Weekend Shorts: The Spire and MaddAddam

I bring to you today one comics mini-series and one audiobook, not chosen for their similarities but which are similar nonetheless. Fascinating worlds, interesting characters, and flashbacks abound in both of these stories, and there’s definitely some crossover of themes. Clearly I have a type when it comes to my stories.

The Spire, #1-8, by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely
The Spire #1I picked up this series just about a year ago when issue #3 came out, also picking up #2 that day and then waiting a couple weeks for #1 to make its way between stores. I had intended to buy all of them and read them as they came out, but I only did the first part — I couldn’t not own all these amazing covers, but apparently also couldn’t stand waiting for more story. But once I had all eight delightful issues in hand, it was time to binge!

And seriously, wow, this series is good. I came for the artwork, but I stayed for the story. Said story follows Commander Shå of the City Watch (City Watch!), a sort of offshoot of the regular police force comprised of “skews” — a derogatory term for beings who are not quite human and who therefore generally creep polite society out. Shå gets caught up in the investigation of a pretty brutal murder, and then several pretty brutal murders, all of which point back to a strange history between the city and the people and skews who live outside its walls.

It is… I can’t stop saying that it’s really good. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the series, and it’s all intriguing. Besides the murders you have of course the prejudice against skews to work with, Shå’s secret relationship with someone she really shouldn’t be dating, flashbacks to the current ruler’s venture outside the city wall’s, a power trip by a future ruler with ulterior motives, a mysterious and powerful being that some people want to murder, fighting, magic, love… I’m not really sure how all this fits into eight issues but it does, perfectly.

Also, the artwork. I want so many of these covers and pages and panels blown up to ridiculous size and plastered on all my walls. The style and the colors are totally my jam.

I am only sad that that’s the end, but maybe if I’m lucky these guys will pair up again and make something equally fantastic. At the very least, the good thing about comics is that people make SO MANY of them that I’m sure to find either the writer or the artist somewhere else soon!

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddamTrue story: I was absolutely convinced I had read this book already, to the point where I had to page back through my Goodreads “read” list to discover that no, Scott and I had only listened to the first two books in this series on our various road trips. Conveniently, a road trip cropped up shortly thereafter and I downloaded this right quickly.

As a book, it’s great. It takes place right after The Year of the Flood and catches us up on what’s going on with our God’s Gardeners and our Crakers and our Jimmy/Snowman/Snowman-the-Jimmy. It’s not terribly good news, as the Painballers are loose and the pigoons are in fighting form and the Crakers continue to be the most annoying four-year-olds. But, on the plus side, while our friends are dealing with this mess we get to have some more backstory, in the form of flashbacks from Gardener Zeb about his life and that of his brother, Adam One.

Unfortunately, it was kind of a dud road trip book. It was so similar in tone and even story to the others in the series that it was very easy to zone out during the audio, and there wasn’t a lot of really new information to keep our attention. Even in the “fight scenes”, there wasn’t a lot of action going on, and those were few and far between. Scott was willing to let me listen to the book, because I was actually interested in it, but he slept through a lot of it and missed the parts I listened to on my runs and when it came time to summarize what he’d missed it was a lot of, “Well, Zeb told some more stories about Adam One and also there’s this chess piece with drugs in it”, or “Well, the Crakers were annoying and also the pigoons came and made a truce with the humans so they could all go kill some Painballers.” So, lots of nothing with some exciting punctuation.

I still liked it a lot. I love this world that Atwood’s made and I would probably read several more books set in it because there’s still more to know. But it’s definitely a book that should be read when you have lots of time and attention to pay to it.

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The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes LastI’ve been having a lot of fun with Margaret Atwood recently, so when I saw she had a new book coming out I snatched it up right quick. I’m not sure I even read the description, actually, but I figured it couldn’t possibly matter, I was going to enjoy it anyway.

And, of course, I did. I don’t think it was one of Atwood’s greater works, but it will definitely fill any Atwood-shaped holes in your heart.

In this iteration of our future, the world has gone into a serious recession, probably larger than our most recent one but not quite Great Recession. Our two main characters, Stan and Charmaine, are living out of their car and on Charmaine’s meager income, so when Charmaine sees a commercial for a community called Positron that promises stable jobs and housing and life in general, she convinces Stan to apply. They are quickly accepted and make a life in Positron, which turns out to be a community where the residents spend half their time as jailers and half as prisoners, ensuring those stable jobs and making life actually pretty nice for the prisoners. But as in all good dystopian communities things aren’t nearly as happy or well-oiled as they seem.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story at the start, as the main focus after Stan and Charmaine get accepted to Positron is their failing marriage. Stan is lusting after the woman who lives in his house while he’s off being a prisoner, a woman he’s never met, and Charmaine is lusting and more with that woman’s husband, whom she has totally met. Biblically.

That’s kind of strange, and I was like, um, okay, this is a weird marriage thing to be sure but, like, there’s gotta be something going on in that prison. What terrible things befall those prisoners?? What inhumanities are they subjected to? My priorities are clearly in order.

Luckily for me, this whole marriage thing is just one part of the super weird, and sometimes bad, but mostly weird stuff going on in the prison. There’s the matter of the prisoners who used to populate the prison but have gone more or less mysteriously missing, but also the matter of how Positron keeps its coffers full (spoiler: it’s sex robots). Certain people want to expose the worst parts of the project, but that won’t be easy, and in fact might require an Elvis suit.

Did I mention this book is weird? Good. It’s also weird in that I’m not sure that the central scheme of the novel really holds together, like, even considering this potential future world how exactly is this thing that is happening actually happening? Would these people really do this? Is there not a better way?

I think part of that is that for all I expect amazing world-building from Atwood, there is almost none of that in this book. The characters are quickly cut off from the outside world, sure, but even while in Positron the characters almost never talk about the place of it, just the things that are happening in it. It’s all very murky and strange and I never really found my bearings in the world enough to be able to dive in to the equally baffling plot.

But no matter my troubles, I would still read the phone book written by Atwood because the woman writes killer sentences and has fascinating ideas about the human condition. And she throws in little details, like the Blue Man Group getting knockoff groups in other colors and the genetically modified future of our chicken nuggets, that could so very possibly happen and that steady even this wobbly setting into something possible.

Recommendation: For Atwood lovers, but maybe not newbies. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other novels to start with!

Rating: 7/10

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the FloodAnother road trip, another Margaret Atwood plague-apocalypse book. So it is written. But it’s probably a good thing we were listening to this on a road trip with few other listening options, because the beginning of this book is rough and there were a couple of times we might have thrown in the towel on it.

In the first book, the narration trades off between the post-apocalypse Snowman and his pre-apocalypse alter ego Jimmy, and it’s fascinating because you want to know how Jimmy became Snowman. But in this book the narration trades off between pre- and post-Flood Toby and pre- and post-Flood Ren, with most of the narration at the beginning of the novel coming pre-Flood, so a) there’s a lot of timelines to follow and b) if you’ve read Oryx and Crake you already know what the Flood is so there’s not much suspense on that front.

But once the story gets going, it gets interesting. A lot of the story is focused on the God’s Gardeners group that is briefly mentioned in the first book and which is a sort of religion/cult/commune based on vegetarianism and pacifism and the worshipping of saints like Dian Fossey and E.O. Wilson, which yes, totally. It is pretty cool to see the Gardeners from the perspectives of Ren, who came to the group as a ten-year-old, and Toby, who as an adult is rescued into the group from a rather more terrible life. It’s also fascinating to hear (because audiobook) the sermons of Adam One, the leader of the group, which are interspersed between chapters and whose tones change to match the world outside, and the hymns which are actually set to music for the audiobook. Super neat!

The other big part of this book is that it tracks the story of Oryx and Crake, giving background to the tertiary characters of that book, fleshing out the world outside of Jimmy’s view, and moving just a bit farther forward in time than the end of that first book. On the one hand, this is pretty neat and makes the world that Atwood created that much larger and more real. On the other hand, there’s almost too much overlap between the books to the point where you’re like, oh, Jimmy’s having sex with yet another character in this book? Jimmy meets Ren for the fifty-seventh time? FANTASTIC.

But I really do love the world-building, and I cannot get enough of Atwood’s gorgeous sentences, so it’s all good. I will definitely be picking up MaddAddam when it is time for another road trip!

Recommendation: For fans of plague fiction and the world of Oryx and Crake, although it’s probably not strictly necessary to read them in order.

Rating: 7/10

p.s. One of the God’s Gardeners is called Eve Six and I cannot help but wonder if Atwood is an X-Files fan.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeI brought this audiobook to listen to with my husband on a recent road trip, which was a great idea except for the fact that I haven’t listened to an audiobook in ages and I think I may have forgotten how to do it. I found myself often asking Scott to explain something that had just been explained thoroughly by the narrator, or backing up a track or two after a rest stop because in the five minutes I was away from the car I forgot everything that had happened. I will partially blame this on the narrator, who had a voice that was so soothing that I literally fell asleep to it, missing an hour or so of story that I wasn’t willing to make Scott listen to again.

But the parts that registered with me were super fascinating, so as soon as I got back to work I procured the print copy and proceeded to start the thing all over again, which was good because I missed more little details than I thought I did. It was also good because Atwood throws in a few “If only I knew then what I knew now”s which were all the more terrible for having that future knowledge.

I didn’t know when I picked this book out that it was going to be another in this year’s spate of superflu-type reads, but hey, it’s a theme, let’s go with it! The story starts after Some Terrible Thing has happened and a dude called Snowman is the only person left in the world except for a group of people he is sort of in charge of and who don’t understand clothes or body hair or meat-eating, for not-yet-explained reasons. Snowman tells them stories of Oryx and Crake, who are painted as vaguely god-like creatures who watch over this strange group, but it’s clear there is more to these stories.

So we jump back in time (yay!) to when Snowman was a child called Jimmy, living on a tech-business compound with his scientist dad and ex-scientist mom. His compound, and others like it, are basically gated communities designed to keep out the diseases rampant out in the pleeblands while the scientists work on curing them or at least genetically engineering ways to avoid them. Enter strange animal hybrids like the rakunk, bobkitten, and pigoon, the last of which is a breeder of new organs for humans, which is… cool? Anyway, Jimmy makes friends with a new kid in school named Glenn but called Crake, and as you can probably guess he plays a bit of a role in Jimmy becoming Snowman, and in the creation of Snowman’s odd friends.

The book is a great and terrifying bit of world-building, with great scientific advancements contrasted with some awful and/or disgusting ones that are going to put me off my chicken nuggets for a while (but not long, which is the worst part). There is fascinating commentary on all sorts of topics, from genetic engineering to scientific ethics to the exploitation of minors to the vulgarity of the internet, and Atwood is so good that I found myself agreeing with pretty much every side of every argument. I’m even kind of rooting for the Noodie News to exist… wait, it probably already does, doesn’t it? I am NOT googling that. I just googled that. It totally exists. Canada, you’re so weird.

Aaanyway, I quite enjoyed this book and I am super excited that there are two companion books that exist so that I don’t have to think too hard about my next road-trip listen. I’m just going to have to stay awake this time!

Recommendation: For anyone not sick of super-flu (haaa) and anyone who likes thinky speculative fiction.

Rating: 8/10

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (4 July — 5 July)

I was on vacation at the beach for four days last weekend and brought only two books with me. A serious mistake! I was done with them by the morning of the third day. Luckily, Scott’s family are voracious readers as well, and the beach house (which they own) was stocked with books. While I could have read A Very Naughty Angel (no really, I did find such a book on the shelf!), I chose to go with something a little deeper. I had been meaning to read The Handmaid’s Tale anyway, so good job, me.

Let me just start with this: this book is disturbing. Seriously disturbing, in that way where the premise seems implausible but then you start to see how it could maybe be plausible and then you think it might be a good idea to rally against a cash-less society because it could lead to you becoming a handmaid. Yeah. Think 1984 or The Stepford Wives if you’ve read them. Disturbing.

All right. So this book is, as you may have guessed, about a handmaid. But in this (disturbing) dystopian world, a Handmaid doesn’t do, you know, maid things. See, the American birth rate has dropped below a replacement rate, partly because pollution is causing “shredder” (deformed) babies. So a Handmaid is brought in to a household when a Wife can’t provide her high-ranking husband with a child, because children are very important, unless they’re girls. Once a month, the Wife sits behind the Handmaid as Mr. Man-pants does his thing, and the Handmaid hopes beyond hope that Mr. Man-pants’s man-parts work and that she gets pregnant and that she never gets sent away to the Colonies as an Unwoman who gets to clean up toxic waste. Also, women aren’t allowed to read or own property, and Handmaids don’t even get to use their own names.

It takes a while for the story to get that far. Atwood sort of eases the reader into Offred’s (read: of fred’s) world, interspersing the dreary present with the past that looks suspiciously like America in the 1980s (when this book was written) and the interim in which Offred is taken away from her life and her husband and child. I wasn’t thrilled with the first few chapters, but since I knew better was coming I held on, and then the book got really good and really, you know, disturbing.

Rating: 8.5/10
(My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge)