BOOK REVIEW: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In Eggers’ novel, the Circle is a technology giant that looks a lot like Google + FaceBook + PayPal + Twitter all wrapped together under one corporate roof. Mae Holland, the book’s lead, is a young woman hired into the firm owing to her close friendship with a college roommate turned high level executive at the Circle, Annie. Even though Mae is brought in to work what is called “customer experience” (i.e. customer service) doing seemingly tedious work, Mae is in hog heaven. She left a job doing tedious work in a depressing environment with minimal support, and so this job personalizing boilerplate responses in a fascinating place with the opportunity to move up is a dream. The Circle is a utopian workplace where engineers are given free rein to experiment, where great minds and performing artists come to hang out, and where one gets handsomely rewarded for playing on one’s social media at work. All one needs to thrive at the Circle is a sharp mind and a willingness to accept that one’s days of privacy and solitude are behind one.

The Circle is the dystopia that some would say we are on the cusp of and others think we’ve already plunged into. It’s not Orwell’s gray dystopia of brutal state force. Neither is it Huxley’s bright and shiny dystopia of drugs and free loving. It’s a dystopia in which people willingly give up all privacy and negate the need for a neo-KGB by posting every idiotic thing that they do directly to the worldwide web. However, as in Huxley’s “Brave New World,” we see that the most nefarious character isn’t necessarily the most dangerous. The Circle is headed by an executive trinity. There’s the tech genius who we know little about until the book’s end–except that his life runs contrary to what the Circle seeks in its employees in that he’s fiercely private to the point of being mysterious. There is Tom Stenton who is the face of greedy capitalism, a loathsome character in every way imaginable. However, the real danger comes from the likable–and seemingly reasonable–Eamon Bailey who’s an idealist who thinks that people can perfect if they have no shadows in which to make mischief.

Mae is introduced to us as a likable character. She’s a hardworking but human girl next door. When we are introduced to Mercer, her ex-boyfriend and the face anti-Circle-ism, we assume that she’s being reasonable in her dislike of him. Even though he sounds reasonable, she knows him. Mercer rails against this corporatized surveillance state, and initially one may not be able to tell whether he’s a Luddite or the voice of reason. As the story goes on, however, the reader is likely to like Mercer more and more and Mae less and less. But the question remains until the end whether Mae will do the right thing as she becomes aware of the full—disturbing–picture of the Circle.

I got engrossed in this book. It’s absorbing both because of good character development and an intriguing story. That’s probably why the novel was made into a film that came out earlier in the year. It’s one of those books with the readability of popular commercial fiction, but which provides some food for thought. Some of the twists you may figure out, but the book keeps one wondering until the reveals.

I’d recommend this book for fiction readers—particularly if you have any pictures on social media with a drink in your hand or bad judgement in progress.

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The movie trailer, if you’re interested:

BOOK REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At the risk of mortally offending fans of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” I’m going to introduce “The Hunger Games” as the book that launched a thousand young adult (YA) dystopias. Yes, I’m aware that Lowry’s book came out much earlier and was both a commercial and literary success. However, it came out so much earlier (i.e. 15 years earlier), and without noteworthy copycats. “Hunger Games” was immediately followed by a dystopian YA book and movie blitzkrieg. This might be a trick of timing, but I don’t think one can dismiss the Collin’s story and characters as features that spawned copies meh, bad, and ugly. (Which is to say, those who started their dystopian YA projects after reading “Hunger Games” were probably too late, but similar projects in the pipeline probably benefited enormously.)

I’m not holding all the horrible works of copycats against Collins. I think she made a tight and engaging story of a love triangle meets “The Running Man.” That’s my best summation, but to elaborate: A girl in a burgeoning relationship with a young man from her district is forced into a kill-or-be-killed futuristic version of gladiatorial games, during which she becomes attached to her fellow district tribute under the crucible of combat.

The main characters are suitably likable and flawed. Each of the main characters is in some regards a font of virtue with a tragic weakness. The lead, Katniss Everdeen, sacrifices by volunteering take her little sister’s place in the games, but she also strings along the two love interests and isn’t above the cold calculation that survival requires. Her boyfriend from back home, Gale, turns out to be even more willing to do whatever it takes. The most virtuous of the leading characters, Peeta, may lack a dark side, but he’s also comparatively milquetoast–surviving only through charisma and the kindness of others.

If the leading characters feel true in their complexity, Collins takes a calculated risk by making a host of Capitol characters that are caricatures of humanity. They are over-the-top in their shallowness and narcissism. There are exceptions, but many of these characters seem like the worst of pre-teens trapped in the lives of adults. They are obsessed with meaningless things and are numb to consequences felt by others. I’m not sure why that would appeal to readers of YA fiction, but maybe kids who read look around at the kids that don’t and see people who look a lot like these Capitol caricatures. Mere speculation.

I held off reading this series for a while, but I must admit that I enjoyed all three of the books in the series (to varying degrees.) I’d recommend “The Hunger Games” for anyone who doesn’t get too bummed out by reading dystopian fiction. It’s fast-paced and highly readable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Make Room! Make Room!Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Knowing that this book was the basis of the movie Soylent Green, I expected a very different book. While I haven’t seen the movie Soylent Green, I–like everybody not living under a rock–knew that the movie’s big twist was that “Soylent green is people!” Meaning, society has unwittingly been led into cannibalism.

I wouldn’t so much categorize Make Room! Make Room! as dystopian science fiction as I would a detective story that happens to take place in a Malthusian dystopia. (For those unfamiliar with the work of Thomas Malthus, he predicted a massive crash resulting from the fact that human population in his day [18-19th century] was growing much faster than food production and resource discovery. Some dismiss Malthus as a doom-and-gloomer who was unable to foresee that great technological breakthroughs would make it possible for humanity to support its growing numbers. Others, like Harry Harrison, have maintained that it’s merely a matter of time before humanity outstrips its resources and Malthus’s prediction is vindicated.)

While the story is about a detective investigating the death of a wealthy businessman/criminal and said officer’s love affair with the deceased man’s girl, Malthus’s idea sets the tone of this novel. Written in 1966, Make Room! Make Room! describes the world of 1999 as one in which food and drinking water are in scarce supply. Harrison predicted the population would then be 7 billion. He was off a bit. The population in 1999 was closer to 6 billion. While we have presently reached 7+billion, we aren’t surviving off SOYbeans and LENTils (SOY-LENT, get it) for protein.

It’s probably good that the story is about crime and romance, because when it becomes too focused on the Malthusian dystopia—rather than letting it play in the background and give the story a visceral edge—the book can be a bit preachy. This is best exemplified by the brief diatribes of Sol, the protagonist’s roommate and the character that occasionally drags us out of this fictional story and into a lecture on the dangers of unchecked population growth. Such brief lectures might have been well worthwhile if the author (and Malthus) had been correct, but they read a bit alarmist in the wake of both men’s overreaction (or incorrect timelines?) Readers with strong feelings on the subject of birth control may find that issue positively or negatively impacts one’s perception of the book depending upon one’s stance on the issue, but most will find it to be just an another issue that dates the work.

If this had just been about the 1999 Malthusian dystopia, it might be so dated as to be unreadable today. However, the story is more timeless than that—if with an inescapable retro feel.

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Sharing Stories of the Plaguepocalypse

[I’m recycling this from a Figment competition that I once entered–and lost.]

Day 100, Post-Apocalypse

Day 100, Post-Apocalypse

JB and I worked tediously to find and repair damaged insulation on the main from the solar farm down to our bunker. Breaks or cracks in the insulation meant lost energy that we could not afford, but we had to bury the cheap cable available to us because the Mojave sun degraded it too rapidly otherwise. Burying the line invited a whole new problem because burrowing critters then began to gnaw on it. Whenever there was a power drop, two of our trio had to come out and do line maintenance.  Output should have been at its maximum given it was mid-day during the hottest time of year, but, instead, we were experiencing a sixty percent drop in power.

We wore white from head to toe except for a slit in our ninja-like masks where sunglasses covered the unclothed region and protected our eyes from the harsh rays and glints.  This had always been a harsh land, but changes experienced in recent decades made it far hotter.  I sucked a mouthful of water from the bladder that lay next to my body under my baggy white clothes. The water was hot, like a freshly brewed cup of tea—sans the tea.

“Son-of-a…, sweat is stinging my eyes,”  JB said as he removed his sunglasses, and blotted his eyes with his sleeve.

“Put the shades back on. We can’t have you getting burned retinas,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah, if I go blind who’ll come out here with you to dig up line?” JB’s reply dripped sarcasm.

“Exactly, now you’re getting it,” I said.

JB wiped his eyes once more, and then put the glasses back on. Without the shades, the surroundings looked like the Mars of old movies – cast in a reddish hue.

“I think I’ve got it,” JB called out.

“Looks like it,” I replied, leaning over to look in JB’s newly-excavated hole.

A mole rat skeleton had its teeth buried in the insulation.

After removing the rodent, patching the insulation, and putting the sand back, JB and I walked back to the hatch of our bunker.

JB crouched over the opening. He touched the metal lip of the hatch and immediately yanked his hand away while screaming an expletive. The gloves were not thick; they were for keeping the sun off the skin while holding in as little heat as possible.

JB called down the shaft, “Brit!”

“What ‘cha want,”  Brittany replied.

“How’s our power level, we pulled a fried mole rat off the line,” I asked.

“Yum!…,  The power is back to normal,”  She called back.

I followed JB down the long ladder into the bunker. I pulled the hot hatch closed behind me and secured it against some unlikely foe.

“We need to protect that line somehow,” I said

“I’m just glad we didn’t have to hump out to the transmitter. The last time it broke down I was loopy with dehydration by the time I got back. You sure this is the only place for us to live?” JB said.

Brit came in with two cups of water and handed them to JB and myself.  She said, “I’ve got the loop broadcasting again and the receivers are turned up loud.”

“If you can come up with someplace else where we can tap into the energy necessary to keep broadcasting, I’m all ears,” I responded.

“That’s just it. We’ve been broadcasting all this time, and we’re not getting any reply,”  JB said.

“We also don’t know whether this climate is responsible for our good fortune,” I said.

JB had no response.

“Good fortune? Oh, my, I feel like such a princess.” Brit said curtseying with her fingertips bunched up and wrists kinked as if she were holding up a skirt.

“I mean being alive,” I clarified.

There was a silence.

Brit spoke up, “Remember people?… I love you guys, but I’d give anything to meet a stranger. Remember the last time you saw a crowd of strangers.”

 

I did, indeed, remember.

I was planning on going to Union Station to get out the Los Angeles. Before I left my apartment, I saw a news story showing the train station among all the other avenues of disembarkation that were thronged with people.  The streets outside the station were flooded with a throbbing, undulating mass of humanity. As in the mosh-pit of a rock concert, there were two primary classes of people: those who were screaming and those who were suffocating. Mixed in among these were glassy-eyed souls who had the good sense to realize they were the walking dead, and to behave accordingly.  There were images from packed train-less platforms, and the grandiose cavernous waiting area.

I packed my gear and donned boots so as to be prepared to hike out of town if necessary. It proved to be a wise move, because I when I arrived at the train station the wall of humanity was impenetrable.

I hated crowds. Crowds were noisy, hot, and chaotic.  My hatred of crowds saved my life. Nature has its weird ways. I had once read about ants that could take down a fully grown cow. They did this by covering the animal benignly, and then, upon a release of a pheromone from the ants on the creature’s head, they all stung at once. This malady, a hemorrhagic fever of some sort, was similarly impossibly intelligent and geared toward wiping out the entire species. It seemed to know when its victims were within a crowd, by what mechanism I cannot imagine, and it would then send them into sneezing and coughing fits that propelled droplets of virulent blood in a fine mist to those all around.

Now I missed crowds, because they were a sign that one’s species wouldn’t die with oneself.

JB and Brit had taken to telling each other their own last crowd stories, which we’d heard before. We’d heard all of each other’s stories.

Well there was one story that I kept for myself. It was the story of the day before I met up with Brit and JB. It was my nadir.

I had been hiking east from the city. My path merged with the I-40 corridor, and it was the most horrific day of my life. I’d always been an avid hiker and had spent long periods on my own before, but these times of solitude were without signs of humanity. As I came upon I-40, there were people all around -in cars and on the ground, but they were all stiff and had rivulets of brown or red running from their noses, mouths, ears, eyes, and presumably the unseen orifices.

When I saw a monastery on a hillside, I thought I was saved.  Surely the isolated monks or nuns were safe and would help out a weary uninfected traveler? I found an old stone church that was post and beam on the inside. Anyway, my hope faded when I found the pews had been used as hospital beds, and all, patient and caretaker alike, were bled out. The only signs of life were rats on the floor, weeds in the mortar joints, and birds in the rafters. That was my moment of greatest loneliness, for if God had abandoned his own house, what hope was there for me.

BOOK REVIEW: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Huxley’s utopianish dystopia, an individual’s fate is determined through a combination of genetic engineering, operant conditioning, and hypnopedia (sleep-teaching.) It’s a different dystopian vision than that of Orwell or Atwood; individuals are drugged and encouraged in unlimited promiscuity in order to pacify them and keep them believing that they are happy (without allowing exposure to alternatives by which they might contrast their lives.) Gone are the arts and religion as we know it, and science exists only as a shadow of its former self.

The book follows the story of a “Savage”, named John, brought from an Indian reservation on which this “Brave new world” is unknown. He cannot understand the “civilized” world, and to its occupants he is an interesting anomaly to be gawked at at cocktail parties.

The book ends on an upbeat note as the reader learns of a third world, a world beyond the Brave New World or the brutally impoverished aboriginal lands.

Everyone should read this book to learn that one can be killed with “kindness” as well as with sternness.

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