Tag Archives: Dystopian


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews We [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Евге́ний Замя́тин), foreword Masha Gessen; trans, notes, & introduction Clarence Brown.

Zamyatin We

In the sterile land of numbers, only the Devil can save your soul.

Utopia Avenue

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Utopia Avenue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Mitchell.

Mitchell Utopia Avenue

This review is for my recent and extremely tardy read of a LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of Utopia Avenue. My explanation–though it’s not an excuse–is that when the book first arrived, it was filched from my TBR pile by my Other Reader. It was the first David Mitchell she had read, and she liked it well enough to read six other novels by him right away. (I think she still hasn’t read Cloud Atlas, although we saw the film together.)

Utopia Avenue is very much of a piece with Mitchell’s universe of psychosotery and atemporals; it may even make connections of plot and character among earlier novels that had previously seemed to be detached from each other. I found it distinctive from my other Mitchell exposure (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House) in having a smaller number of viewpoint characters and keeping them all contemporaneous, with the action (outside of ten pages of epilogue) contained within a very limited timeframe of 1967-8.

The story centers in loose rotation on keyboardist/vocalist Elf Holloway, bassist/vocalist Dean Moss, and lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, the three songwriter members of the English psychedelic rock-folk fusion band Utopia Avenue. Drummer Peter Griffin (oops! a search engine could have saved Mitchell from accidentally evoking a character from a long-running US cartoon!) got a writing credit on one track, and a corresponding viewpoint chapter–as did producer Levon Frankland. The entire book is structured around the band’s three albums, and each chapter is named for a song, focuses on the member who wrote the song, and generally includes the moment of the song’s inspiration. It is an impressive, tightly-built container. (I’ve seen the novel-as-album, chapters-as-tracks conceit done before, notably in Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod, but not with this level of rigor.)

Within the container, there is a lot of rich character development and a healthy mix of tragedy and triumph. The sfnal psychosoteric business is pretty much invisible until halfway through the book, and becomes the dominant concern at about the 3/4 mark, which is a pattern I have seen in other work by Mitchell. I didn’t find so much of the authorial and publishing reflexivity he has dropped into other books. Instead, the story is full of delightful and borderline-gratuitous cameos from music and counterculture celebrities of its era. The chapters are long, but they read quickly. There are plenty of sex and drugs, and they are treated with realistic ambivalence, rather than celebratory glee or cautionary horror.

The sort of brother-sister dynamic between Elf and Dean is quite sweet. After the first third of the book, the band of initial strangers–“curated” by the benevolent Levon–have become fast friends. By the novel’s end, they feel like old friends of the reader.

Logan’s Run

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Logan’s Run [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.

Nolan Logan's Run

This short novel was the basis for the 1976 film, subsequent television show, and sequel novels: a dystopian action-adventure in the twenty-second century very much along lines laid down by Huxley’s Brave New World. The principal addition to the scenario is the idea of dealing with population pressure by using the global technocratic state to impose a maximum lifespan of twenty-one years. The protagonist Logan is a “Sandman”: a policeman/executioner assigned to eliminate “Runners” who fail to report for their scheduled euthanasia. Contrary to the jacket copy and many synopses, Logan is not a desperate Runner himself, but is in fact a thoroughly ambivalent character, attracted to a Runner whom he accompanies in order to infiltrate the Runner network and reach the rumored Runner destination of Sanctuary and its architect Ballard. 

A sense of impending climax is structured into the novel with chapter numbers that count down from ten. There are two plot twists at the end of the book, neither of which was ever translated into the screen adaptations. One concerns the location of Sanctuary, and the other is about the identity of Ballard. The first works fine, but the second I did not find compelling after the contrary setup. 

The book is very fast-moving, with plenty of sex and violence — though not quite so much that it seems like a mere pretext for them — and seems to have been written with the intention of inspiring screen adaptations. The film and television show actually made from it were toned down by setting it another century further into the future, and raising the age of “Lastday” from twenty-one to thirty. They also added the spectacular euthanasia ceremony of Carousel, to replace the simpler “Sleepshops” of the novel. Another film version is apparently in the works with a projected release date of 2014, and rumor has it that they’ve brought several points of the scenario (most notably the maximum personal age) back in line with that of the book. 

This is not a philosophical work by any stretch of the imagination, and yet it includes interesting material for meditation. The idea of engineered neoteny as a response to socio-economic and political stresses is not so very far-fetched. Certainly, in the 1970s wake of the youth counterculture it must have seemed very credible. It is doubtless one of several such programs available to the Crowned and Conquering Child.

The Past is Red

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Past is Red [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catherynne M Valente.

Valente The Past is Red

This book reprints the story “The Future Is Blue” from the Drowned Worlds anthology, and follows it with a further novella “The Past Is Red.” The latter was written about four years later for the author Catherynne M. Valente (in late 2020) and ten years later for her protagonist Tetley Abednego (sometime after 2133).

Tetley is an irrepressible survivor and an unreliable narrator who hails from Garbagetown on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, evidently one of the largest of remaining human communities in the 22nd century. The first story accounts for her becoming a hated outcast by age 19, and the second gives the saga by which she matures into a “trash Plato” (138) in her third decade.

The Garbagetowners have an ambivalently hostile envy for their antediluvian ancestors (i.e. us), to whom they consistently refer as “Fuckwits.” In light of the current situation in US society, it’s not hard to read this sentiment as the Millennial/GenX view of Boomers writ large.

Valente herself compares Tetley to Voltaire’s Candide (148), and there’s a little of de Sade’s Justine there as well. But the tone here is not so satirical, and the concerns of the parable are remote from those of the philosophes. The afterword and the acknowledgements claim an independence for Tetley, whom her author has gradually come to know, and the character does have an engaging voice to draw the reader into and through her world, which is enchanting to her, and ultimately, only differently horrible than ours.

The whole book is wonderfully weird but sadly feasible cli-fi that I read in about three sittings: a speedy read and a satisfying one.

The Gone-Away World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gone-Away World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway The Gone-Away World

Although I came to this novel on the basis of my appreciation of a later work by the same author, it made an eerily good match for the most recent feature film I enjoyed. If you liked the martial arts action, twisted humor, melodramatic pathos, and reality-warping mindfuckery of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, you might find that Nick Harkaway’s doorstop 2008 first novel actually delivers a kindred experience.

The Gone-Away World contains about half a dozen major anagnorises or revelatory plot pivots, each with perfectly adequate narrative preparation and often outright foreshadowing. After getting caught with my pants down by a couple of these, I got really vigilant, paying special attention to what the story hadn’t told me at that point, and my effort was rewarded with being able to anticipate the next big surprise by maybe two or three pages. Then as I kept on reading, feeling pleased with myself, I got surprised again! (Well, I sort of saw that coming.) And again! (OMG, how could I fail to have seen that coming!) It was like losing a sparring bout.

The semi-fantastic post-apocalyptic setting is definitely sui generis (although comparisons others have made to Vonnegut have some merit), and it took me a few of the book’s longish chapters to get comfortable with the narrative framing. But even before that point I found the prose fast-moving and congenial.

There’s possibly an allegory here, certainly a parable. I had to wonder if Harkaway named “FOX”–“the gunk … inFOrmationally eXtra-saturated” (259) that stabilizes reality after the Go Away War has totally disrupted it– as a conscious poke at US propaganda media. The book takes aim at even bigger troubles, though, if you want to read it that way. The repeated tacit references to Andromeda in the final arc were poignant.

On the whole, I liked this novel a lot and found it to be a lively ride. It fell a little short of the tremendously high esteem I have for Harkaway’s Gnomon, but that’s hardly grounds to dismiss it. It is perhaps, as I’ve seen some suggest, more accessible than the later book, while still delivering a considerable taste of what the writer has to offer.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Gnomon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway Gnomon

Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is a 666-page magical operation thinly disguised as a science-fiction police procedural. Its settings range from late antiquity to the far transhuman future, with a cluster in London, Greece, and Ethiopia in the 20th and 21st centuries. I found it compulsive reading, and worked through the whole thing in about four days. This was the first Harkaway title I’ve read, initially sighted in a public library display and long considered as something worth my attention. In an appended author’s note, the book is characterized as containing “layers of puzzles and references the author has largely forgotten as he moves on to the next and the next,” but the web of the story is so tight that it’s easy to imagine it being written in any direction: trajectories of plot and character intersect and reinforce each other everywhere, especially since “nothing means just one thing.”

The peak of textual recursion in Gnomon is perhaps Inspector Neith’s interview with Chase Pakhet, an interdisciplinary scholar who discusses the Frankfurt School and French postmodern theory after confessing a love of pulp fiction “for its cheap trashiness, its wicked women and its unrepentantly vivid sex … the violence, the moral turpitude, and the absoluteness of right and wrong in a universe that pretends to be shaded with grey” (286). But fractal self-similarity is a key ingredient throughout this book that exhibits the fabric of all being woven on Its invisible design.

Full-on metaphysics and plot spoiler: . . . . (hover over for spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As I read this book, I was reminded of many other works I have enjoyed, including Philip Dick’s Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, China Mieville’s The City & the City, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Grant Morrison’s The Filth, and the Wachowskis’ Sens8. None of these comparisons should be taken to impugn the originality or independence of Harkaway’s work here.

“I raised the sleeper, and sealed the sleeper in luminous water with five seals, that death might not prevail from that moment on.” (Apocryphon of John, logion 16)

These are the things that life is all about. These moments. It’s not about the rituals. It’s not about getting by. It’s about the stack of tiny little moments of joy and love that add up to a lifetime that’s been worthwhile. You can’t measure them; you can only capture them, like snapshots in your mind. All that joy, all that greatness, that’s God.

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust life moments not rituals not getting by about little moments joy love add up lifetime worthwhile all joy greatness god

“It’s all math to you, isn’t it?” “Everything is math, Brittle. All of existence is binary. Ones and zeros. On and off. Existing or not. Believing anything beyond that is simply pretending.” “That’s all anything means to you?” “Meaning is a function set to zero in this universe. Maybe in the other places beyond us there is something more than simply maintaining existence, but here, in this universe, it is the only thing that matters.”

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust all math everything existence binary ones zeros on off existing not meaning maintaining existence matters