Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review - Bitch Planet, Book One: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro

Short review: The Fathers try to break non-compliant women by rigging the world against them and sending them to prison. The women remain unbroken.

She's non-compliant
Send her off to Bitch Planet
Still non-compliant

Full review: Bitch Planet is a dark, grim dystopian story about a future that bears some resemblance to that of The Handmaid's Tale combined with Rollerball and a small dash of The Hunger Games thrown in. In its brutal and graphic pages, Bitch Planet reveals that oppression often comes with a smiling face and soft comforting words, while freedom can feel harsh and ugly. But for all its cruelty, the story is also about standing up for oneself, refusing to yield to those who would break you, and that in the face of overwhelming odds, a woman can still be defiantly non-compliant.

At the outset, one should be clear that this is definitely a book that should be limited to mature audiences. The society depicted in its pages is a misogynistic dystopia run by a group who call themselves the Fathers, and who regulate almost every aspect of the lives of the citizens they rule over. They certainly control the lives of the men who live in this future world, but they are exceptionally interested in making sure the women who inhabit this nightmarish existence are subdued, controlled, and compliant. This is not a pretty or sugar-coated depiction of a dystopia. No, it is a brutal and harsh vision that is expressed in a stark and uncompromising manner. There is brutality and nudity in this graphic novel, and its unrelenting gaze never leaves the ugliness.

Much of the story takes place at the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, an off-world facility where "non-compliant" women are sent, colloquially called "Bitch Planet". Women end up at the facility for any number of crimes, ranging from assault and murder, to aesthetic offenses and wanton obesity, or merely because their husbands tired of them. In an early sequence that sets the tone for much of the volume, a man named Collins approaches an official claiming that his wife has been mistakenly arrested and is due to be shipped to Bitch Planet. As he tells his tale about how he had an affair with a woman named Dawn and his wife refused to accept her responsibility for it despite counseling and other steps, he says that he paid off the authorities to have his wife shipped away, but that he loves his wife and wants her back, offering his remaining funds to grease the wheels. Intercut with Marion Collins, freshly admitted inmate at the ACO telling her side of the story and begging to be released, as she is sure she doesn't belong there.

The twist is that when Collins' wife is returned to him, it isn't Marion, but rather Dawn, who was mistakenly picked up because the only information the arresting officers were given was to arrest "Mrs. Collins", and they thought  she was the woman they were meant to bring in. Marion, on the other hand, finds herself in the middle of a prison brawl and is murdered by one of the guards with her murder being pinned on another inmate, the protagonist of the story Kamau Kogo. Because Kamau was a professional athlete before she arrived on Bitch Planet, the prison uses the murder charge as leverage to get her to agree to form a team of prisoners for the sport of megaton, to participate in the professional league against the established teams of men. This sport is something like a combination of rugby and American football, with less regard for petty concerns such as safety, and is so dangerous that when star player Rickey Fontenot dies on the field during a match, no one is particularly surprised, or even concerned.

The demand to assemble a megaton team sets the main plot of the book in motion, as it combines the machinations of the Fathers - who are interested in good television ratings and in making an ideological point about their dominance over women - and the anger and rage of the women cast out by a society that is rigged against them. Of course, the game is rigged against the inmates too, and they know this. But what women like Violet, Meiko, and especially Penelope know is that winning is not nearly as important as taking a stand. Even more significantly, they show that the critical decision is to remain yourself while you are standing defiantly. Even when the Fathers try to use technology to show Penelope her "ideal self" so that they can try to "fix" her, they discover that she is what she wants to be, and cannot be broken so easily. They key to the story is that it isn't the victory or loss, but rather the fact that one is still in the game that is the most critical element, and the women of Bitch Planet most certainly want to play the game, no matter if it is unfair, or if they risk their lives doing so. Some things, it seems, are worth such risks.

One might think that this story would be told with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, and yet large portions of the character development and world building are handled in a sneaky manner, presented almost by subterfuge. In many cases, the material in the background of a panel is just as important as the scene taking place front and center, and if the reader rushes past it, they will miss substantial elements of the story. As this volume is a compilation of several individually published monthly comic books, the story is told in segments, and at the end of each is a page of ads reminiscent of those that appeared in comic books in the 1960s and 1970s, advertising a collection of products akin to the "x-ray vision goggles" and "sea monkeys" that graced those old issues. These ads, however, are part of the story of Bitch Planet, many of which are written to sell products that would exist in that dystopian world, while others are political ads that provide the reader with admonishments or directions concerning proper behavior. One, for example, instructs the reader that voters are required to only vote for those candidates for office from the list of those that are approved by the Fathers, and voting is mandatory for all citizens. The implication is clear: The Fathers want the appearance of consent, but don't want to run the risk of having someone make an unapproved choice. This sort of atmospheric storytelling runs through the entire volume of Bitch Planet, and makes the world that much deeper and the nightmare presented that much more chilling.

The book builds to a climax involving a practice match between Kamau's team and a team comprised of guards from the ACO, and it is here that the story hits its only discordant note. Although it is clear that the Fathers intend to rig the matches against the women of Bitch Planet to the extent necessary to ensure they lose and lose badly, with many injuries and even some deaths, it seems odd that they would engage in such shenanigans in a match that is both meaningless and non-public. Making an example of these women in a situation in which no one is watching seems like a pointless and even counterproductive exercise. Should the players refuse to continue, then the public spectacle that the Fathers desire is lost, all so that they can win a pissing match that doesn't matter. In fact, if the Fathers truly wish to break the spirit of Kamau's team, then engaging in such blatant cheating at this stage is unlikely to accomplish their objective. Instead, giving them false hope and then pulling the rug out from under them would seem to be a more effective strategy. Despite the false ring that this sequence provides, it does end the volume with a dark (and tragically ironic) event, closing the volume on a note appropriately bleak for a dystopian work.

Bitch Planet is, quite simply, absolutely brilliant. It is frightening, horrifying, and devastating, while at the same time being brutally beautiful and inspiring. The compelling and varied female residents of Bitch Planet draw the reader in, engaging the reader in their struggles and what small victories they can call triumphs. On the other hand, their opposition in the form of the prison guards and the Fathers, although often terrifying, seem to be bland and mostly uninteresting as characters. This book walks a fine line between futile despair and heroic defiance, and mostly lands on the "heroic defiance" side of the ledger, resulting in a book that is dark, grim, and yet still possessed of a kernel of hope.

Subsequent Book in the Series: Bitch Planet, Book Two: President Bitch

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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