Category Archives: LBC Dystopia
Date: 27th February 2016
Venue: The Arch Cafe, LS2 8JA
Book: Online Ticket Office
NEVER LET ME GO
Director Mark Romanek and writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina) bring Kazuo Ishiguro’s (‘The Remains of the Day’) hauntingly poignant and emotional story to the screen. In this remarkable tale of love, loss and hidden truths, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) live in a world and a time that feel familiar to us, but are not quite like anything we know. They spend their childhood at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. When they leave the shelter of the school and the terrible truth of their fate is revealed to them, they must also confront the deep feelings of love, jealousy and betrayal that threaten to pull them apart.
Oh and ummm… there’s this too…
We are pleased to welcome Niamh Foley of Leeds Book Club to The Arch this month for a discussion about the pros and cons of film adaptation, or, if you prefer, films vs. books. Never Let Me Go has been a popular choice among Leeds Book Club members (check out our write up for #LBCDystopia and review) so this seems the ideal screening to have such a discussion. We’ll keep it cordial, we promise.
THE 5th WAVE
THE 1st WAVE
Took out half a million people.
THE 2nd WAVE
Put that number to shame.
THE 3rd WAVE
Lasted a little longer. Twelve weeks . . . Four billion dead.
IN THE 4th WAVE,
You can’t trust that people are still people.
AND THE 5th WAVE?
No one knows.
But it’s coming.
On a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs.
Runs from the beings that only look human, who have scattered Earth’s last survivors.
To stay alone is to stay alive, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan may be her only hope.
Now Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.
We liked the idea.
And we really *wanted* to enjoy it.
Once again, it was so lovely to gather together and have a natter about our recent reads. As is usual for our optimistic band of readers, we had approached this book with an open mind. We’ve read quite a bit of YA fiction previously and have found it to be a mixed bag – particularly in the saturated dystopia/SFF genera. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, before we ever started the book, we encountered those oft terrifying words ‘the first in an exciting new trilogy…‘ and our collective hearts sank.
So we indulged in a little whinge about how fiction isn’t designed to just ‘tell’ a story any more. It’s all about creating a world and re-visiting it over and over again. Which is fine, as long as it’s a world populated by interesting characters who fall into crazy exciting circumstances that sustain interest. Too often however, we’ve found that the sequels have more to do with successful branding than a need to flesh out more aspect of the plot.
So, before the vast majority of us even started the book, we were weary. And apprehensive. And there was a 50:50 chance that this book would prove to be better than we could ever have expected. As it happens, the coin landed on the other side.
In the main, we found the plot to be very predictable. As each character arrived, we guessed with near unerring accuracy what was going to happen to them. Again and again and again. One of us joked that they were starting to feel quite psychic. Oh how we laughed (actually, we did have a proper guffaw when they killed Kenny. *snigger*).
We did enjoy the Ben Parrish story line throughout the book. He felt like quite a flesh out character – albeit one in a slightly daft situation. We were torn between bemoaning the army as the fifth wave but secretly enjoying it and tearing our hair out that Ben seemed to be so incapable of recognising what was happening around him. Sure, it was a very stressful environment but we never felt like all the misery and horribleness and awfullishiousness was actually grounded in anything that we could honestly relate to.
Ben was positively a genius in comparison to Cassie though. She started off as this cool, confident kickass survivor that promptly turned into an idiot and a girrrl (not like a person girl, like a tv cardboard cut out of an actual character girl) the second a bloke appeared. I mean, it was so OBVIOUS – all of us who read it were stunned by how predictable the whole plot turned out to be but in this case, we were staring at the page blankly at her blind stupidity.
As for Evan – I am not sure that it’s fair to really describe him as a character. Some of his storyline were actually really interesting but the hammered in love story just ruined it. Ugh, creepy and bland but smells like chocolate? Where have I read something like that before? We did console ourselves that the hunter did in fact serve a useless narrative purpose as Cassie could not have saved her brother without him. But the honey-crumpet angle just over powered everything else. In fact, some of us ended up rooting for the five year old to become pyschotic – just to break from the norm.
We decided not to go into the secondary characters in too much detail as they were clearly only included for fleshing out in later books (which we are unlikely to be reading) and weren’t given a chance to do anything but page fill in this.
We were disappointed however in the whole alien/host aspect. One person noted that it felt like a really obvious way of getting around the War of the Worlds virus trope which lead to such a nice little nerdy chat for a moment that I now declare that person the Winner of book club. Sadly I didn’t write down who actually said it.
We also noted that the more we learned about the aliens, the less scary they became – particularly now that there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ battling to lead the cause. We also toyed with speculating as the aliens intentions; why they picked earth; why ships and so on but just didn’t have the interest of inclination to actually read the sequels and see whether we were right…so that petered right out.
We all agreed that this was a book structured and designed to appeal to the silver screen; hoping to occupy the same territory as The Hunger Games and Divergent. Having said that, goodly chunks are explained via internal dialogue which could be trickier to film.
So not a great read, but a very enjoyable meet up and chat!
NEVER LET ME GO
As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.
Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.
For the vast majority of us, this was a re-visit to the world of Never Let Me Go. Some had worried that the book – which we nearly all of us had enjoyed – might not stand up to a second reading. Others were curious to see if the film had influenced their opinion of the book – though we did agreed that – as not everyone had seen the moooovie – we would restrict our discussion to the book.
This turned out to be a surprisingly controversial book choice for us. There is a curiously dreamlike aspect due to the incredibly sparse world building and precision of language that lead some to question whether this should even qualify as a dystopia. Certainly, it doesn’t fit many of the classic tropes of dystopic writing. However, the vast majority of us agreed that any society – no matter how much it appeared to resemble/differ from our own – that was prepared to harvest people, rendering them redundant, was one that qualified as appropriate reading for us!
Another aspect that dominated much of the discussion was about what the metaphor of the story was. Though quite a few of us weren’t convinced that the book needed to be viewed that way – in fact some of us felt that it wasn’t really applicable at all – a great deal of time was spent pondering whether the point of the story was to attack racism or the class system, despite neither topic ever really being raised within the book. This lead one or two of us to speculate that perhaps the book affected us all on quite a personal level, which resulted in us looking for external aspects to discuss.
We found it difficult to assess the social, political or cultural context of the world that this story is set in as we are provided with very little information about ANYTHING to do with the students and the ‘service’ that they provide; and if you think that that stopped us, you’ve not been paying attention. Indeed, our only real clue is that the whole situation is regarded by everyone – including the subjects – as perfectly normal. The real question for the wider world appears to be closer to a factory versus free range issue.
We almost universally lauded the writing. Despite the minimalism in terms of world building; we all felt that everything felt incredibly real. The characters were interesting to us because as much as we can, we know them – particularly our primary three – but they are all limited by design. I argued that Ruth would have made a more compelling protagonist. Though not necessarily someone that you’d want to spend tons of time with; she makes things happen far more than the more passive Kathy. Though we did find it notable that in the end, Ruth has made more peace with her place in the world than Kathy appears to. We had a brief foray into the ‘is she bland or merely implacable’ but honestly, I think that we had a soft spot for her by the end of our chat. The characters are left with neither family nor regional influence. They are wholly absent and isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, we spend very little time any where else. As readers, we were also limited by our narrator. We can only know what Kathy knows. And she is restricted in so many ways. Her acceptance of that was deeply frustrating for many of us.
Structurally, we enjoyed that at first glance, this appears to follow in the tradition of classic British boarding school books; though this is no children’s tale. Well…maybe the Addams family… Halsham turns out to deviate hugely from Hogwarts/Malory Towers and their ilk. For one thing, it doesn’t appear to be much of a school at all. For another, it certainly isn’t assisting its young people to an exciting or fulfilling future (or is it – ohh how we speculated). But the final nail in the coffin must be that IT TURNS OUT THAT IT’S A BLOODY EXPERIMENT IN TREATING WALKING BODY PARTS AS PEOPLE. Just so WRONG. (I liked school, what can I say?). And it fails no less. How awful. What a bleak end.
We couldn’t help but speculate for a time on those aspects NOT really included in the text. Why didn’t they run? Could the instinct for survival really be so easily muted? Or it is a case that unlike most people; they are aware of their primary function and that they will fulfill it; leaving them with nothing more to aspire towards? Was there an underground train that saved the victims of a Death Row nation?
However, we ran out of time without the chance to unpack half of the topics we would have liked. The mark of a good book I think you’ll agree!
THE SLEEPER AWAKES
A troubled insomniac in 1890s England falls suddenly into a sleep-like trance, from which he does not awake for over two hundred years. During his centuries of slumber, however, investments are made that make him the richest and most powerful man on Earth.
But when he comes out of his trance he is horrified to discover that the money accumulated in his name is being used to maintain a hierarchal society in which most are poor, and more than a third of all people are enslaved.
Oppressed and uneducated, the masses cling desperately to one dream – that the sleeper will awake, and lead them all to freedom.
As I was a little late, I missed the bulk of the catch up chatter (GRUMP) and we stuck pretty faithfully to the book discussion from that point onwards (DOUBLE GRUMP). I might have to outlaw conversations in future…
This was my third or forth time to read this and – as I’d expected – I enjoyed it as much as on previous occasions. However, when I’d read it before, I was a school girl in Zimbabwe – I knew that there was inexcusable racism but had always read the book with the proviso that it was written in another time, during different social mores. On this occasion, I felt like twitter goggles have fallen over my eyes – and all I could see were Problematic Elements everywhere I looked. So we had barely sat down before I burst out all the above.
The others looked at me for a second or two before agreeing that OBVIOUSLY the book had to be read with an awareness of the social structures of the time. It has to be read for what it is or every generation would have to start afresh. They quickly glanced to make sure I ‘got’ it. Then returned to the chat.
In the main, we agreed that this was an incredibly easy to read book, with a simple story at it’s heart. The descriptive elements left some of us cold – particularly in relation to aspects that the author accurately foresaw – TV, propaganda, mass production and so on. The elements that the author had predicted inaccurately fascinated us far more – from the roads taking over the railways to the colonization of France – the brief glimpse that we were presented with was of a world significantly different from our own. Not least one that has experienced both the death of Art and Literature. Language – written and spoken – was of great interest to us for a number of different reasons. Unfortunately, this was such an interesting bit that I temporarily stopped taking notes.
It was a delight to read an old school dystopia – no teenagers running around, no global conflict or post apocalyptic setup. This is a stable, if stifling, society.
H.G. Wells had adapted this from a short story and was apparently never truly content with the results. In comparison to his other works, this felt less like pure SF and closer to a social lecture – a thought projection if you will, with much moralising and discovery of ‘inevitable’ truths. However, despite these limitations, there was a naivety to the writing that impacted on most of us. When this book was written; the world had not yet seen one World war…let alone two. We had barely taken to the skies (that flight had truly captured Wells imagination is quite clear throughout this book  however!) and had not yet conceived of using aeroplanes in battle – perhaps significant that in this book it is the ancient ‘savage’ that conceives it. Women did not yet have the franchise. No country had broken away from the British Empire since America (don’t quote me on that – I’ve googled but am not entirely satisfied with the results). We tried for a second to imagine the impact of this book on the audience of the time…but none of us quite managed it.
With regards to the concepts, we agreed that Wells must have been a very progressive mind for his time. It turns out that even his imagination had limits though – he wanted equality but couldn’t quite conceive of what women would want with it. He envisioned a world where women were free from moral constraints…but lessened without them. And gender was one of the better elements! We had all noticed the odd racist statement throughout the early stages of the book. The only times non-caucasians are mentioned was as a negative. However, at approximately the 2/3’s mark; there is a racist diatribe that quite took our breaths away. It was a sort of horrifying insight to read how overtly racist people were in 1910 (though none of us for one second thought that those thought processes have actually disappeared today). Wince inducing. Class structures and their impact on society is also discussed throughout the book, with an honesty and self awareness that must have been very unfashionable at the time.
Frequently, we wondered if his initial thoughts had been edited out – there were a number of passages about motherhood, drug taking and the like which seemed about to decry the direction the world was heading in, but Wells pulled his punches instead – having his protagonist highlight these awful things then wave them away as it being his own lack of understanding via being stuck in the old mode of thinking.
Regarding characters, we didn’t have a huge amount to say. The protagonist is pretty well drawn but everyone else appears so briefly that it’s difficult to get a fix on them. Additionally, everyone is concealing something from the main character, so must be treated as unreliable. Which is probably why the only two that didn’t, caught our collective eye. Without a doubt, we all of us responded particularly well to the odd chap that meets Graham and basically serves to catch him up. Mr Exposition is funny, irreverant and spoke eloquently. We were quite enamored.
Our discussion around Helen was a bit more controversial. We agreed that it was frustrating on a number of levels to be presented with a character who ostensibly eshews the characteristics of her gender as observed in this book. Helen is not dumb, flighty, weak willed or dependent. However, she is only every present because she is related to a man who is high up in the resistance. Her sole reason to be is to recruit Graham and inspire him to lead. She serves no other purpose than to propel him to greatness. However, it is also incredibly rare to meet a female character from this period who actually speaks and influences events. Helen is passionate, she tells Graham that his view of the world is wrong and sets him straight. Moreover, she acts because it is the right thing to do, not out of any romantic entanglement (we all assume that this is the romance culled from the short story. Good call HG.) with Graham. These traits kind of made her more bearable to some and a downright pioneer to others!
A great meet up and an awesome choice of book for the club. Though slight, we had lots to say! Always a triumph!
p.s. Ultimately though, some 15 years on from first reading this book…I’m still irritated we didn’t get any more info on why he fell asleep in the first place!
HG Wells – Free Ebooks
Date: 23rd September 2015
Venue: Crowd of Favours
Our next pick is available for free as an ebook. Click on the links below for…
HG Wells – Free Ebooks
A troubled insomniac in 1890s England falls suddenly into a sleep-like trance, from which he does not awake for over two hundred years.
During his centuries of slumber, however, investments are made that make him the richest and most powerful man on Earth.
But when he comes out of his trance he is horrified to discover that the money accumulated in his name is being used to maintain a hierarchal society in which most are poor, and more than a third of all people are enslaved.
Oppressed and uneducated, the masses cling desperately to one dream – that the sleeper will awake, and lead them all to freedom.
6th May 2015 – I Am Pilgrim (Pilgrim #1) – Terry Hayes
LBC WHITE SWAN
10th May 2015 – The Owl Killers – Karen Maitland
13th May 2015 – Carte Blanche – Jeffrey Deaver
LBC 3 READS
16th May 2015 – Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
20th May – Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising #1) by Susan Cooper
27th May – The Girl With All The Gifts -M.R. Carey
Matteo Alacrán was not born; he was harvested.
His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium–a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster–except for El Patrón. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself.
As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect.
It’s always good to begin with a debate. We weren’t entirely convinced that this was a dystopian book, there was a viewpoint that this was a SF novel, with a dystopian backdrop. In the end, I think we narrowly agreed that it *just* squeezed into the dystopian category.
There was a lot of landscape – the author was from Arizona and seemed to have a love for the land that was quite evident. The geo-political breakdown was something that many of us really enjoyed. It was interesting to consider a much reduced US, and a considerably more successful Mexico. You’d have to be a really committed border jumper to risk becoming an eijit. There was also an environmental aspect that was very topical – that a dessert has been created in previously fertile land. At least one of us (ME!) found it hilarious that Ireland is now one of the worlds most successful states. As it should be of course.
There seem to be a lot of books or films about organ harvesting at the moment. We wondered if perhaps we are being softened up as a society into accepting this as a medical alternative. Oh how we laughed until someone pointed out that there are parts of the world where it is rumoured that criminals are executed to order to provide organs from those prepared to pay the right price. Which of course led us to discussing the black market in organs…eewww. And that the wealthy are still more likely to receive better medical care in much of the planet. I mean, I know it’s a dystopian club, but it all got very dark very quickly.
The eijits were truly creepy. The idea of single function people, deliberately reduced so that they could be controlled, was something that we found particularly effective at inducing goosebumps on the spine! Frequently referred to as cattle; the eijits would continue at a task until ordered to stop or they dropped dead. Did I mention iiiiccckkkk! Once the chip was inserted, there was no capacity to reverse the process which made the whole concept even worse. Poor Rosa!
We also discussed the clones being bred in a cow. Given how awful the world was, I for one was surprised to find that it had led to bullying (though obviously the family of El Patron had other reasons to find Matt’s presence abhorrent). The cloning process itself was one that we would pretty fascinating.
Matt – the main character – had agency and direction despite his environment. This becomes clear when he leaps out of the window to meet children his own age; during the birthday party; when he insists on a kiss from Marie. Even his throwing himself into his studies – despite knowing his fate though we couldn’t quite get our heads around how he ever thought that El Patron would do anything other than destroy him. We also discussed the two faced nature of certain characters. Stephen was a bad guy who seemed good. Ton Ton is a good guy who seemed to be bad. Tam Lin was one of the few sort of decent characters within the book. El Patron was clearly a total psychopath. Or bastard, which was the word used I think. Tom was very thinly drawn and in the main we didn’t really enjoy his character at all. So very one dimensional. We were particularly disgusted by the keepers and their treatment of the Lost Boys.
The dog was something that greatly irritated us. Obviously we didn’t want it to die – but it seemed pointless. Were the atrocities against humans not believed to be bad enough by the author, that she felt she needed to include this? For a dog, it was heartbreaking, for humans there was disinterest? Very strange. Perhaps, we speculated, it was to parallel what Marie thought about Matt and the dog? Marie was a bit deflating throughout the book. While she had a laudable intention to rescue abandoned ‘things’, she lacked any emotional depth. And honestly, I think quite a few of us were pretty tired of the whole fall in love as children, fall in love for ever trope.
The theories of Nature versus Nurture also occupied us for a time. Towards the end of the book – Matt assumes the position of El Patron. Will he become as his DNA originator? Will the differences between the environments that they were raised change anything? Matt plans to tear apart the empire…but will he? Oooh, we had fun with that one! A most successful ambiguous ending. It tied up many of the loose ends…but not all of them!
Despite a few aspects that we found lacking; most of us were determined to read the sequel…primarily because we weren’t entirely sure that a sequel was strictly speaking necessary! We were curious to see what would happen next.
In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is–she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are–and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her
I’m starting to think that we LBC Dystopians are a rather exacting group. While I’ve always considered us to merely be discerning readers, I’m starting to worry that our expectations are somewhat higher than most! We demand better! And I sort of love us for it!
Despite the hype that this was the new Best Thing Ever, we were underwhelmed for the most part by this. The language wasn’t challenging in the slightest, which wasn’t something that we excused merely for being targeted at a younger market. So, rather than being a book that we could sink our teeth into; we all flew through it pretty quickly.
Conceptually, we felt that there were fundamental flaws in the structure of the social world that we just couldn’t ignore. For a start – how is EVERYONE not a divergent? We just couldn’t make sense of the 5 part faction breakdown. It just didn’t seem to made sense for all aspects of industry to be divided up and compartmentalised in this way. Aside from it being completely implausible that people – humanity – would have become so splintered in terms of character or personality.
For another, it appears to be a world full of children – the adults have little to no interactions with the initiates. Now – this isn’t new – in order for a child or young person to be the primary protagonist or hero – there are usually absent parental figures. This occurs across young person literature from Harry Potter to Enid Blyton’s school series to Roald Dahl. Here however, adults and grown up’s only appear in nightmares or as a round up. It felt like pretty sloppy storytelling.
We did find the female characters to have a certain degree of depth. Not merely ‘strong’, Tris went through a lot of different experiences and responded to each of them in way that we could relate to. Her mother – possibly our favourite character throughout the book – was mysterious and well rounded – a person as well as a parent. Male character were not served so well. Four/Tobias was the romantic distraction. Eric was a brute. Al was weak. Peter was a bully – all fairly one note characters. In order for the story to work – to back up the segregation of community – this was probably necessary plot wise, but we agreed that it didn’t work.
Mostly – even those of us who really enjoyed this book (mostly, me!) – we found this to be very reductionist. Everything was pared down to one element. Scientific (Erudite) people were evil. Governmental people (Abnegation) had no idea of the reality of the world. Candor people were incapable of analysis, just blurted everything out. And so on. It was limiting.
Watch the trailer to the 2014 film
Or take a different look via the Honest ScreenJunkies trailer (be warned, spoilers galore!)
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by SCOTT WESTERFIELD
Blurb (from Amazon):
Tally lives in a world where your sixteenth birthday brings aesthetic perfection: an operation which erases all your flaws, transforming you from an ‘Ugly’ into a ‘Pretty’. She is on the eve of this important event, and cannot wait for her life to change. As well as guaranteeing supermodel looks, life as a Pretty seems to revolve around having a good time. But then she meets Shay, who is also fifteen – but with a very different outlook on life. Shay isn’t sure she wants to be Pretty and plans to escape to a community in the forest – the Rusty Ruins – where Uglies go to escape ‘ turning’. Tally won’t be persuaded to join her, as this would involve sacrificing everything she’s ever wanted for a lot of uncertainty. When she is taken in for questioning on her birthday, however, Tally gets sent to the Ruins anyway – against her will. The authorities offer Tally the worst choice she could ever imagine: find her friend Shay and turn her in, or never turn Pretty at all. What she discovers in the Ruins reveals that there is nothing ‘pretty’ about the transformations… And the choice Tally makes will change her world forever.
* * * * * S P O I L E R S * * * * *
The first LBC Dystopia meeting of 2015 – I think we’re off to a good start! We had an excellent, wide-ranging discussion about this book – talking for longer than I thought we would, as it’s not a long or complex book.
Although several of us did enjoy reading the book, we all felt it was very flawed in lots of ways. Several of us had come across the book on lists of “best dystopia novels”, and we all questioned whether it should have been included on these – none of us felt it should really be listed alongside the likes of Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale!
One major point of contention was the main character, Tally. She had no real agency, and never actually takes charge or makes a decision until right at the end, when it’s arguably too late. We found her pretty bland – she doesn’t seem to have any defining characteristics, and isn’t physically described very well. We wondered if that might be intentional: there is a theory that some young adult books have main characters that are intentionally vaguely-written and flat, as that allows the young reader to project themselves in the protagonist’s place.
Several of us thought the book would have been more compelling with Shay as the main character, as she was a lot more interesting! We thought the way David described her as shallow and flighty was rather unfair, didn’t fit with what we’d actually observed of her character, and read like the author just trying to get this more interesting character out of the way.
Tally ‘s relationship with David also felt very rushed and forced. A couple of us had wondered near the start of the book, when Tally and Shay first meet and become friends, whether Shay was being set up as the love interest – we agreed this would have been a much more interesting story!
The world building also left a lot to be desired – we couldn’t understand how this world was supposed to work. If, on turning 16 everyone is given plastic surgery, plus a brain injury that makes you shallow, compliant and interested in nothing but fun and partying, how is anything invented, or manufactured? At what point do you actually train for the career you later have? The world must rely on armies of highly-trained plastic surgeons, so when and how do they actually get this training? Early on in the book it’s mentioned that a small minority of people can’t have the surgery for whatever reason, so have to stay permanently Ugly, and we all wondered why more wasn’t made of this. Some of us had expected the story to take a turn towards a sort of two-tiered society, such as in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, perhaps with the permanent-Uglies toiling in underground slave camps to do all the grunt work for the Pretties, but nothing like this ever came up.
Several points in the story were actually quite offensive. It seemed the author really didn’t understand eating disorders – it’s explained at one point that EDs no longer exist, because everyone knows when they turn Pretty all the fat will be sucked out anyway so there’s no need to starve yourself or make yourself sick to get thin. This made several of us pretty angry – it’s such a gross over-simplification of the psychology of eating disorders! Five minutes on Google would have set the author straight on that point, so we really thought this was an inexcusable error.
We also thought the handling of race was very clumsy: it’s implied that turning Pretty involves removing racial characteristics (skin-lightening is briefly mentioned, and the way things like eye and nose shape are described indicate that the Pretty standard is based on white/European characteristics), but this idea isn’t explored at all, and it’s also implied that erasing all other racial characteristics has Fixed Racism Forever, which is obviously problematic, to say the least!
One member was particularly outraged by the description of the Smokies’ librarian/archivist insisting on using white gloves to handle old magazines, so much so that she actually marked down her score for the book! (For those not in the know, archivists do not recommend wearing gloves to handle old or fragile documents – it’s a bit of a cliche often seen on TV, but is not good archive practice.)
Having torn the book apart, several of us then went on to say that we had actually enjoyed it! We felt the world was at least consistently-written, even if some aspects of it were not that well thought out and didn’t hold up to further scrutiny.
Several of us liked the idea of what had caused the apocalypse that lead to this world – a virus that attacked petroleum, destroying the oil-based economies and societies of the time – although it was then pointed out that this raised problems with the world as presented: how do they have plastic surgery (plastic nose and cheekbone implants are specifically mentioned) if there’s no more petroleum?? We also thought it was unclear how the transition from apocalyptic petroleum-dependent catastrophe to post-scarcity utopia had actually come about.
In general, we liked the presentation of the world in Uglies: there were lots of nice details about technology which appealed to most of us (we were all quite jealous of the hoverboards, although one member seemed more taken with the dehydrated food!) We agreed that as dystopias go, this wouldn’t be a bad one to live in really! Brain injury-causing enforced surgery aside, it seemed like an ok way to live… We did think the idea of people being given brain injuries along with their new Pretty faces, to keep people compliant, felt a bit tacked on – almost like the author didn’t feel like just enforcing surgery to make everyone conform to the same standard was enough of a Bad Thing by itself.
A few of the group had gone on to read the next books in the series, and found them equally entertaining, and a few more said we might read the others if we happened to come across them (although no one felt a burning desire to immediately seek them out). There was a general consensus that Uglies had a good story, decently told, and was enjoyable to read, if not the strongest or most compelling dystopia we’d read.
BLURB (from AMAZON)
The year is 2033. The world has been reduced to rubble. Humanity is nearly extinct. The half-destroyed cities have become uninhabitable through radiation. Beyond their boundaries, they say, lie endless burned-out deserts and the remains of splintered forests. Survivors still remember the past greatness of humankind. But the last remains of civilisation have already become a distant memory, the stuff of myth and legend.
More than 20 years have passed since the last plane took off from the earth. Rusted railways lead into emptiness. The ether is void and the airwaves echo to a soulless howling where previously the frequencies were full of news from Tokyo, New York, Buenos Aires. Man has handed over stewardship of the earth to new life-forms. Mutated by radiation, they are better adapted to the new world. Man’s time is over.
A few score thousand survivors live on, not knowing whether they are the only ones left on earth. They live in the Moscow Metro – the biggest air-raid shelter ever built. It is humanity’s last refuge. Stations have become mini-statelets, their people uniting around ideas, religions, water-filters – or the simple need to repulse an enemy incursion. It is a world without a tomorrow, with no room for dreams, plans, hopes. Feelings have given way to instinct – the most important of which is survival. Survival at any price.
VDNKh is the northernmost inhabited station on its line. It was one of the Metro’s best stations and still remains secure. But now a new and terrible threat has appeared. Artyom, a young man living in VDNKh, is given the task of penetrating to the heart of the Metro, to the legendary Polis, to alert everyone to the awful danger and to get help. He holds the future of his native station in his hands, the whole Metro – and maybe the whole of humanity.
(NOTE – I’ve included a very long blurb to avoid even attempting to explain any aspects of the storyline in the write up because…bonkers. Giant worms, big birds and a blob monster…you see?)
Heading into our conversation; the consensus on twitter about this book can be summed up in the following image!
So I was a bit concerned that none of us would have finished it or have anything more to say than ‘not our thing’. However, that magical book club thing happened where despite only two people having finished the book; we had this brilliantly bonkers conversation about it. Unexpectedly one of our Neil’s – we have three – not that Neil; nope, not that one either – ACTUALLY FINISHED THE BOOK which was the first sign that we were onto something special. On the basis of this conversation, five out the seven of us who had started the book have decided to finish it – another reason that I won’t be including too much about the plot and storyline!
Now, there’s no denying, the vast majority of us found reading this book to be a bit of a trudge. It’s entirely possible that this is down to differing translated versions. All of us noted that the names of one character in particular actually changed in the first chapter but only a few of us found the spellings to vary from section to section. (One book clubber [yes, Neil, how did you guess?] found himself mentally converting the names of characters to anglesized versions – including Peter Andre, which did give us a bit of a giggle)
While some found the language to be convoluted, only one or two of us had versions that were downright nonsensical in places, with page long rants that decimated any sort of reading flow. Now, we are none of us wimpy readers – we’re pretty focused and usually manage to plough through a tale, even when it doesn’t grip us. However, this one required vigilance and time – far longer than we were expecting.
Structurally; each chapter was a mini-novella; with a beginning, middle and end. The main character would meet a person, hear their philosophy, travel a way down the metro with them, then leave them for a new station. A map was provided, but it didn’t make any sense in connection to the story; unsurprising as many of the scenes were possibly hallucinations. This formula was likened to Dan Brown as each chapter ended on a cliffhanger.
Neil (the other one, yes, that one) pointed out that the story was originally written in a serial format which made the formula outlined above make a bit more sense for us. Unfortunately, a side effect of this was that a lot of the plot was passed on via conversations – long winded rants about communism, fascism, fate, philosophy. Aside from anything else, this is a device that drives me scatty. Le sigh.
To further add to the confusion the names of the stations changed depending on who was talking, what political affiliation they adhered to and which map they were using. Because maps here were inaccurate…unless they were one of the ‘magic’ guides. Not a joke.
Could the Moscow Metro be as spacious as the book depicted? Turns out – it is! Thanks to @EmmaJehan for checking up on that one.
The technology was a little inconsistent. On the one hand, light is a limited resource, only certain stations have clocks…but there are weapons of mass destruction and a plethora of Kalashnikov’s and cartridges/bullets for these. So many in fact that they can be used as currency. Also – if what I was hearing about the Dark Ones is true – 15 years doesn’t seem like a very long period of time – certainly not long enough to cause a new evolutionary form.
We almost all of us agreed that the idea, the central concept, was a fascinating one. The idea of the last remaining people having to go subterranean in order to survive an apocalyptic event was fascinating. The promise of mutants, elusive dark ones (hilariously Caucasian), musical pipes, a religion that orientates around a giant worm and an inconsistent narrator – through no fault of his own – all of these hint at a good yarn. It was slightly disappointing to discover that there is very little history around the event that drives them all underground. However, while all the ingredients are present in the universe created; the characters let it down.
It’s also interesting to note that while there is a direct sequel to this story; there are also related but separate tales written by other authors. This book was also turned into a game – which has a slightly different ending to this book – which seems to revolve mostly around shooting people. We all thought that the set up sounds very promising though the only one of us who had played it was a little less than impressed.
I asked whether anyone was listening to anything in particular while reading this book. One bright spark immediately shouted out The Jam – Underground. However, others agreed that in the main they prefer not to listen to anything while reading, especially for a book like this that requires quite a bit of attention.
So I tried that old ‘if this book were a cake’ and the following suggestions were made – savoury pork pie; carrot cake; mushroom cake (!); space cakes (for the discussion anyway); rocky road with unexpected marshmellows and – the suggestion of the night – a giant Victoria Sponge that had to be finished in one sitting but one that didn’t have any cream or jam.
Sounds about right!