Tag Archives: Dystopia

Learning to Be Good: A Review of The School for Good Mothers

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan book cover. Image on cover shows a pink wall with a long, dark corridor in the middle of it. Title: The School for Good Mothers

Author: Jessamine Chan

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: January 4, 2022

Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopia, Contemporary

Length: 336 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb:

In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.

Review:

Content Warning: Physical abuse, emotional abuse, child abuse, child neglect, kidnapping, mental illness, and suicide. I will briefly mention the abuse and mental illness in my review.

What does it mean to be a decent parent, and who should decide how and when to judge the parenting of others?

Some of my favourite scenes were the ones that explored the science fiction elements of the plot. This school wasn’t like anything we have in our world, although it did take a while for the fantastical elements of it to make themselves known. I was eager to figure out how the scientific advancements that were described there worked and if they would accomplish the goals that the program was designed to pursue. Every new revelation only made me yearn to learn even more. As much as I want to gush about this topic in great detail, it’s best if other readers discover everything for themselves.

This tale needed more character development. The act that lead to Frida being sent to The School for Good Mothers was so bizarre that I was disappointed by how little time was spent exploring why she did it when she had so many other options available to her. It was a pattern that repeated itself after she was sent to the school and began getting to know the other mothers there. The audience learned the reasons why everyone had ended up there, but we really didn’t’ get to know the characters well as individuals. Nearly their entire identities were swallowed up by what they did, why that made them terrible mothers, and how they were learning to be better. I did wonder if this might have been purposefully written this way to make a point about how women are expected to subsume all of their desires, hopes, and dreams to parenthood, With that being said, text never really made that clear, and I struggled to emotionally connect with the characters because of how tricky it was to get to know them as individuals.

I was impressed by the attention the author paid to how race, social class, sex, mental health, and other factors affected how parents were judged in this universe. Not only were the rules much less stringent for folks who were white, male, able-bodied, and wealthy, breaking them had far fewer negative consequences as well. This book did a wonderful job of exploring the nuances of intersectionality and showing how the system set some people up for success and others for failure from day one. If it had continued to focus on this instead of veering off into other directions, I would have gone with a much higher rating.

It was also confusing to me to see how many different types of mothers were sent to the same school. Some of them were found guilty of things that weren’t even examples of abusive or neglectful parenting. They could easily be explained away as cultural or parenting philosophy differences. Other parents were an entirely different story, though, and I actually ended up agreeing with the authorities that those specific mothers were too dangerous to currently have custody of their children due to issues like serious physical abuse. This isn’t to say I necessarily thought they should lose custody permanently, only that it was really odd to me to group the small number of them who needed extensive help in with parents who left dirty dishes in their sinks or let their children walk a few blocks away to the local library. While i understood the point the author was making about the grossly unfair expectations society places on mothers that is often poisoned by racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice, it simply didn’t make sense to me from a storytelling perspective to group everyone together like this. Surely the authorities should have been smarter than that and at least assigned characters to different classrooms or treatment modules based on the severity of their convictions.

The ending was well written. It was the logical outcome of everything Frida had experienced and learned during her year at the School for Good Mothers. I enjoyed looking back and taking note of the foreshadowing that had been shared earlier, too. The author struck a nice balance between hinting at what was to come to the audience without giving us too many clues about everything she had up her sleeves. A sequel would be nice, but I also felt satisfied by how the main storylines were resolved and what probably happened to the characters after the end of the last scene.

The School for Good Mothers was a thought-provoking read.

Stay Home, Stay Safe: A Review of The Machine Stops

Vintage Science Fiction Blog Challenge badge. It shows a rocket ship against a red background. There is a bubble city in the background. Vintage Science Fiction month takes place every January, and has a few guidelines:

 – read, watch, listen to, or experience something science fiction / fantasy that was created in 1979 or earlier

 – talk about it online sometime in January

 – have fun

If any of my readers are also interested in participating this month, let Little Red Reviewer know about your posts if you’d like them to be included in her official roundups. 


Title
: The Machine Stops

Author: E.M. Forster

Publisher: The Oxford and Cambridge Review

Publication Date: November 1909

Genres: Science Fiction

Length: 25 pages

Source: I read it for free on the UC Davis site 

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb:

“The Machine Stops”” is a science fiction short story (12,300 words) by E. M. Forster. After initial publication in The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909), the story was republished in Forster’s The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. After being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965, it was included that same year in the populist anthology Modern Short Stories.[1] In 1973 it was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.The story, set in a world where humanity lives underground and relies on a giant machine to provide its needs, predicted technologies such as instant messaging and the Internet.”

Review:

Book cover for The Machine Stops Here by E.M. Forster. Image on cover shows a big, red bow on an analogue clock. Who needs in-person contact when you have virtual gatherings?

There were some fascinating parallels between how Vashti had lived her entire life and what the Covid-19 pandemic was like for those of us who were lucky enough to work from home and order many necessities online. Vashti could summon anything with the touch of a button, from food to a warm bath, to an assortment of friends who wanted to hear a lecture on human history. She virtually never had reason to leave her home at all, and neither did the rest of humanity. It was supposed to keep everyone safe and content, and yet not everyone Vashti met was necessarily happy to live this way for reasons I’ll leave up to other readers to explore. What I can say is that staying home to reduce the spread of a pandemic is quite different from spending your entire lifetime in one room no matter how nice that room is. The various human reactions to them are similar, though!

The ending was confusing to me. I needed to google it to make sure that my understanding of what happened in that scene matched what the author was trying to convey. While I did find my answer, I do wish the author had been more forthcoming about what was going on there. He had several thought-provoking ideas he was working with throughout the course of this tale. All he needed to do was develop them a little more fully and I would have given this a much higher rating.

With that being said, I did think the conclusion was much more realistic than what typically happens with dystopian tales published in modern day. I appreciated the fact that the themes and hints embedded in earlier scenes were allowed to play out so naturally. While I did wonder if this twist was coming in advance, that was a good thing. It was nice to have a consistent experience even if it wasn’t something that most contemporary authors would do.

The Machine Stops was ahead of its time. Anyone who likes dystopias should check it out.

Life After The Handmaid’s Tale: A Review of The Testaments

Title: The Testaments (The Handmaid’s Tale #2)

Author: Margaret Atwood

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Publication Date: 2019

Genres: Speculative Fiction, Dystopia

Length: 432 pages

Source: I bought it.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Blurb: More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.
 
Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.
 
As Atwood unfolds The Testaments, she opens up the innermost workings of Gilead as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.

Review:

Content warning: sexual assault, child abuse, torture, pregnancy, childbirth, and murder. I will only make a few vague reference to these things in my review. This will otherwise be a spoiler-free post.

Be sure to finish The Handmaid’s Tale before picking up The Testaments. I’d also recommend either watching the TV show based on this universe or doing a few hours of research on the characters, themes, and plot twists featured in the small screen version of it as well.

This is something best read by people who are intimately familiar with what has already happened in this tale, and I will be assuming that everyone who continues reading is already familiar with this universe.

I’ve included non-spoiler-y quotes from this book at key points in this review.

“You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”

Now that those things have been addressed, let’s jump straight into my review. I’m writing this as a hardcore fan whose expectations were sky high and who had been hotly anticipating this book. The only thing I knew going into it was that it was set long after the final scene in The Handmaid’s Tale and that it had three female narrators.

Aunt Lydia was originally introduced in the first book in this series. Her role in Gilead was to help keep the female sphere of that society running smoothly, especially when it came to training and disciplining the Handmaids. Witness 369A was a young girl who grew up in Gilead as the cherished only child of a wealthy commander and his wife. She was a true believer in her childhood faith. Finally, Daisy was a young woman who lived in Canada.

“You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.”

My descriptions of the narrators may sound incomplete. They were written that way to purposefully avoid sharing spoilers, so be careful about what you read elsewhere online if you google them.

Gilead was a violent, abusive society wrapped in the shroud of (mostly) false piety. The Testaments went into more detail about how women were treated in many different layers of society than the novel version of the first book in this series did. Having three narrators from such different backgrounds made it easy for Ms. Atwood to explore parts of this universe that Offred couldn’t have known a thing about when she originally shared her tale.

What I found most interesting about it was how different groups of women were pitted against each other and divided into small groups: fertile women, fertile women who gave birth to living, healthy children, wives of lower-ranking Commanders, wives of higher-ranking Commanders, adoptive mothers, Marthas, Econowives, Handmaids, Aunts, and more.

“It was also shameful: when a shameful thing is done to you, the shamefulness rubs off on you. You feel dirtied.”

Everyone was competing for the same vanishingly small piece of status despite the fact that there was no safe position to take. Danger lurked everywhere no matter who you were or what you did because Gilead blamed women for things they had no control over and never wanted in the first place.

Yes, this could also be interpreted as a criticism of the way women are treated in modern society. Just like The Handmaid’s Tale, the sequel is firmly inspired by and a critique of real-world events. Dystopian novels work best for me when they draw parallels between what is happening in them and what the author wants his or her readers to understand about the real world. This is something Ms. Atwood has always excelled at, and I nodded in agreement when I read the sentences that gave hints about her opinions of the current political climate in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. They were brief and never interfered with the plot itself, but they made her position on the rights of women, LGBT+ people, and minorities unmistakeable.

The one thing I wish had been a little better explained in this story has to do with Aunt Lydia’s character development. She’s an easy character to loathe in the book and television versions of The Handmaid’s Tale. I was fascinated by the descriptions of her life before and during the rise of Gilead. There were times when I sympathized with her despite all of the horrible things she did later on in life.

“As they say, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Finally, what surprised me the most about this book were the conclusions it made about what to do if you find yourself locked into a world that seems impossible to escape.

The Handmaid’s Tale took a fairly passive approach to this dilemma. Any shred of hope that took root there would quickly be covered up before it was trampled.

The Testaments waters that hope, fertilizes the soil, and encourages the sun to shine just enough so that hope pushes its roots into the centre of the earth and flourishes.

Yes, history sometimes rhymes. No, that doesn’t mean that we’re powerless to change how the next sentence ends.

If for no other reason, this breath of fresh air is reason enough to read it.

Wombs for Rent: A Review of The Farm

I’ve decided to start reviewing more books on this blog. All of the rest of the titles I’ve set aside for this purpose for the foreseeable future are indie, but I thought I’d start off with something mainstream. The star rating below is out of a possible five stars.

Title: The Farm

Author: Joanne Ramos

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

Genres:  Dystopian, Contemporary, and a pinch of Science Fiction

Page Count: 326 pages

Source: I borrowed it from my local library

Rating: 3 Stars

 

 

Blurb:

Nestled in New York’s Hudson Valley is a luxury retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, personal fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you’re paid big money to stay here—more than you’ve ever dreamed of. The catch? For nine months, you cannot leave the grounds, your movements are monitored, and you are cut off from your former life while you dedicate yourself to the task of producing the perfect baby. For someone else.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines, is in desperate search of a better future when she commits to being a “Host” at Golden Oaks—or the Farm, as residents call it. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her family, Jane is determined to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on the delivery of her child.

Gripping, provocative, heartbreaking, The Farm pushes to the extremes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures and the futures of those they love.

Review:

The first time I heard of The Farm was a few months ago when another reviewer compared it to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one of my all-time favourite books. As soon as I read that line, I was hooked. Like Ms. Atwood’s famous story, this one is also about fertile, generally lower-class women being used to gestate babies for the most powerful members of society.

Unlike the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Jane and the other surrogates chose to become impregnated. Whether they knew what they were really consenting to is something I can’t discuss much in this review without wandering into spoiler territory. Let’s just say that the glossy description of what this job was like didn’t necessarily match Jane’s actual experiences with it.

What I would have loved to see from this book were more details. The most frightening parts of it were glossed over so much that I had to make educated guesses about how they played out. While Jane’s perspective was a limited one, it was a little frustrating as a reader to get so far into the plot only to receive the same vague hints that were contained in the blurb and early chapters.

There was a satisfying payoff for a subplot involving the woman who first introduced Jane to the idea of gestating a pregnancy at The Farm. If only the other clues at the beginning were given the same treatment. Not every dystopia is necessarily going to include a government being overthrown or other major signs that a society has gone terribly wrong. I loved the more subtle approach Ms. Ramos took with the assumptions she made about how people might respond if they couldn’t find decent paying work and selling the use of their reproductive organs seemed like the best option to make some semi-quick cash. If only she’d developed these thoughts further.

With that being said, one of the things I liked the most about this storywas how realistic it was. Yes, there were little snippets of what could be interpreted as science fiction and dystopian content in it, but everything in it is either really happening in our world today or could easily occur with a few small tweaks to how science works and what society tolerates. This is the kind of soft science fiction that grabs my attention because of how close it is to our reality.

I can sleep easily at night knowing that little green men from Mars aren’t actually ever going to invade Earth. The thought that women could so easily be coerced or enslaved into producing babies for wealthy, powerful families, on the other hand, is chilling because it has happened in the past, it is currently going on in some parts of the world, and it will almost certainly occur again in the future.

That’s frightening. Despite it’s flaws, The Farm’s no-nonsense approach to this topic is why I’ll recommend it to anyone who finds the blurb interesting.

No More Dystopias: A Hopeful Science Fiction Reading Challenge

 I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of the bleak, dystopian themes in a lot of modern science fiction.

For example, I used to be a huge fan of The Walking Dead. The idea of struggling to keep   one’s children alive in such a dangerous setting was appealing when I first began reading the original graphic novels before the television show was created.

Most previous zombie movies and novels I’d heard of had killed off their child characters pretty early on, so I was curious to see how Rick, the protagonist, and the other parents in this universe would break with this tradition.

While there were many things I enjoyed about The Walking Dead early on, the graphic, relentless violence and catastrophic loss of hope for key characters eventually lead me to stop watching and reading it. It was all too much for me.

I do read recaps of what is currently going on in that universe every so often. If it eventually ends on an uplifting note, I might even go back and catch up on everything I’ve missed.

For now, though, I need a very long break from these kinds of tales. The news is already overflowing with stories about miserable things happening to good people through no fault of their own. When I read fiction these days, I’m now looking for an escape from injustices that are never made right again.

One of my goals for 2018 is to find, read, and then eventually compile a long list of science fiction tales that end on a hopeful note. This post is the beginning of that journey, and I’m tentatively planning to write an entire series of posts on this topic as I find books, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment that belong in it.

What It Won’t Be

When I say I want hopeful science fiction, I don’t mean that I want to avoid serious or difficult subject matter altogether.

There may very well be wars, battles, or other violent scenes in the stuff I read for this series.

The beginnings could include descriptions of places that are no one’s idea of a pleasant place to live. I won’t necessarily be turned off by an opening scene that sounds dystopian so long as the narrator doesn’t dwell there for every single scene from that point until the end.

The good guys might not always make the right decisions. It’s okay with me if they occasionally say or do things that deeply irritate me. In fact, I strongly prefer characters who are rough around the edges as long as they’re not antiheroes.

An occasional moment of despair is completely understandable, but I don’t want to read about or watch anyone be dragged from one traumatic event or response to the next with no end in sight.

Some of the stuff I add to this list could very well include themes related to any number of different types of prejudice, from homophobia to racism to sexism.

If a key main character must die at some point to further the plot or fulfill his or her destiny, I will accept it. (See also: Harry Potter).

What It Will Be

What I will require from these books, though, is hope.

They definitely don’t have to act Pollyannaish, but the characters should have a optimistic approach to their quest or mission most of the time.

When something terrible happens, it should be written into the plot for a specific reason that will be revealed to the audience sooner rather than later.

The good guys should win in the end.

The storylines should end on a positive note.

Will You Join Me?

You might have noticed that I haven’t listed any specific titles yet here.

That was done on purpose because:

  1. I’m still researching titles that will fit my criteria, and
  2. I wanted to get reader feedback first without influencing your suggestions for me.

There are some very knowledgable and well-read people who follow this blog. If you have any suggestions of what to add to this list, will you share them?

If you’re ready for some hopeful stories, will you join me? I can’t wait to share my ideas with you as well!