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Amnesia Moon by Jonathon Lethem (1995) 247 p.

Jonathon Lethem’s second novel, Amnesia Moon, centres around a man named Chaos living in the post-apocalyptic town of Hatfork, Wyoming. The bombs have fallen, society has crumbled, the sky is tinted with radioactivity and the mutated townsfolk are reliant on a tyrant named Kellogg for their food. Less than 30 pages into the book, after making him admit that he can’t remember how long ago the bombs fell or what he was doing when they did, Kellogg convinces Chaos that the truth of their world is “a little more complicated,” and Chaos sets out on a post-apocalyptic roadtrip to uncover the truth.

Lethem’s first novel, Gun With Occasional Music, felt like a neat concept for a short story that had been stretched out into a novel. Amnesia Moon feels more like a collection of short stories patched together to make an extremely surreal novel, and I was unsurprised to learn, after finishing it, that this is precisely the case. Chaos travels across an America devastated by wildly different apocalyptic events – everybody agrees something bad has happened, but it appears to be different everywhere he goes. The only unifying element is that each location is dominated by a “dreamer,” somebody forcing their version of reality upon others. The different locales are all drawn from various unpublished short stories Lethem had written.

This is a lazy way to write a novel, but I found Amnesia Moon readable enough, and it has a particularly good ending which suggests that one of the more disturbing realities is in fact the truth. It deals quite a lot with dreams and memories and amnesia, which I normally find tedious, but Lethem is a skillful enough writer that Amnesia Moon is rarely tiresome. I didn’t see much point to it, as a novel, but he’s a good writer and I’ll keep reading him. I look forward to when I get to the point in his career when he’s actually writing novels rather than short stories in disguise.

(Spoilers, obviously)

I think The Walking Dead is a pretty neat TV show, despite a weak second season, and I enjoy watching it. And I’m certainly not one of those people who sits through every TV show and movie loudly snorting in derision at unrealistic scenarios or characters making foolish decisions. But as somebody who has spent endless hours writing an epic zombie survival saga of my own, I can’t help but watch a show like this and note down every dumb decision the characters make. It’s still a good show, I still enjoy it, and I’m well aware that if it was me in Rick’s shoes I wouldn’t have made out of the hospital in episode one of season one without bursting into tears and committing suicide. With that said, I’m going to tally up every dumb decision made throughout the course of season three.

1. As the group discusses their next move over the roadmap, we learn that they’re apparently trying to head south. Ah, the Floridian peninsula – a landform swarming with the elderly and surrounded on three sides by water. Head west! Less population = less zombies.

2. Wasting bullets shooting zombies in the prison yard when you could just lure them to the fence and stab them.

3. Herschel complains that Rick is on his third loop of the prison fence at night-time. This is technically not a dumb decision, but rather a character tutting about a smart decision. Apparently having regular patrols in a world where zombies want to eat your face off is a sign of obsessive paranoia. Especially when you have much better ways to spend your time, like campfire sing-songs.

4. Failure to wear any kind of facial protection when getting up close and personal with undead – hacking heads off, stabbing skulls, and just generally spraying rotting, infected bodily fluids everywhere. Carpenter’s masks, surgical masks, welding masks, diving masks, swimming goggles, laboratory goggles. Failing that, at least wear sunglasses and wrap a towel around your face. And gloves – dish-washing gloves, motorcycle gloves…

5. Fighting the zombies in the dark in close quarters, rather than leaving the doors open and drawing them outside into the open.

6. Putting the only person with medical training in your flush-and-kill team.

Episode 1: 6 dumb decisions. I’m including the campfire scene because everyone sits there worrying that Rick is too highly-strung instead of RELIEVING HIM AS SENTRY so he can get some sleep.
Season total: 6

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh (1992) 313 p.

Science fiction is a reflection of its own age. Look at any contemporary sci-fi story, whether it’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312 or the time travel film Looper or the TV series Firefly, and it’s commonly accepted that the United States is in decline while China is on the rise – in fact, 60-70% of Americans consistently say just that in polls. Personally, I think this is shortsighted – remember the late 1980s, the time of Nakatomi Plaza and The Rising Sun, when everyone thought the Japanese were going to take over? I have no doubt that China will certainly enjoy its moment in the sun this century, but the further one goes into the future the less likely one’s predictions are to be accurate, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some sci-fi writers buck the trend and focus on a world where the hyperpower is India (the next obvious choice) or something less obvious but just as justifiable given a couple of centuries, like Brazil or Indonesia or Australia. Or a unified Africa. Or the Pan-Pacific Empire. Or whatever.

In any case, Maureen McHugh deserves credit for being ahead of the curve on science fiction’s trending geopolitical prediction. China Mountain Zhang was published in 1992, just as the Cold War was wrapping up and before most people thought China might ever make something of itself. Set in the early 22nd century, it proposes that China is the world’s dominant power and the United States has undergone a communist revolution. China Mountain Zhang, the protagonist, is an “ABC” or American-born Chinese. Secretly, he is half Hispanic, but his mother had him genetically modified as a child to make him appear more Asian, which gives him a social advantage in a Chinese-dominated world. (“The Chinese are the worst racists,” his mother opines. Zhang thinks, “This is not surprising but nor is it helpful. Nor is it a good political thing to say but everybody knows it.”) Zhang also has a second, more troubling secret – he is gay. In the US this is socially unacceptable; in China it is a capital crime. The book begins with Zhang’s boss trying to arrange for him to marry his daughter, using the promise of studying in China as a reward, and the uncomfortable situation Zhang is dragged into as a result.

China Mountain Zhang is a deeply realistic science fiction novel, primarily in the way that it portrays the situation in the United States. Most American authors would depict a communist, Chinese-dominated USA as a nightmarish dystopia – and, indeed, Zhang’s America is far from wonderful, and despite America’s gross hypocrisy and myriad social problems, I would never seriously compare it to China. Yet the truth is that most people all over the world spend their time just getting by, and it makes not much difference to them whether they live under capitalism or communism, democracy or dictatorship. Just look at the hundreds of millions of new middle class Chinese who are happy to live under the Communist Party as long as they have running water and electricity, or the hundreds of millions of Americans who don’t much care if Obama is murdering American citizens as long as he does something about the economy. Or, as Zhang puts it, “I don’t believe in socialism but I don’t believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort.”

It’s clear from early on that this is not an epic sci-fi novel, not even on the politically realistic scale of one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books. A miniscule amount of humans ever have any grand impact on the world they inhabit, and China Mountain Zhang is about exploring Zhang’s world and developing his personal story rather than chronicling some critical event in a well-developed future history. The “Cleansing Winds” are referred to throughout, and it only gradually becomes clear that this is the name for the American communist revolution. We learn that Canada is still a constitutional monarchy and Australia is on track to become the “next economic power,” but these things are only mentioned in passing. China Mountain Zhang is told from the bottom, looking up – not the top, looking down.

China Mountain Zhang is thus a slow-moving, character-driven book, and while I can’t say I hugely enjoyed it, I did find it compelling, readable and worth my time. It deserves its various awards and accolades. Even twenty years on from its initial publication, I found it to be notably different from most mainstream science fiction novels, and it’s certainly worth reading.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719) 242 p.

A few years ago I read Homer’s Odyssey and said that, because of its age, it was impossible to “objectively judge” it and that it “hails from an incomprehensible culture” while “our tastes our tailored to our own.” It sits on my review page as the only book without a numerical score. Now it will be joined by Robinson Crusoe, a story three centuries old and one of the first examples of what we would today consider a “novel.”

Robinson Crusoe is famous, of course, as the archetypical desert island story. Robinson Crusoe, English mariner, is shipwrecked upon a deserted Caribbean isle and spends twenty-eight years there cheerfully building a home, farming corn, milking goats and reading the Bible. It’s obviously very much a product of its time – everyone knows, for example, that Robinson Crusoe gets stranded on a desert island, but few people know that the reason he was at sea in the first place was to get slaves from Africa for his plantation in Brazil. The rest of the book plays out along similarly dated themes. He can’t go more than a few pages without praising the glory of God, who was kind and benevolent enough to strand him on a bountiful island, and force him to see the errors of his hedonistic past. It really kicks into a hilariously imperialist gear once Crusoe rescues Friday, a native, from a group of other natives. (Crusoe simply names him after the day of the week on which he rescued him, of course, rather than bothering to ask his actual name.) Friday immediately becomes a writhing supplicant, literally kneeling at the white man’s feet and praising him for saving his life, and then becoming a happy slave and tossing aside his own religious beliefs to embrace the Anglican church. After later rescuing another “savage” and a shipwrecked Spaniard, Crusoe quite genuinely considers himself a “king” with “undoubted right of dominion.” He reflects that Friday is a Protestant, the other native a pagan, and the Spaniard a Catholic, and considers them fortunate that “I allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominions.”

None of this reflects on the quality of the novel, of course; one mustn’t judge a writer who was a product of his times. The pungent imperialist, racist and classist themes are amusing more than anything else. The issue I had with Robinson Crusoe was that, being one of the first novels, it’s very far from anything we would consider a novel today. It’s more like a litany of farming chores, geographical surveys and Christian mantras, bookended by irrelevant adventures in Africa and the Pyrenees. There’s no modern sense of pacing or relevancy; the book even ends on a vague note about returning to the island which is now peopled by the survivors of a Spanish shipwreck. (Who, incidentally, Crusoe damn well knew about and chose to utterly abandon when he was himself rescued; I guess sailing six hours to the other island to pick them up was too much of a hassle?)

Robinson Crusoe thus reminded me very strongly of The Odyssey: a classic work of literature which, through no fault of its own, is tedious and forgettable, and a story which I can honestly say I would have gained no less from had I simply read the CliffsNotes or Wikipedia synopsis.

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October 2012