Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Good Friday.

And in honor of the fact that I only have a half day of work today (courtesy of

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Maybe worse than the end of the world is the slow and gradual development of a repressive state. In fiction, these states are known as Dystopias. I mean, at least with an apocalyptic event, life usually becomes even more nasty, brutish, and short. Dystopias, however, are more sinister in their methods, painting a shiny veneer on to the nastiness. I'm currently reading Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories by JJ Adams (ed) and it's put me in a dystopian state of mind.

Dystopias are enormously popular in fiction. Dystopias are particularly popular during times of upheaval or unhappiness, particularly when people view the government as getting out of control and becoming more oppressive, or when they see government becoming more “religious.” Dystopian fiction paints a picture of what could be if all the wrong things happen at all the right times. The most important part of creating successful dystopian fiction is to root it in some reality. After all, if there’s no truth to the story, it will not create the appropriate response in the reader.

Perhaps the most well-known dystopia of the 20th century (in English, that is) is Fahrenheit 451, or perhaps Brave New World. Or 1984. It’s hard to pin down the definitive work of dystopian fiction, since dystopias can take any shape or form. But here's a list of my favorites, irrespective of their literary qualities, and in no particular order:

My Ten Favorite Dystopian Books

1)      Fahrenheit 451—Ray Bradbury
2)      V for Vendetta—Alan Moore
3)      Oryx and Crake—Margaret Atwood
4)      The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood
5)      The Hunger Games—Suzanne Collins
6)      Never Let Me Go—Kazuo Ishiguro
7)      Parable of the Sower—Octavia Butler
8)      Uglies—Scott Westerfeld
9)      Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories—John Joseph Adams, ed
10)   The Giver—Lois Lowry

Honorable Mentions:
1)      The City of Ember—Jeanne Duprau
2)      The Big Empty—JB Stephens
3)      The Other Side of the Island—Allegra Goodman
4)      The Maze Runner—Jim Dashner

And because it's not just books:

My Favorite Dystopian Movies or TV Shows:
1)      Children of Men
2)      Gattaca
3)      Equilibrium (based off Fahrenheit 451)
4)      Minority Report
5)      Johnny Mnemonic (for sentimental reasons!)
6)      V for Vendetta
7)      The Island
8)      Death Race
9)      Firefly

Friday, April 15, 2011

with a bang

So of all the ways the world could end, one of the most catastrophic would involve Yellowstone Park and a certain hungry bear. I mean super-volcano. To add to the list of all things you wish you didn’t know the Yellowstone Caldera measures 34 miles by 45 miles, and experiences between 1000 and 2000 little earthquakes a year. While the last full-scale eruption was 640,000 years ago, the explosion of the caldera would put more than 240 cubic miles of hot rock and dust into the atmosphere, which would turn into a concrete-type mixture the first time it rained. It would block the sun, and the toxic nature of the debris would kill anyone within a few states of Yellowstone. Since most of the food production in the US takes place in the states surrounding Yellowstone, food shortages would begin almost immediately. There would be no hope for those closest to the blast, but those a little farther out would attempt escape but be unable to get very far before the cloud catches them. Some would manage to make it to the East coast, but lack of food, crowded conditions, civil unrest, violence and the ash cloud would result in a significant loss in population.

All of this brings us to Land of Ash (Ed. David Dalglish), an e-book anthology of loosely related stories connected to the explosion of the Yellowstone Caldera. I’m pretty sure that this was self-published, and it only cost .99 on Kindle. I know what the authors were trying to accomplish—a list of stories composed around a common event, a la The Martian Chronicles—but this falls far short of the mark.

I mean, the idea is excellent, but the execution is sloppy and disjointed. Some of the stories are quite good, but others read less as stories and more as vignettes. They don’t have a plot, and they don’t advance the book’s arc at all. It seems to me that some of the stories are connected, while others are just tangentially related. For example, the first story in the book is about a few people waiting for their inevitable deaths. Then there’s another, similar story. One really stupid story about a guy who lives off the grid in a cave (really? Really.) Then there’s a story about a guy who does everything he can to keep his little daughter safe in their home, only to realize that they must leave before the house caves in. This character and his daughter later show up in another story. So there’s some connection between the characters but not enough to make a fully-fleshed series of short stories. It seems like they thought about doing it at the last minute, but didn’t have time to go back and rewrite everything.

Another problem with the book is that there aren’t nearly enough stories to illustrate an event, and some of the stories are so short that, again, they’re more like vignettes. The book needs to double in size, at least, to adequately flesh out the back story, which is a problem in itself. We never get much exposition to explain the events that precede the story—I would have enjoyed a story that takes us through the initial event so that we can see it. We get no idea of chronological progression of the stories, so we can’t tell when the stories take place along the timeline, although we’re led to believe the stories at the end take place later than the stories at the beginning (due to the sudden connection that develops at the end). At some point France comes to our aid or something (really? France?), but we only find out with a passing reference. That’s the problem—when stories are told centered around one event, we’re meant to read the stories and learn about the event through the stories. We should be able to piece the story together, like in World War Z. I would also liked to see some variation in the types of people in the stories. They are all sort of “good, normal” suburbanites. There are thousands of stories that could be told, maybe tens of thousands. Why pick these people and these stories? What motivates these choices? I don’t know, and that’s a narrative problem.

But, that’s not to say the whole thing is crap. It’s got potential, and if Dalglish had just written his own book and joined his own stories, it may have been better. His writing was stronger than the others. I enjoyed the concept as well—it’s not your typical apocalyptic scenario. With a little work, it could shine. Is it worth the .99 cent download? Yeah, I would say so. Is it worth $5.99 for the paper book? Well, I’m cheap, so I’d say no. But if you’ve got cash burning holes in your pocket and you’re concerned with having a complete collection of all apocalyptic literature, well I guess you’re gonna buy it. Otherwise, just download it to your kindle app.