Books: Two Dystopian Novels that could take place now: “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Water Knife”

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I wasn’t reading any books in the mid to late 1980s being too busy birthing children and working so I missed Margaret Atwood’s eerily compelling story of a completely male dominated society.  Because I wanted to watch the new HULU series based on the book (and am a firm believer of reading the book before the TV show/movie), I picked up this classic and wasn’t disappointed.  Like 1984 and Brave New World, the Handmaid’s Tale warns us of what might occur if we continue along the path we are on and it is terrifying.

In the case of the novel, some sort of event has created a United States with radioactive “colonies” and safer religious centers ruled by men with the female population having been subjugated.  Women can’t vote, have jobs or a bank account and are divided into several classes.  The Handmaidens who dress in red are assigned to wealthy couples to have sex with the male, get pregnant and hand over the child to the wife. The Wives dress in blue and seem to spend their time at home gardening and knitting.  The “Martha’s” dress in green, are infertile and assigned to be servants.  Other “Unwomen” are sent to nuclear decimated “colonies” to help out until the radiation kills them.  Gays and Lesbians are executed.  There is a great deal of praying.

The book takes place in Gilead which is Boston and it is suggested that the reason society has changed is because of the feminism that arose in the 1970s.  The religious right has taken over and infertility is an issue due to environmental issues created by whatever event changed the political landscape.  The event that caused the catastrophic physical changes to the United States is never explained but the it doesn’t matter as the novel has enough to cover exploring the aftermath.  How each of these characters try to survive in this environment along with the hints of a rebellion are enough to make this book intriguing.

The Handmaid’s tale is not the most well written book you’ll read nor are all the characters sufficiently flushed out but it has had a resurgence in the last few months due to the current political climate and the story being brought to the small screen.  Many readers, including myself, will be horrified by the concept of this novel but it is well worth reading and then seeing the TV show.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

For those of use living in Arizona, the Water knife is not a far-fetched dystopian novel.  We only hope it doesn’t describe something that will take place in our lifetime.  Picture the Southwest after a long drought and a fight between California, Arizona and Nevada to get what little water is left in the Colorado. Politicians and their private armies control water access and allow certain cities just to dry up.  This is the world of the “Water Knife”,  Angel Velasquez who works for Catherine Case, the Las Vegas woman who controls the water for her area.  Angel’s job is to get water no matter how it happens.  A former gang member with tattoos covering his entire body, Angel is a star at his job. In the course of his duties, he seems to either be murdering people or having them trying to eliminate him. He meets Lucy, a female journalist and Marie, an immigrant from Texas along the way and these characters become instrumental in Angel keeping one step ahead of death.

I’ll be honest, I was listening to this book on CDs in the car and found it to be confusing.  Granted, I had to focus on driving but I always have an audio book playing so am reasonably adept in paying attention to the books and driving at the same time.  It wasn’t until the last couple of CDs that I seemed to be on top of the various plots.  I thought the book bounced all over the place and the multitude of characters and story lines at the beginning didn’t matter much by the end.  I guess the Water Knife is a combination Sy Fy, thriller, mystery but there is a lot of violence and hoping around that I didn’t care for.  I also felt the end was contrived and disappointing given the events leading up to the final chapter.   Despite all that, it is a scary potential reality for a large section of the US and worth reading for anyone living in this area.

TV: Mary Kills People, Catastrophe, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Genius, Feud and Bates Motel

 

Premiers:

Mary kills People (Lifetime)

I never thought I would watch a Lifetime show but this one received reasonably good reviews so I gave it a go.  After all, how much worse could a show about Assisted Suicide be after just getting through “13 Reasons Why”?  Mary is a divorced doctor who with the help of another M.D. provides terminally ill patients with a cocktail of lethal drugs to end their misery.  She and her partner get the names at the hospital they work at and believe they are providing a humanitarian service.

The first episode was a quick 45 minutes and covered a botched suicide and the back stories of the two doctors who perform the assists.  There is plenty of action as Mary’s lesbian teenage daughter discovers her hidden stash of drugs and the doctors don’t realize they are in a potential race to escape from the authorities who are on to her activities. It all moved with pace and  good performances by the lead characters and I’m looking forward to the remaining five episodes.

Catastrophe (Amazon)

Amazon dropped the third season (6 thirty-minute shows) this past Friday and I immediately sat down and watched them all.  Catastrophe is a one of the new style comedies often referred to as a “dramedy” because they delve into some pretty difficult topics (e.g. depression, alcoholism, bi-polar, and breast cancer. are just some of the plot lines in shows of this genre that I watch) and Catastrophe is not an exception.  The third season, however, is much darker than the first two.

This series is about a couple, Sharon and Rob, who had a one night stand when Rob was on a business trip to London.  Sharon gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby and Rob moves to London to give marriage and fatherhood a shot.  The second season brings another pregnancy and highlights the difficulties of keeping a family together while utilizing humor to provide relief.  The third season adds more complexity and deeper problems to this goal of family unity.

I love Catastrophe but this was a tough season.  To top it off, Carrie Fisher had a minor role in the show (Rob’s mother) that she has just finished filming when she returned by plane to the US and had her heart attack.  The last episode reminds us just how great a comedian she was.  The show isn’t for everyone but if you like this genre and have missed it, check it out.  Because each season is only 3 hours, it is easy to catch up with, (or bag along the way) with little investment of your time.

The Handmaid’s Tale (HULU)

The first three episodes of the Handmaid’s tale dropped on Hulu last week and the remainder of the 10 episodes will appear on a weekly basis.  Unfortunately for me, that means a couple of months having to subscribe to Hulu although it is very easy to switch this service on and off.  The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel which I quickly read before I began the TV series.  It takes place in the not too distant future (since it was written in 1985 think “now” for more reasons than one) when all rights have been taken away from women who are no longer able to have jobs or bank accounts.  It is a world that the women never saw coming and has an eerie correlation to the current climate.

The women are confined to roles which are defined by the color of their dress.  The red dresses are for the Handmaids, those who are assigned to upper class men to be impregnated by them only to turn over the children to the men’s spouses.  There are also the women in the green dresses, the Marthas who are infertile and comprise the servant class.  The “gender traitors” (gays and lesbians) are sentenced to death as are the Unwomen who are slaves sent to the “colonies” (nuclear wastelands) to help out until they die. Of course, like in any dystopian tale, there are armed men everywhere keeping everyone in their appropriate place.

Elizabeth Moss is excellent in the starring role of Offred (of Fred) as is Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in what is possibly the best performance of her career.  Ann Dowd is marvelous as “Aunt Lily” who “trained” Offred to be a Handmaiden.  I loved the first three episodes and am looking forward to the rest.  So far, it is a real winner.  This is one worth checking out.

Fargo (FX)

Fargo Season 3 premiered recently and after two very good seasons, I was anxious to see what creator Noah Hawley has in store for us this year. Ewan McGregor plays two brothers (Emmitt and Ray), the first a big financial success and the other one a flop.   I didn’t love McGregor but did find the supporting characters played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ray’s girlfriend) and the terrific Carrie Coon as this season’s very competent police officer most engaging.

Fargo is not for everyone and the first two episodes of this season didn’t grab me in the same way as prior seasons so I’m not sure how I’ll find the rest of the series.  Maybe I’m just tired of the endless snow and the Minnesota accents but I’ll stick with it long enough to find out.  Fargo’s first two seasons left too much good will not to give the third a full run through.  Let’s hope that it isn’t another True Detective in that regard.

Genius (National Geographic)

I was disappointed by the first episode of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein’s life played by Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn (as the young Einstein) and directed by Ron Howard.  It jumped around a great deal and the dialogue was not particularly noteworthy or up to the level of the actors speaking the lines.  I didn’t come away with a real feel for Einstein’s motives and role in either the political or scientific world he existed in.  It was almost as if the writers were just trying to provide an Emmy winning role for Rush.  Maybe I expected too much from one episode so I’ll see how the next few episodes go in hopes that the show gets better.

Finales:

Feud (FX)

I found Feud to be hugely inconsistent in its portrayal of the “feud” between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  The first few episodes put me to sleep – literally – but the last few, beginning with the Oscar show were riveting.  Feud is Ryan Murphy’s one season follow-up anthology to last year’s brilliant “The People v OJ Simpson, American Crime Story” but isn’t at the same overall level.  Next year, Murphy will be doing Charles and Diana which could be fascinating.

In Feud, Jessica Lange stars as Joan Crawford and I think she pulls off the character better than Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis although both will likely get Emmy nominations.  Crawford comes off as the more tragic figure here and the story ends with her death.  Shortly before, there is a great dream sequence where Joan dreams that she and Davis reunite and become best friends.  It provides the series with a great “What if” to contemplate.  Feud is worthwhile TV but it just doesn’t have the overall quality that O.J. did.

Bates Motel (A&E)

I’m sorry to see Bates Motel go.  This was a very good show the last two seasons and a pretty good one for the first three seasons.  How Carlton Cuse and team could eek a 5-season prequel to Psycho is quite impressive as we all knew the endgame.  Freddie Highmore reached new acting heights as he played not only Norman but Norman playing Norma and Norman playing Norma playing Norman.  This show delivered to its audience and far exceeded what meager expectations were initially set for it.

As Norman descended into his deepest insanity over the last few episodes, there were glimmers at the end that he knew what reality he existed in and that carting the decomposing corpse of his mother around would not continue to be a viable option.  When Dylan shows up to help, it becomes clear to both that the only way out for Norman is death.  Leading up to that point, Dylan and his wife (played superbly by Olivia Cooke) have several emotional moments.  Vera Farmiga was wonderful for the entire five seasons as was Nestor Carbonell.

If you missed Bates the first go around, it’s worth checking out understanding that the first couple of seasons have some fits and starts as the creators work their way through how to make this story work most effectively given where Norma and her son end up.