Guest Post: For Dystopia Use Real World Institutions by Jordan Thomas Smith

Jackson Operative - Jordan Thomas Smith

Today I host author Jordan Thomas Smith, whose forthcoming novel, Jackson Operative, releases in May. Today he’s here to talk about stumbling across familiar brands in dystopian stories.

When you’re reading a story set in the future it’s a great dizzying pleasure to be in a world you’ve never seen before. The shock and fear of the new technology and the new society create a thrilling, addictive sensation. As an aspiring author of futuristic fiction I try to think of ways to heighten this sensation for the readers, to try to give them as much dizzying sensation as possible. One way to do this is by featuring in a dystopian story some futuristic versions of current real world institutions or brand names. In the film Minority Report (an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel “The Minority Report”) we see Tom Cruise as the protagonist driving in a futuristic version of a Lexus, shopping at a future version of a Gap store and seeing future versions of ads for Guinness – personalized with his name since retinal scanners that he walks by can identify him moments before the ad plays.

The use of real world brand names enhances the dystopian feeling created in a story because it makes it so much more real. Brands like Lexus, The Gap and Guinness are ones many of us have interacted with, maybe purchased. Seeing that these real brands may very well continue to exist into the future and the way they might look then suddenly links us to the future, puts it in understandable and familiar terms. It also forces us to confront how things will change from the way they are now, and this is more jarring than when you’re presented with some made up brand or institution. Hearing about a futuristic soft drink company that never existed could be kind of interesting. Seeing an ad for Coca Cola in the future though, now that’s interesting. Coca-Cola is perhaps the most ubiquitous brands in the world, with a rich and complicated history. The use of a Coca-Cola ad on a massive outdoor advertising screen in the film Bladerunner (also based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) pulls you forward into the world of that film. You’re many hundreds of years from now at a time with human-like androids, flying cars and Mars-colonization, but there’s something you totally recognize right in front of you.

While seeing our known brand names in dystopian stories can be strangely enthralling, perhaps a far more portentous idea is the future versions of government agencies. Probably even hearing this sentence causes the hairs on most people’s necks to stand up as they imagine a future CIA or FBI that wants to spy on what every single person does. Indeed, some would say the revelations by Edward Snowden about what the NSA was doing to collect information from social networks was like something out of George Orwell’s darkest daydreams. Notice though that in 1984 Orwell was writing about the idea of a new, fictional government that had sovereignty over both England and America. He didn’t choose to make his book about a future version of the actual British Government. We also see some kind of new imagined government as what is ruling society in Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Children Of Men, V For Vendetta (at least a new form of government seems implied), The Hunger Games, Divergent, and several other dystopian stories as well. In fact, I have trouble thinking of an example of a dystopian story that writes about a future version of our actual real world current government. The novel and film of Minority Report is one of the few examples I can think of where the implication is that the government in the story is a continuation of our current US government. Surely there must be other examples, but it seems far more common for dystopian authors to write about a fictional government.

Why not explore the idea of conveying a future version of our current real government? Why not take advantage of how it makes reader’s hairs stick up on the back of their neck when they think about a future version of the CIA? In my own novel (in the final stages of revision) I wanted to write about the way the Federal Government’s Medicare Department might deal with the issues surrounding genetic engineering services if such services are available. Would Medicare (or perhaps also Medicaid) pay for genetic engineering sometimes? Should Medicare do so if it was necessary to ‘fix’ an unborn child so they wouldn’t have a congential disease? Should Medicare pay for any family to make their kids simply less disease prone? What if Medicare can pay for genetic engineering for all kids which makes them smarter?

Without getting too much into these or other particular questions in dystopian stories, framing those questions in terms of a real societal institution makes them much closer to the reader. Why separate the reader from the characters by placing the characters in a new government with entirely new brand name consumer goods? Why not use the shared cultural and institutional frameworks we already have in place to speak to the readers? Getting back to brand names, I think Walmart, Starbucks, Apple and Google are surely great candidates for being featured in dystopian stories, as each seems a little dystopian already (and I say this as someone who has bought from or used those each of those companies many times).

Thanks, Jordan! You can add his book, Jackson Operative, to your TBR list on Goodreads or look for it on Amazon at the end of May. He also blogs about an array of similar topics to this one on his website.

Tell us, what ways would you like to see real world businesses or government or other public institutions conveyed in dystopia?

Review: Gateway by Christina Garner

Gateway by Christina GarnerTitle: Gateway (Gateway Trilogy #1)
Author: Christina Garner
Genre(s): Young Adult Urban Fantasy
How To Purchase: Kindle | Barnes & Noble

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Note: I received a free copy of Gateway in exchange for an honest review.

Ember has always known she doesn’t belong in this world. But when she tries to correct the mistake, she wakes to find herself in a mental institution.

She’s soon drawn to Taren, the mysterious boy with hazel eyes. He’s not what he seems, but what is he?

When chaos erupts, they are forced to flee the institution together, and the secret that Taren has been keeping brings Ember closer to understanding her own. And leads her to… the Gateway.

I liked Gateway, but it lacked something. Although it’s full-length novel, it seemed short, as if the plot was too small. I enjoyed the world-building, and I really liked Ember, but I wished for more from this first installment in the Gateway Trilogy.

I’m particular about Young Adult books, as I’ve mentioned before. I decided to read this one because I liked the premise–demons and chaos. What’s not to love? There’s plenty of that in the book, although I wished for more revelation of the world behind the world. I’m guessing more will be uncovered as the series progresses.

One of the things I loved about the book was the main character, Ember. I’m particularly picky when it comes to my YA protagonists. I’ve never been one for teenaged drama, even when I was a teenager, so now that I’m adult, I’m fully out of that phase. (Pregnancy hormones not-withstanding–we’ll just not go there, since my condition is temporary.) But Ember never comes across as angsty or whiny. She’s always forging onward, looking to the next crisis, and generally being a badass. Even cynical old me found the romance interesting, with little to no time spent mooning over the color of Taren’s eyes or where the relationship was going. A+ on the character development.

I’ve pondered what it is about the plot that makes me feel like it wasn’t enough, but I can’t put my finger on one thing exactly. The ending seemed satisfying, although some of the prose got a little purple and over-dramatic for my taste. It just feels like there’s not enough development of the middle. Ember gets swept away into a new world after she’s committed to a mental institution, and then BAM! Time to fight the boss at the end.

If you like urban fantasy young adult books, you’ll enjoy this. The characters are interesting, and the world seems fully fleshed out. Hopefully more will be revealed in later books, and Ember continues to be a rock-steady teen protagonist.

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Review: The Last Circle by Gretchen Blickensderfer

the last circle

Title: The Last Circle
Author: Gretchen Blickensderfer
Genre(s): Near-Future Dystopia
How To Purchase: Kindle | Barnes and Noble | iTunes | Booksamillion.com (Paperback)

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Note: I received a free copy of The Last Circle in exchange for an honest review.

“If you will not be saved, there will be consequences.” Based upon platforms and quotes from Conservative political and church leaders, The Last Circle chronicles the rise to power of a United States Evangelical theocracy and the small group of Pagan and LGBT friends who must escape the country to survive. A terrifying chase through the southern states tests the limits of their friendship and someone from among them is secretly tipping off their pursuers.

The quote that encapsulates the book’s premise opens chapter fifteen:

“When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil.” — Gary Potter, writer, Catholics for Political Action

The Last Circle creates this vision in vivid detail. Social and economic conditions have become difficult, and people are looking for guiding light. A man named Stephen Palmer is all too happy to step into the shoes of President and transform the country into a place he had only dreamed about.

That place is a place of concentration camps named “Salvation Centers.” It’s a place where homosexuals and Pagans must flee to the Mexican and Canadian border for amnesty. It’s a place where neighbors turn on one another, and where hatred and fear and starvation are the currencies. It’s Auschwitz; it’s the Crusades; it’s every terrible condition under every despotic regime man has ever created.

On the book’s website, the author describes how she researched the beliefs of extreme right-wing evangelical Christians to create this book. But I would need to do no research to know that what she presents is fact; I am quite familiar with this rhetoric. This was the atmosphere I grew up in, a small town in the Midwest where the condemnations and judgments were espoused regularly in sermons, in casual conversation, in after-school Bible studies. None of the extreme belief encapsulated in the book surprises me. It all hits home a little too hard.

Still, all of this begs the question: Why? Why does The Last Circle assert such extremes? In this day and age, we as reasonable people living in a technologically advanced society would never allow that. Or would we? That’s a question you will have to answer for yourself after you read it. My answer is that it’s the only solution. If you promise your followers to root out evil, you’d better be willing to take each and every measure necessary. Fear-mongering. Lying. Torture. Killing. Otherwise, how else will you get the job done? It’s one of the reasons I tried so hard for years to force myself to believe, only to be unable to accept this philosophy. It’s one of the reasons I walked away.

The Last Circle made me think. A lot. It made me think about the past I came from and what I believe now. It’s a powerful book with a message for all of us, one that we hopefully will never have to face.

But. As books go, I found it a tad frustrating. The writing was visual and distant, reminding me more of a movie than a book. I found the enormous cast of characters (the Pagans and LGBT group escaping the Palmer regime) difficult to keep straight. One of the big reveals–who is this Gwen that is telling the story of the last circle to the media?–was confusing because I thought I’d simply missed her introduction, losing her in the shuffle of so many people.

However, I feel that this book has a big enough idea presented in a realistic, albeit confrontational manner, that I would recommend it as food for thought. If you’re interested in the political and religious hot button issue of church versus state, I would give this a read. If nothing else, it will give you something to chew over long after you’ve finished reading.

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Review: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue SeaTitle: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Author: April Genevieve Tucholke
Genre(s): YA Paranormal Romantic Fantasy
How to Purchase: Amazon | Kobo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea was not a bad book, but it didn’t live up to its hype. Some of the writing was atmospheric, but not enough to move me. The characters were memorable, but I neither loved nor hated them.

The story gets underway when our main character Violet meets River, a boy her age who wants to room in the guest house in her old, rundown mansion. River is mysterious and attractive, and she goes about falling in love with him as quickly as any teenaged girl can fall in love with a mysterious and attractive teenaged boy.

Soon it’s revealed that River has a mysterious power that he uses to manipulate those around him. Is her attraction to him real? Is he manipulating her own emotions for his gain? Does she actually care if it’s not genuine? Those are the questions that made me keep reading, that make me want to read the second book, though the questions aren’t posed in a particularly compelling manner.

The weather–sunbeams, thunderstorms, salty ocean air–is over-used to create atmosphere. Although the usage wasn’t terrible, I feel like it could have been more deftly woven to the story. Each mention seemed a jarring contrast to whatever was going on, an add-on that seemed like Ms. Tucholke chose “because it needs to be there,” rather than to enhance a scene.

The climax was a bit anti-climactic, even though it was well-written. Series(es) have a tendency to do that, I think; I felt the same disappointment at reading The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater. It’s as though the author says, “I have some choice morsels that I will save for the next book,” without thinking that perhaps I will not read the next book because this one doesn’t live up to its potential. Without giving anything away, a near deus ex machina forms the climax, which I think leads to the feeling of being cheated. The climax is not brought about my our main characters, but something that was lurking outside The Machine, something discovered too late in the story to be emotionally satisfying. Nothing is resolved between Violet and River, and we must read into the second book to find out what comes about.

In the description, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is described as “blending faded decadence and the thrilling dread of gothic horror.” Yes, maybe, OK, I see it if I squint. If you’re looking forward to reading this, I say go ahead and pick it up. I will likely buy the sequel, too… But I’m prepared to be disappointed a second time.

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Review: I, Walter by Mike Hartner

Title: I, Walter
Author: Mike Hartner
Genre: Adult Historical
How To Purchase:

My Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I, Walter is an excellent example of a book that has been well-researched, thoroughly plotted, and has voice yet doesn’t strike my fancy. To use a refrain I’ve used before, it was not written for me.

The book chronicles the life of a young boy who comes from a poverty-striken background, but through hard work and a humble demeanor, rises through the ranks of 1500’s England to nobility. Walter is writing his story at the end of his life, while his wife supportively looks over his shoulder and tempers his sometimes-too-hard-on-himself ruminations with her own perspective.

One of the reasons that this book caught my eyes was its strong voice in the opening chapter. I liked Walter and wanted to hear about his life. The voice continues throughout, as Walter examines his life. Both the good and bad aspects are examined, the things he worked hard for, and the mistakes that he made.

My biggest frustration with this book is its format is what I call “the Forrest Gump phenomenon,” a term I just coined but something I’ve seen in other books. For those who aren’t familiar with Forrest Gump (Lord, help me, I’m not that old, am I?), it was a 90’s movie that followed the life of a mentally handicapped man in the 60’s and 70’s as he overcomes obstacles and makes an impression on important historical events. Perpetually optimistic (blech), Forrest Gump nestled himself into the hearts of many movie-goers and won all kinds of awards.

Walter, while not mentally handicapped, is perpetually optimistic and leads a charmed life. The deviation from Forrest Gump is that everything turns up roses for Walter. He meets and falls in love with his future wife in only a few days, and nothing stands in the way of their marriage. Money seems to flow from everywhere into his pockets. His rise through the ranks of sailors in the British navy is quick and painless. Everybody loves him; he’s humble and kind.

Like I said, this isn’t for me. I like flawed protagonists, people making lesser-of-two-evils choices. I’d also call Walter “lawful good,” although that’s not precisely right. But he reminds me too much of Superman and his attitude, which has always grated on me.

If you’re tired of dark books and want something light with a fairy tale ending, this is the book for you. I enjoy dark books more often than not, so I found myself skimming, wishing more would happen to Walter, that his struggles would be deeper, harsher, grittier. I caught a few typos and copy editing issues, but overall, it didn’t detract from the book. A lot of good reviews have been posted on Goodreads and Amazon, so I realize I’m just an old grump. Check it out if this is the kind of thing you like.

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Review: furtl by Strobe Witherspoon

Title: furtl
Author: Strobe Witherspoon
Genre(s):
Adult Humorous Near-future Science Fiction
How To Purchase: Kindle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

2026. furtl, America’s once dominant technology conglomerate is bleeding money. Holospace machines out of China have transformed the way people do business on the Internet and furtl can’t keep up. But there is hope. If furtl can get the US government to outlaw Holospace machines, their search algorithms, social networks, and proximity payment systems will live to see another day. All the government wants in return is unrestricted access to furtl’s user information so it can squash its political opponents. It’s the perfect plan (issues pertaining to privacy, innovation, and democracy notwithstanding).

“By far the best dystopian techo-political satire set in the near future I have ever read.” Ruby Witherspoon, Strobe’s mom

furtl is funny and insightful, a tightly wound tale with more pop references than I probably picked up. Its political commentary was scathing, and its humor made me laugh out loud more than once. This is what 1984 would have been if written in 2013 by a guy with a funnybone.

furtl chronicles the unceremonious unseating of the founder of the book’s namesake company, a timid and weaselly fellow who has been swept away by people more politically attuned and financially motivated than he. After being ousted, he heads off into the Bhutanian wilderness to sulk, only to be reawakened by the intrusion of technology in his isolated haven. He plunges back into the political reality of the 2030’s America, where he works to overthrow the stranglehold his previous company has on the government.

I can hardly do this book justice in this short review, but parodies and parallels abound. One group he runs into, the “Lefteas” plays off both the term “leftie,” a derogatory term for a left-leaning idealist (and this sorry band of miscreants takes those beliefs to hilarious extremes) and the “Tea Party” grassroots movement currently underway. But the satire doesn’t stop with the groups themselves. The entire culture of the country a short couple decades in the future is a logical progression from where we are today. I would go so far as to call this “a scathing but hilarious critique” of current Western society, if I were prone to sound bites in these reviews.

Mr. Witherspoon has done his homework, binding the story together with details and nuances that struck me as apropos, sad, and silly all at once. I found it confusing to get into the book because with first chapter is actually a prologue (since the main character isn’t in it). It took several scenes before I realized Manny was the protagonist. I enjoyed his hard-put-upon demeanor, though it didn’t quite reach the hilarious extremes that, say, Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did.

This book appeals to readers of satirical humor, conspiracy theorists who believe the government is tracking our every move (Hint: They are!), and anyone who appreciates a light-hearted look at the consequences of the choices we as a society are making.

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Review: A Warrior’s Path by Davis Ashura

Title: A Warrior’s Path
Author: Davis Ashura
Genre(s): Adult Fantasy
How To Purchase: Releasing 12/25/13

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Note: I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Two millennia ago, a demon thundered into the skies of Arisa, casting down the First World. She was Suwraith, the Bringer of Sorrows. And on the same night as Her arrival, there rose about the world’s great cities the Oases, a mysterious means by which Humanity lies protected and huddled against the might of the Sorrow Bringer. It is a temporary respite. Throughout the rest of Arisa, Suwraith’s Chimeras boil across the Wildness, the wide swaths of land beyond the boundaries of the few, far-flung cities, killing any unfortunates in their path and ruling all in Her name. But always She seeks more: Humanity’s utter extinction.

Into this world is born Rukh Shektan, a peerless young warrior from a Caste of warriors. He is well-versed in the keen language of swords and the sacred law of the seven Castes: for each Caste is a role and a Talent given, and none may seek that to which they were not born. It is the iron-clad decree by which all cities maintain their fragile existence and to defy this law means exile and death. And Rukh has ever been faithful to the teachings of his elders.

But all his knowledge and devotion may not save him because soon he must join the Trials, the holy burden by which by which the cities of Humanity maintain their slender connection with one another, and the only means by which a warrior can prove his worth. There in the Wildness, Rukh will struggle to survive as he engages in the never-ending war with the Chimeras, but he will also discover a challenge to all he has held to be true and risk losing all he holds dear. And it will come in the guise of one of Humanity’s greatest enemies – perhaps its greatest allies.

Worse, he will learn of Suwraith’s plans. The Sorrow Bringer has dread intentions for his home. The city of Ashoka is to be razed and her people slaughtered.

A Warrior’s Path contains an interesting perspective on a different social structure than is present in other fantasy I’ve read. Although I had trouble getting into the book, the hierarchy and interplay of beliefs gave me something to think about.

This book’s society is a strict caste-based culture, where every rank can only inter-marry within itself and all its members are prescribed certain careers and magical abilities. The story follows several people who discover that they have abilities–and desires–outside their own caste, as they fight a goddess bent on destroying humanity. The moral implications are intriguing: In a time and place when humanity should band together against its impending doom, people are squabbling over the color of skin and talents they believe shouldn’t overlap between castes.

The different characters’ perspectives on the caste system were varied. Some were traditional and believed that anyone operating outside of the rules was “tainted.” Some are in between, not sure which way their loyalties lay. And some were open to accept people as people, despite their background or magical abilities. The morality was a bit heavy-handed, but the caste system unique enough that it kept me interested.

One of the best parts were the villains on the side of the mad goddess. However, a lot was left unresolved and open for a follow-up book, which left me disappointed that we didn’t learn more about the plans and happenings of that sect.

I struggled to get into the book because of the excessive world-building and back story. Especially at the beginning, I felt I was reading an essay the author had written on how the society functions and who the characters are. Rather than revealing how the caste system worked bit by bit, it was dumped at the beginning and I found myself skimming, unable to follow everything and everyone. There were a lot of characters, and even at the end, I was only clear on a few of the main ones.

If you’re interested in exploring implications of different societal structures, you’ll be interested in A Warrior’s Path. Note that the story doesn’t wrap up at the end but is part of an on-going series.

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