Saturday, January 3, 2015
Imagine a world where there are no books, where nobody reads, where nobody thinks for themselves. Where the world is run by machines, by robots. Where the human race is, quite literally, stoned, and often self immolates for no discernable reason. Welcome to a dystopian 25th century America. Reading has been outlawed, books have been destroyed, the public at large has been drugged, and the government is run by an intelligent, never-aging robot whose only desire is to be able to end his life.
Mockingbird centers around three characters: Spofforth, the suicidal leader who was designed to be incapable of killing himself; Paul, a university professor who has illegally taught himself to read by watching early 20th century films; and Mary Lou, a woman who asks questions, refuses to believe the answers, and finds herself the only pregnant woman left in the world.
While Mockingbird is definitely not my usual genre, I really enjoyed it. It reads like an homage to Farenheit 451 and Brave New World, and is not a little scary. We live in a world of machines and electronic devices, all designed to make our lives better. But what if all the artificial intelligence we're manufacturing kills all the natural intelligence we already have? Already, there are studies that suggest we're getting dumber as a species. We don't need to know the answer; there's an app for that. If another country wanted to cripple us, they wouldn't send a nuclear bomb - they would just turn off the internet, and we would be powerless. Mockingbird may be considered science fiction, and while I agree with the science portion of that label, I'm not so sure it's fiction. And that's terrifying.
Set in Mumbai, India in the late 70s and early 80s, Shantaram is the semi-autobiographical story of Lin, an escaped Australian convict. Lin was serving nineteen years for armed robbery when he escaped over the prison walls, hopped a few planes, and wound up in Mumbai. What follows is a sweeping story that takes the reader from the slums in the shadows of the World Trade Centre to the palaces of the Indian mafia, from unincorporated villages with no power or running water to the caves and mountains of Afghanistan, from the shackles of Arthur Road Prison to the delicate freedom of Colaba, from Leopold's (which made me think of nothing so much as Rick's American Cafe) to the House of the Standing Babas.
To try to explain what this novel is about is futile, because it's about everything. It's about humans and relationships and friendships and torture and blood and redemption and enemies and philosophy and shame and loneliness and war and peace and money and poverty and power and betrayal and prison and suffering and perseverance and triumph and glory and life. And it's about love. At its heart, Shantaram is a love story, written to the country that Roberts fell in love with, written to the men who changed his life, written to the woman he loved, written to the friends who saved his life.
Roberts is a supremely gifted writer; his prose is superb and seductive. He holds nothing back, laying his heart shamelessly bare on every page. He will make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you hopeful, make you think, and make you beg for more.