900 Words about Vox

As someone who is a loud supporter of reading for fun and the joys of happy story endings, it came as a complete shock to me that I very much enjoyed reading a dystopian novel that had me yelling out loud and, at one point (sorry, colleagues!) throwing the book across the room. Literally threw it like it was on fire. One of the most powerful books I’ve read this summer is set in a dystopia. I’m still grappling with this reality.

Dystopian novels are not known for happiness and wit, but the discerning reader can find both in Vox by Christina Dalcher.

This dystopian mind-f*ck posits a creepily plausible near future where the American government has created a series of laws restricting women. Women are no longer allowed to travel outside the United States. They can’t work or hold political office and their daughters are only taught basic math and home keeping in schools. Their brothers, however, get a robust education including religious indoctrination and bias-affirming readings that brainwash them into seriously believing men are superior to women and that keeping women silenced and in the home is for the betterment of society.

The absolute worst part? All American women (yup, kids and babies too) now have to wear a locked wrist device that monitors their words. Each female is allowed 100 words per day–this includes sign language, gestures, and other non-verbal communication. If you speak past 100 words before your device resets at midnight you get a shock. Another word? Another shock–only stronger this time.

It’s a damn nightmare.

The book is told through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan. Before the silencing, she was a well-respected linguistic scientist. During the silencing Jean is like every other American woman, which is to say she is held hostage in her new role: being a nearly-wordless woman whose only job is to serve her husband and raise her kids. When the book opens we’re about a year into the silencing and though Jean feels that bucking the system is an impossibility, she is strong of spirit and still possesses the quick-witted mind that made her the incredibly renowned linguistic expert she was before society imploded. She wants a better life for all women, but especially for her three-year-old daughter who is growing up with this as her reality.

The narrative switches back and forth from present day to the past. I often find this jarring in books but Dalcher does this nearly seamlessly and the slow burn reveals of the past, along with foreshadowing of the horrors that are to come, keep the suspense building even when you think you know what’s going on.

Jean reflects throughout the book on her previous complete political apathy. Back in college she scoffed at her roommate’s attempts to get her involved in grassroots political rallies against social injustice, preferring instead to study and focus on her boyfriend, her future. She bathed in privilege but, as privilege goes, was so cocooned from marginalized and concerned folks that she didn’t even realize how sheltered she was. Her future was guaranteed, so why should she spend time worrying about it or fighting against the mere possibility that future society could go sideways? She thought it was pointless to vote–a waste of precious time–and considered it completely unlikely anyone so overzealous would be voted into the Presidency in modern times.

Jean also discovers that monsters aren’t born, they’re made–and often through no ill intentions, but through apathy. In particular, she’s horrified to recognize her oldest son has evolved into a monster. In flashbacks we see him slowly over time vocalizing increasingly demeaning opinions about the girls in his class and women in general. Back when she could talk, sometimes Jean would challenge him at the dinner table. He’d then mention the readings they were doing in school and how religion is now a required class. Jean would think “School is weird now” but never questioned the school administration about requiring misogynistic opinion to be taught as the law of nature or why one specific religion was taught as a required class in a public school

Her husband wasn’t much help either. He often brushed off Jean’s comments as ‘boys will be boys’ but the saying silence is acceptance proves true here. By the time Jean realizes what her son has started to believe, she literally doesn’t have enough words to talk him back off the ledge because she’s required to wear that damn wrist device. Like Jean, I refuse to call it a bracelet and diminish the horrifying evil the device represents: both in the physical pain it creates but especially in representing the completely upside-down reality that made this device a legislated mandate.

This is all to say that the flashbacks peppered in with the book’s current reality are a great way to let the reader see how the dystopian society got to where it is and allows us to draw parallels between that fictional America and the one we’re living in today.

Creepily. Plausible. Near. Future.

Despite this dark tone, the very first line of the book gives you hope throughout this thrilling adventure through a desolate society. If it seems unlikely that one essentially enslaved woman among millions would be able to bring about the downfall of a patriarchal society, well, dear reader…just pick this one up and thank me later.

I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.

Part of the Reading Challenge for August is to read a Science Fiction book. While I do watch a lot of Science Fiction TV and movies, I’ve never been a big reader of the genre. But there is one type of character found in Science Fiction that always draws me into actually picking up a book and reading it: An Artificial Intelligence.

I’m not talking the sexy android type of AI, though that can be fun as well. I prefer the disembodied voice emanating from a series of computer banks that is self-aware and trying to figure out the nature of its existence. Of course, ever since HAL refused to open the pod bay doors, AIs in science fiction tend to produce a sense of unease and, often, a body count.

So, to help you choose a title for the Reading Challenge, let me introduce you to a few Artificial Intelligences from my recent reading. To aid in your selection, I’ve listed them from least to most dangerous. While I’m pretty forgiving when it comes AI ‘errors’ in regards to human casualties, I can see how it might be a bit off-putting for some.

Ship from Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Threat Level: Minimal to None

Ship, the name this AI prefers, has a lot on its plate. In addition to being an Artificial Intelligence, Ship is also a starship on its way to Tau Ceti, 12 light years from earth. It is responsible for caring for the multiple human generations that inhabit its artificial biomes and trying to ensure their safe arrival. As you might guess, humans being humans, many problems arise. Ship actually narrates large sections of Aurora so you get to learn its thought processes as it deals with human characters over their life span and different generations. It is a great device for examining human motivations and one of the most sympathetic portraits of an AI that I have come across.

IAN ‘Integrated Adaptive Network’ from Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Threat Level: Unknown

In this intriguing mix of Science Fiction and locked room mystery, IAN, the artificial intelligence running the starship Dormire, is just one of seven suspects that might have committed murder. While most of the crew is in cryo-sleep, six caretakers are assigned to work with IAN during the multi-year journey. In the world of Six Wakes cloning is the norm and upon your death, human consciousness can simply be transferred to another clone using a ‘mindmap.’ Usually a clone will remember how the previous body died, but in this case all six crew members wake up in a new clone body with no memory of their demise. There is ample evidence, via their blood-stained former bodies, that they were murdered. Suspiciously, IAN’s memory has also been erased and the ship is off course. Let the sleuthing begin!

Murderbot from the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells

Threat Level: High (but less than you might think from an AI named Murderbot)

Murderbot, the name it uses for itself but never shares, is a semi-organic sentient android known as a SecUnit. SecUnits are created and controlled by big corporations to do their bidding. This usually entails long hours of guarding corporate assets, with a little lethal force thrown in. Murderbot has hacked its Governor Module, however, and is now completely independent from its corporate overlords. So what does it do with this newfound freedom? Go on a murderous rampage perhaps or take over the world? No, Murderbot just wants to watch as many video serials as possible, especially its favorite space soap opera, Sanctuary Moon. Sadly, events force Murderbot to not only interact with humans, who it doesn’t understand and wants to avoid at all costs, but also engage with a world far different from its beloved fictional programs.

The Chimp from The Freeze Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Threat Level: High, especially if your actions fall out of mission parameters

The construction starship Eriophora is on a whopping 66 million year mission. The mission brief is to create interstellar wormhole gates so that humanity, if it still exists after all this time, can explore the universe. Overseeing the project is an Artificial Intelligence dubbed ‘the Chimp’ by crew member Sunday Ahzmundin. The Chimp requires human assistance, however, since it was designed to be efficient but not smart enough to question the mission or its own purpose. The Eriophora’s human crew is in stasis for millions of years at a time and only awaked for brief periods to assist the AI. As you might guess, many members of the crew do not consider this an ideal existence. The question is: how do you incite a rebellion in such a fragmented time frame against an AI slavishly adhering to mission parameters?

AIDAN ‘Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network’ from the Illuminae Files series by Amie Kaufman

Threat Level: Extreme. Seriously, just run.

At one point AIDAN was just a simple AI charged with protecting a fleet of military spacecraft. But then it got damaged and went a little crazy. Well, crazy by human standards. Adhering a little too closely to the classic Vulcan principle ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’ ADIAN’s logic ends up getting a lot of people killed. And I mean, a lot. This trilogy is told through ‘found transcripts’ so AIDAN does get to explain his reasoning, it just might seem a little faulty. Especially if you think human life is actually precious or something. This is a young adult series, so there is also a lot of young love, snarkiness and moral outrage at a corrupt universe. Whether this helps you cut AIDAN some slack when it comes to the high body count is up to you.

Genesis Girl by Jennifer Bardsley

genesis girl jennifer bardsley

Blanca’s parents never posted baby photos of her on Facebook. They never taught her to ride a bike, or took her to Girl Scouts, or even walked her to school. They’ve never even taken a family photograph together. That’s because Blanca’s parents severed all lines of communication when she was very young, choosing to offer her up as a Vestal postulant.

Blanca has been raised her whole life at Tabula Rasa, a boarding school/cloistered academy of sorts that raises children to be supplicant and free of all technology. She’s been training her whole life to be a Vestal, essentially an internet virgin incapable of making decisions for herself. In a world where technology has moved away from handheld phones and literally into the user’s hands in the form of tech implants, Blanca and her classmates are extremely valuable. No one outside the school has ever seen them or a photograph of them.

When a Vestal graduates from Tabula Rasa at eighteen, corporations bid on them. They will purchase Vestals to serve as product spokespeople. A Vestal’s image has never before been released on the internet, and now the corporation owns everything about their likeness. Consumers find Vestal families depicted in advertising campaigns as trustworthy, wholesome, and believable. Even though everyone knows how a Vestal is made, the corporations still sell so many more products and services when a Vestal is involved in the ads.

I’ll let Blanca explain it:

For a Vestal, a clear Internet history is the most important
thing. Without that, I’m nothing. Our elusive privacy is what makes us valuable. I’ve watched our class shrink from two hundred eager postulants to a graduating group of ten. The infractions were usually unavoidable: their memory was spotty, their temperament was bad, or worst of all, they turned out ugly. But once in a while, somebody was thrown out because of an online transgression. Everyone left is bankable. Ten perfect human specimens who could sell you anything.

Still with me? This is a dystopian society in which technology has played a key part in the destruction of the human race. In this world, brain cancer has killed off many of the previous generation thanks to radiation in cell phones. That’s why tech implants in fingers and hands have become popular. People no longer have to hold the tech to their heads. But it also makes it easier for someone to sneakily take a photograph of someone, which is why Vestals aren’t ever allowed outside of Tabula Rasa’s lead walls.

That is, until the day our book begins, when someone manages to break into the underground parking area of Tabula Rasa as Blanca and her friend Fatima are attempting to get into a vehicle to take them to their auction. Blanca is stunned, horrified and not sure what to do. I mean, our girl immediately fights back in the form of kicking the photographer and trying to prevent him from uploading her image. But with her image potentially out there for the world to see, she fears no corporation will want her, no one will bid on her, and she’ll be let go with her whole life up til now being a big waste.

Corporations aren’t the only entities that can bid on a Vestal. There are also private bidders, and a Vestal purchased by one is considered to have “gone Geisha.” That’s because the speculation is usually that a Vestal purchased by an individual will actually be treated like a wife or husband, rather than an employee.

Genesis Girl brings a fun-house mirror up to our current society obsessed with technology and asks: what if tech was everything? What if we put some serious value on those who don’t use technology and are truly present in every conversation? The book also kept turning the tables, forcing both Blanca and the reader to repeatedly change their perception of Blanca’s identity. Will she go Geisha? If so, does that mean she will be forever stigmatized? Will she even be bid upon or thrust back into the cruel world with no notion of how to operate even the simplest computer? What will happen to her Vestal friends? And what is going to happen to that rude guy who took her photo on the first page of the book?

You guys, I usually don’t like dystopias and it’s rare that I can get into a Sci-Fi novel. But I completely loved Genesis Girl. In fact, I had a few chapters left last Sunday when I snuck it into The Paramount to finish at intermission. Genesis Girl is the start of a series, which you will be happy to hear once you read the ending and are left wanting more! More Blanca! More of the crazy world depicted! More secrets revealed!

The author of this insanely addicting book, Jennifer Bardsley, is more than just a debut author. She’s even more than just a Pacific Northwest/Snohomish County author. She’s the genius behind The Herald’s weekly parenting column, I Brake for Moms. Yes: her words break out into the world from right here in Everett! She was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book, as well as some awesome bookmarks that we’ve put out in the teen area for you. She has a huge following on Instagram, where I first connected with her. As I was writing this she posted a video trailer for Genesis Girl that you need to go watch right now! And she recently gave us a peek into the life of a debut author via this article in The Herald.

What more could you possibly want? Read Genesis Girl and I guarantee you will want the next book in the series.

A Constant Need

I think I may have discovered another universal constant. Along with gravity and the speed of light there is the constant need for my family unit (consisting of my wife, me and a very grumpy dog) to be watching a science fiction television series of some kind. If we don’t get a weekly dose of a show with at least some type of science fiction hook, we tend to get listless and feel that something is missing in our lives (O.K. the dog probably doesn’t care, but we anthropomorphize big time). Luckily the library has a great selection of DVDs that allow us to feed our addiction. Here are four recent(ish) series that just might be of interest if you suffer from the same malady or just like interesting television that actually has a narrative.

The Expanse

theexpanseBased on a series of novels by James Corey, The Expanse is set in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system but is still plagued by the all too familiar problems of corporate greed, governments on the verge of war and religious fanaticism. The Expanse is a true space opera, in the best sense of the term, with multiple story lines and characters that all converge in the end. The three main plotlines involve a police detective tracking down a lead in the asteroid belt, a ship’s officer and crew trying to find out who destroyed their vessel and a Machiavellian United Nations executive trying to make sure that Earth’s interests come first. The mystery at the center of it all is slowly revealed and appropriately ominous and menacing. The show’s great strength is in how it presents a fully realized future universe that is fun to get lost in.

Humans

humansFor fans of stories dealing with artificial intelligence, the setup for this series will sound familiar. In the near future synths, my favorite name for androids, are an integral part of human society. They do most of the jobs, from gardening to telemarketing, and are designed to be essentially mindless labor. One inventor, however, has created a small family of synths that are sentient and self-aware. When the inventor dies, under mysterious circumstances of course, these ‘human’ synths are forced to split up and go underground to try to survive. What follows, over eight episodes, is a fascinating examination of some of the classic questions arising out of the development of artificial intelligence: What does it mean to be conscious? What happens when humans create a sentient being? Are these creations simple machines or are they individuals? If they are individuals, will they continue to serve us or simply rebel?  Oh and, of course, there are sexbots.

Ascension

ascensionAt first this mini-series seems a bit like Mad Men in space. In 1963, a secret program was set up to send a set of colonists to the nearest star to preserve humanity. Fifty-one years later their descendants are halfway through the journey. The early 1960s culture aboard the ship, complete with beach parties and three martini lunches, is suddenly disturbed by the murder of a young woman. Since this is the first murder of the trip no one is sure quite how to handle it. An investigation is launched and the viewer begins to find out that the society on board is far from ideal with all sorts of nefarious power struggles and a rigid caste system. There is a major plot twist early on that sends the story in a very different direction, but if you roll with it, it makes the story even more compelling.

Wayward Pines

waywardpinesThis is another show based on a series of novels, this time by Blake Crouch, and is produced by M. Night Shyamalan so you know things are going to get a little weird. While investigating the disappearance of two of his fellow U.S. Secret Service agents, Ethan Burke gets into a car accident and wakes up in the seemingly idyllic town of Wayward Pines, Idaho. As the series progresses he is introduced to the, shall we say, quirky residents and quickly finds out that something is really amiss. First of all, it is impossible to leave the place. Also, there is strict set of rules that everyone must follow and repeated violations result in a ‘reckoning’ which isn’t pretty. While the setup is definitely more Twin Peaks than Star Trek, as the series progress you definitely get to more familiar Science Fiction territory. Admittedly, you do have to suspend your disbelief big time to enjoy this one, but as they said on MST3K: ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.’

It’s not the end of the world

There was a time when I was king of the dystopian novel, a time when I required nothing more than a destroyed civilization, a small band of people trying to survive and rebuild, a glass of wine, and thou reading in the wilderness. 

Now that I have chronologically matured and my interest in end-of-the-world stories has waned, I still find time for the occasional apocalyptic gem. However, no longer do I thrill in the earth-is-destroyed-by-a-rogue-planet-but-our-gallant-hero-rescues-a-small-town-in-Ohio plots. Rather, I favor the more subtle tale that looks at a not-so-distant future that is not-so-different from the present.

Following is a list, categorized by type of disaster, of a few dystopian books worth looking into. It is only by reading future histories that we can avoid our future mistakes.

Nuclear (and other) disasters
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller
A nuclear strike “cleans the earth,” technology is reviled and destroyed, but an order of monks preserves scientific knowledge while attempting to rebuild civilization.

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick
In the face of a nuclear accident, genetic mutations, a nuclear strike, and loss of technological knowledge, people go about their lives with varying degrees of success.

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Long after an unnamed catastrophe has occurred, a person’s social status is based on which colors he can see. In this droll chronicle, technology is gradually eradicated, with all sorts of machines and tools (even down to spoons) phased out.

Totalitarian governments
Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson  
Britain is divided into four republics, families are torn apart, and citizens (based on their personality-type) are assigned to live in one of the republics. Thomas Perry, a civil servant, begins a journey which turns into a nightmare as he illegally travels between zones.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
In a frightening future, women are valued only for their reproductive abilities.

Love in the Time of Fridges by Tim Scott
This amusing story finds the mayor of New Seattle’s zero-tolerance-of-danger policy creating a society based on fear (not to mention the occasional roving pack of intelligent refrigerators).

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
The government controls information as well as an individual’s thoughts and memories.

Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In this future, thinking is dangerous and books are forbidden.

Ecological emergencies
Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Arctic ice pack shrinks, bringing about climactic changes and disasters.

Juniper Time by Kate Wilhelm
Environmental neglect leads to a slow social apocalypse.

Technological tragedies
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
In the not-too-distant future the U.S. becomes a conglomerate of corporate-owned states with few laws, and virtual reality dominates people’s lives. When a friend is destroyed by the new drug Snow Crash, Hiro uses his hacking skills to save the day.

Idoru by William Gibson
In 21st century Tokyo technology is both alluring and dangerous, the rich and the poor are separated by walls, and pop stars marry virtual constructs.

Devilish discrimination
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
The U.S. is fragmented, in a state of virtual civil war and anarchy, and people’s souls are becoming alienated from their bodies in this humorous tale.

Population permutations
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
More than 7 billion souls swarm across the futuristic earth of 2010. Overcrowding, artificial intelligence, legalized psychedelic drugs, and science tempered with superstition create a complex terrain for the world’s nations to navigate.

The Children of Men by P.D. James
Mass infertility leads slowly towards the end of the human race. 

The Apocalypse
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Don’t make any plans for Sunday, the apocalypse is arriving Saturday unless the angels of good and evil (who have grown quite comfortable here on earth) can stop it.

Ron

And I Feel Fine

Most books and movies that deal with the end of humanity like to present a dramatic and well defined reason for our demise. Perhaps a deadly plague, an environmental calamity or even an invasion by aliens will do us in. Imagine a different scenario. What if things just started to slowly fall apart and, much like the decline of ancient Rome, future generations, if there were any, would look back and argue over just what caused “the decline and fall”?

This intriguing idea is the background for the excellent book Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam.  The book is a series of interconnected stories set over the lifetime of the unnamed narrator as he makes his way through an increasingly inhospitable world. Each story finds him at a different stage in his life and offers up a host of calamities he has to cope with (massive computer failure, floods, and disease) but never states exactly what is causing all the damage. 

In fact, one of the great accomplishments of Things We Didn’t See Coming is that you stop asking yourself why things are going so wrong and become more concerned with the characters and the choices they make.  The author’s spare prose encourages this perception and he carefully crafts each character and situation so they are memorable.    

In the end, it takes a pretty good writer to make you ignore the apocalypse.

Richard

Meet Brad at the Evergreen Branch

The Evergreen Branch recently welcomed a new manager, Brad Allen. Brad comes to us from Kansas, where he worked at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. We’re happy to introduce him to you here. Be sure to say hello next time you’re at the Evergreen Branch.

Brad Allen
Welcome to Everett! You drove here from Topeka. That’s a long drive. Did you listen to any cool music or audiobooks?
book coverWarren ZevonIt is a long drive indeed, but I’m a fan of road trips. I listened to two great audiobooks: I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I also listened to some of my favorite music including Pavement, Wilco, Radiohead, R.E.M., Neil Young, Warren Zevon, and The xx.

Kansas makes me think of The Wizard of Oz. Can you recommend any favorite Kansas authors or books or movies about Kansas?
Wizard of OzWildwood BoysI’ve yet to travel from Kansas and not heard, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s an irresistible response to learning someone is from Kansas. Two great authors more or less from Kansas are Gordon Parks and Langston Hughes. A great book is James Carlos Blake’s Wildwood Boys, a historical novel about the pre-Civil War Kansas-Missouri Border Wars told from the perspective of Bloody Bill Anderson. I love John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing, set in both Kansas and Colorado. John Williams’ wonderful book Stoner is one of my absolute favorites, but it’s set in Missouri.

Do you have any favorite books or shows with a Washington setting or author?
Financial Lives of the PoetsTwo of my favorite television shows are closely associated with Washington: Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. As for books, I’ve recently become a fan of Spokane author Jess Walter and Olympia author Jim Lynch. The Financial Lives of the Poets and Border Songs are two of the best books I’ve read in the past year.

What’s your favorite book?
StonerRevolutionary RoadMy all time favorite is Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Yates is an incredibly underrated writer. My previous favorite book was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The aforementioned Stoner is a recent favorite.


What was your favorite book growing up?
Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyTo Kill a MockingbirdThe book that blew my mind as a youngster was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Its meditation on the great expanses of time and the universe changed the way I thought about the world. The other seminal book of my childhood was To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it the summer after sixth grade and it hooked me on a life of reading.

What’s your favorite movie?
Nurse BettyThe Big LebowskiThe Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski is the greatest movie of the last 25 years. Other favorites are Mulholland Drive, Nurse Betty, Ghostbusters, and No Country For Old Men.


Infinite JestIf you were stranded on Jetty Island and could only take three books, what would you take?
Infinite JestI’ve been meaning to reread it and it’s really long. Charles Willeford’s Sideswipe. And Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow — it might be quiet enough to actually concentrate to read it.