Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!

 

Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!

 

JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?

 

SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.

 

JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?

 

SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.

 

JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?

 

SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.

 

JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?

 

SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!

 

 

JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?

 

SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!

 

As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.

 

The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.

 

JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?

 

SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.

 

SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.

 

JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?

 

SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.

 

 

JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?

 

SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.

 

 

JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?

 

SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.

 

I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.

 

In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

 

JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?

 

SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…

 

JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?

 

SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”

 

JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?

 

SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”

 

JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?

 

SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.

 

 

JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?

 

SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.

 

JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?

 

SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.

 

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

 

SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!

 

JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Orleans?

 

SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!

 

JB: Thanks, Sherri, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.

 

SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.

orleans1.jpg

 

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Book Review: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam Juvenile; 336 pages; $17.99).

            Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, Paloma, and Jesus are the names of a series of hurricanes that hit the New Orleans area from 2005 to 2019, killing thousands and thousands of people, flooding the city, and eventually giving rise to the Delta Fever.  No, this is not a prediction orleans1.jpgof the future but the terrifying plot of Sherri L. Smith’s young adult dystopian novel OrleansOrleans is speculative fiction that disturbs, fascinates, and leaves us with much to ponder.

Smith sets her story in 2056 Orleans, no longer New Orleans, but a virtually unrecognizable world characterized by devastation, lawlessness, disease, death, and obstructed by a high wall.  The remnants of the Big Easy are cut off from the rest of the United States, and they are not alone.

In 2020, FEMA quarantined any state affected by the Delta Fever.  In 2025, the United States formally withdrew its governance from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, permanently altering the nation’s landscape and sending the economy into a tailspin.  The United States is now called the Outer States.

You guessed it, Toto.  We aren’t in the New Orleans as we know it.  Nor are in the America as we know it today.

Smith stakes out new territory in this story.  Not only is Orleans an original tale it’s also a courageous one.  And, for Smith, it is personal: Her mother was among those affected by Katrina.  Chilling and wholly plausible, Smith immerses readers deep inside Orleans, and her characters matter deeply to us.

Using a dual narrative format, Smith narrates her tale from the perspective of her two protagonists: Fen de la Guerre and Daniel Weaver.

Fen, a teenage girl with a mysterious past, finds her world irrevocably altered when her mentor, Lydia, dies while giving birth.  Before Lydia dies, she entrusts her child to Fen’s care.

In Orleans, race no longer matters.  “Tribe is life,” and one’s blood type determines his or her tribe.  Fen is an O-Positive, or “OP.”  The baby is an O-Neg, which is problematic.

Delta Fever affects people in different ways according to blood type.  Those with AB blood type suffer the worst from the virus.  “O types don’t be needing transfusions like ABs do.  The Fever be in us, but it ain’t eating O blood up from the inside like it do other types.”

ABs hunt down people with O blood type, especially O negative.  A transfusion using O blood, the universal donor, allows a person with AB to temporarily replenish his supply of red blood cells.

The ABs’ need for blood is eerily similar to that of vampires.  Fen struggles to get the baby to a safe place, far away from Orleans, before the ABs hunt down them both.  As her name suggests, Fen de la Guerre is a fighter.

Daniel is a researcher and scientist from the Outer States whose brother, Charlie, contracted Delta Fever and died “before his eleventh birthday.”  His brother’s death compelled Daniel to work to find a potential cure for the fever.

He bioengineers “a new virus with one purpose—to attack Delta Fever in the bloodstream.”  Daniel creates an “even deadlier strain of the disease.”  Daniel’s virus is a weapon, “a time bomb” that only kills those with the Delta Fever, which includes “every inhabitant of the Delta Coast.”

Through Daniel, Smith shows us what life is like in the former United States, and the picture he paints is far from pretty.  The problems of the Outer States, though, pale in comparison to what happens in Orleans.  The Big Easy has some big problems, as you have probably already ascertained.

When Fen and Daniel meet, the real fun begins.  Fen and Daniel strike a bargain and navigate the bayous and menacing thoroughfares of Orleans together.  Smith takes readers on a wild ride as we accompany Fen and Daniel throughout the dangerous world of Orleans.

There is such authenticity within the pages of Orleans.  Fen speaks in dialect, using “be” in place of “am” and “are.”  For example, “We be near the Market,” Smith writes, “where the old levee used to be, across from St. Louis Cathedral.”  This may be jarring for some, at least initially, but one quickly becomes accustomed to Fen’s distinctive voice.  Many people in New Orleans and in the bayous (and elsewhere in the US) use this kind of discourse today.

If you’ve ever traveled to New Orleans, there are certain landmarks that are permanently fixed in your memory: the Superdome, the French Market, the Ursuline convent, and St. Louis Cathedral, just to name a few.  These all figure prominently in the story.  As does some old Mardi Gras and Catholic traditions.  The most fascinating of which is a ritual Orleanians adhere to on November 1, All Saints’ Day, and the last day of hurricane season, when all tribes come together on horseback wearing old Mardi Gras apparel to disguise their identities.

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

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Book Review: Genus by Jonathan Trigell

Genus by Jonathan Trigell (Corsair; 288 pages; £7.99).

 

Gretchen Gerbi, an elderly woman who lives in a London apartment complex, busies herself by playing an old video game called “Civilization.”  Gretchen has not gotten far into the game.  Her tribe is still quite primitive.  She knows it is not the way to win the game, but she directs her people to farm and form settlements rather than make war on other tribes.  For Gretchen, Civilization is just a way to pass the time.  She never really succeeds because the game crashes when her power dims.  “After rebooting, it’s like a plague has wiped out half your people,” she laments, “all the achievements and population growth you’ve made since your last save have been lost.”

 

She sounds like any elderly lady in any city, right?  Did I mention Gretchen keeps a spider with ten-inch mandible fangs and three-foot-long legs who she calls Bojangles?  A spider that spins silk for her that she sells on the side?  Gretchen loves the spider.  She manages an apartment building in London’s King’s Cross (The Kross), a ghetto filled with the Unimproved lower classes.  No, Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore…er, present-day London.

 

We are in the world of the brilliant and talented novelist Jonathan Trigell.  Trigell, a British author, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2004, the Waverton Good Read Award, and the inaugural World Book Day Prize in 2008 for his first novel Boy AGenus is his third novel.  In the book, Trigell turns to speculative dystopian fiction set in a future and chilling London.

No one calls “The Kross” King’s Cross anymore since it “sounds antiquated and strange,” Trigell writes.  There is no longer a king, you see.  “Once the royal family began genetically enhancing, the utter absurdity of bloodline head of state became obvious.”

 

Like Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood, Trigell explores science, medicine, biology, morality, and religion.  New breakthroughs occur everyday.  What was once considered science fiction or pure fantasy actually happens; this is our reality.  Test-tube babies, surrogacy, living to 110 years old, gene therapy, mapping the human genome, selecting a child’s eye color, and even finding out an unborn child’s genetic abnormalities–these are not the stuff of fiction.  They have already happened.

 

So Trigell’s premise is not so wild then.  In the not-too-distant future, scientists began “improving” people.  A child could be bred for warfare with all of the genes of warriors.  Likewise, a baby could be created to rule over others or to be a scientist.  If a man or woman was unhappy in his or her present circumstances, don’t blame the employer, him or herself, or even the government.  Lay the blame on the parents for not having enough money to give their child a great future.  Because money is what determines one’s future lot in life.  The more your parents pay for you the better your life will be, the better your education, the better your career.  Sex for procreation is outlawed; when it happens, the offspring are “unimproved,” ugly, and scorned.  These inhabit The Kross.

 

The future is bleak but intriguing in Trigell’s story.  The government has banned religion, as it promotes terrorism.  Opiates are the “opiates of the masses.”  An alcoholic drink called synth and drugs are very popular, as they make the Unimproved forget.

 

Trigell tells the story from multiple perspectives in suspenseful, alternating chapters, giving us a view into the lives of those Improved and Unimproved.  A few characters stand head and shoulders above the rest of Trigell’s narrators.  Holman, a dwarf, particularly fascinated me.  Holman is an artist with a rather shocking lineage.  His mother, Adele Nicole, was a religious cultist and then a model.  Adele Nicole was the last “Miss Natural” and caught the eye of a very important man.

 

Another especially interesting character is Crick, Holman’s friend.  Crick once fought in the Caliphate Wars and was injured so badly he is now blind.  He gives us some history of what got England into this in the first place.  Spain, Portugal, North Africa, most of France and Asia, and Arabia all became one.  They became the Caliphate.  Refugees from these war-torn countries fled to England.  Population growth ballooned; terrorism increased exponentially; crime spiked; unemployment shot up; homeless people flooded the streets; wars killed countless English people and drained the economy.  There is a lesson here, Trigell warns from between the lines. Trigell gives a voice to the disenfranchised Unimproved in his book.  They are crying out to be heard.

 

Meanwhile, there is a serial killer on the loose in The Kross.  A detective is on the trail.  But a deeper, darker force may be at work.  Trigell keeps the surprises coming, and the shocker at the end was one I never saw coming.

 

Genus is a masterful work of dystopian speculative fiction.  You may not have heard of Trigell, but he definitely deserves your attention.  London will be in the public eye over the next few weeks.  As you watch the 2012 Olympics, think what a future dystopian London might resemble.  Better yet, read Trigell’s Genus for yourself.  But be warned: the future is not pretty.  You can’t help but ask youself: “How good are your genes?”

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