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All Dystopian Fiction Coverage

At its heart, Vauhini Vara’s twisty, thoughtful debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a fascinating alternate history and eerily plausible imagined future of the internet—and the tech corporations that have shaped it. With a sureness to her prose and a sharp eye for the tiny details that shape human lives, Vara, who has worked as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as a business editor for The New Yorker, combines three distinct storylines into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.

Though the entire novel is narrated by Athena, the 17-year-old daughter of the most successful tech genius the world has ever seen, it shifts among three timelines. In a small village in 1950s India, King Rao, who will eventually become the most powerful man in the world, longs for a sense of belonging while growing up on his Dalit family’s sprawling coconut plantation. In 1970s Seattle, newly arrived in the U.S. for graduate school, King invents the device that will change the world forever: the Coconut computer. And in some unspecified near-future, a single corporation holds sway over the world’s citizens, who are referred to as Shareholders, and an all-powerful Board of Directors has expanded to replace all world governments. Within this imagined future, Athena recounts the events that led to her being imprisoned for her father’s murder.

This future is effortlessly believable, with irreversible global warming known as “Hothouse Earth,” capitalism running rampant, an unstoppable megacorp similar to an Apple-Google hybrid, and a mysterious computer algorithm controlling all aspects of public and private life. Yet for all its brilliant scope, The Immortal King Rao is also an intimate character study, offering an unflinching, close-up look at the complicated bonds of families.

There are no simple relationships in this book, and few moral absolutes. King is a ruthless, larger-than-life genius, but he’s also a scared, confused kid, a doting father and a lonely 20-something adrift in an unfamiliar world. As Athena pores over her memories of King—and parses through his memoirs, gifted directly to her brain through his final invention—she begins to understand all of these interlocking and sometimes contradictory pieces of him. What emerges is a remarkably tender and continually unpredictable story about familial and romantic love, ambition and greed, alienation and revolution, and one man’s unquenchable desire to leave a lasting mark on the world.

Satirical and heartbreaking, packed with historical detail and flawless dystopian world building, The Immortal King Rao is a striking multigenerational epic that tackles—and offers a surprising answer to—that age-old question: What are we here for?

In her striking multigenerational epic, Vauhini Vara combines three distinct stories into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.

There is no shortage of parenting books about how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel, The School for Good Mothers, will make you want to throw them all out the window.

Chan’s protagonist, 39-year-old Frida Liu, is kind, smart, hardworking and beautiful. She is also divorced from a cheating husband and the mother of 1-year-old Harriet, who is her world. Overworked, overwhelmed and unsupported, Frida has a very bad day that changes the course of her entire life.

This single moment of poor parenting lands Frida in a type of detention center, housed on a former university campus. Imagine The Breakfast Club, only it’s 365 days long, cut off from the rest of the world and filled with mothers who have been penalized by the government for making questionable choices. Right away, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime.

The plot thickens when the reform school starts seeming more and more like a prison. The guards, the uniforms, the rigorous daily classes on mothering, the therapy sessions, the robots (yes, robots)—it all seems so preposterous, so over-the-top. Maybe even humorous. That is, until you realize that it’s all grounded in our culture’s absurd expectations that mothers should be superheroes.

Throughout Frida’s story, Chan intertwines supporting characters who are just as interesting, thrilling and desperate as she is. You will catch yourself laughing one minute and shaking your fist the next, demanding that we change the narrative of contemporary motherhood.

If good writing, gripping plot and provocative questions about the world we live in are your priorities, then The School for Good Mothers needs to be on your reading list, whether or not you are a parent, or someday want to be.

There is no shortage of parenting books on how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel will make you want to throw them all out the window.

Natashia Deón’s The Perishing is a dark, gritty and slow-burning mystery involving an immortal protagonist.

In Depression-era Los Angeles, a Black girl wakes up naked and alone in a downtown alleyway. She doesn’t know who she is, not even her name. Her body and mind are bruised but not broken, her origins a mystery. She’s placed with a Black foster family, and her foster mother suggests the name Louise, which gets shortened to Lou.

Lou may not remember her previous life, but her intelligence and talent are evident. She goes to high school and becomes a trailblazing journalist at the Los Angeles Times. But her feelings are divided; she vaguely thinks there might be a birth family out there for her, and a face continually haunts her, showing up in her sketches and dreams.

This is just one part of a story that hops between various time periods, including the future. As an immortal being, the woman known as Lou has lived many lives and has seen many things. Her storytelling is peppered with social observations and grim philosophical pronouncements about gender, race and the inhumanity of humankind. “We fight among ourselves in this village of earth,” she says, “wars to maintain elitism and its bounty, wars we should have never been fighting, where both winners and losers are traumatized and not just in war. But in love.”

The 1930s mystery of Lou’s family is a throughline in each era, as are recurrent themes of death and despair. As a new reporter, Lou’s beat is to report on the “tragic deaths of colored people,” and death touches her on a more personal level as well. In 2102, now named Sarah Shipley, the protagonist finds herself on trial. Acting as her own attorney, she pleads not guilty. “He got what he deserved,” she says. “I can defend all my lives. . . . And anyway, no woman kills unless in self-defense. If not in defense of a current wrong, for all the wrongs that came before without justice.”

Deón’s writing is beautiful, with a rat-a-tat quality, like brutal poetry mixed with fierce prose. The noirish plot is sometimes hard to penetrate, but fans of challenging and ambitious speculative fiction should be pleased.

Natashia Deón’s The Perishing is a dark, gritty and slow-burning mystery involving time travel and multiple lives.

In the circumscribed dystopia of Laura Maylene Walter’s debut novel, Body of Stars, markings on girls’ bodies tell their futures, but one young woman learns to navigate in a new way—by using herself as constellation.

Celeste’s society operates under the rubric of a book titled Mapping the Future: An Interpretive Guide to Women and Girls, and the novel unfolds between excerpts and illustrations from this official guide. Hiding the markings is against the rules, even though the “changeling” markings on adolescents, before they finalize into adult markings, render the girls vulnerable to abduction. Girls are drugged and raped, and images of their markings are sold on black markets. Afterward, the girls are shunned.

The marks on teenager Celeste’s skin indicate that she will work with her brother, Miles, who has spent his whole life learning to read markings, a career forbidden to him because he’s a man. At first, Celeste is, like most girls, careful to fall in line with the plan laid out for her on her skin. But as she grows up, she questions the guide’s wisdom and wants to keep her markings private. By the time she is a changeling, Celeste commits to addressing the dangerous and too-common threat of abduction. When she receives her adult markings, she learns that her fate aligns with Miles’ in tragedy and hope.

The book’s fantastical premise is just distanced enough from reality to make Celeste’s story a tantalizing escape, and yet close enough that its implications are convincing. The characters are down-to-earth, average people, and both men and women face real gender challenges and work together to overcome them. The book’s palpable anger at injustice is met with love—a fierce, familial and able challenger. This is an exciting debut that fans of Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks will want to check out.

In the circumscribed dystopia of Laura Maylene Walter’s debut novel, Body of Stars, markings on girls’ bodies tell their futures, but one young woman learns to navigate in a new way—by using herself as constellation.

This ain’t no Louis L’Amour tale of the Wild West. Outlawed, the third novel by Anna North, is a gender-bending, genre-hopping yarn that’s part frontier novel, part Handmaid’s Tale and all ripsnorting fun.

North’s tale is set in a world in which women are expected to procreate and are persecuted if they don’t. Furthermore, a devastating flu-like illness has killed nine out of every 10 people. The women who survive and remain fruitful, it’s said, will be spared further sickness. Unfortunately, 18-year-old Ada, who assists her mother as a midwife, fails to bear a child for her husband after a year of marriage. Accused of witchcraft, she flees to a convent to atone for her “sin” but then learns of a place that may be more fitting, known as the Hole in the Wall.

It turns out to be less of a place and more of a cultlike gang of fellow outcast women. The leader of the group, who is regarded as “Not he, not she,” but simply the Kid, promises to build a nation of the “dispossessed, where we would not be barren women, but kings.” At first Ada is received with suspicion and skepticism, but when the Kid needs a doctor, her skills as a midwife and familiarity with medicines make her a useful addition to their clique. Before long, the Kid becomes a mentor figure to Ada, teaching her to ride, shoot and fight, while preaching the gospel of Christianity.

The novel takes its time in establishing the world and its characters, in particular Ada’s place in her new nonbinary world. But once the setup is complete, North picks up the pace with the Kid’s plan to rob a bank and, in doing so, take over an entire town. Ada becomes the tiebreaking vote among the gang in favor of the Kid’s plans, giving way to more customary Western shootout action against the sheriff who has been pursuing Ada from the start.

North, a renowned journalist who won a 2016 Lambda Literary Award for her novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, easily subverts expectations as her characters struggle to find their identites in a patriarchal world.

This ain’t no Louis L’Amour tale of the Wild West. Outlawed, the third novel by Anna North, is a gender-bending, genre-hopping yarn that’s part frontier novel, part Handmaid’s Tale and all ripsnorting fun.

One must wonder while reading Fiona King Foster’s first novel, who is truly the captive? Is it fugitive Stephen Cawley, who spends the majority of the novel bound with rope and twist-ties, or is it protagonist Brooke Holland, who seems trapped by her past misdeeds? There is no easy answer, which makes the novel so beguiling.

The Captive is part adventure novel and part crime novel, set in a dystopian landscape where cellphones, the internet and vehicles are available to only certain people, particularly those in Federal-run cities. We slowly learn that Brooke is hiding a dark past from even her husband, Milo, and daughters, Holly and Sal. When she gets word that Stephen and his gang may be in the area, she immediately goes on high alert, certain that he has tracked her down and come to exact his revenge on her.

Brooke gets the drop on Stephen when he shows up at her rural cranberry farm, quickly overpowering him. Afraid the rest of his clan might not be far behind, she mobilizes her family, and together they set out on a punishing hike over rugged terrain, traversing more than a hundred miles to the nearest town, where she can turn Stephen over to the sheriff’s office and collect the reward.

Foster keeps the tension high as Brooke refuses to reveal why Stephen is so dangerous and why she is so hellbent on bringing him to justice. You have to admire Brooke’s determination and sense of concern for her family, but also Milo’s ability to keep it together as he tries to support Brooke and quell the kids’ simmering rebellion over her lack of answers. This initial stonewalling is, admittedly, a bit frustrating for readers as well, but as a credit to Foster’s writing, she effectively keeps readers in suspense all the way through.

One must wonder while reading Fiona King Foster’s first novel, who is truly the captive? Is it fugitive Stephen Cawley, who spends the majority of the novel bound with rope and twist-ties, or is it protagonist Brooke Holland, who seems trapped by her past misdeeds? There is no easy answer, which makes the novel so beguiling.

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