Review: Our Missing Hearts

Our Missing Hearts, Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

Summary: Bird Gardner and his father spend life trying not to be noticed, even as Bird wonders about his mother, the stories she told, why she left them, and where she has gone in a country that turned against her poetry even as one phrase became a rallying cry for all those separated from their children.

This is a haunting work because one sees all the elements except for a PACT act. Economic crisis. Anti-Asian prejudice and violence. The use of blaming foreign powers and actors for our problems. The use of state power to separate children from their parents. The removal of books from schools and libraries. The surveillance state we have lived in since 9/11.

All of this comes together around a twelve year old boy, Bird Gardner, living with his father, who works in an academic library, who loves words, and desperately is working to avoid anything to raise suspicion that could result in Bird being taken away from him. Bird’s mother Margaret left them when he was nine. A book of poems she wrote when she was carrying him, and one poem in particular with the line “our missing hearts” became associated with the rallying cry and symbol of a resistance movement to the forced removal of children from their homes for the least suspicion of violating the PACT Act (Preserving American Culture and Traditions).

Although his father has taught Bird that they must disavow her and have no communication with her, he both misses her and wonders why she would leave them and what she is doing now. Sadie, a school friend, and one of the removed children, thinks his mother is part of the resistance movement that, out of nowhere puts up protest installations of hearts or other symbols of the missing children.

But Bird doesn’t learn the true story until a series of clues that begins with a letter without return address covered with cat drawings leads to looking in a closet in their former home (still owned but closed up while they live in a dorm apartment), where Bird finds an address in New York City.

With the help of a librarian, who is part of an underground network of librarians who are collecting a database of parents and missing children, Bird figures out how to get to New York where he reconnects with his mother through a rich mutual friend, Dutchess (Domi) who lives at the address he’d found. Over several days in a derelict house, his mother tells the story of her life–how she and Domi survived the Crisis which led to the passage of the PACT act, how she met Bird’s father, wrote a book of poetry with paltry sales until the death of one protestor carrying the words “our missing hearts” was captured in a photograph at the moment she was fatally shot. The book was found among her effects, sold like crazy until the authorities shut it down, and vilified the author, who’d never meant to spawn a resistance.

She tells of the decision to leave to save Bird from being parted from both parents, and her awakening as she learned of what had happened to so many children that she had avoided knowing. She tells the story as she makes bottle cap devices with wires and transistors and “seeds” these throughout the city for her own act of resistance.

I have not heard the audio version of this but the voice I hear is one of quiet, but insistent wondering, both of Bird, and then of Margaret. Each is trying to unravel a story, Bird of his mother, Margaret of all the lost children, beginning with the young woman who died in protest. Both are engaged in a quiet resistance rooted in the pursuit of truth–unwilling to accept any longer the “comply and keep your head down” ethic fostered by PACT. Even Bird’s decision at the very end reflects that quiet, resistant pursuit of truth.

The haunting thing about this book is the awareness that the dystopian state Ng portrays is not that far removed from our present day reality. As I mentioned in the beginning, nearly all of the pieces are there. I suspect most of us are, like Margaret, among those who do not want to see, who think, this cannot happen here. The author of Little Fires Everywhere could have called this Little Resistances Everywhere. Ng portrays what a resistance of truth that will not bow to power might look like. And in doing so, this book feels like it is Ng’s own quiet act of resistance.

Review: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published in 1998).

Summary: The growth and heartbreaking destruction of Acorn, the Earthseed community founded by Lauren Olamina, and how Earthseed rose from the ashes.

In Parable of the Sower (review) Octavia Butler creates a leader, Lauren Olamina, of a new religious movement in a dystopian America, and describes how she gathers a band of refugees into Acorn, a community formed around the principles of Earthseed. This work continues that story through the narration of Lauren’s daughter, who eventually, with the help of her uncle found her mother’s religious writings and journals, after being abducted as an infant by the extremist wing of a Christian nationalist group.

The chapters of the book begin with an Earthseed verse, then a section in bold print by daughter Asha Vere (born Larkin) followed by journal entries of Lauren that tell the story of the growth and heart-breaking destruction of Acorn, and what followed. Acorn was the place where Lauren and her husband Bankole built a community of refugees on his land and formulated the teachings of Earthseed, gradually drawing convinced adherents. Everyone worked and contributed, children were taught, and products of quality were sold in neighboring towns. She began to think about how they could send people out to teach Earthseed elsewhere. Amid this, the child they hoped for so long was born, who they named Larkin.

Meanwhile, Christian America, a church-based nationalist movement with political aspirations gained increasing sway in a country that wasn’t working. They brought order, housed the homeless, and their leader, Jarrett, became president on a platform of restoring American greatness by cleansing the country of all “heathen” beliefs. Her half-brother Marcos, rescued from slavers, refuses to join Earthseed, drawn by Christian America and his desire to preach. Bankole sees what is happening and wants to take Lauren and Larkin to a quiet town. Lauren refuses, convinced of the truth of Earthseed and the potential of a movement that would eventually take the human race to the stars.

Until, that is, the Crusaders, a radical arm of Christian America come, seize Acorn, imprisoning the men and women separately, and taking all the children away, placing them with adoptive parents, including Larkin. The adults were all “collared” with electronic collars. Bankole dies during the attack as does Olamina’s close childhood friend Zahra. They are supposedly being “re-educated” but no one succeeds in being released. Women are assaulted by their Christian captors and expected to be submissive.

How they escaped, overcoming their captors, and how Earthseed arose out of the ashes occupies the later part of the book. It comes down to Lauren’s “talents,” her abilities to lead and persuade people to follow, not blindly, but willingly. It also has to do with her “magnificent obsession” that she pursues, even when her brother won’t follow, or face the evils Christian America had perpetrated. Likewise, she seeks her daughter for years, but ironically, it is Marcos who finds her, misleads her about her mother and educates her, showing her love her adoptive family never did and her mother never could.

There is so much here. Butler presciently anticipates the Christian nationalism and demagoguery of our own day and its appeal, as well as the xenophobia of anything that is “other” and the subjugation of women. That is chilling. Equally interesting is her exploration of what it means to be a founder of a religious group, to know to the core of one’s being that a revelation is true, and how one cannot do other than pursue what one knows in one’s being is true. Persecution, the loss of family, and arduous work are all part of it, but also the forming of a community of the convinced.

Butler is a compelling but uneasy read. There are brutal and heartbreaking passages, but also much to provoke thought. In a sense, these books might also be parables that might come with the words of the greatest parable-teller, “Let the one who has ears, hear.”

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. New York: Broadway Press, 2012.

Summary: A virtual world quest created as the last act of a gaming programmer in which a real prize of $240 billion is at stake pits Wade Watts and a rag tag group of “gunters” against a ruthless corporation.

I might be one of the last people to come to this ten year old story since made into a motion picture. I have to admit, dystopian novels with a gaming theme are not my thing. If it weren’t for the fact that the author was born in Ohio, I may not have given it a second thought. But as a lifelong Buckeye, Ohio authors, whether they still live here or not, are my thing. So here goes.

It’s 2044. Climate change and the attendant breakdown of civil society has rendered much of the planet, and much of the United States a dangerous wasteland. Wade Watts lives in a ghetto in Oklahoma, consisting of trailers “stacked” on scaffolding. While he lives with his aunt, he spends most of his time in a secret hideaway in which he has connected his computer rig and “haptic” gear, in a virtual world called OASIS, created by perhaps the greatest of all game programmers, James Halliday. He attends virtual school here, and when not in school pursues a quest that not everyone thinks is real. He is a “gunter,” a serious gamer looking for the “egg” Halliday left behind as his last bequest five years ago. The prize? $240 billion in real world currency. The quest involves obtaining finding three keys, entering three gates, and successfully competing three contests. No one has even found the first key.

Wade, whose avatar is Parzifal, has spent the past five years immersing himself in everything he can learn about Halliday, all the games he created and played, the movies he loved, the places he lived, the music he listened to, to try to even find a clue to where the first key is located. The ‘Bible’ of the gunters is The Almanac. Wade discovers the first clue by noticing 112 notched letters that give him the information he needs to find the first key. And that leads to him being the first to complete the first challenge, beating a formidable foe, at an ancient arcade game. But he wasn’t the first to find the key. Another avatar, a female, Art3mis, was there first, but Wade won first. And in the informal code of gamers, he gives her a clue that helps her win and be the second to have collected the first key and pass through the first gate.

He’s not the only one in the small group of rivals. There is his best online friend “Aech” (pronounced “H”), and later Daito and Shoto, who become the fourth and fifth to pass the first gate after Parzifal, Art3mis, and Aech. Each is working on their own to win. Yet each will come to depend more and more on the others. And Wade as Parzifal and Art3mis (“Samantha” in the real world) develop an interest in each other–at least as they get to know one another through their avatars.

Parzifal becomes instantly famous in the gunter world. The treasures he wins afford him the chance to “level” up and acquire even more. The endorsements he acquires gives him real world funds. He will need them. The gunters aren’t the only ones after the Egg. So is a group called Innovative Online Industries who not only want to win the Egg, but gain control of the OASIS. They are known as the “sixers” for the six digit employee numbers that identify them. The chief of these is Nolan Sorrento, who tries to lure Parzifal to work with them. When lures fail, he resorts to threats to blow up Wade’s stack and kill him. Wade considers it a bluff, and were it not for his hideaway, he would have been. The stack where his aunt lives is bombed. It’s not a game anymore, and more people will die before it is over.

Wade uses his endorsement money to move from Oklahoma to Columbus, Ohio to be near where the main OASIS servers are and creates a state of the art setup to pursue the quest. The remainder of the book describes the pursuit of the second and third keys and gates, the tension between rivalry and friendship with his small circle of “gunters” who have to outwit the massive resources of the sixers.

The book is full of gamers lore, from Dungeons and Dragons and some of the earliest computer games to the highest tech in a virtual reality world. A non-gamer like me could have done with a bit less. But the plot is twisty enough to keep it interesting, with moments where it looks like all was lost, and then other surprises we would not have anticipated, and of course, the resourcefulness of Parzifal and the other gunters.

The backdrop to this plot is interesting as well. The immersive experience of this virtual world becomes the place where everyone spends time, because of OASIS, which facilitates education and commerce as well as massive multi-player online role playing games. It is a world with its own politics as well as actors who want to dominate the environment for their own profit. It sounds eerily like what Facebook’s re-branding as Meta would like to do.

As Cline’s plot unfolds, his characters begin to face the question of whether there might be more to the relationships they have and maybe the life they live in the “real” world, as dystopian as it is, than they have considered so far. Yet the irony is that all of these are formed online in a far more attractive world. Real neighboring in the stacks, except for passing conversations, is dead. If the eco-disasters and breakdowns in public order that some foresee come to pass, the book raises the interesting question of whether the resilience will be left to resist and try to restore or preserve the best of our culture or whether most will opt for escape to some virtual “oasis.”

Review: Balcony of Fog

Balcony of Fog, Rick Shapero. Half Moon Bay, CA: TooFar Media, 2020.

Summary: In a post-nuclear world, a laborer and a fugitive from a vengeful lover inhabiting a thunderhead meet up, transform to cloud-beings and eventually engage in a climactic battle.

Arden is a toiler in a post-nuclear war of toilers and overlords. He builds and repairs sluices channeling the water from ever present storms. He dreams of more, sailing away on the Mariod, named after a woman who sacrificed herself for him. After a beating from an overlord, he slips away to his boat and encounters a woman who seems to descend out of the sky. Estra is escaping an angry thunderhead driven by her former lover Ingis.

Of course they instantly fall into love and into the sack. Then when their escape plan is frustrated, Estra leads Arden into a transformation allowing him to ascend to the clouds. Arden finds himself transformed into a cloudlike figure capable of riding the clouds. For a while, it seems an idyllic life of incredible beauty. They immerse each other in Vats, cleansing them of bad memories and traumas, Spindles that draw out their wishes, and a pond of which they write their most private thoughts, which are transformed into cranes. Then there is love, where they merge their “motes,” their whole being into each other.

Of course it can’t last. Ingishead driven by a jealous and powerful lover relentlessly pursues them. At one point, Ingishead abducts Estra, with Arden relentlessly pursuing and ultimately rescuing her back. But Arden knows that any victory is temporary until Ingishead is defeated. Even as Arden builds Ardenhead, consuming lesser clouds and learning to wield lightning, there is also an inner conflict. What is Ingis to Estra? Why did she become his lover in the first place? How much of her heart did he still hold?

On one level, the story is about the lead-up to a climactic battle. It is also a study of the corrupting effects of power, which we see at work on Ingis. But will power and jealousy win over love with Arden? Will he become another Ingis.

Meanwhile, the structures of power on earth continue. A vengeful strike at one point seems emotionally cathartic but systemically unsatisfying. The Vats, The Spindles, and the cranes are interesting devices for the emotional healing and self-healing these abused characters need, yet self-revelation carries its own dangers.

There is some interesting world-building and ideas about self-knowledge mixed with what seem to me adolescent fantasy and pettishness. I think a gifted writer could have created a story of greater subtlety. As it stands, it is just OK. I can’t help but wonder if the immersive component of this project, pairing an app with this book, led to writing that does not stand on its own but is driven by the companion technology. Whatever is the case, I’d pass on this one.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Road

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Summary: A dystopian story of a father and son helping each other survive in a post-nuclear America, scavenging for food and avoiding murderous mobs.

The man. The boy. The road. One’s life in backpacks and a grocery cart.

Using an old map to walk back roads to the South and warmth when there is no heat.

Evading murderous gangs who kill and eat their victims.

Searching every dwelling for any scrap of food. A fallout shelter unused stocked richly. Can’t stay long for the risk of being discovered.

A lone boy. He has someone, he can’t go with us. He’ll be OK. Really? Really.

Ash everywhere. Rains smell of ash. Snow is gray. A gray, sullen landscape under gray skies. Nothing alive.

Nights under tarps, shivering in each other’s grasp, trying to stay warm, yet hidden.

A cough. Worsening. Spitting up blood. Must protect the boy.

We carry the fire.

This is The Road. Not a happy story. One to give anyone who thinks a nuclear holocaust survivable. This strikes me a good rendition of what “survival” would be like.

It reveals the heart of darkness that emerges when the structures of civilization fail. Yet it also reveals the bond of a father and son, the eternal flame of hope, or will against all despair to live captured in the words, “we carry the fire.” It recognizes a goodness that will not die (“we are the good guys”) even if this means that you will only kill and not eat the enemy who threatens you. Yet it is a world where you are wary of any human beings, the few who remain. Are there any other “good guys?”

It makes one think of what we have seen during the pandemic, when a virus and a polarizing president have threatened the social fabric–violent mobs in the streets, and roving the Capitol. Plots to seize and kill health officials and governors and even vice presidents. Elevated gun violence. Car jackings. Neighbor fighting neighbor over the refusal to don a mask. What do we need to see that the fabric of society is more fragile than we imagined? The Road may not be so far off as we think.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986.

Summary: One woman’s account of life as a “handmaid” in the dystopian society of the Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian religious society organized around the urgent problem of declining birthrates.

Many of you already know the story, either from reading the novel or the TV series or both. In a dystopian future brought on by an eco-disaster or series of disasters, the Republic of Gilead has taken the place of the United States (or at least part of it, at war with other “sects”). It is a world of steeply declining birth rates organized into a religious tyranny centered around the production of children, especially among the power elite. Commanders whose Wives ceased to reproduce were assigned Handmaids whose name became Of+Commander’s first name. This is the story of Offred. She has been trained for this sacred role by the Aunts, a severe group of women who indoctrinated them into the sacred task of child-bearing.

Offred was separated from her husband Luke after their attempt to escape this tyranny. She doesn’t know whether Luke is dead or alive or where her daughter is. Her daughter is the reason she is a Handmaid. She is fertile. Most of her life is lived in her room, or on strictly regulated shopping trips, birth celebrations, and “salvagings” where transgressors are hanged. Once a month is the Celebration, when she lays between the knees of the Wife, (following Genesis 30:1-3), while the Commander has very impersonal intercourse with her in the hope of inseminating her.

Much of the narrative hinges on transgressions, many of which become necessities either because the rigid life, or because the rigidities just don’t work–a house of prostitution where the elite men covertly go, which has become the refuge of Moira, Offred’s rebellious friend who is a survivor, doctors who offer to have sex when the Commanders fail, Wives who arrange surrogates, a Commander who wants to have a real relationship with his Handmaid, and an underground “Mayday” movement helping people escape. Atwood’s narrative explores what happens when tyrannous purity cultures bump up against human nature.

Of course the tyrannous culture has to be maintained, and it does so by “salvagings” that turn lynching into a religious ceremony, not unlike what happened in many parts of the Jim Crow south, with a system of informers, Eyes, as well as any of the people around one. The narrative develops around the choices Offred must make when presented with the demands of the transgressive system, risking life to choose survival for herself, and possibly for her daughter, along with answering to her own longings for intimacy.

As you can see, Atwood raises all kinds of questions for us. Is it possible to employ religion (or a quasi-religion) in the service of a tyranny and its aims? In this narrative, women are both close companions and the arch enemies of other women. What do we make of that? And can this dystopia happen here?

The events of the past year are too close for comfort. We have been threatened with the dissolution of our political and social order. Religion has been coopted for political ends. We are in a country of declining birth rates. We face the possibility of a global eco-disaster that many consider posing an existential threat that warrants drastic action, while others vehemently deny and defy.

Most of all, it seems to me that this is a work of resistance. Some see an illusion in the title to The Canterbury Tales. Many see in these stories subtle resistance to the existing religious and political order, even while on religious pilgrimage. Offred’s tale, a series of daytime narratives punctuated by nights, mostly given to reflection, seems also a tale of resistance, a way of fighting to maintain her identity when her life, indeed her body, is employed against her will to sustain the world order. What I see her is a cautionary tale for us all.

Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published 1993).

Summary: Lauren Olamina, whose life has been spent in a guarded enclave from a violent society, flees with two other survivors when it is destroyed, the core of an Earthseed community, the outgrowth of a religious vision.

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God is Change.

Lauren Olamina is a most unusual founder of a religion. Brought up by a Baptist father and distant stepmother trying to survive in dystopian southern California in a radically deteriorating United States, she is forced to take a hard look at the beliefs she embraces, around the core ideas that open this book quoted above. She also struggles with hyperempathy–when others are in pain, she feels it. And if she must use violence against another, she feels that as well–until the other dies.

Her father’s approach was to try to preserve his religious beliefs and some form of community within the walled cul-de-sac he and a collection of inter-married families live. Then her brother is brutally murdered and her father disappears. The fabric of society is shredding with social inequities, widespread poverty, and a particularly scary substance addiction called pyro or ‘ro, in which users are impelled to set fires engaging in the orgiastic destruction of property and people, followed by the looting of anything remaining of value. Lauren has been preparing, formulating ideas, learning about survival, and creating an emergency pack. She envisions creating resilient communities that not only survive this dystopia but spread humanity to the stars.

Yet even she is surprised when the pyromaniacs attack and destroy her enclave. She and two other barely survive, beginning a flight to who knows where and a fight to survive on the road. Slowly they gather others, more guns, and form a kind of community life around Lauren’s ideas. Bankole, a doctor who owns land up north occupied by relatives, offers a place of refuge. But will this rag tag group that includes escaped slaves (yes, there is slavery in this dystopia) and children, fend off murderers, maniacs, and fire?

Butler does not explain the reason for the deterioration of the social fabric of the country, apart from a prescient anticipation of global warming that leaves California drier, warmer, more prone to catastrophic fire (she wrote this in 1993). Yet there are suggestions that she is anticipating the outworking of the growing economic inequities in America that we see–debt slavery, a permanent underclass, growing substance abuse and violence.

It is unsettling to read this amid a pandemic, particularly where we see the rapid unraveling of an economy in literally days. While it seems resources are being mobilized to help those on the margins, it makes one pause to think what may happened if the illness or the economic factors lead to the exhaustion of resources and increasing hopelessness and desperation.

Butler portrays two contrasting responses. Lauren’s father tries to hang on to the old ways, creating an enclave in both mind and physical circumstances, building the walls spiritually and physically and setting guards to keep out those who would endanger their increasingly fragile lifestyle, while trusting in the protection of God.

Lauren believes that the only God is Change and that human beings are meant to be Change-makers, those who make God by their actions. She forms a community committed to each other believing that their actions, the changes they make as they set out on the road. Will self and mutual reliance be enough?

I find myself wondering if the dichotomy Butler offers is too simple. Are our only two choices enclaves and change-making? A more troubling question is how believing communities of any stripe exist when order breaks down and violence reigns. The use of violence in defense is the one thing both “communities” share in common in this story.

Perhaps the warning in this book is to act before social order breaks down. Most of us don’t think a breakdown of the social fabric similar to what is portrayed in this book can happen, and we become complacent toward rhetoric and economic structures that accentuate divides. Parable of the Sower, which occurs in 2024 in the United States is just too close to home not only in time and place and social conditions. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”