Carrie Laben (teratologist) wrote,
Carrie Laben

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Black Sheep by Ben Peek

I have to admit, there were two things that I had to get past before I could appreciate this book as much as it deserved:

First, the U.N. thing. Can I believe that the U.N. would send sex criminals out as peace-keepers, and put embezzle-happy capitalist pigs in charge of food-for-oil programs? Shit yeah. Believe that they have it together enough to put every major world government into a choke-hold and impose a massive ideological and social restructuring on all of the planet's largest cities? Not so much. Sounds a little John Birch. So I had to do some work to suspend my disbelief there, but it was worth it.

The second thing is that the back-cover copy makes it sound as though race is important to this book. And it is, but it isn't. I mean, the fact that the cities of the world have all been divided into very, very separate but very, very equal Caucasian, African, and Asian sectors impacts the plot significantly at certain points, but the meat of the story is about family and individuality, about paranoia and the surveillance state, about guilt and shame as social tools, about the reality and the ideal of freedom, but not really about race. As a result, a lot of questions that I had on the basis of thinking that it was going to be about race - like how did they get the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans to agree to be lumped in together? And every person of African descent from across the whole globe? How do the Jews feel about all this? - proved to be irrelevant.

But with that out of the way, the book shines. Peek takes the standard dystopian furniture, all the ubiquitous cameras and brainwashed grunts and creepy identical houses and small bands of idealistic rebels and the like, and at first he seems to be going down the standard dystopian paths with it. But then he takes several unexpected turns - first into Dick-esque paranoia, and then into a series of confrontations with the fact that the solution to our hero's dilemma isn't as simple as raging against the machine. In fact, there may be no solution at all.

One of the real strong points of Black Sheep is in the characters who collaborate with the government. You have, of course, those who collaborate out of fear, and those who enjoy petty power for petty power's sake. But you also see people acting out of genuine conviction, both genuine conviction that the system is good and genuine conviction that the system is flawed but repairable by people working from within. And people who feel that a series of compromises that allow most people to live a tolerable life, even at the cost of breaking a few eggs, is better than throwing everyone into chaos. And people who just genuinely don't appear to think about politics at all. And, for that matter, people who bitterly oppose the current order - because they want something that is, from our protagonist's point of view, even worse.

I also found the brainwashing to be well above average. In my experience, brainwashing scenes are only effective horror for people who really, passionately believe in free will; since I became doubtful on the matter, I find that reading about a human spirit being broken is sort of like watching time-lapse photography of a decaying corpse - often disgusting, and prone to prompting melancholy reflections on the nature of life, but not really shocking or compelling as a narrative.

At first, I felt this way about section two of Black Sheep, which chronicles the hero's "Assimilation". However, on reflection, I found it very interesting as a philosophical nugget on a whole different level. Is Isao's punishment horrifying because it causes pain and reduces him to compliance, or is it horrifying only because it's based on a lie? In the case of a genuine murderer or rapist, would electrochemically-induced empathy to the point of feeling the victim's pain actually be cruel and unusual - or merely cruel and a return to what ought to be the normal state of affairs? Does it matter if the attitude of the rest of society is an eye-for-an-eye 'take that!' or a more-in-sorrow-than-anger attempt at preventing recidivism? Do we have, as 'free' beings, any kind of right to be spared an accurate knowledge of the pain our actions cause others, simply because up until now the nature of reality itself has spared us this knowledge? I feared at first that equating political rebellion with wife-beating could lead to trivializing the latter, but the matter is not only deftly handled but proves to be more and more relevant as the book goes on.

On the whole, an interesting piece of work that doesn't shy away from having arguments with itself or the reader.
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