REVIEW: Hillel F. Damron, Sex War One

I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for a fair review. Here it is.

I was drawn to the topic of Hillel F. Damron’s Sex War One because a merge of a gender war within science fiction seemed like an intriguing and unusual subject to explore so exclusively together. Sex War One caught my attention and kept it. I was not disappointed. It turned out to be the kind of novel I rave about to all.

Sex War One takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear war, where all life is divided into perfect uniform colonies. These colonies are constantly seeking to improve in all things flawed, to the extent that they go against nature. They are aware that good and evil have not yet been eliminated in human nature and they recognise this as a flaw. We follow Underground-Colony B/365 and the Colony-Citizens within. In this world, the emotions and passions that humans naturally hold are gone right along with their individuality; they are qualities that are not understood in this world. There is no concept of love and gone is the natural conceiving of children or natural pregnancy. All babies are produced in labs and selectively bred. Men and women look alike even. So of course all hell breaks loose when our main man D.L. decides to keep and nurture the anomalous baby, Z.Z. who acts differently, thinks differently and looks contrary to the citizens. D.L. takes it upon himself to care for her personally, we can see from early on that this is a decision set up for failure. Z.Z. is nicknamed “the Monster” because of her nonconformity to colony life. D.L. quickly becomes questioned by the Colony-Citizens as soon as he starts treating Z.Z. as anything other than an experiment, the excuse he used to keep her. At the time of course he did believe it was an experiment even in his own thoughts but he quickly realises he has an attachment for the child. I found D.L.’s motivation for keeping the child in the very first place a little confusing considering the rigid and oppressive attitude of the colony and the attitude that has to be kept to by the Colony-Citizen individuals. I do understand that the attachment grew over time and perhaps just morbid curiosity is enough, as it is for most people in reality. This little display of human curiosity by D.L. shows that the Colony is not quite out of the grip of true human nature and warns of events to come. In fact, as soon as Damron described there being no individuality shown in society, alarm bells started ringing. You can’t stifle human individuality without consequences eventually showing themselves.

The depth and appropriateness of this gender conflict theme struck me. With feminism taking off in new directions, equality being an ever questioned premise and sexism debates between both genders being laced into media everywhere, I found this book to be a timely and futuristic epiphany. In our current society the future of gender equality is being questioned, just as it is addressed in this novel. There are so many opinions and arguments for every side of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the subject of gender and it was refreshing for this topic to be explored in a science fiction novel as the purely main topic. In science fiction there is usually some kind of reference to the differences in society, sex and gender because there are an important aspect of human life and so it has to be included. It is what the reader wants to read about, needing a futuristic take in fiction just as there are futuristic takes on weaponry, technology and gadgets.

I found it provoking that the dictatorship, stemmed from this eruption of personal feelings in a stifled society, came from a gender separation. Particularly as we are trying to move away from both matriarchal and patriarchal dominated societies, it really makes you question how equality will be achieved in our own future. Individuality makes all our opinions different. One person’s genius is another person’s fool. Despite best intentions, human nature – complete with human flaws and emotions – means that any search for perfection depends on the perspective of perfection. Damron questions the definition of perfection and where humanity stands in that definition. In Damron’s example of our future, is it the flaws that make us such a powerful species? Z.Z. seems to prove this. The search for the answer to this question, “what is humanity?” in Sex War One leads to matriarchal dictatorship. The maintenance of this ‘perfect’ society was only achieved by each becoming an emotionless being with no individual spirit. There is no passion, no emotion. It is an almost mechanical living.

There are few aspects of the book that smack of dramatised versions of real historical dictatorial events and periods in history. The novel addresses new directions and uses of historical dilemmas and problems; ethnic cleansing, cloning, gender inequality. I thought this was rather clever as the emotions of the reader are transferred from the real historical events to the appropriate similar fictional event in Sex War One. There is also a link back to historical feminist oppression throughout the book that I found interesting. This historical oppression is essentially why N.R. – the antagonist we love to hate – makes the move towards matriarchy that she does. This is her flaw. The description of certain female characters being ‘hysterical’ – an old term that in its original meaning applied only to women showing any displays of emotion. Women who were described as ‘hysterical’ were usually found in a mental asylum very shortly after being told they were emotionally unstable. An element of the book also along the lines of a resurrection of historical female oppression is S.O’s rape. Showing that even in this apparently more advanced matriarchal society, rape is used as a weapon in war. There is a conformity still to the old ways despite the ‘new era’. So, how sustainable is a ‘perfect’ society if the human flaw is still within us?

One theme of the novel that I found unexpectedly rang true was the insistence of the colony that they needed to get away from nature. When I thought about that it occurred to me that yes, the more successful the human race becomes in reality, the further we take ourselves from nature. The more successful we become in almost anything, the more man-made our life that we isolate ourselves with. For me this seems a shame – I do love the bracing outdoors – but it actually worked as a realistic concept for the future in this book through this reasoning. This was the method behind their ‘perfect’ society. Although, this concept was created in the extreme when N.R. takes control. N.R. desires what she calls an “anti-nature”.

I think my only criticism for the book is more of a false expectation, the expectation being that there would be more of a follow up on Z.Z., the outsider child. Z.Z. is an anomaly, different from all the others. She began all of the turmoil, creating the question that follows throughout the book, who is in fact the “Monster”? After the first chapter we don’t hear from her until the last pages of the book. I enjoyed the link from beginning to end and I can see that the mystery of her life is part of the illusion of her ‘outsiderness’. We are only meant to be concerned with the lives of the Colony and the developments there.

So, if you like disruption of the status quo through revolution with futuristic spins on real time issues this is the book for you. Throw in a few characters you love to hate and love to pity and you have Sex War One. For me at least, the overall message gleaned was that reading this book makes you appreciate the individuality we have around today. Without it, we get the plot of Sex War One.
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Hugh Howey: Silo Series | Wool Trilogy

I am indeed in the process of finishing a post of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman which was meant to be scheduled next on the list. If you have read it, you will know it is an interesting topic to wrap the brain around let alone write about responsively if – like me – you’re relatively new to true classic sci fi and you have very little military knowledge. So here is another brief post while you wait. The lift music, if you will.
I don’t give away major plot lines but don’t read this if you want to be completely surprised when reading the series. But just a note to take away; the only description of a book you will find that doesn’t give away at even a little something will be the painstakingly selected blurbs on the back of a book.
Three novels: Wool. Shift. Dust.
Although originally nine novellas: [Wool. Proper Gauge. Casting Off. The Unravelling. The Stranded.] [Legacy. Order. Pact.] [Dust.]
I discovered this series by chance as I was trawling through some suggested reading. They spent a couple of months pushed to the back of my mind, gathering dust. I originally didn’t want to commit to a series whilst at the time my concentration was meant to be focused elsewhere. Especially when I saw how satisfactorily chunky the books were.
Eventually, as always, I caved.
To start with, if I was to give a brief description of how these three books worked together for me, I would say this: Wool – at the risk of stating the obvious – is the introduction to Silo life and characters, triggering so many questions that it leaves you scrambling to pick up Shift for answers; Shift is the context and the history for the series, taking its place as a prequel to Wool and Dust; finally Dust, back in the present time, is the action taken from the revelations of Wool and Shift. Not action in the sense of punch ups and wars (although yes these are involved, plus guns, love, blood, betrayal and more) but action meaning the forward progression they make. For living and of how they counter the totalitarian, stifling life that they have been living to create their own future with their own horizons. From the perspective of the men and women being kept in the dark – metaphorically and literally – having a life outside is the ultimate fear and the unrealised dream, stemming from a fear of the unknown and a dream of whispered stories long gone. The outside is poisoned air and dead earth with the only people seeing it for ‘real’ (let’s not get into that can of worms) being so called cleaners who are prisoners locked away for crimes (we won’t open that can either) and are sent out into the dead wilderness outside the Silo in sealed suits (another can), that the poisoned air slowly eats away, to clean the lenses of the video cameras stationed outside. The view from these cameras can be seen from the top floor of the Silo where everyone gathers to watch the cleanings. This is a death sentence for the person sent out there. The ultimate question pondered constantly in the Silo is, “Why do they always clean the lenses?” Even those who swear and scream that they won’t always do in the end, instead of trying to make it away and find any shelter they can to save themselves. These stories and questions are voiced at one’s peril. These whispered stories of the past passed on carefully by word of mouth (words on paper or electronic cost a lot of money for reasons you will find out) are all that remain of their previous lives and society; a previous life that is unveiled throughout the series and eventually answers why they are there.
WOOL:
I recently found out that Wool was first designed be read as a stand-alone story. I can see how the structure reflects a stand-alone more so than the others but I know that if I’d have bought Wool without a follow up being at least in the pipeline, I would have been knocking on Hugh Howey’s door with something to say about that. Wool wastes no time in letting you get attached to the characters and then finding ways to uproot their place in the novel. I must admit, it took me a while to figure out who the main character was finally going to be because there were so many changes happening in a short space of time. It didn’t deter me though. It was interesting to get so many points of view. Which actually worked, I wouldn’t have previously thought that swapping between so many characters so early would work for a reader connection. Turns out it did and well, too. The setting of the novel is an enclosed Silo (admittedly a huge Silo) but with no access to the outside which for obvious reasons doesn’t give much freedom to work with setting-wise, but this also succeeded. It made the idea of ‘outside’ all the more fearful and then once the story progressed, more arcane.
SHIFT:
I think out of the three novels I found Shift the hardest to get into and this is in no way a slight of the novel to discourage others. I am an impatient reader-for-pleasure. I dislike not having the whole plot to read at my fingertips, so if I know it is going to be a series I usually wait until all the books are out before I begin reading. When I finished Wool I didn’t pause for a cup of tea even before picking up Shift. So when I was confronted with no immediate explanation of the loose ends in Wool, I (at first) was impatient with it. But the series has more finesse to it than just neatly giving the reader all the answers. Once you adapt from the fast-paced, who-is-going-to-be-attacked-next? style of plot in the dark Silo of Wool to Shift‘s more subtle beginning in the familiar ‘real world’, it is easy to see that the information you get from Shift truly makes the series what it is. Once I had finished the series I realised just how important the content was; it took the story deeper.
DUST:
Dust is the moment when the many characters’ stories from the different Silos are brought together, their pasts having had influence over each other without realising. Rise of the masses style. This is the culmination of all the conspiracies that have been spoken of in the series, where the answers are given. There is some mystery throughout the series as to whether the outside is poison or not, living or not, even if it is real or not. Perhaps that was just me but I was definitely swinging one way then the other in terms of what I believed from one book to the next.
I haven’t talked about specific characters or events in the books and I might decide to upload something more concise later on. I just want to encourage people to read this series; it’s a little bit special.

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend

An SF novel about vampires…

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.

By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn. How long can one man survive like this?

A quick note to the reader: if you have not yet read I Am Legend and you are hoping to in the future, I would give this post a wide berth. I have not been particularly coy about plot giveaways and such. I warn you here because there is nothing worse than finding a spoiler whilst trying to use others’ experiences to gauge whether to buy the book or not.

I will try to keep this brief as I am writing this on a train with no mains connection for charging my laptop.

With this first book, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, I had one of my very rare occurrences of seeing the film version before I read the book. To be honest, when I first saw the film in 2007 I was not aware that it was a book to begin with, let alone a 1950’s novel. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am a big J. G. Ballard fan and I was surprised that reading-by-association hadn’t led me to I Am Legend sooner. A friend introduced me to the book, years later, after he had read it. He recommended it and I, I am sad to say, promptly forgot about it; mainly because I had seen the film and was not particularly enthralled.

To use a new twist on an old standard, never judge a book by its film! I found the protagonist Robert Neville much more realistically flawed and human in the book, more in keeping with the ‘average guy wins out’ theme (or doesn’t ultimately, as is ironically the case) that Matheson seemed to have been going for. I am going to try and not keep referring to the film because the book and the film are in completely different territories. Their medium, aims, audiences and eras were completely different, among many other things, so there would be little point doing so in my eyes.

Addressing the ‘vampire’ description of the story, recent popularity of the vampire character in popular fiction has rendered this once classic gothic horror character into a romanticised ideal. I am not saying I am not guilty of reading the romanticised novels myself. I also at the time of reading enjoyed them. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that this novel conforms to the traditional perception of a vampire, meaning that they are a gothic horror genre character, not a heartthrob.

I know I did say I wouldn’t be comparing the book to the film and vice versa, I just want to point out that during the film I was not aware that the infected creatures were intended to be vampires. I can only assume it was an active choice to disassociate the film creatures from being characterised the same as the creatures were in the book.

For this reason, when I was confronted with the blurb beginning “An SF novel about vampires…” I was a little taken aback to say the least. I must admit I rolled my eyes at the idea of combining vampires and apocalypse, thinking, “how could this possibly work in classic sci fi”? But then again I was still labouring under the illusion that the topical heartthrob character would be used. More fool me!

Matheson puts this gothic character in a new setting for my experience; post-apocalypse. It somehow works as a fitting new setting, bringing the character crashing out of gothic castles and Whitby and into 20th century fiction set in the post-apocalyptic 1970s. Matheson seems to be able to pretty much get away with using the vampire character without too much of a stretch of the imagination by associating them with the apocalyptic classic method of a mass pandemic infection.

By following the day-to-day life of Neville, the reader can find a relatable anchor in amongst the vampire-infection-apocalyptic world. I mostly find that the best sci fi and fantasy novels have something to keep the reader grounded, something that the reader can associate with. It just helps the author connect with their readers; making the least believable (and usually the more creatively imagined) features of the novel more believable by association.

We always wonder how we would react in an apocalyptic situation and I think we would all hope we would have at least half the success that Neville has. He is a typical human being, not some almost super human that we would have envied in the pre-apocalyptic life, just happening to have a mastery of combat, inbuilt knowledge of medicine and, naturally, is a survival genius. I think my favourite part of his character is his ability to learn what he needs to know as and when he needs it, not just have the knowledge conveniently previously ingrained as many characters handily do in any genre of novel. This maybe my librarian side coming out but I particularly loved his aptitude for using the library to learn how to firstly do DIY around his house and then to do the some might say more in depth task of curing the world of the infection.

So concludes my chat. My laptop battery is low, I am near my destination and so I must leave.

I am next chatting (I am not calling it reviewing as I am more just letting out my thoughts onto paper at the moment) about The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which I would particularly welcome thoughts on as my knowledge on war is not extensive, a personal problem I found whilst reading the novel!

Until then…

Happy reading!

The SF Masterworks Collection: Introduction

sfmw

For those fellow book lovers out there…

I recently decided to read the complete SF Masterworks collection, published by Millennium, a division of the Orion Publishing Group. This decision was spurred on by a fellow book lover lending me the SF Masterworks edition of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. After reading this I knew that I wanted to read more of the mid-to-late-20th century science fiction, in keeping with the style of Matheson, so I followed the Google trail to the SF Masterworks collection listing. With there being quite a number of books in the collection (73 to be exact, although more included in different editions to be pedantic) I thought it would be an interesting pastime to not just read them mindlessly but share what I thought, get a little science fiction discussion ball rolling. I know from experience that this genre, chiefly this period of science fiction, has a bit of a love-or-hate reaction and I am not quite sure why.

My typical reading genres are apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, dystopian and totalitarian fiction, stemming from an enthusiasm for general geography (closet volcanologist wannabe) but particularly for the power of natural hazards and their place in our past, present and future. You won’t find me stereotypically hiding out in a campervan in crazy isolation, making my own radio station just yet, but let’s never say never. Many of the books I read in my usual genres include science fiction in some form or other, they often come hand in hand, so it was inevitable that I would be eventually drawn into the world of science fiction.

When I was reading I Am Legend, this 1954 novel drew me back nostalgically to that time period of science fiction, back to a certain style (that mysterious love-or-hate style) that was also included in J. G. Ballard’s work; I am already a huge Ballard fan – I included his work in my dissertation – and this is where I discovered the mass divided reaction to that style. I also enjoy H. G. Wells’ work. More recently I had been encouraged to read work by Philip K. Dick. When I took a look at the listing of the SF Masterworks and saw all three of these authors already included plus George R. Stewart, John Wyndham, Kurt Vonnegut and Mary Shelley I knew I was on to a winner.

Some will be probably thinking that John Wyndham and Mary Shelley are not included in the classic numbered paperback title listing that I am working from and that is correct. However, they are included in later editions of the collection and I thought I would prefer to read more than less, it’s just the way I am. With myself and books I am go hard or go home.

I will be attempting to follow the numbered structure in which they were published but there may be a few discrepancies due to which ones I can get hold of for when and also I have already read I Am Legend so it makes sense to write the review whilst it is still in my mind. The next book The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is currently on its way to me and will be written up just as soon as I have read it.

So concludes the overview and the purpose of this blog. I will be firstly writing up Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which will follow in the next few days.

 

Until then…

Happy reading!