Dystopian worlds; and a review of The Uninvited, Liz Jensen

I’ve read a few reviews of Revolution that have said it would be a more interesting show if (well, if several things, but the relevant one here is if) instead of starting fifteen years on from the blackout, it had a chronological plotline starting from the blackout. In fact (said these reviews), very few dystopian world pieces of media really show you how they got there. They’ll talk about how they got there, in greater or lesser degrees of detail, but that won’t be the plot of the story/show/movie/book.

There isn’t anything wrong with doing it this way, to be sure. The point of a dystopian setting is roughly the same as the point of many speculative fiction settings; i.e., to explore ideas about how to be a person means when the present-day understanding of the rules of personhood don’t apply. And it’s hard to write a book about the world as we know it changing to accommodate a new reality. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of very many — can you? There’s Life As We Knew It, which scared the poop out of me by coming off way too plausible, and there’s The Uninvited (more on that in a bit), and then…what else? Maybe zombie media do it? (I don’t really read zombie books much.)

The Uninvited is a book about the breakdown — slow at first, then faster and faster. It begins with a rash of incomprehensible deaths. Here and there across the country are reports of very young children killing their caretakers in shocking, brutal ways. But Hesketh Lock’s main concern is a series of apparently unrelated sabotage-suicide cases in various large-scale businesses. Each of the saboteurs claims that he was forced to act this way by young, malicious creatures of local legend — djinns in the Middle East, trolls in Scandinavia. As Hesketh tries to keep his loved ones safe from these new epidemics, he also struggles to understand the patterns and reasons that underlie the inexplicable changes to the world he lives in.

The build-up to the apocalypse (if, in light of the ending, that’s what you want to call it) is very good, very creepy. It starts small, one child, one murder; then shifts to the business investigations Hesketh is doing. The recurring elements in these investigations — the folklore, the sabotage, the suicide attempts — are disturbing in just the right measure. The saboteurs are claiming possession and then dying before they can say much more about it. Meanwhile, the child violence is spreading. Hesketh’s narrative voice is perfect for this. He is on the autism spectrum and is very attuned to patterns.

What worked best about The Uninvited (for me) was its relatively small focus. The details of the global catastrophe — the saboteurs bringing down construction sites, factories, airports, and so forth — kick off the book, but then they are mostly let go in favor of the pandemic of child violence; specifically, in favor of the aspects of the pandemic that directly affect Hesketh. Who has a young stepson called Freddie. It won’t be spoiling anything a sensible person wouldn’t guess to say that Freddie is affected — I won’t say to what degree — by whatever is affecting so many other children in this world. Around the edges of Hesketh’s single-minded focus on Freddie are the changes to the rest of the world. Emergency services are unable to keep up with all the cases of violence; infected (?) children wander the street in hierarchical gangs trying to avoid the vigilante justice of terrified adults. A few scientists are trying to study the children to figure out what has happened to them.

I liked it that the point of Hesketh wasn’t his autism spectrum disorder. The point of him — it turns out — is his fatherhood. He loves Freddie and will do anything for him. This isn’t something you see played out very often with autistic characters. In particular, I liked it that the book doesn’t depend on his being autistic. There are a lot of books where autistic narrators are used as the same brand of unreliable narrator as children — that the reader can see more than the narrator can about what’s really going on. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I’ve seen enough books that do it to where I’m a bit tired of it. It was refreshing that The Uninvited wasn’t that.

While the shift from normalcy to panic in the world works well, I didn’t think the shift from panic to the new normal was quite as well considered. You don’t get any real sense of what the world is going to be like with this new reality, neither on the grand scale nor on the small scale of just Hesketh and his family. The resolution of the mystery of the child violence was unsatisfying to me. It doesn’t hit you hard when Hesketh realizes what’s happening, and it hardly gets played out at all. It’s just sort of, My God, THIS is what’s happening. Fin.

So, the build-up was good, and the resolution not as good. It was fun for a change to see how the world turns into one of the postapocalyptic landscapes that seem to be all over our media these days.

Do y’all like seeing the world fall to bits in fiction, or do you like it better (as people must, I guess? since that’s what movies of this type tend to feature?) when the world has already fallen to bits and the people are settled into their new normal? Can you think of other examples of books/movies/shows where you see the adjustment? I seriously can’t think of any besides the Pfeffer book. GOD that book was scary.

I received an e-galley of The Uninvited for review through NetGalley.

18 thoughts on “Dystopian worlds; and a review of The Uninvited, Liz Jensen

  1. I prefer to see how the world ends up in these states, not what it looks like after. A lot of these dystopians create bizarre worlds, but I want to know how they got there. I must say that your discussion of this book, and Life as we knew it is really compelling, and I am aiming to read or listen to both of these and get back to you. My daughter and son read the latter, and said it was something amazing to see, but I haven’t yet read it. I clearly need to re-prioritize. Very enthralling dissection today, my friend!

    • Oh, Life As We Knew It is very good. It’s just too scary for me because it feels SO REAL. The beginning of the book feels a lot like the way people behave in the lead-up to hurricanes, so that contributed to how real it felt for me. Totally scary. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do read it; The Uninvited too!

  2. Sounds like a good read!

    and I like both kinds of stories, actually, and I think Revolution’s problems are much different. Like I don’t think that’s what makes it a bad show, lol. I mean The Walking Dead also skipped that and it’s a complete thrill ride.

    I read a series of Christian fiction books that are kind of like Revolution actually in that all the power goes out and it depicted the gradual breakdown. I think Survivors the British show showed the breakdown, although they might have skipped some time. Zombie books can do both–This Is Not a Test, Zom-B, Married with Zombies (lol) all start from the outbreak. But others like Mira Grant’s book show the future. So I guess I like both and enjoy both!

    • Hahahahaha, yeah, Revolution’s main problem is probably how awful Charlie is at everything. God she’s the worst. I cared about her so little I called her by a fake name she used in the show one time (Franny), because I wanted to call Billy Burke Charlie Swan. :p

      I didn’t know Survivors did that! Or maybe I did and I just forgot. I need to get on watching that. I’ve meant to for ages and just kept forgetting.

  3. That’s a really good point about dystopians. I can think of films that show how the world got to where it was, mostly ones that end at that point, but books… none. An example of a film, 2012.

    I suppose in this case just answering the question of what happened was seen as good enough, but when you read you want to know the details, especially when it’s such an issue. I like the sound of the way Hesketh is written and presented.

    • The way Hesketh is written was, to me, the strongest part of the novel. I feel like autistic characters have been showing up all over the place recently, but I do like for an autistic character to show up and not be ALL ABOUT his/her autism.

  4. I have a review copy of this book waiting for me, so I enjoyed reading your review. I agree that a small focus can be best in dystopian books, otherwise they risk getting bogged down in too many details and it can be hard to do global scale effectively.

    • Yes, although I would add that when an author does portray the global scale effectively, it’s damn impressive. It blows my mind when anyone’s able to do that. It’s such an undertaking.

  5. Your review makes me really want to read both Life As We Knew It and The Uninvited, so thanks for that! Both sound really intriguing. I haven’t read or seen many pieces of media that show the creation of the dystopian world instead of just starting in it, so I can’t state a preference. But I do find it frustrating when something set in a dystopian world doesn’t at least give a shallow explanation of how they got there.

    • I agree, although I think some shallow explanations hold up better than others. The Handmaid’s Tale has an explanation that I don’t think stands up to scrutiny, but it’s also got a premise that gets me where I live, so I don’t mind too much about how the premise gets arrived at. Something like Lauren Oliver’s Delirium seems…like a thing that would never, ever happen.

  6. A book that shows the breakdown of society: Ashfall by Mike Mullin. It starts with the main character happy that he has the house to himself all weekend, and then quickly spirals out of control when the Yellowstone volcano erupts. The non stop intensity of it reminded me of the Chaos Walking trilogy.

    I can’t say which I like more, seeing the world fall apart or seeing the results of past falling apart, but I find the former much more scary. Seeing things go from normal to apocalypse makes it all seem so probably and, yikes, what if that DID happen. And would I survive the initial foraging and chaos? I mean, that’s not such a hard question to answer: no, I most definitely would not. I have no apocalypse skills, not even reading Taro cards.

    • Ooooo, that sounds interesting! Adding it to the list!

      The former is way way scarier to me. By a LOT. A lot lot lot. That’s I guess why I asked the question — because I have read so few books that do it that way, and I’d like to try being scared that way again. To see if it’s too much for me across the board, or just in the one case of the Pfeffer book.

      I mostly think I wouldn’t survive the apocalypse because I have no foraging skills. I’d have to find some sort of protector who was great at hunting and foraging but very superstitious and in need of frequent Tarot card readings. :p

  7. Since it is written in the form of an oral history collection, Max Brooks’ World War Z, shows pretty much the whole sweep from various perspectives, from the start to the downfall to apocalypse to slow recovery (not a spoiler as the framing device lets you know that some people are still left alive – enough to compile an oral history from survivors.)

    I think Scott Westerfield’s Uglies trilogy discussed some of what led to the dystopia, but I’m not sure it explained all of the features.

    Justin Cronin’s The Passage has a first part that shows how the apocalypse got started and then it jumps forward in time to dystopia. I found it a bit disorienting.

    I like what you say about the main character’s autism and how it fits in. I’m not sure if this is a book I would like because murderous children seem to be a staple now of tv shows and movies, and I’m starting to feel the concept is getting tired – kind of how I feel about serial killers too. But, The Uninvited seems like it might be a bit different in the handling of that idea, so I am intrigued.

    • Ooooo. Oral history. That sounds wonderful. I’m going to get right on that as soon as the fifteen hundred people on the library waiting list give up and go home. (I’m joking but only sort of.)

      I think I am just missing out on all the murderous children media out there! Hence I’m not the best person to say whether it’s done differently here or not. It’s at least done differently than I’ve seen it done before?

      (I avoid serial killers not because it’s overdone but because serial killers are real and frightening. I like ghosty horror stories but I cannot handle serial killers.)

  8. I was very intrigued to hear about The Uninvited as I’d seen the book advertised in the UK. I’m not a huge fan of dystopian literature. I like books that work to mend things, and prefer satisfying resolutions and problem solving to just about anything else. It can just upset me to read about all these potential dreadful fates we are storing up for ourselves. However, the book your review reminded me of most is The Plague by Albert Camus. Same sort of autistic narrator/main protagonist, and a world descending into panic and chaos. I kept away from the novel for years because I thought it would upset me too much, but in fact it’s an incredible book, I think.

  9. I couldn’t agree more with you on this. The buildup was good, I loved the focus on Hesketh as a father, and the ending was not so good. Actually, in my opinion it was more like terrible (you’re nicer than me).

  10. Zombie fiction does tend to do so, even in passing. (Zombie film, not so much, because I think filmmakers are tapping into a history of zombies-as-social-metaphor, a la Romero, and don’t spend time on how it happened, since that’s not the point of the story.) World War Z, as an oral history, charts the rise of zombies from Patient Zero to the aftermath of the eponymous war. I think this comes from the fact that epidemiologists are an actual thing and it’s quite easy to track the spread of a disease; we’ve seen it before, but tracking a technologically-advanced society falling into ruin? Not so much.

  11. Pingback: Review: The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker; plus, a new term I coined and feel good about | Jenny's Books

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