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.”