I have been reading things other than dystopian fiction. These are the books I’ve experienced this year so far. What is the best book you’ve read in 2022?
“In Hollywood, whites have churned out dystopian fantasies by imagining themselves as slaves and refugees in the future…[it is] science fiction as magical thinking: whites fear that all the sins they committed against black and brown people will come back to them tenfold, so they fantasize their own fall as a preventative measure to ensure that the white race will never fall.”–Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings (2020)
Park Hong’s words are provocative. The post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre (both film & novel) can be viewed as instructional (e.g. how to survive moral conundrums surrounding your survival vs. that of someone else; how to scavenge & farm; how to fend off those who would eat you, enslave you, otherwise kill you). While television series like The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead depict a vast spectrum of diversity in their respective casts, both series begin by centering White characters struggling with the concept of leadership in a new world order. Viewed from Park Hong’s perspective, as these programs progress through multiple seasons, they instruct how Whites might survive America in which the historical racial-social structures have been obliterated.
Having said that, there are several women and/or BIPOC authors who have co-opted the genre to good effect. Interestingly, many of these stories might be considered coming-of-age. I have curated a list (in no particular order) of post-apocalyptic/dystopian books, most of which I have masochistically consumed over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic; I included some “classics” and other White writers by way of comparison. Each book title is accompanied by a distinctive trait, when considered from Park Hong’s framework.
The author is a Black woman who wrote the books in the closing years of the second millennium. The heroine is also a Black woman who has a vision of the future where people accept her assertion that “God is change.” Chilling in its prescience, Butler imagines an America in which a man not unlike POTUS 45 wins the White House in the mid-2030s. Novels could be deemed a coming-of-age story.
Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is a British-Pakistani man whose novel depicts two Middle Eastern characters witnessing the collapse of the world created by hundreds of years of colonialism. The wars between formerly colonial powerhouses are the backdrop as the two main characters find their way to a new life in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. In the end, the world could be deemed a better place after the demise of Western imperial structures. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.
Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel
Canadian writer whose heroine tries to survive a brutal post-pandemic world. Art/theatre provides hope in the bleak landscape. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.
American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad
Telling the story from several Black American perspectives, Egyptian-born north American writer El Akkad takes the reader on a wild adventure through the flooded 2074 South during the Second American Civil War. It is a war fought over the outlawing of oil—among other things. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
I include this because, from a Native American standpoint, it could be viewed as an apocalyptic story describing the collapse of known cultural structures. The zombies in this story are the brutal white men from Europe who just don’t seem to die.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020) by Richard Flanagan
Flanagan (White Tasmanian) has threads of post-colonialism throughout his earliest work; for this and many other reasons, he is one of my favorite writers. The novel is far from the best of his, and its apocalyptic tale is not really all that futuristic or outlandish, as it imagines the world on fire and the people in it more consumed with their smartphones and social media than the global destruction occurring in their immediate surroundings.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
All the characters are all White. Depicted is a United States ruled by tyrannical Christian men who have “resettled” Black folks and who have forced women to bear children in an ever-more austere world. It should not go without comment that this is what Black women endured in ante-bellum America. Interesting take in this article.
1984 (1949) by George Orwell
Read this one in high school. And cannot let it off the hook. All white characters depicted in a world where autonomous thought and action are criminalized; they are entirely under the eye of a faceless, uncaring ruler. Isn’t that colonialism? Isn’t that the British Empire from whence the author came? Was he being ironic? One would hope the dark allegorist saw parallels between the brutality of his own country’s capitalist exploitative history and the autocrats of Soviet Russia.
The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy
It’s been over a decade since I read this. I don’t recall there being anything but White characters in this book. The story is set in post-nuclear-holocaust and follows a boy and his ailing father as they do what they can just to survive. To what end? Just for the sake of survival? I may have to revisit this one to better see it through the lens of Park Hong’s theory.
Dear Senator Grassley,
I do not think you or your fellow GOP lawmakers have fully considered the ramifications of your “moral” stance against abortion rights.
Let’s start here with a quote that could have been from you; it’s a hilarious one from state rep Jeff Kaufmann in a recent DSM Register article: “The Republican Party of Iowa is committed to defending the unborn and will fight for every person’s right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”
Please spare us. Those who support rolling back Roe are demonstrably NOT pro-life (see: non-stances on social programs and do-nothing political platforms and de-funding sex education in public schools). The GOP is pro-birth. That’s it. If they were pro-life, they would run for office on expanding care for low-income folks after they make the “pious” choice to give birth. Did you know that most of the states that are backing abortion bans do not cover maternity leave?
Rolling back Roe is deeply unpopular (~61% of Americans see the importance of having abortion rights protected). The backing of such unpopular agenda items is Fascism 101.
Ironically, the morality of abortion is raised by folks who have seemingly never thought of “morality.” Is it “moral” to judge someone for what they do in their private lives, much less impose a law that infringes on privacy? Is it “moral” to take away a woman’s right to do what she chooses with her body? (Who are you to dictate, by the extension of Roe ban, when and for what reason a woman has sex?) Most importantly, is it “moral” to force a woman to bring a pregnancy to term when infant and maternal mortality is a real threat? Without some form of universal healthcare, many people who become pregnant cannot afford prenatal check-ups, thus putting them at risk of death. Where is the morality in that? A baby’s life is worth more than the woman carrying it? And bring a child to term to put up for adoption? Are you serious? The foster system is overwhelmed as it is (see statistics: nearly half a million unplaced foster kids). And “moral” folks like yourself want to constantly attack and/or underfund gov’t-funded care (FYI: Planned Parenthood services are 90% non-abortion-related; they mostly provide advice, contraception, and prenatal care). Are you coming after contraception next?
“Christian” folks like yourself want to do away with sex ed and contraception altogether (see above commentary on Planned Parenthood). To me, that seems unethical and, yes, tyrannical. Taking away education AND the right to choose to have sex and/or a baby basically imparts judgement on the act of sex itself. So yes, the laws banning abortion are fascist. And that is now part of your bumbling legacy.
The ethics of an outright ban on abortion are questionable, and certainly morally dubious.
I am almost beyond words. My debut novel has been selected by the National Indie Excellence Awards panelists for the 2021-22 Best New Fiction prize. Click here (you’ll have to scroll down a bit).
I have some serious dopamine surging through my system right now. I have to get back to my day job. Will write more later.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll read the book and leave a rating on Goodreads and/or Amazon. Cheers!
“I am a god. I’m not the God, I don’t think.”
–Phil Connors, Groundhog Day
Sickness is descending on the world…
…as crazy as that sounds, we should make one thing clear: I am not a liar. Quite the opposite, in fact. And I’m funny as hell.
You will notice—as I chew the fat, compose, consider, or whatever you want to call this—that two intense and mundane mini-epics are materializing simultaneously. It is not an uncommon duality, especially in a time such as these. It is what so many call “madness.” At first, the stories may seem distinct, that there are two…well, you can’t call them protagonists. Two antagonists? two anti-heroes? two tragic heroes? two tragic-antiheroes? Whatever it is you want to call the main character, the fact is—and it is the most important fact for you to know—what is happening to him is not the time-travel to parallel universes that it appears to be; it never is. Whether you call it “madness” is up to you.
At the risk of seeming too dictatorial about your experience in this space, don’t get caught up with inexactitudes, inconsistencies, non-binaries, or unlikelihoods: in a time of widespread sickness, impossibilities happen all the time. While we’re at it, don’t get too bent out of shape about the obliviousness, contradictions, and willful ignorances of our person: Julius. And if you’re looking for symbols or metaphors or parallels or motifs, you may find them. But don’t hold out hope that Julius will also observe these devices. You see, the fellow I am going to tell you about is not too observant, which means he’s not even close to being the absurd humorist. Not for lack of trying, though.
It’s not that he’s stupid; it’s just that Julius is not attuned to such things and will therefore never see symbols or metaphors or parallels or motifs. To be more accurate, he does see them, but he will either move quickly past their significance altogether, or he will misinterpret them. Put another way, Julius rarely sees the things that have flashing neon arrows pointing at them; even more rarely does he see things that have peacock feathers coming out of their ass.
But, dear audience, critic, witness, or whatever it is you might call yourself: you yourself will see things you wish Julius would see. This is all we can hope for. But even in this most extraordinary time of imminent global sickness, there is little hope for Julius.
As to what or who or where or why I am, well, suffice it to say that I am the only way a story like this can—or should—happen.
Now that we have those things cleared up, a sickness is descending upon the world.
I couldn’t have asked for better folks to chat with for my first two podcast appearances. My nerves evaporated almost instantly as we started our conversations.
Writing routine. Writing ritual. I like the term writing ritual. Then the term is spiritual. Religious, even.
Over the course of writing The Emergent, I listened to certain albums for their familiar sounds and their contribution to my writing ritual. I wrote about it in this post.
On that note, I wanted to share the only playlist I listened to in the final six months of work on the book. Never listened out of order. The list is publicly available or you can recreate it on a different platform.
I posted back in September that “I wrote The Emergent in order to subvert my very own American heterosexual white middle-class male point of view.”
In the spirit of that September post, the dedication in the front of the novel, and the Author’s Note in the back of the novel, I want to support voices that need to be heard more loudly and widely in the state of Iowa. Therefore, 60% of any royalties I receive from the book will be contributed to the local BIPOC writer’s fund.
Kat is ready to tell her story: coming of age at the dawn of the internet era.
You did this.
Autumn 2002. You were with me in Mountain View, CA when I wrote the inciting incident of what would become my novel.
You were there.
Autumn 2004. You sat with me in the Harlem/Morningside Heights’ Café Amrita on 110th St & Frederick Douglass Circle as I finished the first 100-page draft of the manuscript.
You were there.
Winter 2005 thru summer 2006. You were a distant dream, dear reader. I stopped writing as my life crashed down around me in Sunnyvale, Willow Glen, & Campbell, CA. But you were there.
You were there.
Autumn 2006 thru summer 2010. You travelled with me throughout South Korea, where I completed the first full draft of the manuscript.
You were there.
Winter 2011 thru spring 2017. I almost lost you again, reader. Settling in northern Illinois, working several jobs, cooking for Nic through grad school, my own (money) career pursuits left no time for writing.
But you were still there.
Summer 2017 thru summer 2019. You kept me company as I carved out time to start writing again during marathon weekend sessions in Houston, TX.
You were there.
Autumn 2019 thru winter 2021. You were waiting for me in this Des Moines home office every morning as I drafted, tinkered with, and tweaked the manuscript (one hour a day before work, four to eight hours on the weekends).
You were there.
Because you were there all along, Kat is now here. Ready to tell her story.
When I was in my early to mid-20s, I would do things in dreams unimaginable to me in waking life: inject heroin, die by gun suicide, die by gun murder, crash-land small jet planes in the San Francisco Bay.
Dreaming sounds dangerous. Yes, but not always. In one dream when I was 24—a couple year after a particularly bad heartbreak—I forgave the young woman who had crushed my soul.
Other than of the occasional dog attack, I don’t dream much anymore. After all the addiction, the dying, the near-death, the confrontation with deep emotional pain, you might say that’s a good thing.
The current dog-attack dreams are stark because they are the only ones that I remember. Since they are connected to real altercations with neighborhood dogs over the past two years, the dreams help make meaning.
The dog attacks of my dreams can represent any and all multitudes of secular fear: pandemic, politics, and their implications on the next generation.
The dog attacks of my dreams can represent a particularly unruly part of my inner Self (an interpretation less potent in my very domesticated mid-40s).
The dog attacks of my dreams can represent whatever I want them to, follies of possible self-delusion and misinterpretation notwithstanding.
The real trick, at least in the dream, is to vanquish the dog. Or befriend it.
Those dreams from my 20s still carry meaning, are part of my narrative, are the basis for a personal mythology, a personal religion. Those dreams are subconscious artifacts that mark a time of developing self-awareness, a time of great personal growth.
But have I lost my religion? Visions that could inform my life (i.e. sleep cycles that lead to remembered dreams) are interrupted by the biology of the old-ish (i.e. I gotta pee at 2 AM), as well as the physical aches and anxiety pains.
And there’s so much more that occupies waking life than there was in my 20s. Two more decades of personal and world history to process; responsibilities, regret, my relationship with friends and family to concern me. Personal growth continues; I interact with the joys and hardships of life and change. But that’s fairly artificial: the books, articles, television, and cinema that I consume will never fully reflect my own experience.
In a recent episode of Throughline, Abdelfatah points out that “in today’s world, where sleep is being cut short, caffeinated drinks are keeping us awake and screens vie for our attention, it’s become harder and harder to dream.” True. Can I quit coffee in the interest of better sleep? Can I refrain from my anxiety-inducing media addiction to foster more dreaming?
In my 20s—in the early days of my relationship with coffee and before the invasion of smart phones—I was able to take the experience of a dream and consider the metaphors, sometimes for several days. Sure, maybe I was a little interested in the escapism of taking heroin, but perhaps the dream was instructing me: temporarily extract yourself from your worries about school and love and change.
I could lament how much richer my inner life would be now if I were to remember more of my dreams. Or I could develop a practice of taking an extra five minutes before getting out of bed, letting the visions of sleep set in my waking mind so they could walk with me throughout the day.