Welcome to the Last Hour of Gann readalong. This post covers all of book I: Amber. If you have not read the book but intend to, move along lest you be spoiled. We’ll begin with a recap of the events, followed by our cogent literary analysis. (And by “cogent literary analysis” I really mean our fits of snark and squee.) This post is long. Feel free to grab an adult beverage and strap yourselves in. The spoilers start here, yo.
Amber Bierce’s mom has just died and she and her sister are being evicted from their home. Amber is the sort of person who gets things done, and so she lays out their options to her sister. They can either whore themselves, which is what their mom did, and which suits neither of them at all, or they can go on the state, which would involve being trapped in workhouses. Or they can join the manifestors, a group of people interested in colonizing other worlds. The Manifestors are considered whack jobs, but they’re rich whack jobs, and hey, they happen to need young women capable of bearing children. Nicci doesn’t want to consider her options, but Amber makes her hear them out and then feels horrible about having bullied her sister. Eventually, Nicci agrees to join the colony ship, and they both undergo a barrage of medical exams. Nicci is fine, but Amber is overweight, and the medics are concerned about her blood pressure. Having no other options, Amber visits the Candyman, one of her mother’s clients and a drug pusher. They haggle, and he gives her what amounts to a three-week regimen of Speed. The next medical exam turns out fine, but Amber hears the medic express some concerns about her to a colleague. The colleague advises the medic to clear her, saying it’s not their problem if the Sleepers on the ship don’t come in plus sizes. Amber and Nicci move into the colonists’ headquarters to await the ship’s taking off.
After an orientation period, they’re finally ready to leave Earth. The trip out to the waiting ship goes without incident, but the Bierces hit a snag when they find out they haven’t been roomed together in the family units. The crewman they’re speaking to, Everly Scott, is belligerent and refuses to do anything until Amber makes him get a supervisor. The supervisor assigns them to far more inferior quarters in the general population section,m then makes Scott escort them down. Amber and Scott continue to snipe at each other, but eventually both girls are put into sleep. The ship takes off, and crashes into some asteroids, killing all the active crew. The next thing the survivors are aware of is that they’ve crashed on an unknown world. Amber awakens from a dream of walking on the beach with her mother and hearing seagulls screaming to find that she is paralyzed. She begins to realize that the Sleeper is preventing her from movement, and that she is hearing the screaming of other passengers. Eventually, she is released from the sleeper. Venturing out of her cabin, she discovers that the ship around her is in ruins. She gets Nicci out of her compartment, but Nicci is still in shock and she strikes out at Amber, who does not defend herself. Eventually, Amber convinces Nicci to jump down to the ground so they can get away from the ship. She is able to rescue the one other survivor of their dorm, Ms. Alverez, who jumps away from the wreckage as well. Amber realizes that of the thousands of people in their dorm, she, Nicci and Ms. Alverez are the only survivors.
Amber and Nicci eventually find the rest of the survivors of the crash. There are about two thousand out of the 50,000 people that originally signed up. Amber sees Crewman Scott talking to a military [called the Fleet in this world] man and walks over to see what’s going on. The Fleet officer, Lieutenant Jonah Lamarc,
explains what happened. There are still large parts of the ship hidden underground. Lamarc and Scott have difficulty figuring out what to do. Lamarc wants to stay near the ship and build a colony where there are supplies and familiar things. Scott thinks they should scout out the territory. Amber agrees with Scott that they can’t stay with the ship and says she’ll go with Scott. Lamarc tells her he wishes she’d stay behind, and further admits that he’d like to sleep with her. Flattered, Amber tells him that she’ll hold him to it when they get back. Scott goes off in a huff to organize his scouting party, and Amber promises Lamarc she’ll be back, and asks him to take care of everyone.
Amber begins to root around for useful supplies. She’s joined by some Fleet officers who help her with the work. After packing what they can, they listen as Scott delivers a rousing speech about how people need to find pioneer spirit. Amber and the Fleet officers are distinctly unimpressed, but they join Scott’s scouting party anyway. After a grueling hike, Amber is exhausted. She takes a look around and counts heads. There are 48 people in this scouting party, including herself and Nicci. Nicci comes to tell her that Scott doesn’t like her and is thinking of sending her back. Amber remains uncowed, and says if Scott has a problem with her, he can suck it. She promises Nicci that she will always take care of her. Nicci screams that she doesn’t believe her and hates Amber for making her leave the planet, and storms off to be comforted by the other colonists while Amber helplessly watches.
That night, the camp is awakened by a loud roar. People speculate that the roar comes from dinosaurs. Amber tries to make amends with Scott by asking what he thinks they should do. They decide to see if they can find footprints. The small band of survivors gather up their supplies and trudge down to the lake, where they find nothing. Suddenly, Amber finds herself blown into the water. When she surfaces, she discovers that the remains of the ship are on fire. She stumbles to shore, finds Nicci, and with the other colonists they watch the ship burn.
1. What were your general impressions of the chapters so far? What do you think of Smith as a writer?
I am struggling mightily with some aspects of this book, but not the writing itself. Smith paints a picture of a world that is grim and hopeless. Everyone has a place, for better or worse, and castes are set in stone.
In some respects, I felt as though everything was happening way too fast. I suppose it’s natural to be thrown in, but that didn’t always work for me. I enjoy fast-paced novels, but this one just kind of picked me up and dragged me along for the ride without waiting to see if I could keep up. I would have liked to have expanded a bit on the funeral, for example.
I am not certain that Dystopian novels are my thing, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the world the girls are from is a bad, bad place, so bad that the terrible seems normal and what is beyond that is a fate worse than death. How are they even supposed to rise out of where they have been in the first place?
Also, I wish this book were available in audio. While I understand that Amber’s thoughts are chaotic and can appreciate Smith not using punctuation to illustrate that fact, it is driving me a little crazy.
I’ll be honest. I kind of expected the writing to be awful, so it really surprised me when Smith grabbed me by the emotions and didn’t let me go. There’s something stark about her writing that I love. It’s unpretentious, but she’s dealing with a lot of big ideas, about which, more later.
]She’s clearly not an author for everyone. I very rarely want to read anything this dark, and even though I may say I don’t want an author to pull their punches, I don’t think I really mean that. Smith pulls no punches. In a way,she reminds me of Stephen King, at least in the way she paints the atmosphere of her world, but even that comparison doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure what authors she does come close to. Certainly, I don’t think anyone is writing romance quite like this. (A side note: I think the punctuation thing Meka is talking about is reminiscent of some of King’s more stream of consciousness narratives. I’m not saying Smith is stealing anything here, but, yeah, those were clearly King influences.)
I disagree with Meka about the funeral. I thought the way it was described was awful enough to give me a clear sense of the world. There are plenty of ways that this book could have been trimmed, but that scene, in my opinion, was not one of them. Maybe I would have liked to see some of Amber’s grief, but I can see why that is not a choice the author could make. Amber simply doesn’t have time for grief. There’s too much stuff to do.
2. What did you think of the Earth that Amber and Nicci come from?
The world that Amber and Nicci come from is a dark place. I spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that opportunities for improving one’s life are only given to the few. If you signed on for a job, you seemed to have to keep that job forever and a day or face serious consequences. I don’t understand how anyone could carve a life of independence on that Earth at all.
When Amber remembered how her mother came home after being spayed–SPAYED!–that nearly ended it for me. You know, there is bad like the world that they live in, and then there is BAD like having to be that little girl who took care of your mother who was a total mess after what happened. While the government was so busy trying to put poor people in their place, they kind of forgot about developing more humane ways of sterilizing someone….if you can call that process humane at all. Gel? Sealant? Something?
Digression alert: Here’s my take on dystopias. Either go big or go home. I’ve missed much of the YA dystopian trend because I do not buy most of their premises. I don’t believe anyone would ever, for instance, think outlawing love would solve anyone’s problems. Or that people would naturally form factions based on their Meyer’s Briggs personality type. I can, however, accept the premise that a winner-take-all reality show would be a good way to control the masses, because of our culture’s current obsession with the media. Our culture is not currently obsessed with, say, determining the smartest people to lead the world through rigorous college entrance exams. I guess what I’m saying is that I want my dystopias to say something about the world we live in now and extrapolate how much worse it could get. And I know, this last paragraph is just begging for someone to explain to me how all those dystopian premises I mentioned are from excellent books that I shouldn’t mock because I haven’t read them. Feel free to judge me hard in the comments. I can take it.
I see some relevant cultural commentary about our own present in these pages. It’s not commentary I agree with, but I’d take something that feels plausible over a dark world that is dark because of some arbitrary thing people have decided to do for no apparent reason. Amber seems to live in a much more socialized state, where you may be able to have health insurance and you can go into a work house if you need to, but that’s not going to be a pleasant place for you. It feels like this is the future as envisioned by someone much more conservative than I am. This is the dystopia of someone who doesn’t support Obamacare. The government controls every aspect of your life, from how much you can make to your reproductive rights, and there don’t seem to be any kind of social safety nets, and, as Meka says, it’s not the place where the American dream is in force. You have to go to the stars for that. I don’t know what Smith’s political leanings are, nor do I want to speculate, but it is how I read the text.
Also, Smith managed to do what no one else has ever accomplished: I now have an actual desire to read A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, if only to see how different her vision of the future is from this one.
3. At one point, Amber’s mom tells the girls, ”
“They’ll spay the hookers, sure they will,” she’d sneer at some point. “But do they ever talk about neutering the fucking johns? Oh no! No, they’re still selling Viagra on the fucking TV, that’s what they’re doing! Let me tell you something, babies, what I do is the most honest work in the world because all women are whores! That’s how men see it, and if that’s how they see it, little girl, that’s how it is!” Do you think the text will end up agreeing with that statement, or do you think, as Amber does, that it’s simply a reflection of her mother’s bitterness?
The fact that they spayed–SPAYED!–Amber’s mother at all tells me that this is the stark reality of their world. There seem to be very few expectations of women in this book except to deal with the lot that they have been given in life and to do it gracefully and without complaint. I didn’t realize that I had the semblance of a strong inner feminist until I got to that part. It very much mirrors the real world. Women who are prostitutes are looked down upon far more than the men who frequent them. We’ll flip out because somebody twerked on TV but don’t bat in eye when there is an announcement that if your erection lasts longer than four hours, you need to call a doctor. You’re the bad girl for dancing, but the guy grinding up on you probably gets props by many. If those attitudes don’t change, if our responses don’t change, then it would not surprise me that future Earth might be bleak and dark in that regard. I shudder to think what is going to happen to the other women in this book because of it.
I really found that passage evocative. It made me think of all the conversations I’ve read on the Internet with people saying that tips on how to avoid getting raped are useless, because what we really need to say is, “The only way to prevent rape is for men to stop raping.” I think in a lot of ways Mary Bierce is just overly jaded and cynical, but she’s not entirely wrong, either. To be fair, though, we don’t really see any men on Earth. We can extrapolate all we like, but it could be that things suck for a poor man, too. After all, we don’t know, for example, why Scott thought joining the Manifestors was the thing to do.
4. A lot of science fiction depicts colonizing new worlds as a fun and worthy activity. Yet the Bierce girls don’t see any other way to get a better life for themselves and view the process less as a grand adventure than as a foolhardy thing for desperate people to do. What did you think of that? Would you be up for the adventure, or would you want to stick with what is familiar?
I believe that there is a safety in the familiar, even if it isn’t the life that we would truly want for ourselves. But if you don’t know what you never had, then you don’t care what you’ve never missed. So, I almost answered yes to this question. I’d want to live in the knowledge of what was normal to me. yet, if what was normal was so bad, would I even know? And if I am living in a world where I could be spayed–SPAYED!–, or I have to register to do anything, where my class dictates what happens to me and my entire life is regimented, then I have to say hell no. I’d much rather take that adventure and colonize another planet. It may not turn out the way I hope, but at least I can do whatever I want without some stupid measure saying I can’t. Apparently, I am very much like Amber and a little bit like Nicci!
The colonists as wacky, wide-eyed idealists was the thing that surprised me. Some of my favorite books have been about people colonizing other worlds. It’s a staple of the SF genre, after all. I think this is the first SF book I’ve read where the idea wasn’t universally approved of by everyone. Though that said, I think a group of cultists would not be who I’d want leading such an adventure. As for whether I’d do it myself, I know I’ve moved halfway across the country in search of a better life. It had to be done, even though it was hard. I sympathized with Amber’s need to do it. Granted, leaving my planet would be much more extreme than that, and I don’t think I could go that far, but damn, it wasn’t like they were leaving paradise. Maybe for them a planet without Obamacare would be exactly what they needed.
5. In general, what were your impressions of the characters? What do you think of Amber? Nicci? Scott?
It took a while for Amber to grow on me. I understood that there were dire circumstances, but she was downright mean to Nicci in the beginning. It helped to get internal monologue from her, but I really thought she was a very unlikeable person. She grew on me, though. She is fierce and strong. She is self-reliant and self-sufficient. She kept telling herself that sometimes people have to say the hard stuff and she did so. I do not like conflict, and often, her very straightforward method of talking and doing things made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I just wanted her to hush and let the nice men deal with the issues. I know that is a terrible statement to make, but I do have that mindset occasionally. All in all, she’d be a rockin sister to have in your corner. Also, fat girls unite! I cannot even begin to tell you how thrilled I am that Amber is not feather-light. It’s easy for me to be thrust inside of her head because fat girl Meka could not be trudging up some super steep ridge and remain unscathed.
Nicci and I are going through a love/hate relationship. While she is insufferably whiny, I wonder if she is dealing with mental illness that has run unchecked for a very long time. She seems to only operate in one mode, fearful and scared. Maybe there is so much that is wrong in her world, she has to cling to the familiar in order for it to make sense and to find her balance. While her protestations of why she didn’t want to join the colonists might have been unreasonable, this was her life. Everything that she knew was being taken away from her. Her mother was dead, she was being evicted. The only things that she had left were Amber and the system. And while the system wasn’t doing her any good, I believe it bred a familiarity with her that was so complete that the thought of leaving all that she’d known was like cutting off an arm. She represents to me what the average citizen of her caste who no longer wants to fight might be like if they never see something that is different from their norm.
Smith’s foreshadowing is like a brick in the face. We already know bad things are going to happen and scott is probably going to be the antagonist. We knew he didn’t like Amber because she stood up to him when he was trying to be large and in charge. If my limited reading of post-apocalypse novels has taught me anything, it’s that people like him are going to be the biggest trouble of all.
Can I just give a shout out to the candyman? I didn’t realize that what he gave Amber was pretty much akin to speed. Shannon is so good at catching stuff like that. For some reason, he really stood out to me as a character. While the world is going to hell in a handbasket, he’s managed to make his mark. Also, I cannot get Jean Wilder out of my head. I love you, Willie Wonka!
I’ll be interested to see what happens to the other ladies, like Miss Alverez, who is quickly becoming my favorite because she was going to sue all the bastards!
Also, black man dies first is a trope that is alive and well, I see. Jonah, there could have been so much in store for you. I am afraid of what will happen to the other *gasp* black woman in the story. But if my limited knowledge of TV Tropes has taught me anything, it’s that she’s next on the list. I hope I’m wrong. We need to keep the diversity alive!
I am an unapologetically heroine-centric reader. Your hero may be so awesome that he farts rainbows and causes every woman in a 500 mile radius to orgasm on command, but if your heroine is boring, I don’t have a connection. I know many readers are the opposite–they want a place holder for their own fantasies, and that’s fine. It’s just not how I read. What I was expecting from Amber and what I got were also pleasantly different. I figured that with all the raping she goes through she’d be either a snivveling waif, or we readers would be supposed to think she’d somehow deserve everything she got. (I once read a terrible sci-fi novel with that premise. The human heroine was so thoroughly unlikeable that it was clear the author wanted readers to cheer for the hero every time he raped her to show her her place. I still have scars over that book. Just… fuck you, Sharon Green.) That is not something I am up for, and I am glad Amber is such a dynamic character, and is demonstrably shown to be right. She’s also got flaws, and, like Meka, I appreciated that she was an awesome fat chick. The scene after she hikes up the ridge and is told she wasn’t pulling her weight really got to me, because as a fat chick who is disabled, I have those fears all the time… that I’m somehow not doing enough and people will notice.
Amber’s also not good with people and I love that even as it means she has to say the hard stuff, it also alienates her from everyone, including her sister. I wish she had friends other than Nicci, because as I’ve said before on this blog, no one is an island and I worry about anyone’s future without a good support system.
Speaking of good support systems, I hadn’t thought of Nicci as being mentally ill until Meka brought it up. It does make sense, though, and is a much more charitable interpretation than mine, which is that Nicci’s been coddled all her life. I wish there was more to her character, and that she would do more than cry and rage. I worry that she’s not going to serve as much of a narrative device other than being the burden Amber has to bear.
There are some things I think Smith does well, but I agree that foreshadowing is not among them. She doesn’t seem to name many characters, but I knew Scott would be important when he got a name. He’s a bit of a cartoon villain, but he’s also a scarily effective cartoon villain. He seems to know Amber’s weak spots and exploits them ruthlessly, and I have to admit that the uncomfortable dynamic between Scott and Amber makes me a little nervous.
Yeah, poor Jonah. He never got a chance. Let’s hope that any other PoC in this book don’t meet with equally cliched deaths.
6. If you crash-landed on a strange new planet, what is the one essential thing you’d take with you?
I’m taking a collapsible tent. Even though movies have proven that you can still be eaten by dinosaurs while in your makeshift shelter, I cannot deal with the elements. I am such a girl. dinosaurs can eat me, but a bug better not even land on me!
Sturdy blankets would be the practical thing I’d take. Not the flimsy fleece throws, but big thick wool blankets to keep out the cold. Also lots of water.
7. What are your predictions for what’s going to happen to the characters?
I do not trust this author and have trouble putting my reader self in her hands. My prediction is that Amber is going to be rape fodder because she’s a woman and she’s speaking out, Scott is going to be a rapist as well as some of the other men, and Nicci is going to be sexually-assaulted too, because she’s just another woman. I think that the people of color are going to die, and Scott is going to reign supreme. What I hope happens is that Nicci grows a spine and other character-building qualities, and that the other cast of characters aren’t useless while Amber is the only one who takes steps to secure their future. Oh, and I’m going to need for scott to be eaten. Violently.
We know there’s going to be rape. I predict most of it will be done by Scott. I predict that Nicci will die of TSTL, or possibly be eaten. I can only hope. Since the book is so bleak, Scott will survive the world and become a tin-pot dictator of the rest of the humans (save Nicci, who will have been eaten, and Amber, who is supposed to get her HEA.)
Meka’s final thoughts:
All in all, I don’t know that I’m going to like this book and am almost ready to call my safeword. I think that this bleak is a little too much for me. I understand why it has to be dark. Dark, hopeless scary world of which there is almost no escape is a staple in Dystopian novels. I just don’t know that I’m really in to it. It’s probably going to get a whole lot worse, so be prepared to watch me clutch my pearls in dismay. But hey, next week we shall meet our intrepid hero!
Shannon’s final thoughts
I’m down for the ride. I am a little anxious about meeting Meoraq. As I said last week, uber alphas do nothing for me, so I’m predisposed not to like him much. But thus far, everything i thought would happen with this book has been wrong, so I’m willing to be proved wrong on this point, too.
So. What do the rest of you think? We discussed a lot of stuff in this post, and we’d love to see your takes on any of it in the comments. Note that the first comment you leave on the blog is moderated, because I do not care about your thoughts if you would like to help my erection last longer or if you are selling genuine replica timepieces. I’ll free the comments as soon as I can, I promise.