RED MARS, by Kim Stanley Robinson, A No-Spoiler Review of the Classic Scifi Novel
The Short Review
5 reasons RED MARS is a must-read for the scifi fanatic and anyone remotely interested in planetary geology:
- RED MARS is a KSRobinson classic, published in 1992 and winner of the Nebula and the first of his acclaimed Mars Trilogy
- The story imagines life on Mars in a way that feels scientifically viable and compelling, therefore relevant to the current and growing conversation around Mars exploration
- Scientists are the narrators of this story. They are also the heroes, sometimes the villains, the problem solvers and the work horses. I was especially drawn to the “builder” character, Nadia
- The planetary geology content, naturally integrated into the story, is breathtakingly fun
- Despite being over 170K words long, KSR does not get bogged down in the “how would that ever be possible” science scenarios, but drives the story forward through characters and the politics that pressure a budding Martian community
The Longer Review
RED MARS tells the story of the first 100 scientists sent to Mars by a multi-national Earth entity called UNOMA, United Nations of Martian Affairs. The story PG-13 (for some sexual content) follows about 10 of those scientists closely, though many others are referred to and are part of the action in direct and indirect ways. The novel is broken up into eight parts and each of the parts has a different primary narrator. I do think Robinson’s choice on point of view works in a novel this long, adding a level of complexity and depth to the very audacious idea that Mars might be “tamed” by human beings. Robinson plays with themes around the idea that really smart people might be able to build a better civilization from scratch, and form some kind of utopia, but does not make the task easy on the idealogues within his story.
Various characters, all of whom are scientists in one discipline or another, give voice to ideas of alternative governing and living environments. The sharing of abundant resources is the initial reality for the first 100, but eventually, when new groups arrive on Mars, the corporations who have funded the exploration and building, come calling for the planet’s vast natural resources.
The conflict that arises is somewhat predictable and draws out the best and worst of the people in charge who are trying to manage a fragile, but quickly expanding human presence on Mars.
Meanwhile, Earth is falling into total chaos. Robinson does not spend any time showing the reader Earth itself, but shows it via news stories viewed by the inhabitants of Mars. Earth’s chaos is also a reason why many thousands of migrants are streaming to the new world. Robinson does lean left in his politics (proudly so) and sees corporate giants as the villain, though the villain is also amorphous in the story. Robinson’s ideas don’t come across as preachy to me. He’s a deep thinker and a thoughtful writer, so he understands the grittiness of governing and the probable impossibility of building that utopia even if one does start with 100 brilliant scientists.
Many science fiction readers will not mind the length of RED MARS, but at times, I confess to being a bit bored and wondered…Where is this story going? However, I did stick it out and the payoff was decent. It stands alone as a novel, without the kind of cliffhangers that drive you to the second book. Will I read the next two books in the trilogy? Probably yes, but not this summer.
OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, A No Spoiler Review
OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, by CS Lewis came about as a result of a coin toss between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the 1930s. The understanding between the two men; one side of the coin would mean writing a science fiction novel, the other side would mean writing a time travel novel. The coin was tossed, Lewis was assigned the scifi novel. Tolkien was assigned the time travel novel. Tolkien never wrote his. Lewis did, published in 1938, twelve years before Narnia. In fact, he wound up writing three books of science fiction. OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, which I will review here, was the first. This story is sophisticated, but there is no reason a YA reader or a very learned middle grade reader cannot take on this story. For educators thinking about assigning this book to a young person, a solid discussion on the story would make the experience a profound one.
The Short Review: 4 Reasons to Read OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET
- Superb writing and because this is CS Lewis, when you’re finished reading, your brain will have expanded
- Scintillating ideas that awaken the conscience…Plunge yourself into the mindset of a WWI veteran and a brilliant observer of history and soak in Lewis’ crucial critique of pre-WWII Europe
- Absorb Lewis’ Christian concept of God/Creator…the beauty and the moral implications
- Gain a vision for the power of fiction (imaginative science fiction in particular) as a way to change hearts and minds.
A Few More Details:
When Lewis and his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkien, both veterans of WWI, decided to toss that coin, they had been musing together about the sad state of fiction. They believed that the godless universe theory unleashed to some degree by Darwinists and proponents of the Hegelian superstate/superman, was giving rise to real beliefs (like eugenics which both understood as dangerous and evil) inside academia and government. More troublesome, these theories were making their way into fiction and infecting the broader population through story.
Americans fought in WWII and helped to defeat Hitler, so my nation (I am a US citizen) often forgets how the eugenics movement in the US was accepted and backed by some of our highest state actors, like President Woodrow Wilson. We in the US forget, maybe conveniently so, that we too were traveling on a similar road as the Nazis. This is how pervasive these ideas were and back in that day, they were considered progressive. It turns out, anything can be labeled progressive. A cautionary and hopefully humbling reminder to us in the 21st century.
Marxist ideology was also suspect in Lewis’ eyes. Both Marxism and Fascism preached an exercising of power where the end justifies the means. That idea was an abomination to Lewis and Tolkien, the rejection of which made its ways into the Lord of Rings trilogy, as it did into all of Lewis’ writings. As Christians (Lewis, an Anglican, Tolkien, a Catholic), they challenged the idea that the state has permission to sacrifice an individual for some greater good, not without that individual willingly giving up her/his life, soldiers willing to fight to defeat the existential enemy of a free state being one example of this proper sacrifice, something both of these men witnessed first hand.
In regard to reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, knowing a little 20th century history and philosophy definitely helps the reader enter into the world of Elwin Ransom, the hero of the story, but even without that knowledge, this is a fascinating and well written tale. Ransom, a philologist, is on a walking tour of rural England. He is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (the planet Mars). What unfolds is a story about relationship and curiosity (Ransom’s journey) versus dominance exercised by violence (the journey of his kidnappers). The narrative provides a resolution that exemplifies the idea that there is a standard of justice that is literally universal.
This is my third time reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET (notice my beat-up copy in the image above…not sure it will survive another read-through) and after finishing the book this round, I found myself dreaming about grace and kindness and goodness while I slept…something that doesn’t often happen for me after reading science fiction before bed.
12 MONKEYS A No-Spoiler Review
My son is visiting Wisconsin and after work, we are alternatingly choosing films to watch together. Two nights ago, we watched a horror flick he chose called Hereditary, which was decent, not awesome, but was made by the same film company that produced Ex Machina(which I loved and realizing now, I have never reviewed this flick on my site…must amend).
Last night, we watched 12 MONKEYS on Amazon Prime for $3.99. This film would probably be rated PG-13 today. No sexual content really, just creepy apocalyptic tension. And wow! This is still an awesome film and has aged well. Today, I asked my GenZ kid…What do you think? Would most GenZers like this film?
It’s been a while since I’ve watched 12 MONKEYS, but given my vague memory of it, I thought…might be worth the time.
One pleasure, as an older film fan, was to remember Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt remarkably in the same film. Not sure it happened in any other, but what Terry Gilliam delivered on the screen between these two, was close to perfection. This is possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting and if you’re a fan, you’re gonna have to watch. A few images below underlie my point.
First, my Short Review: 4 Reasons You Want to Watch 12 MONKEYS
- Weird and dystopian tale, echoing Blade Runner in tone and style.
- One of Terry Gilliam’s masterpieces
- Possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting
- Bruce Willis playing his iconic gritty and misunderstood character
- Great storytelling
Just cannot get enough of these scenes, shots of these two iconic men, culture-impacting actors for the last 30 years.
The Longer Review
Sometimes when you re-watch a film like 12 MONKEYS, you wonder how it’s gonna age. As an older person, you think (because you have experienced this before), was I impressed because of something slightly superficial and trite, or was this film truly great? With this flick, you need not worry. 12 MONKEYS delivers on so many levels. First, it delivers on weirdness of setting, including its gritty urban reality. My son (25yo), who has watched Blade Runner understood the dystopian aesthetic of this world. He even commented on the similarity. That, in and of itself, makes me feel I am doing my job training up my children. Second, 12 MONKEYS delivers on story. There is a clear protagonist, a vaguely enormous villain (that proves to be more personal in the final scenes) and enough mystery to keep the audience in tension. Finally, there is weirdness and surprise and the best aspects of science fiction where the perspective being put forward from one or two of the characters absolutely blows up the assumptions and values of the audience. And, if nothing else, respect these images…bizarre and gorgeous. Terry Gilliam is a genius.
FOR ALL MANKIND, A No Spoiler Review
Apple Plus released its third season of FOR ALL MANKIND this month. I have not viewed any of the 3rd season but I did watch all of 1 and 2 and loved them. What follows will be the short review and a longer review of season 1 and 2. If you’re convinced by the short review…start watching now. If you need a little more data, the longer review will give you a better idea of why this many hours of consumption might be worth your time. The show is rated R for a few racy sex scenes, but if your young person can handle that, the education piece is interesting. A bit of history can be etched out or explained as some of the “alternative” version comes across the screen. It’s portrayal of communist USSR rings true. It also captures something of the spirit of the age for each decade, especially the urgency around the space race of the 1960s.
The Short Review: 6 Reasons I Recommend FOR ALL MANKIND
- If you love alternative history narratives like The Man in the High Castle, you will appreciate this story
- If you love nostalgia settings and music, think Stranger Things, you will love being immersed in this story-world, which starts in the 1960s, but spans decades.
- Most of us appreciate great casting. FOR ALL MANKIND will not disappoint
- Top-notch production value, this includes the writing, the special effects and the acting
- Good pacing. A lot of action, drama and tension throughout
- A thoughtful story. A sprinkling of social commentary for our current time…some of that commentary I liked, some I felt was contrived, but the ideas are worthy of our attention
The Longer Review: (this review contains a couple of small spoilers)
The USSR and the US are in a space race in this alternative history, set during the cold war. The USSR has landed on the moon first, claimed it as territory, and has aims to build a military compound. This traumatizes the US as a nation. The first episode captures the feeling well as it feels like a gut-punch watching the Soviet flag raised on the moon and hearing the first words of the Russian Cosmonaut as he takes the first steps…The Walter Cronkite figure on the television news reports as follows:
The first man to set foot on the moon spoke just moments ago. “I take this step for my country, for my people, and for the Marxist-Leninist way of life. Knowing that today is but one small step on a journey that someday will take us all to the stars.”
FOR ALL MANKIND was created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and Outlander), Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. They take the “what if Russia had landed on the moon before we did” scenario and create a similar history to our own, but with differences that intrigue. The writers, I surmise, are progressive in their leanings because progressive values make their way into the script and into a historically white male dominated NASA long before reality. Sometimes, it feels heavy-handed, like the writers are checking the boxes of gender and racial diversity. However, the results do make for a delightfully diverse cast.
In episode 1, the audience meets Margo Madison (pictured above, played by Wrenn Schmidt) at the beginning point of her NASA career where she is the only woman in the male dominated control center. By season 2, she emerges as NASA’s head.
By the finale of season 2, women, a couple of non-binary individuals (though they keep their gender preferences a secret), African Americans and even a Mexican female immigrant who came over the border illegally as a child, are recruited by the NASA of FOR ALL MANKIND. And who can say it might not have been this way had the US felt the pressure of its failure to land first on the moon? Also, the Soviets promote the first female astronaut, shaming the US for its lack of representation.
All the characters are well-drawn and most are courageous and longsuffering in various ways. Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Hanna and Altered Carbon) plays Ed Baldwin, an astronaut with a big mouth who in a drunken state reveals to a reporter how NASA lost the space race because of an aversion to risk. He is punished for the reveal (taken off astronaut duty and given a desk job), but his words capture NASA’s very real dilemma. In order to stay equal to, or to get ahead of the USSR, risks will have to be taken. Many characters of significance will lose their lives to achieve the elusive prize of space dominance.
This is where the series gives commentary on current society as it poses the questions that plague our century…Who will dominate the future? US and free societies (in general) have dominated the global order since WWII, but that prize came at a great cost to many of our ancestors. We have inherited something hard fought, but that inheritance is being challenged and chipped away by those who see themselves as more deserving of dominance…and perhaps they are, but some moments in history, even national failures, have the capacity to motivate a new generation of warriors. That message shines through in FOR ALL MANKIND.
ONE SECOND AFTER, A No-Spoiler Review of the Novel, by William R. Forstchen
My son handed me this paperback during the pandemic. Here, Mom. I think you’d like this book. I read at night before bed. This book gave me nightmares. If you have a teen who loves dystopian fiction he/she might like the book. The main character is a man, but there are young people who play prominent roles as society unravels.
For educators, this book is a fascinating study of civilization as the US is attacked and falls apart. It has potential to lead to fruitful conversations about the US constitution. We often take for granted aspects of our rights, but rights are not easily preserved when society unravels. They are hard to maintain and ensure and leaders make hard choices to reward those who live by the law, and hard choices to punish those who reject it. All that is in this book in a stark way. Great discussion fodder.
I did like this novel, mostly. Here are 5 Reason I recommend ONE SECOND AFTER
- Decent storytelling and an interesting unique setting
- A thoughtful and action-oriented main character, mostly well-written, though the story is so male-centric, I cringed here and there
- A frightening premise that a few “experts” have warned is a real-world possibility
- Page-turning tension
- This book caused me to reflect on how our quality of life/health depends on meds and how rights we assume are dependent on civilization upholding those rights by manner of the law
To buy this novel, click on One Second After
And now for my longer review…
ONE SECOND AFTER, rated PG for some violence, is the story of a mountain community outside of Asheville, North Carolina post EMP attack. In this story, multiple electromagnetic pulse weapons are discharged in the atmosphere above the US, frying all electronics/microchips, etc. Thousands of planes crash, including Air Force 1, killing the president and his entourage…cars stop working (except for the older ones that have no electronic parts) and all modern forms of communication break down, including radio. Add to that no computers, no cell coverage, no refrigeration, no transportation, no heat or cooling, and you put most of the population on a quick path to discomfort, starvation, disease and lawlessness. This story is The Walking Dead, but without the zombies (unless you put desperate people willing to eat human flesh to survive in the same category as zombies).
I did watch most of the The Walking Dead and it became clear after a few seasons that the zombies were not the ones keeping humanity from becoming civilized again, it was regular “alive” people with education and supposed morality who were often the worst perpetrators of horrors. This novel follows the same vein.
The characters I found most interesting were those who tried to lead the group with some semblance of morality and decency. Sometimes, those characters felt a little contrived, but most of the time, I believed they could exist in the real world and appreciated how they were tempted regularly to abandon the Constitution, rights, and a sense of justice. Running a mini-dictatorship made more sense than all the work involved in self-governing, yet they persisted.
One poignant reality in the novel world is that because all trade has come to a standstill, there are no new meds to “take care of” human problems. Everything from a small cut, to heart disease, rotting teeth and diabetes have the potential to be a death sentence. Eventually, mental health is also a part of the discussion when the town elders realize that they might have to imprison or restrain those who might endure psychotic breaks from reality. So many people die in this story, but most die from either starvation or from lack of medicine. An interesting reality to ponder.
WIDOWLAND A No Spoiler Review of the Novel
Five Reasons I recommend WIDOWLAND, by C.J. Carey
- Excellent pacing and page-turning tension
- A young female hero who comes into her agency in a believable way
- Legit world-building of a bleak UK governed by Nazis
- The writing around the sexual relationships feels vital and true (more on this in the longer review)
- Given the consistent point of view and straightforward timeline, I’m guessing this would make a great audiobook
To purchase WIDOWLAND, click here
The Longer Review…
To control the past, they edited history. To control the future, they edited literature.
WIDOWLAND is an alternative history novel, set in London, 1953. This story would probably carry a PG-13 rating because of the sexual relationships although none of the sex scenes were explicit. For this reason, I wavered on the rating. Overall, the main sex scene was tastefully, even beautifully handled in terms of the emotional weight it carries within the story. Mature teens could handle this book. In fact, it might appeal to many female YA readers because the protagonist is a woman in her twenties.
For educators, WIDOWLAND provides a unique picture of what a society imagined by the Nazis might look like and feel like. Great fodder for discussion. Moveover, it portrays (accurately so) literature as a disrupter of those who broker power.
In this alternative history, Germany has invaded the UK and Hitler rules over it as a protectorate. The coronation of Edward the VIII (Queen Elizabeth’s uncle) and the American divorcee, Queen Wallis, is taking place soon. Significant because The Leader, Hitler himself will descend on London for the celebration. The soon-to-be King and Queen of England are collaborators with the Nazis, based on an actual historical and private meeting that took place between the Edward and Hitler at the Berghof in 1937. (No record of the meeting has survived).
The story, told in close third person by the main character, Rose Ransom, opens with a description of London preparing for the coronation. Through Rose’s eyes, the world unfolds. The reader quickly understands, that although Rose holds little power in the system, she sits at the top of the subjugated population as a Geli. She is young and her view of reality is sometimes naive and not always reliable, but the discoveries she makes along the way are a part of how Carey maintains tension in the story. The reader senses the danger she does not.
This is a story about a woman and about women living under Nazi occupation. Carey could have gone overboard painting the world, but deftly focuses the reader’s attention on the kind of oppression that exists in England for the vulnerable. The elderly, women and widows in particular, suffer under the yoke of the Nazis. She highlights the caste system which categorizes the “utility” of women. In this early excerpt, the reader begins to understand Carey’s 1953 London.
Members of the first and elite caste were popularly called Gelis after the woman most loved by the Leader, his niece Geli. Klaras–after the Leader’s mother–were fertile women who had produced, ideally, four or more children. Lenis were professional women, such as office workers and actresses, after Leni Riefenstahl, the regime’s chief film director. Paulas, names after the Leader’s sister, were in the caring professions, teachers and nurses, whereas Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees and Gretls did the grunt work as kitchen and domestic staff. There was a range of other designations–for nuns, disabled mothers and midwives–but right at the bottom of the hierarchy came the category called Friedas. It was a diminutive of the nickname Friedhöfefrauen–cemetary women. These were the widows and spinsters of over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man.
There was nothing lower than that.
Rose first runs into trouble when the Cultural Commissioner of the UK Protectorate asks that she help him solve a mystery. She is to venture into Widowland and spy on a group of Friedas. An uprising is bubbling to the surface in London right as Hitler is set to arrive. These disempowered women are the suspected Nazi resisters. The clock is ticking and Rose’s big boss makes known to her that more than just her job is on the line if she fails.
What unfolds is a story of discovery for Rose and choices that will impact many.
One comment about the sexual relationships in this novel. The sex is not explicit. There is an implied disorder to the relationship between Rose and her lover, who is twenty-five years her senior. The power dynamics and how German men use power to procure beautiful young women is a part of the world these characters inhabit and is taken for granted in the novel world. However, the author adds a scene that is emblematic of sex within a loving relationship. The revelation that comes to Rose and the writing around this encounter are so poignant and beautiful, I will remember this passage of writing for a long time.
KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece
As I have said before and hope to repeat for many years to come, NETFLIX is taking the cake when it comes to combing through international productions and finding top-notch stories.
KINGDOM is brilliant.
Rated R for violence. No sexually explicit content at all. Not even a kiss. And yes, this is a zombie story, but with a twist, which I’ll explain in my longer review. However, be prepared for gore. I watched 2 seasons, but apparently a 3rd is being made to be released in early 2021.
First, the short review…
6 Reasons I Recommend KINGDOM
- Game of Thrones meets the Walking Dead. If the two stories got together and had a child, KINGDOM would be that child.
- Gorgeous costumes, especially the hats
- Palace intrigue galore
- Amazing performances by talented actors many of us have never seen
- A refreshingly different setting and world
- Lots of “scare” moments where you jump out of your seat. These filmmakers know the tropes and use them well.
Now, for the longer review…
The story is based loosely on the Manga series, The Kingdom of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee and Yang Kyung-il. The story for television was written by Kim Eun-hee, directed by Kim Seong-hun.
Set in late 16th century Korea (The Joseon Period), Crown Prince Lee Chang, our protagonist, discovers a plot to unseat him. His father is ill and dying and the Queen Consort (not the Prince’s mother) is pregnant with a son…potentially. She and her father are angling for this newborn to take the throne. However, the King must not die from his illness before this child is born, so the the palace doctors are asked to keep him alive at all costs. There is an herb, called the resurrection plant, that must be administered to him in a particular way at death. From this herb, the brain comes back to life, but the creature that resides in the body now has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Thus, the zombie angle.
The audience is introduced to this creature, the King in the first episode, so no spoilers here. The King is not only a zombie ready to devour any attendant who comes his way, he is being controlled, in chains, by the Queen’s family. She bans the Crowned Prince from seeing his father and although he suspects the King is dead, he cannot prove it. Knowing his life is in danger without his father’s protection, the Crowned Prince flees and while he goes into hiding, the zombie plague is carried to a small village through a body in a coffin, whose death was caused by the King creature.
As the Zombie plague spreads and begins to ravage the region, the Prince comes into his own, fighting to protect his people, but this is a complicated two-front war. The Prince is being chased by his step mother’s clan while fighting the zombie masses. While on the countryside, he slowly unravels the mystery surrounding the condition of his father and does eventually come back to the palace, face to face with the creature. I say no more, lest I spoil…
A few of the secondary characters that emerge are wonderful and as compelling as the Prince and the Queen, including the Prince’s bodyguard, a nurse who escapes the scene of the first zombie outbreak, a perfect villain in the Father of the Queen (although the Queen gives him a run for his money on that score), and a rogue hunter who eventually aligns himself with the Prince.
I loved the writing, all the dialogue is perfect and no scene is wasted. KINGDOM often reminded of Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular…That is how well put together these characters are and the stage is…well, many lovely locations in South Korea.
I cannot recommend this series highly enough. If you do watch it, drop me a line and let me know what you thought of it.
To watch the official trailer, click KINGDOM trailer
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, A No Spoiler Review of the Amazon Prime TV Series
I recently finished viewing all 4 seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and loved it. Also…I know I’m a little late to the game, but it’s hard to keep up, especially if you’re trying to read and watch scifi! There’s a lot of good content out there in the multiverse. I give this story a PG 13 rating, so be warned, parents.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is not a new story, but it was imagined anew by creator Frank Spotnitz for our era. It is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name (which I have not yet read, but will soon because I enjoyed the series so much). Dick’s daughter was involved in the production of the tv version, overseeing her father’s vision.
This story is less science fiction in the traditional sense and more alternative history. Dick wrote THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE after being inspired by the novel Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, whose novel is an alternative history of the US where the Confederate States win the Civil War. In Dick’s novel, the Axis powers win World War II. First, the short review:
5 Reasons I Recommend THE MAN IN HIGH CASTLE
- Superb storytelling…I was surprised at how well the writer(s) kept me engaged, including the pacing over 4 seasons. Bravo!
- Spot-on performances. A brilliant portrayal of John Smith, an American/Nazi leader, by Rufus Sewell. Also, a powerful female hero in Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos)
- A satisfying enough ending (will say no more lest I spoil)
- Pushing characters to their limits and not turning away from human dilemmas like: How far would you go to protect your family? Would you kill a person in cold blood if you know they will be responsible for death and mayhem in the future?
- Finally, if you find history a bore, consider jump-starting your learning via consuming smart fiction, like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. World War II was a fascinating and dark time in world history with reverberations reaching into our current era, more than we might think. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE gives the audience an intimate view into the characters of the day, many of whom are real historical people, but if not real, the fictional characters help the audience understand the zeitgeist of the time.
I appreciated and enjoyed all four seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, but my favorite seasons were 3 and 4. Seasons 3 and 4 put forward the more complex moral and philosophical questions around Nazism, occupation and the kind of determination that it takes to defeat evil. I still appreciated season 1 and 2. The moral framework was being laid, the true heroes were being defined, but by season 3, defeating evil in our midst becomes the clear goal. It will require dedication, resilience and the broader community…something I feel to be true throughout history. Unlikely allies come together to defeat evil.
In that sense, I found the series remarkably relevant. Dick is playing with alternative histories in this story and Spotnitz (credit for the screenplay/creator goes alone to Frank Spotnitz on the show’s Wikipedia page) was able to put forward a world that in many respects, felt as real as the news I see on my screen on any given day. Before Covid19 and George Floyd protests…in this series (in the book, I assume as well) memorials, monuments and statues are blown up, taken down, destroyed. That was interesting for me to ponder.
In THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, those taking down the monuments are Nazis, determined to wipe out American history and recreate their own version of history that will be imposed on Americans. One character spells out the reason, “Once we wipe out their narrative, it will help them accept our narrative, the Nazi narrative.” The Nazis empower the young people in the US to riot and do violence to any who try to protect the monuments.
I would hesitate to make a moral statement about those who have defaced monuments in our cities in these last months, but I did find it fascinating to see this portrayal, non political, I assume because the screenplay was written long before our recent protests. How would those scenes be written today? I wonder…
To counter that narrative that “good ‘ol America just needs to be reclaimed”, the Black Communist Rebellion becomes an important power in the final season. Those characters are drawn in a way that is multi-faceted and dignifying. The series touches on Civil Rights era injustices while highlighting the Nazi take on black skin, which is horrifying and includes the sterilization of young black women. The audience sees the “graded” evil of racism.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not justify white supremacy. It tries, I think, to highlight its evil and does not let white America off the hook. Like I said…this is a complex narrative and, to give Dick credit, it was written in the early 1960s.
In the series, the Axis powers have split the US into three zones. The Japanese rule that which is West of Rockies. The East is ruled by the Nazis and in an attempt to keep these powers from eating each other, the middle of the US is neutral. Juliana Crain is a San Francisco native, so plenty of Northern California sites on screen, including the supremely gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
I was gratified to get a view into the Japanese Imperial rulership over the Western US in a way that capitalized on few or no stereotypes. One sees and feels the brutal nature of the Japanese occupiers, but also the complex politics between Japan and Germany (both superpowers in this universe) and the grace and gentleness of some aspects of Japanese culture. There are Japanese who brutally murder and there are Japanese who feel deep compassion to the point of aiding the rebellion. That is a helpful juxtaposition and I believe a true one when it comes to human dynamics during a time of war. Building an empire leads to big messes and horrible violence. It also drives human beings to act with sacrifice and heroism. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not shy away from the complexities of warfare and empire building and for that reason, it deepened my understanding of a complex historical time.
Grit, hope, despair and horrible evil are all captured in this story, but what emerges most prominently in narrative are deep truths about what is right, just and good. This story is one for our time. I encourage you to start watching today.
THE CALCULATING STARS, A No Spoiler Review of the Novel:
THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal
A Short Review
I highly recommend reading or listening to this novel. Below are 4 reasons why I loved it…
- Lots of dynamic female characters, told in first person by a female pilot/mathematician
- Well-written prose, making it easy to read and enjoy
- The characters are well drawn and realistic, despite the fact that they’re intellectual superstars
- It portrays a healthy marital relationship (for once!). Sometimes, you just want the husband to not be a jerk, and in this novel, that is absolutely the case. *Elma and her husband also enjoy a dynamic sex life, which is why I give the book a PG-13 rating. Nothing terribly graphic, but there are a few heated encounters between husband and wife.
THE CALCULATING STARS is a part of the Lady Astronaut Series, by Kowal, which includes a short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars and another novel, The Fated Sky.
These stories emerge in an alternative history of Earth, focusing on the US Space program after a meteor plunges into the ocean off the coast of Maryland. The disaster strikes on March 3, 1952 and kills nearly all of the inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, including DC and most US government officials.
Kowal quickly frames the narrative from here. A meteorite of this magnitude will change the climate of the Earth forever. It is a matter of time (5-10 years) before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Nations must work together to relocate to another planet and on this front, women have to be trained alongside men, don’t they? That is the question around which the book pivots. This is the 1950s and not only does racism rear its head in the space program, so does sexism.
The main character, Elma York narrates the story in first person, and I liked her as narrator. She is ambitious and brilliant, but flawed enough to give the story tension.
Elma is not only a renowned mathematician, she is also an experienced pilot, having flown for the WASPs in WWII. Her husband becomes the lead engineer of the new space program. Elma is recruited as one of the computers, seemingly an acceptable “role” for women in the new space venture (think Hidden Figures), but her real hope is to convince the NACA bosses that women are just as able to fly into space as men.
THE CALCULATING STARS won the 2019 Nebula for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Scifi Novel, the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel and the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
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