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Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

March 21, 2021 26 comments

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel (1943) Original French title: Ravage.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel is on the list of books teachers in collège (middle-school) can use in French class. In my opinion, it needs to come with a truckload of explanations not to lead the students astray.

Ashes, Ashes is a dystopia written in 1943, during the Occupation. The book is composed of four parts: The New Times, The Fall of Cities, The Trail of Ashes and The Patriarch. For this reader it went from fun, to déjà-vu, to boring and to distasteful.

We’re in Paris, in 2052. François Deschamps comes to town after a stay with his parents in Provence. (Barjavel was from Nyons, in Provence). He’s waiting for the results of an exam to work in agricultural engineering and he’s looking forward to meeting Blanche, his childhood sweetheart. When he was away, Blanche has been recruited to be a new singer on a famous TV channel and is about to start a new life. She knows that François won’t approve but she wants to have fun and enjoy her life.

In 2052, people travel on high-speed trains, live in skyscrapers, have AC, can’t walk more than a few meters and eat industrially grown food. It’s always fun to read old dystopian books and see how people imagined the future.

Barjavel imagines apartments in skyscrapers with big screens on the walls with TV shows. Some things are spot on – People can “facetime”— and some things show how difficult it is to think out of the box and imagine technologies or services that don’t exist yet.

For example, when François is on the train, Barjavel imagines that, to read at night, you can adapt a screen on your book, put on earbuds and call for a service where the book is read to you. He doesn’t imagine e-books with backlit screen but an armload of readers over the phone, reading you the book of your choice in your language.

People don’t do anything by themselves. Dead relatives are conserved in apartments as if they were in a wax museum and people live under the scrutiny of their elders. Art is controlled by state run schools and only official artists are allowed to sell their work. Everybody lives in towns, the countryside has been left behind, except in some areas in Provence where a few families people kept farming like in the old times. And François and Blanche come from these families.

We’re in a society shaped by technology and François is very critical and would rather have people going back to the land. His attitude towards Blanche rubbed me the wrong way but I kept thinking that it was other times. I didn’t think Barjavel was very ironic about the ancestors’ watching their offspring. I kept thinking that it was creepy and that your parents could be real bastards you’d be happy not to see ever again. This started to feel a bit too Travail, Famille, Patrie for my tastes.

Then the power is out and everything falls apart. The heat is intense (climate change!), people start loitering, fighting and killing to survive. It’s the Fall of Cities. Without electricity, everything collapses very quickly. Lifts don’t work, planes drop from the sky, dead ancestors thaw, communications are cut and nobody knows how to do anything by hand. All we see is violence, devastation, cholera and fires destroying this modern civilization. François gets Blanch under his arm, gathers a group of people and prepares to leave Paris. This part is probably a reminder of the 1940 exodus.

François and his group leave Paris as fast as they can and start walking south to find shelter in Provence. This third part, The Trail of Ashes, is their journey to safety. We follow the group of people during their travels to Provence, through a hostile environment. The country is so dry that it’s burning everywhere and water gets scarce. I thought this part was a little too long, we got his drift from the start. Brother will turn on brother, nature quicky becomes hostile. I still didn’t like François Deschamps and his patriarchal attitude.

And then came the last part and epilogue, a mere fifteen pages of stinking garbage. The group of people have arrived in Provence and started to cultivate the fields, to provide for themselves. So far, so good. Follows the description of the new civilization built by François, the Patriarch.

They are all peasants and live off the land. A system is organized to maintain peace between communities. Villages mustn’t have more than five hundred families living in the same place and a man can’t own more land than the surface he’s able to patrol in one long summer day.

Polygamy is the rule and ugly girls are grateful for it because they couldn’t get a husband otherwise. Blanche accepted it gracefully because men had to plant as many seeds as possible to repopulate the world. François remarries at an ancient age to a very young girl to have more offspring. He’s valued as a patriarch:

Autant que sa grande sagesse, et la longue et claire vie que Dieu lui a accordée, ce qui a valu au patriarche le respect des populations, c’est que parmi les deux cent vingt-huit enfants nées de ses femmes respectives, il n’a eu qu’une fille. Encore lui est-elle venue alors qu’il avait dépassé cent ans. A cette miraculeuse abondance de mâles, les paysans simples ont reconnu la faveur octroyée par le Ciel à une race de maîtres et s’en sont réjouis.

More than his great wisdom and this long and clear life that God granted him, the patriarch won the respect of the population because among his deux hundred and twenty eight children born to his respective wives, he had only one girl. And she was born when he was more than a hundred years old. The simple peasants saw in this miraculous abundance of males, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males and rejoiced in it.

Paul, married to François’s only daughter named Blanche will replace him when he dies. Of course, Paul is blond. So, a blond guy married to a woman named White will be the next patriarch and rule France. I think that this detail is significant in 1943. (I checked, only 10% of French people are blond.)

Technology is forbidden because François is against it. Books are banned and burnt as soon as someone finds one. Books are evil. That was the last sentence that broke this reader’s back. 

Writing this billet, I reread the passages and tried to find a second meaning, a veiled criticism of this new world. The only trace of it is when a young man comes to François, proudly showing off a steam machine, built to help with field work and alleviate the workers’ burden. Barjavel seems to concede that progress is inevitable and that humanity won’t stand for too long to live at the Stone Age. François promptly destroys the machine as evil too. Apart from this tiny detail, nothing.

I didn’t expect Ashes, Ashes to reek of Petain’s ideology. One reads books by Céline with their eyes open. In my mind, Barjavel was the author of La Nuit des Temps (1968), a wonderful love story I loved as a teenager and of the Chemins de Katmandou. (1969) I never expected him to be this reactionary. Heck, I don’t expect dystopian fiction to be reactionary. I expect dystopian books to show what will happen to humanity when humanism is thrown away. And more than that, I don’t expect the rebel of the dystopian book to be the founder of a new civilization that is way worse than the one they wanted gone.

I’d like to think I got it all wrong. According to Wikipedia, Ashes, Ashes was first published during the war in the collaborationist and antisemitic weekly newspaper, Je suis partout. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that Barjavel wasn’t seriously on board with the thesis developed in the fourth part of his novel. Or he really perjured himself writing Ashes, Ashes. If I missed something, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments. 

See why this book needs to be thoroughly discussed in class when young minds read it? 

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 21 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek is our Book Club choice for December.

Published in 1936, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

AusReadingMonth: Lexicon by Max Barry – “Words are weapons sharper than knives”

November 1, 2019 17 comments

Lexicon by Max Barry (2013) Not available in French.

Wil Parke is brutally kidnapped at Chicago airport. A mysterious team takes him to the lavatories and try to make him confess his true identity. He doesn’t know what this is all about. He’s a carpenter and his girlfriend is waiting for him at the arrivals. That’s all he knows. Things get violent quite fast and a man named Tom explains that their pursuants are “poets”, members of an organisation where leaders take the name of famous dead poets.

A mass killing happened a year before in Broken Hill, Australia. The whole population of the town was killed. Officially, it’s due to industrial leakage but the organisation knows that their agent Virginia Woolf went there with a weapon of mass destruction. She escaped and Wil is the only other survivor. He seems to be immune to the weapon. Problem 1: The weapon is still in Broken Hill and nobody can approach it without dying. Problem 2: Virginia Woolf is on the loose and she’s very dangerous. Poor Wil finds himself in the crossfire of two different factions among the poets and has to fight for his life.

Lexicon alternates chapters between the ongoing man hunt and Virginia Woolf’s story. Her name was Emily Duff. She was a sixteen-year old girl playing tricks on the streets in San Francisco when she was recruited to attend a special school near Washington DC. The school head is a poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her teachers are Lowell and Eliot. At the school, students learn the art of manipulating people’s minds. This is Emily’s epiphany:

But the truth was, she had just figured it out. Attention words. A single word wasn’t enough. Not even for a particular segment. The brain had defences, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funnelling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw new that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attack each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.

The poets master the art of “compromising” people, meaning that they take control over their minds and make them do what they want. Students learn languages, psychology and neuroscience. People are put into narrow segments, each segment reacts to certain words that make their mental walls collapse, enabling the poet to take over their mind. This is what it feels like:

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

Her mouth snapped closed. It happened before she realised what she was doing. The surprise was thet it felt like her decision. She really, genuinely wanted to be still. It was the words. Yeats, compromising her, she knew, but it didn’t feel like that at all. Her brain was spinning with rationalisations, reasons why she should definitely be still right new, why that was a really good move, and it was talking in her voice. She hadn’t known compromise was like this.

Frightening power, isn’t it?

What happened to Emily? Are Wil and Eliot right to be afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or should they be more concerned about Yeats, the director of the organisation? The two branches of the story converge in the end, giving the reader a whole picture of what happened. It is hard to give more details about the plot without giving away too much. This blog is spoiler free, so…

In Lexicon, Max Barry explores the power of language and how people can be manipulated. He imagines that the most lethal weapon is a word, a word so powerful that people die around it. The leaders of the organisation are poets because they are good with words. At their school, students have to learn to control their mind. They know they could be “compromised” and they know how to do it to others. They are taught to mask their feelings. Desires are unwanted, even basic ones like the desire to love and be loved. Desires are weaknesses and poets must keep their thoughts under a tight leash.

Emily is somehow resistant to it. She grew up cheating to survive and this instinct stays strong in her. Eliot never managed to tame his natural tendency to empathy. In the eyes of perfectly controlled Yeats, Eliot is weak. These two have one thing in common: they bend the rules because they don’t have the same ironclad control that the others have.

Lexicon plays with the idea of dominating people by feeding them words so well chosen that they target specific responses. Poets do what ill-intention press does, what social network can do, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us. The master idea behind the organisation is that if you manage to attach someone to his adequate psychological segment, you’ll know how to get to him.

Now I have a question for English literature specialists. I’m not a good reader of poetry, not even in French, so I don’t know well Anglophone poetry either. Of course, I know about Yeats, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and other poets mentioned in the book. What I don’t know is what their names trigger in a British or American mind. Is it normal that the dissident poet is TS Eliot? Does it mean something that the cold, unfeeling and repressed leader is named Yeats? For example, when Yeats-the character says this…

“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire. Yes, it’s funny.”

“You fucking what?”

“It’s required to maintain a defence against compromise. Desire is weakness. I’m sure I explained this.”

…does it make any sense compared to Yeats-the-real-poet? I’d be grateful for a little bit of insight. I’m afraid I missed some subtext.

Lexicon is the kind of dystopian fiction you want to have on a long plane journey. It’s a page-turner, it’s entertaining and it makes you think.

This is my fifth Max Barry after Company, about the absurdity of corporate life and management methods (anyone in HR should read it), Syrup, about marketing and the launch of a new soda on the market, Jennifer Government, about consumerism, Machine Man, about transhumanism. All books are dystopian fiction and work around an angle of our contemporary societies. My favourite ones are Company and Jennifer Government. A new novel, Providence is expected in March 2020.

For another review of Lexicon, read Guy’s here. Thanks again, Guy, for introducing me to Max Barry. I also read it as my participation to Brona’s AusReadingChallenge. It’ll last the whole month of November.

Quais du polar #3: Mindreader by Iain Levison

March 15, 2016 9 comments

Mindreader by Iain Levison (2015) French title: Ils savent tout de vous. Translated by Fanchita Gonzales Batlle.

Quais_polar_logoThis one was a total disappointment on two levels. The first one is on me. I’d already read A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison, a novel based on his experience as a poor worker in America and I heard his interview on France Inter about Mindreader whose French title is Ils savent tout de vous (They know everything about you) My previous read of a Levison book, his interview on France Inter and the French title of the novel led me into expecting a novel about internet and social media. Something in the line of Andrew Blackman’s Virtual Love. Had I known the English title, I wouldn’t have been surprised by the main idea of the book: what if the FBI had some chosen individuals operated to have them become mindreaders? What an asset they would be in international negotiations, in interrogations of terrorists, etc.

Levison_toutJared Snowe is one of them. He’s a deputy in the Kearns police force in Massachusetts and he start hearing the thoughts of other people. He’s just exploring his new power when agent Terry Dyers finds out that he’s “awaken”. She was operated too, but the other way round: her mind is unreadable to mindreaders. She protects the secrets of the program and she can meet with the mindreaders.

Now she has another mission to attend to. She needs to transfer Brooks Denny from a prison in Oklahoma to participate to negotiations at the UN building in New York. He’s also a mindreader. Problem is: Denny ended up in prison because he killed a policeman. He’s in the death row. Getting him out of here won’t be easy.

Terry and her boss Emmanuel puts things in motion though and everything goes according to plan until Denny’s ward gets nosy and goes through Terry’s things. He understands that Denny will be killed after his job, he’s happy that this cop killer will die. He thinks about it in Denny’s presence, Denny hears it and decides to take the French leave.

Who can go after a mindreader? Another mindreader. That’s where Snowe comes into the mix…

So we have two mindreaders on the loose and one FBI team who needs them back under their control but must keep things under wraps about their program. Who will win the chase?

Mindreading and the angst that go with it. No offense, Iain Levison, but Stephenie Meyer beat you to it in Twilight. Her vampire hears other people’s thoughts, except Bella’s and we know how crowded his head is from all the wandering thoughts around him.

Mindreader has nothing to do with social media and all the IT traces we leave in our everyday lives with our phones, computers, cars and so on. One evening, my work Iphone informed that if I left the office right now, it would take me 34min to get home. This is my work phone. I have no personal data in it. I guess it just tracked where I spend my days and where I spend my nights and assumed these locations where work and home. It kind of freaked me out. This topic is a tremendous playing field for dystopian fiction. (or not so dystopian, btw) Here, this path isn’t explored, except slightly through a member of the FBI team, Jerry, who has mad competences with internet tracking. It seems such a waste of good plot material and from what I heard of his interview, Iain Levison could do better on the political and social exploration of the theme. So it was a disappointment.

If it wasn’t meant to be that serious, then it didn’t go overboard enough. A few billets ago, I answered the questions of the Book FanCarroting Award and one of the questions was: Which book would you like to see re-written by your favorite writer? I have a new answer to this question now. I want Mindreader re-written by Duane Swierczynski. What a blast it would be.

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris

July 30, 2015 19 comments

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris (2012). French title: Pain, éducation, liberté. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

J’ai envie de monter les escaliers quatre à quatre. Mais l’immeuble a un ascenseur. Et le Grec moyen prend toujours l’ascenseur. A la réflexion, ce qui nous a démolis, c’est un ascenseur trop rapide.

I want to leap up the stairs. But the building has a lift. And the average Greek always uses the lift. On second thought, an exceedingly swift lift is what destroyed us.

Someone lent me this crime fiction novel by Petros Markaris just as the last big crisis between Greece and the EU took place.

Markaris_painBread, Education, Freedom was written in 2012 and it opens on 2013 New Year’s Eve. On January 1st, 2014, Greece will come back to the Drachma, leaving the Euro behind. Markaris describes the changes it does to people. Of course, that’s dystopian fiction and this has not happened.

Superintendant Kostas Charitos has just learnt that he won’t get any wages during the next three months. The Greek State cannot pay them anymore. Everybody is still present at the station, doing their job, though.

As the head of the crime squad in Athens, he’s called to the scene when Yerassismos Demertzis is murdered. When the police arrive on the premises, a construction site near the Olympic Games stadium, they start investigating. A phone set on the victim’s body rings and a recorded message says the slogan “Bread, education, freedom”.

This is the slogan used by the students who fought in the Athens Polytechnic Uprising in November 1973. This uprising was repressed by the Regime of the Colonels but the people supported the students and it eventually led to the end of the regime.

The victim was a key figure of this movement. When a second victim appears, following the same modus operandi and also an important participant of the uprising, Charitos wonders who is trying to kill heroes from the Greek revolution.

Petros Markaris was born in 1937; he was an adult during the dictatoship of the Colonels and witnessed the birth of Greece’s new democracy in 1974. The plot of this novel is straightforward. Don’t expect sophisticated twists and turns. It’s still a fascinating read because it gives you a picture and an analysis of today’s Greece on several aspects.

First there’s a glimpse in Charitos’s private life and Markaris describes how the Greek society lives with the massive economic crisis.

And then, there’s the in-depth analysis of the reasons of the crisis. Bread, Education, Freedom is the last volume of a trilogy about the economic crisis in Greece. This one focuses on the generation who instigated the fall of the Colonels. According to Markaris, their aura is so great that they are untouchable. They trusted powerful positions in the country, becoming entrepreneurs, deans and heads of unions. They took the power and created networks of clients by granting positions and favors. Their revolutionary past is such that they cannot be criticized. Their ideology is the leading voice of the country and there’s no credible opposition, as the right wing is suspect of complicity the the old regime.

Markaris describes something close to what Khadra says about Algeria in Dead Man’s Share. The leaders of the fight against the colonizer or the dictator that ruled their country earned so much prestige in that battle that they can do whatever they want. They took advantage of their past to cash in public works contracts or influential positions in the administration or the unions. The power was confiscated by people whose competences were assessed through their record during the fight for democracy. They made a dictatorship fall to replace it by an oligarchy based on credentials during the uprising and not based on actual competences.

They got drunk on power and the country’s got a bloody hangover.

If someone who’s totally clueless about the importance of literature asks you “What’s the use of literature?”, lend them this novel. Sure, it’s not the greatest piece of literature from a stylistic point of view. It’s not innovative in that sense but it fulfills another purpose. Markaris helps you understand his country and gives you another vision of the crisis that shatters Greece than the one you hear about in the media. For some reason, I can’t read non-fiction. I’ll never read a lengthy essay about Greece’s economical collapse and the reasons why it happened. So I’m glad that writers like Markaris are up to the challenge and decide to use crime fiction to make us see the situation through different lenses.

Bread, education, freedom enlightened and entertained me. It left me a bit desperate for the Greeks and firmly decided to read the two other novels of the trilogy to learn more about the two other reasons why Greece has reached this terrible cul-de-sac. Markaris sees hope in the younger generation and believes that hard times feed creativity and will force Greek’s youth to start again on the right footing. Let’s hope so.

Machine Man by Max Barry

June 1, 2015 19 comments

Machine Man by Max Barry (2011) Not available in French.

Barry_machine_manOur Book club decided to read Machine Man by Max Barry for this month of May. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we had five public holidays in May which was good for escapades on long weekends but terrible for work since things kept piling up in our absence. I’m under the impression I jumped from April to June in one breath. Anyway.

Machine Man is a science-fiction / dystopian novel, put it in the box you prefer. Scientist Charles Neumann works for an innovative company, Better Future. He’s a pure scientist who believes in science as long as it’s not psychology, anthropology, etc. His specialty is mechanical engineering. He manages a lab in charge of finding new inventions that managers and marketing people sell or not. He’s not much of a manager and his social skills are almost inexistent. He’s never had a girlfriend; he’s not interested in socializing and he’s not really open to anything but science.

One day, he has an accident at work and his leg must be amputated. He wakes up in the hospital to face his new him. He has a rather detached attitude to the problem.

Presumably if I disconnected the saline drip, I would deflate to a husk. I was a junior high physics problem. If Charles Neumann is a human being with volume 80 liters, oozing bodily fluid at the rate of 0.5 liters per minute, how often must we replace his 400-milliliter saline bags? I felt I should have been more sophisticated than that.

That’s Charlie Neumann in a nutshell. Descartes would have been his kindred spirit: he thinks of the body as a machine. And Charlie loves machines. He loves the idea of improving machines. When he meets Lola, who works at the hospital as a prosthetist, he’s underwhelmed by the prosthesis she can show him. He’s entitled to the best as Better Future is so afraid to have a trial that they are willing to pay for everything. Charlie resumes work and decides to improve his prosthesis. He creates new legs, ones designed for performance and not to look normal. His leg is ugly but functional and in his opinion, much better than his former biological leg. And then he thinks that it’s a disadvantage to have a poor biological leg and a great mechanical leg. Since same causes produce the same effects, he reproduces the circumstances of his first accident to have his other leg removed.

That’s when Better Future steps up their game. They realise the potential of money in these improved body parts. They give Charlie and his team carte blanche to create products to enhance the human body.

Follows a high-paced story with lots of twists and turns about inventing new parts, testing them before selling them and opening a brand new market of scientifically enhanced body parts. Charlie and his team are like children in a candy store. They have access to all the spare parts and materials they want. They’re free to invent whatever they want without being bothered by ethics at all since their boss’s opinion is:

Don’t pass moral judgment because cause produced effect. We’re biological machines. We have chemically driven urges. You inject a nun with a particular chemical cocktail, she’s going to start swinging punches. It’s a fact.

With that kind of attitude, you can excuse everything. Just as I was reading Machine Man, I listened to a radio program about Transhumanism and the ethical questions raised by new technological possibilities for our bodies. It’s not a theory I’m familiar with but it was interesting to hear about it right when I was reading Barry.

And this is where Machine Man is flawed. It’s a novel with a fantastic potential. It could be to Descartes’s vision of the body as a machine what Candide is to Leibnitz. A philosophical tale, funny but deep. Machine Man raises fascinating questions. Do we develop these technologies enhancing the human body? Do we provide them only to disabled people to improve their everyday life or do we consider that anybody should decide what to do with their body and if they want to cut their leg to have a mechanical one, who are we to intervene? Who’s in charge of the related ethical challenges? Rabelais said Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme. (Science without conscience will ruin the soul)

Where does Machine Man stand in that respect? The answer is Nowhere, unfortunately.

I have already read three books by Max Barry: Company, a hilarious and yet spot-on novel about corporate crap, Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel where brands have taken all the power in the world and Syrup, a fast-paced novel about a marketing genius who invented a new soda. All three managed to combine a high speed, page-turning plot with deep thoughts about the corporate and marketing worlds. I loved the three so I was looking forward to reading Machine Man.

I was so frustrated by it. It lacked depth, stayed on the surface of things. It’s still a fun read but I wanted more. I expected more from Max Barry. I wanted some thoughts about how Better Future captures science for its own profit. I wanted more thoughts about the ethical debate related to what Charlie was doing. I also thought he was too much of a caricature. Nerdy, low social skills, wary of psychology…scientists are more than that.

For another take on Machine Man, read Guy’s post here.

PS: If you work in the corporate world, have a good laugh and read Company.

Maybe some of you have forgotten what companies really do. So let me remind you: they make as much money as possible.

July 12, 2013 21 comments

Jennifer Government by Max Barry, 2003. French title: Jennifer Gouvernement.

“A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government”  Thomas Jefferson, 1801.

Barry_Jennifer_GovernmentThis quote from Jefferson is at the beginning of Jennifer Government. What did Max Barry do with such a statement? He took it LITERALLY. So we’re in a 21st century imaginary world where the Earth is divided in three zones, seen from an American point of view: the United States Federated Blocs (USA/Australia/UK/Russia/South America), the Non-United States Federated Blocs (Europe/China) and the Fragmented Markets (Africa/Middle East). The whole novel is set in the US Federated Blocs. Here, the government has no money because taxes were abolished, market laws rule everything and there aren’t any regulations unless you do something very illegal such as killing someone. It’s full employment and people’s surname is the name of the company they work for.

It all starts in America and ends up with a butterfly effect coming from the corporate world. Hack Nike, a merchandising officer, is thirsty and the water fountain on his floor is empty. He goes downstairs to catch a bit of water and stumbles upon John Nike, Guerilla Marketing VP and John Nike, Guerilla Marketing Operative. The John Nikes have decided of a new marketing plan to better sell the Mercury, their new luxury sneaker. They’ve already made it scarce on the market to increase its value and make people want to have a pair at any cost. Now, they want to move their plan to the next level. They’re about to drop thousands of pairs in shops and want to kill 10 customers at random once they have purchased Mercuries to make it look as if people are ready to kill to have these sneakers. They just need someone to do the job now. Hack is there and they lure him into thinking they promote him from merchandising to a great marketing if he just signs this contract written in small letters. Hack signs it without reading it and then learns what he has to do: he’s in charge of picking and killing the ten victims. When he enquires about the legality of the said task, here is the answer he gets from the two Johns:

“He wants to know if it’s illegal,” the other John said, amused. “You’re a funny guy Hack. Yes, it’s illegal, killing people without their consent, that’s very illegal.”

Vice President John said, “But the question is: what does it cost? Even if we get found out, we burn a few million on legal fees, we get fined a few million more…bottom-line, we’re still way out in front”

That’s pretty much the tone of the book. Hack doesn’t have the guts to kill 10 people himself but can’t get out of the job. That’s when things become global: he goes to the police to subcontract them the job. And the police subcontract it to the NRA. The killing is done and several people get involved in the plot. Jennifer Government is the government agent who was sent on the premises of the killing. She has a personal reason to track down John Nike and she’s really after him. Buy Mitsui attempts to rescue a girl from the killing but can’t because he doesn’t give his credit card number fast enough to 911 and they don’t send an ambulance without upfront payment. Billy is accidentally enrolled by the NRA and is caught up in their net of criminal doings. But more importantly, the world is divided into two major customer programs, Team Alliance and US Alliance. Each program elects a company in its field to be part of the program so Team Alliance is basically composed of companies in direct competition with the ones of US Alliance. The NRA and Nike are with US Alliance; the Police is with Team Alliance. Things escalate to a real war between the two majors networks and it’s up to you to discover what happens next.

I had a LOT of a fun reading this book. It’s dystopian fiction spiced up with a devilish sense of humour. The police? They broadcast ads to attract clients and their theme song is Every Breath You Take. Companies? Only interested in the bottom line of their P&L. Employees? Sheep that would give up anything for a discount and buy anything that is marketed as a “must have”. Schools? Sponsored by corporations which work on their programs and give toys, furniture and stationery. The Government? No taxes, no budget, they have to raise money from the families of the victims to start an investigation. Hear Calvin Governement when the news of the killing comes to him:

“Fourteen dead. At least eight were contract killings, all from families of limited means. At this stage it looks like the victims were selected for low incomes. I hate to say it, but it’s going to be tough to get budget on this one.”

It’s not real but it’s so close. Only money matters. And market shares. John Nike is the villain but he only gets his way because everybody is ready to give up part of their freedom of movement, of speech or of thinking for a bargain.

Being French and reading this is even funnier as France is mentioned in the book as a comparison to what America and its affiliated countries have become. I have to say that the quote by Jefferson shocked me. As a French, this is totally foreign to my DNA. I will never think that accepting inequalities and not sharing wealth through taxes or welfare is a good thing. Never ever. That’s why I’ll never understand how rich America can be a country without free health care or affordable universities. But enough of the heavy.

As an anecdote, I’ve learned a new expression. “Gregory was talking to a couple of big US Alliance cheeses, including Alfonse, the CEO”. I didn’t know what a big cheese is. Translated literally, I can’t say it sounds really positive in French. But the corresponding French expression (un gros bonnet, a big hat) may not sound too grand in English either. Anway.

Jennifer Government is written like a thought-provoking action movie. It’s a page turner, it’s fun, upbeat and incredibly sarcastic. I have a girly crush on writer Max Barry. I’ve already read Company and Syrup and I loved them too. I wish he came with me to the office and spent a few months in the French corporate world. Then he would write a killing novel featuring moronic unionists with undeserved power, unworkable regulations voted with the best intentions by MPs who have never set a foot in a company and puzzled foreigners wondering how things can still work despite all these complexity and obstacles. Come Max, I’ll sneak you in as my intern and you’ll work undercover.

How do they sleep while their books are burning?

October 5, 2010 12 comments

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Read by Thierry Blanc.

When I saw Fahrenheit 451 in the audio book section at the library, I thought “Why not? I only knew the book by name and that it was science fiction. I knew nothing about the author or about the time it was published and I did not search for answers before starting it. I like blind dates with books, films or plays. I enjoy opening a new book without expecting anything or sitting in the dark and discovering a movie or a play, open-minded and ready to accept it as it comes without preconceived ideas.

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, during the Cold War, which I guessed while hearing the novel. The story takes place in America in an unspecified future time. Guy Montag is a fireman, whose job is no more to protect people and extinguish fires, but be the armed arm of a dictatorial government who forbids people from reading. Reading is thinking, and thinking would lead people want more than being distracted. Therefore books are forbidden and firemen burn them.

The country is run as an apparent democracy (elections take place) but is in fact a dictatorship. The society is organized to keep people busy and happy. Happiness means being entertained all day long and turning one’s brain off. Happiness is not a right anymore, it is an obligation. And like the verb “to read”, “to be happy” does not bear the imperative form.

Life changes for Montag when he bumps into his new neighbour Clarisse McClellan a night after work. She starts talking to him and makes him see things in a different light. She enjoys walking on the streets, observing the moonlight and chatting. In my head, Clarisse sounded like Astrolabe from A Winter Journey written by Amélie Nothomb and physically looked like Amélie Nothomb herself. I can’t explain why.

She sows the seeds of doubt in Montag’s head and helps him realize what he confusedly already feels: that his life is meaningless and that he is lonely, although he is married.

Already doubting, he is sent to burn a house in which books were hidden. The owner of the house would rather be burnt with her books than live. That someone could die for books deeply disturbs Montag and makes him cross the bridge from doubt to rebellion.

 The society Bradbury describes is by some ways not fictional anymore. Montag and his wife Milly hardly speak to each other because the walls of their house are covered with huge screens which broadcast silly TV shows. The screens customize the speeches and directly address to the person in the house. Milly calls them “the family”. I don’t know if Ray Bradury had imagined Secret Story or Big Brother or any of those brainless TV shows but he was close. There is no better way to stop people talking to each other than putting huge screens with a constant flow of images. See what happens when there is such a screen in a café or in a restaurant, your eyes are always tempted to turn toward the screen and give up the conversation.  Montag and Milly cannot recall where they first met or how their relationship started. Bradbury shows by this how brainwashed they have been, because it is something spouses usually do not forget.

Milly can only sleep with pills and thanks to a constant flow of music and words in her ear. (Premonitory iPod?) When Montag takes the train, commercials are endlessly repeated, to a point that he cannot concentrate on his thoughts. People are never alone but do not care about each other, they get killed by fast cars and nobody protests. They do not elect the president who has the best political ideas but the one who is good-looking. They are shallow in every aspect of their lives.

It seems we’re here already. But even if Bradbury was dead right on some aspects of our contemporary society, I don’t want to be so pessimistic. Yes, consumer society is a soft dictatorship and mass marketing is its best ally. Yes, we need to be watchful. But books still exist, despite all the other – and easier – ways one can spend time. Some books may not be of high literary quality, but as long as people do not give up the whole institution, I have hope. And blogs prove we can also use technology to our best advantage and create human conversations which wouldn’t otherwise exist.

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