"When She Woke" retains all the subtlety of the atomic bomb exploding above Hiroshima, Japan on the morning of August 6, 1945 in its depiction of a near future United States hostile to female reproductive rights, perfectly illustrating why mainstream writers of literary fiction should refrain from writing science fiction novels unless they devote themselves towards understanding the genre as well as the likes of Jonathan Lethem ("Gun, With Occasional Music", "As She Climbed Across the Table", "Motherless Brooklyn"), Rick Moody ("The Four Fingers of Death") and Gary Shteyngart ("Super Sad True Love Story"). It is an assessment endorsed by a notable cyberpunk science fiction writer, after I told the writer about a Brooklyn Book Festival panel on science fiction featuring as one of the panelists, Hillary Jordan, the novel's author, that I had attended last fall. "When She Woke" updates Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" and pays ample homage to Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", presenting readers with a nightmarish vision of a near future dystopian United States after a worldwide epidemic ("The Scourge") results in widespread female sterility and a limited nuclear war resulting in the Hiroshima-like destruction of Los Angeles, leaving the theocratic-oriented Federal Government no choice but to ban abortion again and treat those receiving it, like protagonist Hannah Payne, as social outcasts and criminals branded as "chromes", condemned to spend years with the color of their skins dyed different colors depending on the severity of their crimes. Jordan has altered the illicit love affair at the heart of the "Scarlet Letter" into a liberal's worst nightmare, in choosing the names of her protagonists Hannah Payne and Reverend Arthur Dale - echoing those of the protagonists of "The Scarlet Letter" - and offering us a theocratic-dominated United States in which right-wing Fundamentalist Protestant Christian values determine the cultural and political life of America.
I commend Hillary Jordan for demonstrating that she is among the emerging premier literary stylists currently writing mainstream American literary fiction, even if her prose in "When She Woke" lacks the exceptional lyricism present in Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus", Catherynne Valente's "Palimpsest" and Madeline Miller's Orange Prize-winning debut novel "The Song of Achilles". However, good writing is meaningless if a writer hasn't done ample research into the plot and setting of a potential novel, and here unfortunately, she strikes out on both counts. Jordan should have studied the constitutional history of the United States, relying on the work of such eminent historians as Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of history, Brown University (in the interest of full disclosure, one of my college professors), who is regarded by his peers as our foremost living historian on the American Revolution and the drafting of the United States Constitution. If she had done so, she might have realized that her premise is unrealistic, since both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights emphasizes the independence of faith from government, in reaction to the British Empire's adoption of Anglicanism as the official faith of its realm; in plain English, Reverend Dale's appointment as Secretary of Religion in the Executive Department of President Morales would be seen by Congress, and the courts, especially the Supreme Court, as unconstitutional. (Having Dale as Secretary of Religion would be credible only in a post-"The Scourge" theocratic dictatorship replacing the current democratic republican form of government that has endured here, in the United States, for more than two centuries.) Nor would a Federal Government tolerate the violent acts of the religious right-wing and pro-feminist liberal paramilitary organizations described by Jordan in "When She Woke". As a former evolutionary biologist I am also quite skeptical of the potential for "chroming", even if Jordan did receive some excellent medical and scientific advice supporting it, since it would require a far more advanced state of genetic bioengineering than what exists now and in the foreseeable near future. Instead of writing a credible, near future dystopian science fiction novel, Jordan has written instead what should be viewed as liberal literary wish fulfillment meant to bash conservatives and to affirm the worst nightmares of liberals, having much in common with the strident, nearly hysterical, polemical prose of American conservative commentator Ann Coulter. (I am making this observation as both a "Conservative" Republican with a very strong Libertarian bias who rejects vehemently my party's hostility towards female reproductive rights and as someone educated in science who greatly detests Ann Coulter, especially for her woeful scientific ignorance with regards to the realities of biological evolution and anthropogenic global warming.) For these reasons, I would advise potential readers to skip "When She Woke" and to read instead, the other novels I have cited, beginning with Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter".