Tag Archives: dystopia

The One Thing I’d Get During an Apocalypse

I’m writing this on Saturday, when the Super Moon is getting eclipsed, and all I can think about is the end of the world. Namely, the one thing I’d want to have with me in the event of a serious, bad apocalypse. In addition to the sensible running shoes and outdoor clothes I’d of course already be equipped with, I’d run back into the burning city for one thing.

There are a lot of good contenders: a fire starter would be clever, some kind of water-cleaning device, perhaps a camping tent. A can opener would have its uses for a long time. A good knife, always handy. But as a female apocalypse-survivor, there is one luxury that would really make survival 100 times better.

Hair ties.

hair ties for the apocalypse

Yup, those things (and preferably on a convenient clip just like this)! Absolutely essential. My day is practically over if I lose mine. You always see women in adventure shows with their hair down and flowing, and let me tell you, that’s a surefire way to get your hair tangled as heck, caught in some twigs, or at the very least annoyingly frizzy. And I’ve tried those complicated faux-Greek hairstyles where they “don’t use a tie” or just a leather thong or whatever, but I assure you, there’s really nothing as good as a nice elastic hair tie. I wouldn’t want to be in an apocalypse without it.

Besides, this comic by Kevin Warren has it about right:

Kevin Warren wonder woman scrunchie

Wonder Woman art by Kevin Warren

What one thing would make the apocalypse almost survivable for you? Share your best ideas!

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The Beautiful Mythos of Mad Max

I felt obligated to see Mad Max: Fury Road, honestly. It is, after all, a dystopian movie with a wasteland world.

It turns out it’s also an incredible testament to practical effects and explosions, but what most interested me about the film was the brilliant mythos of the world.

This was my first exposure to the world of Mad Max, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. To sum up, if you haven’t seen it yet: the world has been destroyed, probably by nuclear warfare, leaving the environment a raw desert. The title character, Max, is a taciturn man haunted by the mistakes of his past, reduced to bare survival on his own; he’s practically feral. What little of left of what could be called society is a place known as The Citadel run by a bad, gross dude known was Immorten Joe (he would probably be best buddies with Jabba the Hutt). Immorten Joe has a stranglehold on a reserve of water, and therefore owns all the pathetic, misshapen humans who make up the Citadel.

The brilliance–and my favorite part–is that Joe has begun to develop a religion of sorts, with himself and the high-powered scavenged vehicles at his command at the pinnacle. Immorten Joe has convinced an army of young men–too young to remember what really happened to destroy the earth–that they are righteous warriors for their god (Immorten Joe, of course). Much like the real-world beserkers, or any drug-addicted crazy person in the 20th century, the WarDogs will try insane stunts to prove their valor and earn a place in Valhalla, welcomed by the revered Immorten Joe himself.

This is worth the watch for itself. Director George Miller uses this to answer “why would a man drive into a crazy lightning sandstorm with nothing but a pair of goggles to protect him?” Because, of course, he thinks he’s serving a higher power. He believes, to the core of his being, that his body is worthless, that he has no hope without his leader, and that his life is best served by his destruction.

Without the mythos that is baked into the background of the movie, nothing else would work. It’s not like anyone has to stop and explain any of this clearly complex theology/cult-speak to the viewer; it just happens, and we the audience see the appeal of the smoke, the fire, the shiny chrome of Valhalla and want to see more.

Did you see Mad Max? What did you think?

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What Will You Miss After the Apocalypse?

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, the final in her post-apocalyptic trilogy of the same name. It’s set about a year after 99.9% of humanity died off, and the remaining survivors are just trying to get by. They are mostly safe and have the basics down, but the narrator of this third book periodically pines for some of the comforts lost–probably forever (things do look pretty bleak).

One sort-of funny moment comes when the women of the camp get excited about the arrival of a bunch of scavenged “feminine products.” They’re practically giddy and collected far more than they can use in a years’ time.
Which made me think: What small pleasure would I miss the most?
For me, without question, it is going to be my hair loops. Those little rings of elastic are sanity-savers for me. It isn’t even end-times and I already fight with my cat for possession of each one! I keep a spare in my purse at all times, and another is probably either on my hair or around my wrist, just in case. Since I probably wouldn’t be able to get regular haircuts in the dystopian future, those hair loops are going to take on additional importance.
But considering their tendency to snap at the worst possible times, they won’t be around for long after the Age of Man is over. …I’d better start storing up, actually…
So what will you miss, beyond the obvious stuff, like food and running water?


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World Destruction Reading List

Reddit’s r/books thread recently had a conversation about best dystopian novels. There were a lot on the list I hadn’t heard of, and I have a particular love for dystopias (I’ve written two and a half, so far!).

So, for my benefit and yours, here’s a compilation of the crowd-sourced dystopian titles (plus some that I didn’t find on reddit), in no particular order, you should read:

  • Earth Abides, George R Stewart
  • The Passage, Justin Cronin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
    • Doctor Bloodmoney, Philip K. Dick
  • Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • Oryx & Crake; The Year of the Flood; MaddAddam – trilogy by Margaret Atwood
    • A Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
    • Positron, Margaret Atwood
  • Never Let me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • A Brave New World, Aldus Huxley
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz
  • Wool, Hugh Howey
  • Swan Song, Robert R. McCammon
  • Wastelands anthology, John Joseph Adams
  • Y The Last Man,  Brian K. Vaughan (comics)
  • The Walking Dead,  Robert Kirkman (comics)
  • Lucifer’s Hammer, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  • Ashes, Ashes, Jo Treggiari
  • Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank
  • The Giver, Lois Lawry
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • The Postman, David Brin
  • This Perfect Day, Ira Levin
  • Day of the Triffids, John Wyndam
  • World War Z, Max Brooks
  • The Stand, Stephen King
  • Plague Year, Jeff Carlson
  • The Genesis of Shannara, Terry Brooks
  • The Deluge, Mark Morris
  • Robopocalpyse, Daniel Wilson
  • Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
  • We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • Emberverse series, R.M.Stirling
  • Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde
  • Noughts and Crosses, Malorie Blackman
  • The Tripods, John Christopher
  • Mortal Engines, Phillip Reeve
  • The Children of Men, P.D. James
  • The Hunger Games trilogy,
  • Dog Stars, Peter Helle
  • The Last Policeman, Ben H Winters
  • Idlewild; Edenborn; and Everfree, Nick Sagan
  • The Maze Runner, James Dashner
  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells

Undead Rising coverFor a new way to destroy the world, buy Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny, available in print and on Kindle. Your choices shape the story! When you die in the book, sometimes you rise again as a zombie, unlocking new adventures.


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Review: MaddAddam

MaddAddam (MaddAddam Trilogy, #3)MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood clearly enjoyed writing the conclusion to her most recent post-apocalyptic trilogy. Her enthusiasm is sometimes palpable. There are mini-jokes and obscure references, and at times you can almost hear her snort with amusement at a turn of phrase. It’s a fascinating conclusion to a possible future, but the story is uneven and ends with a fizzle rather than a bang. (Perhaps that’s the way a story about “life finding a way” should end, however.)

MaddAddam completes the story begun with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood. The post-human creatures known as the Crakers are developing in ways their mad-scientist creator hadn’t anticipated, but they are still fundamentally helpless against hostility and don’t truly comprehend fear. The group of former cult members known as the God’s Gardeners and the big-brained MaddAddam scientists who helped create the Crakers are the only (known) humans left: except for the delirious Jimmy and two less-than-human Painballers, men who survived a man-eat-man prison game and now feel nothing but a need for violence.

The story mostly follows Toby–the ultra-practical former God’s Gardener to whom the Crakers gravitate–and Zeb, the man who bridged the gap between the God’s Gardeners and the MaddAddamites. Frustratingly, even though this feels like it truly ought to be Toby’s story outright, much of the interesting action is left to Zeb. The reader finally understands (most of) what happened with Jimmy and Crake and God’s Gardener leader Adam One.

It turns out that the day-to-day mechanics of survival are pretty mundane, and though that is the part o the story left for Toby to recount, there’s just not a lot that hasn’t already been covered. Besides, unlike Jimmy/Snowman in “Oryx and Crake,” Toby and Zeb are pretty good at basic survival. Though it isn’t glamorous, the basic needs are met. That leaves Toby with little to actually tell the reader.

Zeb, on the other hand, turns out to be a bountiful mine of information, as he (beyond believability) was present for just about every critical juncture in the Story of How The World Bit It. Zeb is not just Adam One’s right-hand man; he’s his brother. From their twisted abusive childhoods up through the discovery of super-genius Glenn/Crake and the founding of the God’s Gardeners cult, Zeb knows everything interesting, and he recounts his life story to Toby as they slowly allow themselves to fall in love.

For an otherwise intense and compelling story, the touches of romance between the two come off as cloying and unnecessary. Toby frets over “does he love me or not” more than I cared for. Frankly, it seemed a bit unlike her–though of course that could be the point. It felt like the romance was not there because it developed naturally, but because Toby needed something else to talk/think about beyond “are we going to survive today?” (Personally, survival alone would have been enough reason for me to read more.)

The best parts are undoubtedly when Toby recounts watered-down versions of Zeb’s stories to the incredulous and trusting but incredibly naive Crakers. Here we see one way myths could have been founded: trying to understand something that is beyond our scope. These parts are hilarious and frustrating and awe-inspiring all at the same time.

(Some spoilers below)
Personally, I’m frustrated with the way historically feminist writer Margaret Atwood handled the female characters. Sometimes it seems like Toby is the only useful female in the whole story, and that, apparently, is only because she is post-menopausal and otherwise, apparently, useless. Rebecca, who–while certainly a secondary character–at least had a distinct personality in “The Year of the Flood,” was reduced to scenery. Ren and Amanda are vehicles for other peoples’ trauma; they were not only assaulted by the Painballers, but raped by the Crakers, in a confusing scene that is later referred to only as a “cultural misunderstanding.” I didn’t even BELIEVE a rape had actually happened until Amanda turned up pregnant; some clearer, less vague, writing at that pivotal scene would have been helpful. And then, in a final affront, when it comes to the critical battle, ALL the women–except for Toby, who as we said “did not count”–are excluded because of concerns over their well-being. It is ridiculous, to me, that so many would have spent their time getting pregnant, and all at roughly the same time.

And after the final battle, the story just…sort of stops. Toby loses all her voice, and the story shifts over to one of the Crakers, a character who grows from a boy to a man during the novel. While this transition is perhaps inevitable, as the Crakers represent the “next phase” of humanity, it is unsatisfying. This is Toby’s story, and for it to be passed off without her even having a say in it feels incomplete and unfair. Rather than the “drop the mic” ending we got in “Oryx and Crake,” this ending feels like sneaking offstage while the audience isn’t looking. It feels like Atwood just didn’t know what to do so she just…stopped.

The book isn’t bad–certainly not–but I admit to being a touch disappointed in this final story in this rare post-apocalyptic survival story. I’d give it 3.5 stars.

This book could probably be read alone, but you’ll get a lot more out of the series as a whole if you read them in sequence. Or you could just read “Oryx and Crake” and be satisfied; that’s the best of the series, anyway.

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Disconnecting from Constant Connectivity

It’s something of a joke, the amount of time I am on the internet. At my day job, much of my legitimate work requires me to be connected to the ethernet–and a great deal of my screwing-around time does, too. Then I come home, and…play on the internet some more. Or maybe I watch Netflix, through my internet connection. Or check the weather on my smart phone.

I’ve become one of those people.

In fact, three years ago, before this day job, before the smart phone, before Netflix, I had already identified myself as having an affinity for the online. It was part of what inspired me to write “Alt.World.”  I took the idea to some extremes in that book, and the three weeks I was completely cut off from the internet after a hurricane informed the story quite a bit. (What do you do when you can’t get the service to which you are addicted? Where literally your whole world exists? What do you do with yourself after that?)

That’s why I found this article, “I’m Still Here: Back Online After a Year Without the Internet,” so interesting.

The author, a guy about my age and with a similar background, decided he was too addicted to the internet, and decided to challenge himself by…not being addicted to the internet anymore. By quitting cold-turkey.

He was hoping for enlightenment, but didn’t find any. Or rather, he found some: he found out a lot of his problems didn’t exist because he was distracted by the internet–the way, I think, he was secretly hoping.

Things would certainly be harder without the internet. So much happens there, that one person opting out means they are opting out of a whole lot more than an information source. They’re opting out of casual friendships. Of contact with people from far away. Of easy-to-access navigation and dinner ideas and dating services.

I take internet sabbaticals. When I go on vacation, I don’t plan on taking my computer with me. I write things down in a paper-and-pen notebook, so I can remember the experience later. I don’t “check in” anywhere with any apps. I try to soak in the experience.

And I think those kinds of breaks are useful, and good. But I also spend at least an hour online, catching up, as soon as I get back in town.

Do you need the internet? Could you go without? What do you think would happen if, for some reason, society suddenly lost the internet?

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Lessons in Companionship

I’ve been playing BioShock: Infinite since it came out last Tuesday, and it is phenomenal. It is beautiful, challenging, has a great story, excellent mechanics, and pretty much makes me want to spend all my time there.

For non-gamers, BioShock Infinite is the third in a series of dystopian first-person shooter (or FPS) games, where you play as the shooter–basically, you are the main character. (Here’s my quick explanation from before the game came out). In this story, you are a mysterious guy sent to retrieve a girl, Elizabeth, from a sky-city. It’s 1912 and everything has a bit of a steampunk vibe. You get guns to shoot bad guys with and superpowers to help you interact with this city.

I’m only about halfway through, so I’m not sure how it’s going to end, but this game is already standing out for me, all because of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is a sassy character who is NOT afraid to beat you over the head with a heavy physics book.

She is hands-down the BEST companion I have ever seen in a video game. And maybe in a TV show. And she’s one of the best I’ve ever seen in a book, too, (excepting maybe The Lord of the Rings, because hobbits).

Compared to the other media, video games have a few extra challenges with their companions: they have to not get killed in combat; they have to have a bunch of replies/interactions depending on what the player does; and they have to be able to keep up (any gamer can tell you horror stories about glitches where they have “lost” a companion character because the game warped them ahead or behind, and they had to go back and start from a save point to try to recover them. It’s not fun).

Not only does Elizabeth manage to do all of these things well, she’s got serious personality. And she’s genuinely helpful. And, above all, she is not a damsel in distress (though she does start out locked in a tower and you have to rescue her). Check out that video if you want to see the problems with ladies trapped in towers: it can get ugly.

But no; though you do start out as Elizabeth’s rescuer, she later chooses to stay with you. (She might later choose to stab the player in the back, for all I know. We’ll find out!) This completely changes the dynamic! Now she’s not just a helpless girl following her big, heavily armed hero around because she has to: she made a choice.


And then here’s where she really starts to be cooler than many TV companion characters (I’m looking at you, Doctor Who)–she’s not helpless. She has at least three sets of abilities that help you BOTH get through the game. Unlike other games where the companion character is really just something for the character to lug around from place to place (*ahem* Rose Tyler***; *ahem*Princess Peach; *ahem* 007 Goldeneye’s Natalya), you could not survive this game without Elizabeth.

Sure, she needs you; but you need her, too.

I’m not going to go too much into her powers (because, spoilers!), but Elizabeth provides a potent lesson for other game designers and writers in general: your supporting characters need to be fully developed characters in their own right.

Things I can tell you about Elizabeth:

  • She has three extremely helpful abilities.
  • She’s missing part of her little finger on her right hand. (Mysterious!)
  • She wants to go to Paris, France.
  • She enjoys painting and reading.
  • She was locked in a tower for most of her life.
  • She has a joie de vive about her, but can be a little naive.
  • She’s certainly intelligent, like, quantum physics intelligent.
  • She can fight back.
  • If you leave her alone, she’ll explore and interact with her environment, showcasing her creativity.
  • She doesn’t very much approve of your character’s morality, but she’s willing to go along with you if it’ll benefit her.

Wow. I’m only maybe halfway through the game! There’s a lot more I can learn, plus some of her abilities are growing to change with the flow of the game. I think I know more about Elizabeth than I know about my playable character.

She’s incredible. Props to 2K for creating such a fantastic character.

Other people: Be more like this. It makes me more interested in the story and more invested in your creation.

***I’ve only watched about half of the Rose Tyler episodes. Yes, I know, I’m behind. So I admit she might get better, but so far? She doesn’t really contribute much.


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Secrets to Hugh Howey’s Success

As I read the “Wool Omnibus,” I couldn’t help but wonder: why this book? What magic made this series the breakout self-publishing success that is redefining what it means to be a self-published author? What is generating all this crazy buzz?

This may upset some readers, but I don’t think it was anything actually about the book. In fact, I thought the book was just OK. Maybe it’s just that I’ve read a lot of dystopian fiction, but nothing about “Wool” seemed inherently revolutionary. The first novella was good, but the stories in the “Wastelands” anthology were just as good or better. (If you like dystopias but haven’t read “Wastelands,” go. Do it. It’ll knock your socks off and give you chills.)

The covers of his books aren’t that great, despite all the advice on the internet telling you that it’s vital.

He seems like a pretty likable guy, but I’m sure there are lots of likeable authors that haven’t smashed all the records.

So what gives? How did Hugh Howey do it?

I don’t know for sure, having not met the guy–I read his blog and I have read several articles about him (including this one from the Wall Street Journal, where the graphic artist clearly did not bother actually reading the book)–but this is the impression I get:

  1. Story Raises Questions

    The  first story in what came to be the “Wool Omnibus” is a tightly written short story set in a world tantalizingly like our own. It inspires a lot of questions: How did they get there? Why all the mystery? Why did his wife die? Is the world really poisonous? Why would they do this to their people? What’s it like? How long have they been there?
    That’s a lot of questions for a first story, and it is very engaging. You’re hungry for more.

  2. It’s a Novella

    All those questions called out for answering, and, luckily, Howey didn’t write a whole novel: he just wrote a novella. So he decided to write other novellas to answer some of these questions (judging by the rest of the stories, he wasn’t all that sure what the answers were at first, either).
    But this novella model made it very easy for Howey to break his sales into different markets. Here, have the first story free. Want more? Oh, that’s $2.99. More again? Another $2.99, please. It’s very savvy marketing. Plus, because they were short, he could churn out more stories quickly, while he was still on the readers’ minds. Now he can continue selling or giving away the short stories AND can sell the Omnibus version–with a higher price tag (AND devoted fans can now buy it in print form, too!).
    (To be fair to Mr. Howey: I think his pricing structure is exceedingly fair to the reader. $2.99 isn’t a painful price point at all: he could have jacked the price up much higher. But he didn’t. And, I think, that turned out to be a great marketing move for him as well).

  3. eBooks

    All his stories were originally online-only. I can’t be sure, but I think he was predominantly selling via Amazon, too. This allowed his price point to be set so crazy low; have a very fast publishing turn-around time (less than 24 hours after he’d completed a book, it could be sold); he could skip all the traditional publishing steps; and it allowed him to interact with his fans directly.

  4. Blog

    I’ve only been following Mr. Howey’s success for a short time, but he is very active on his blog. He posts videos of his book launches. He engages directly with his readers, so they feel like they are part of the process. In fact, he credits readers with the reason there is more than one book at all. That’s pretty clever; now the reader is part of the process, he has partial ownership of the result. (Of course, this could have horribly backfired if the result was really poor, but as long as it was modestly good, Howey was golden here. And it is, so he is.)

  5. This Wasn’t His First Rodeo

    Howey had been through the publishing and self-publishing ranks before, so he knew what to expect. I think this made him more prepared when “Wool” started blowing up, because he’d been selling books online for awhile. This is also good for him now, because readers who liked “Wool” but had to wait for another section of the story could buy and read something else he had written in the meantime.

  6. NaNoWriMo

    Howey is a NaNoWriMo competitor, and that practice helped: all of his stories are penned very quickly, in marathon writing sessions. I think that agility is part of his success, and he couldn’t have attained that if he hadn’t been practiced in it already.

  7. He’s Got a Nice Wife

    The Wall Street Journal article up there notes that Howey’s wife is a psychologist. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume she makes decent, if not great, money, enough they can live on her income alone; for awhile, Howey was unemployed. When he did take a job, it was a 30-hour-a-week gig at a bookstore that allowed him more time to write. His wife is a nice lady; she tolerated and encouraged his writing addiction. Without the flexibility his wife (and her income) provided, I guarantee Howey could not have published his books and therefore been a success. She deserves some of the credit.

  8. He Got Lucky

    Honestly, luck and timing can’t be discounted. Howey started publishing “Wool” after “The Hunger Games” was a huge success and had whetted readers’ appetites for dystopias (some of us like dystopias all the time, but I realize I’m the minority here). Dystopias are a pretty small niche, too, so it was probably easier for randomly searching readers to find it (compared to, say, romance, which is a flooded genre). He was able to publish via Amazon, a format that is still evolving but flat-out didn’t exist even 5 years ago. He couldn’t have done it without the platform; I highly doubt his book would have been published at all, much less as a huge success, if he had had to go through the traditional publishing gauntlet.

Not everything on this list is replicable; I wouldn’t suggest trying to imitate Howey in hopes of seeing the same success. But it is helpful to keep an eye on the high-fliers as we develop our own paths.


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Review: “Wool Omnibus”

Wool Omnibus (Wool, #1-5)Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Wool Omnibus is a collection of 5 novellas, which makes a broad summary difficult. In very general terms, the collection is about people in a post-apocalyptic world who live in a huge underground silo and struggle with secrets from the past.

I really wanted to love this book. Wool is exploding everywhere right now, and Hugh Howey is the defining self-published success story. In fact, if I were writing a review just for the first novella in the book (the eponymous Wool, renamed Holston in the collection), it would have handily earned 4 stars, teetering on the edge of five.

Unfortunately, perhaps because of the way it was written, the tightly woven story with elaborate detail in the first book did not carry through. The further along in the book, the more problems Howey had as a writer in keeping the form and overall concept going. The fifth and last story in the collection, The Stranded, had such big weird mistakes that I would have given it two stars.
I’ve tried to keep the exciting and compelling spoilers out–for the most part, I’m not giving any huge secrets away. But if you don’t want any spoilers at all–you’ve been warned!

There will be spoilers from here out, so if you are still interested in seeing what Howey has created, you’ve reached the end of the road.

Spoilers Ahead!

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