also enriched by an energy for life. It is a dystopian nightmare but it is also lit by love and themes of how to live a life in the moment, finding happiness in the most surprising of places. Its themes are big – religion, love, fear, death – but this is a story told deceptively simply. There are so many little moments that stay in the memory, the small signs of warmth and friendship that stir these young hearts, so deprived of their parents. Toby is one of the older children. He gets cross and bitter and rages but the care that he and others take for the smallest is heart wrenching.

The novel is told in the first person and present tense by Toby. This is especially effective for such a deeply harrowing and personal memoir. Much of what Toby experiences is the stuff of nightmares and so he tells a chilling tale but this contrasts vividly with his thoughts of the lovely Clara. He thinks back on his life before the van came for him as the story moves through his whole trauma of trying to deal with this horrific situation. The world beyond the island, though, is left hazy. It feels as if this could be a world recovering from a great disaster, of which these children are the remnants, but this is lost in cloud across the waters from the island.

There is humour here and lightness but there are also scenes of indescribable sadness. It’s been a long time since I cried as much over a book as I did this one. But The Death House is such a beautiful novel, one to be read in just one or two days, so difficult to put down and worth every one of the tears. I love the characters of these boys and girls, every single one of them, whether they are angry, mad, a bully or deeply innocent and sweet. Everything is elusive, so much that goes on is just rumoured or feared like monsters under the bed. The adults are unknowable, like a different species. And through it all we have Toby and Clara searching for hope with the reader right there behind them, every step of the way. This is a novel very much built on mood and atmosphere and constructed from character. This means that it is addictive and seduces the reader almost instantly, making them ready to accept anything that might happen, eager to immerse themselves in it. Its power and appeal are potent.

This is the first novel by Sarah Pinborough that I’ve read. But having experienced the spell of Sarah’s writing, it most certainly won’t be the last.