Two dystopias, but also some cats.

Heyyy. I have a week off, for some relaxing and some activism, and I’m gonna try to get through some of the backlog of blogpost drafts and ideas I’ve accumulated during an overwhelmingly busy August, while I’m hanging out at my parents‘ house with  my parents‘ cats.

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In August I managed to read two dystopias in the space of one month, like real life hasn’t been bad enough. The Handmaid’s Tale for my own entertainment (…“entertainment“), and The Circle for the August meeting of my book club.

There was an interesting session at Nine Worlds this year (I’ll make a con writeup post at some point I promise), titled „Creating Original Dystopia in a Somewhat Dystopian World„, with some discussion about the purpose of dystopian literature: whether it’s voyeurism for people who don’t really have it bad in life, or inspiration to fight our own dystopias, or keeping us feeling hopeless because the real world doesn’t have Chosen Ones to save the day.

(Aside: Here’s one of my favourite songs in the world, on this theme.)

The dystopias I put into my brain recently don’t have chosen ones. They’re about the concepts behind and the building of dystopias, rather than the ending. Which is interesting, now that I think about it, and is a distinction that didn’t come up in that panel.

Anyway, I have Thoughts:

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

I really wasn’t very into this book at all as I was reading it, although the discussion at the book club maybe softened my opinion a little bit. The book presents a surveillance cult dystopia, which I can best summarise as: Google as run by Scientology slowly takes over all aspects of life. Which sounds like it should be a fun if possibly a little cliché concept for a thriller, but instead it’s just… kinda boring. The book spends 300-400 of its 600 pages on exposition, and maybe this is supposed to read as a slow build up of the creepy overtaking the ordinary, but reading someone’s day-by-day induction at their new job just isn’t an entertaining experience. Especially right on the heels of Handmaids Tale, which felt really tight and emotional to me, although I know some people find it dry. Maybe The Cirlce would have benefitted from a less linear structure, too, with flashbacks showing how things were at the beginning and the slow ramping up of the main character’s indoctrination into the weird google cult.

The depiction of the weird google cult really weakened the message of the book for me – and it’s a message I broadly agree with –  by how much of an obvious, anvilicious strawman it was. To be fair I wasn’t sure for the first one or two hundred pages. I’d glanced over the Goodreads reviews when the book got picked by the bookclub, and they said the book was soapboxy; I couldn’t tell whether the horrifying surveillance tech the author was describing was supposed to be bad, or whether he thought it was good. Especially since their consequences were so bafflingly naive. Forcing everyone to use their real names online curbed all trolling? Have you been to the internet? The technologies described were so clearly creepy that it didn’t ring true that anyone would give them as much power as scientologoogle gets in this book. The analysis comes across as shallow, and the emotional arc of the slow reveal of the dark side of surveillance doesn’t really work, at least for me.

Most of the people at book club really enjoyed the book, though. One of them suggested to me that it was a good introduction for them to the dangers of tech monopolies and surveillance, which is maybe true. I still think it could’ve stood to be about half the length. Take out the awkward sex scenes and the egregious antisemitic coding of the bad nerd boyfriend also, while you’re at it. Make it a tight 2-300 page book about someone’s life being subsumed into a tech cult and I’m there.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, since it’s a ~classic~, and as it’s everywhere right now because of the TV show, I finally did. It was possibly the most stressful reading experience I have had all year, so I can’t really say I enjoyed it, but… I appreciated at least parts of the experience.

A lot of people way more qualified than me have written a lot of critiques recently of the book(/show), especially the way it clearly uses American slavery narratives and themes without acknowledging it or addressing race in any way. Opinionating on that is definitely outside my lane, but I recommend checking these articles out, they definitely influenced my thinking once I’d recovered from my initial emotional reaction to the book. Here are a few I could find again (I resolve to get into the habit of saving the things I read from now on):

I also really agree with Mikki Kendal’s commentary on twitter, the passive acceptance and surprise of the protag was a big reason the flashback parts of the book was so stressful. I was especially disappointed in her lesbian friend, though. You should know! You should know when to get out and when to fight. Did you not have any friends who were POC, &/or Jewish, &/or trans, &/or disabled/neurodivergent who could warn you? We all know our history. Reminds me of the conversations I’ve been having recently about people who are surprised about Nazis still existing.

Which brings me to one of the things in the book that really punched me in the gut, as a parting blow, which is the historical notes in the epilogue. I thought maybe I would get some relief, knowing that the Gilead regime eventually fell, but nope. I got the opposite. A historian presents the context behind the text of the rest of the book, a document discovered on audio tapes. He says:

It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation. If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.

What a final thought to leave on. No matter what horrors a society might perpetrate on you, future historians will find a way to feel superior about their rational justification of your suffering. (Also there’s maybe some kind of irony here about Margaret Atwood’s own use of history, but I can’t quite articulate it.)

Alright, something lighter for my next post, I promise! Here, have another cat:

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