Maggie Shen King
The Salt Line
Holly Goddard Jones
Dystopias are ostensibly pure science fiction, part of the "if this goes on" school of extrapolation. Yet they often bear an uncomfortable affinity to horror novels. If the premise of horror fiction is to chronicle the doings of a malign or off-kilter universe which is inimical to humans, then surely dystopias are meant to chronicle a malign or off-kilter civilization or culture or government which is inimical to the citizenry, or some segment thereof. (Sometimes a dystopia can be inimical even to the planet and nature itself.) And certainly a powerful dystopia delivers the same suite of emotions that a horror novel does: a sense of doom, entrapment, futility, estrangement, separation and injustice. Perhaps the saving grace that dystopias convey which horror novels really cannot offer is that any bad situation is potentially improvable. Whereas puny humanity can do nothing to remediate or soften the tortures of Cthulhu, aside from merely avoiding them individually for a temporary reprieve, the average inhabitant of a dystopia can always join the Resistance and work for a better world. And the transient nature of all mortal institutions also offers hope for a change for the better.
Two recent novels, both by women writers, showcase this tendency of dystopias to portray benighted hellscapes with possibly a scintilla of relief beyond their claustrophobic horizons.
The core rottenness or malaise or imbalance at the heart of Maggie Shen King's AN EXCESS MALE involves that all-too-familiar situation where a government feels the necessity to intrude into the most intimate matters of love, sexuality and domestic arrangements--spheres of behavior which we ideally imagine should be untainted by bureaucratic interference. But since pair-bonding and family setups of all sorts arguably form the foundation of society, governments looking to perpetuate and stabilize themselves, as all governments do, will invariably seek to regulate such matters, to greater or lesser degrees depending upon constitutional restrictions and cultural attitudes. Science fiction has recognized and speculated on this tendency since at least as far back as Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD. Innumerable novels since then have dealt with such matters, with Fred Saberhagen's LOVE CONQUERS ALL and Edmund Cooper's FIVE TO TWELVE among them.
King's tale is set in China a few decades hence. The fallout of the historical One Child policy dominates the scenario. The gender imbalance is such that forty million unmatched males of prime marriageable age must be placated and dealt with. Polyandry is the official solution. Professional matchmakers attempt to broker marriages for first, second and even third husbands, with the women, although numerically inferior, in the catbird seat. Some women, nonetheless, serve as Helpmates under the supervision of the Bountiful Love office, giving ten-minute sex sessions for money, a kind of pressure-relief mechanism.
We will tour this world through the eyes of four characters whose fates are intertwined, and who alternate chapters as narrators. Initially we experience this world via the viewpoint of Lee Wei-Guo, an unmarried man in his forties just now wealthy enough to attempt a marriage, thanks to his flourishing physical training practice. Wei-guo, a gym rat who also takes pleasure in officially sanctioned amateur war games, is the least complicated character of the set. I hesitate to call him a "mimbo," because he is fairly smart and honorable, but there is a touch of that to his affable character.
Our other three protagonists are already married amongst themselves. Middle-aged Hann and Xiong-Xin ("XX") are both brothers and also the joint husbands of the young and immature May-ling. They have brought forth a child, the raucous toddler BeiBei. Now they are about to consider adding Wei-guo to their menage. But the marriage has hidden fracture lines. Hann is secretly gay, a condition now dubbed "Willfully Sterile." He should not even be married. XX occupies a place on the Asperger's spectrum, a "Lost Boy," and he too is crooked timber, from the perspective of officialdom. And May-ling is somewhat shallow, self-centered and youthfully naive. Initially, however, Wei-guo views the setup as prosperous and high-status, highly desirable. He is also instantly physically infatuated with the pretty May-ling. But as he begins to be absorbed deeper into the relationship, he will learn of the various frailities of his intendeds. What is remarkable is that despite the pressures exerted by both the government and coworkers, neighbors, strangers and friends, the quartet will come to form strong bonds that help them to survive a climactic crisis in which Hann seems destined for a reeducation camp; Wei-guo seems culpable for a mortal disaster; XX seems destined to lose his job; and May-ling seems likely to shatter from all the stresses.
For the majority of the tale, King focuses resolutely on the personal level. The back and forth amongst the quartet, the various nuances of the courtship and the decaying marriage, are delivered with almost Jane-Austen-like granularity, a captivating drama. She invests her foursome with admirable depth and individuation. From Hann's sense of duty to May-ling's longing for some joy; from Wei-guo's earnest yearnings to XX's quirks, such as his love for a pack of feral dogs, these characters boldly rise in living color off the page. Yes, tidbits about the society at large are deftly inserted in the best science-fictional manner. But world-building is secondary for King. And there are really no macroscopic geopolitical issues addressed until about four-fifths of the way through the book. And, in fact, the whole situation in China is presented as a fait accompli, and not really subject to dissent or changes. There is no rebellion, no ultimate victory by our heroes--at least not in terms of engineering vast reforms. They win a local reprieve, but the China First juggernaut rolls on intact. Moreover, the rest of the world is ignored completely, no details given, in a manner that forcefully indicates that this narrow aperture is King's deliberate choice.
Life is not entirely horrible by any means in King's future. The majority of citizens have made their accomodations to strictures we would consider reprehensible and repressive. Part of this acceptance might stem from Idiocracy conditions. We learn of this when Wei-guo undergoes an intelligence test as part of his marital preparations.
"A farmer has seventeen sheep. All but nine die. How many are left?" [the doctor] says quietly.
"What?" It's clear that his question is a riddle. "Nine," I say.
"Your correct answer puts you about here [Above Average on the spectrum]. Sixty percent of the population can't answer the question you just did."
This matter-of-fact drollness captures the weary fatherland gravitas of King's world, whose harsh terms can best be navigated by either dumb mute acceptance or calculated cunning--along with a little love and affection..
Readers who enjoy AN EXCESS MALE must certainly direct their attention to the classic CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG by Maureen McHugh, which ponders an allied future with similar grace and allure.
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The famous William Gibson quote--“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed."--adapts well to our theme today: "Dystopia is already here--it's just not evenly distributed." And so even when vast swathes of the population are enduring suboptimal conditions of misery, subjugation and oppression, there will be pockets of affluence and ease and relative justice where civilization seems still to be hewing to its lofty Enlightenment standards and values. The bleed-through between the two realms often serves as the narrative engine, as in Pohl & Kornbluth's THE SPACE MERCHANTS. And it's this fruitful strategy that is eagerly embraced, tweaked and fully realized by Holly Goddard Jones in her exhilaratingly grim The Salt Line.
The era of our tale is some four or five decades from the present, and the USA is no more. Instead, the country has been divided up into smallish enclaves of safety and 21st-century comforts--the Atlantic Zone, the Gulf Zone, the New England Zone, et al--with reduced populations, due to losses from a pandemic. Other vast territories between Zones are ungoverned wildernesses laced with ruins, ceded to the enemy that has brought down the nation. This enemy is a new kind of mutant killer tick, nearly unstoppable. Not only does the hardy species lay eggs in living flesh, eggs which burst into infant ticks that explode out of the body, but the ticks also harbor Shreve's, a disease that invariably kills in less than twenty-four hours. The Salt Line is the metaphorical designation for the cauterized land barriers that separate Zones from the wilderness. The fact that "Salt" also happens to be the term for a new designer drug is allegorically pertinent.
The cramped, cossetted, rich dwellers in the Zones often long for a taste of their natural heritage that has been lost, and so firms like Outer Limits Excursions have arisen to conduct back-to-nature tours beyond the Salt Line, even in the face of tick depredations. Stringent safety protocols exist, and mostly things go well. But not in the case that Jones presents. The current group--whose participants we get to immediately know well, in sharp, tight portraits--is about to be kidnaped by the outlaw, untouchable dwellers in the badlands and held as chips in a complicated bargain.
The pivotal characters in the expedition are Edie, a rare working-class woman who happens to have a rich boyfriend, the pop star Jesse. Then there's Wes, an IT genius and millionaire. Finally comes Marta, demure, cossetted and relatively principled Mob wife, whose bigshot husband David has been doing illicit business for years with the outcasts in the grandiloquently named Ruby City. When these three and their tourist comrades are abducted, they enter a kind of SURVIVOR-style endurance test where death from one cause or another lies in wait behind every tree or suspicious look from their captors.
My allusion to SURVIVOR is meant to convey some of the racy, profane, in-your-face tenor of the book. The novel is deftly written, and ultimately very far from any kind of reality-show shallowness or superficiality. And yet it does partake of a certain deliberate air of cinematic or televised spectacle, a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES meets A BOY AND HIS DOG, by way of Lucius Shepard. Unlike AN EXCESS MALE, the character development churns at a lower resolution, allowing Jones to concentrate on worldbuilding and plotting. The book is both a dystopia--in its presentation of socioeconomic realities--and a thriller, in its taut, suspenseful, fast-moving and unpredictable shennanigans.
Jones has a flair for vivid, tactile passages, and no compunctions about ladling out the gore, as the following passage demonstrates.
Marta plunged Wes's arm into the water.
He screamed, and the water bloomed crimson, and a strange smell filled the room: blood and metal but something else, almost sweet, like raisins, but on the edge of rancid. Wes convulsed in her grip, straining against his restraints, but she managed to keep his arm underwater, bearing down hard with both hands, her face only centimeters from its churning red surface. She had no idea how long this went on. Only a few minutes probably, though it seemed endless. Her arms ached, and her back and thighs ached with the strain of keeping her balanced (so easily she could fall into the water head-first, and she kept bracing herself for that eventuality).
At last Wes collapsed, and his arm went limp. She pulled it from the water and winced at the raw, ravaged flesh, which made a band around the meat of his forearm and stretched in a wet red mouth from the forearm's middle to mere centimeters from his armpit. She turned the arm, searching it frantically, and saw a furious black scurrying thing scrambling over the crooks and crags of the wet flesh. With a little wail of disgust she brushed it off into the water, and then she wrapped Wes's arm in the clean white towel she'd kept nearby for this purpose, and then she looked her own arms over, feeling ticklish feet where her eyes told her nothing moved. The tub of water was pink with a yellowish scrim on the surface in which floated little black specks, too many to count. Marta scanned the floor, Wes's bedsheets. She saw nothing. In the time it took to do these things, the towel around Wes's arm soaked red.
The fact that helpless, hapless, under-confident Marta is serving as stalwart nurse and strong support to Master of the Universe Wes is one of Jones's neat bits of unexpected character reversals.
Another key transvaluation is seen in the portrait of Ruby City and its cleanly delineated citizens, under the stern leadership of a woman named June. Although the hardscrabble place is far from a utopia, it stands as a revelatory mirror to life in the Zones, even providing a haven in the end for one of the tourists.. Here, the excruciations that Marta and her fellows undergo serve to anneal and purify them, showing us how good may arise even out of the worst situation.
And, in the final analysis, isn't that what dystopias are all about, the main service they perform, if they are not to be mere torture porn? The sharpest dystopias demonstrate for us that out of the abysmal conditions so vividly limned come heroism, redemption, reform, and a chance for individuals to make a difference and set things right.