Station Eleven

As a huge fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, I can’t believe this book never came up on my radar until now! I think I might have heard of it before, but never clocked exactly what it was about, and its title doesn’t reveal much about the contents. Then when I read that it was about a traveling troupe of actors, I may also have discounted its appeal to me. But so many people mention it on “What Should I Read Next?” (a Facebook group) when asked for good end-of-the-world fiction that I put it on my “want to read” list and finally got around to it this week.

Although the seed of the book is a worldwide flu pandemic, we don’t really learn much about that flu, because it is so deadly that there is no time for doctors to ponder origin, discuss cases, analyze it to reveal symptoms, search for a cure, or produce a vaccine, as people have done during our own pandemic that is (hopefully) slowly winding down.

In this iteration, the flu arrives in New York City on a plane from Russia; within hours, everyone who was on the flight is dead, and within another day or so almost everyone who came into contact with those carriers is also dead or dying. Medical personnel inform their loved ones, who tell their friends, and there is a mass exodus out of the city, which ends as each exposed person is overcome and passes it in turn to the next. Other planes come into other cities from other countries, all of which were exposed to the flu prior to the United States, and soon, even for the immune or the lucky, there is nowhere to flee. The entire world has been infected and overwhelmed, and civilization rapidly comes to an end. Planes are grounded, trains and cars cease to run as fuel runs out or becomes stale, the failure of electricity takes down all forms of communication and creature comforts, and soon the one percent of the population left standing is isolated wherever they happened to end up, in a dark and silent world.

The story begins when an elderly actor experiences a heart attack while onstage playing King Lear, on the eve of the pandemic. Strange connections to this man—the paramedic-in-training who leaps to the stage to try to revive him, the little girl who plays one of Lear’s daughters, his first ex-wife, who is the author/artist of a strange set of apocalyptic graphic novels called Station Eleven, his best friend from boyhood, and his second ex-wife and son—are the characters who tell the story, which reaches from the actor’s distant past on an island off the coast of Canada to 15 years into the future in the territory surrounding the Great Lakes, after the pandemic has decimated the world. The vehicle for the story is a band of musicians and actors (including that child actor who played a daughter of Lear) who have teamed up to travel a small route from town to town around the shores of Lake Michigan, alternating musical concerts and productions of Shakespeare every other night to keep themselves fed and give them purpose. The thing that makes the story so involving is how all the initial characters, so tenuously connected by this one man, end up in associations of which they themselves are unaware, and in possession of artifacts of one another’s lives. What is nice about the story is that although a few of these connections are revealed, thus providing some closure between certain players, the story doesn’t wrap up with a bow, but ends leaving some ironies intact.

Survival is insufficient.

STAR TREK

I loved how the story jumped from person to person and told their part of the story without pointing out the obvious connections, instead allowing the reader an “Ahah!” moment every once in a while. I loved the scene-setting descriptions of how the world has devolved, and how people respond to it depending on who they were and how old they were when the pandemic hit, and therefore what they remember. It seemed so realistic when parents would argue about whether they should continue to teach their children about the past with its internet, cell phones, and moon launches (or hey, ice cream and air conditioning!), or if there was little point in trying to explain such foreign concepts to those who would probably never experience them in this world that has returned to travel on foot, sleep cycles governed by the sun, and lives that are focused almost solely on survival. I loved the portrayals of lawlessness and violence set against the kindnesses and native courtesies preserved against all likelihood.

I love that I have discovered yet another post-apocalyptic story worthy of adding to my collection! And I am also excited because this book made me think of one that I read a long time ago but never remembered to log into my Goodreads list, and when I finally dredged up the author’s name from my sometimes spotty memory and went in search of the book, I discovered that after I read it, she wrote two sequels! That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and my intention is to read the sequels (Burning Road, and The Physician’s Tale) just as soon as my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA is over and I am no longer keeping up with my students’ reading schedules. June, here I come!

Monk and Robot

A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers, was my first experience of reading a book with a protagonist who is nonbinary. That is to say, when the character is referred to by name, it is Dex, but when the character is referred to in the third person, it is they or them.

Although in theory I applaud the notion that one should not have to be constantly identified by one’s gender, the reality of referring to an individual in the plural drove me kind of crazy. I knew this book was supposed to be at least partially about robots, and when Dex was introduced and referred to in the plural, I initially thought that perhaps Dex was one of the robots and that they had a hive mind, so to speak, with all of them experiencing what Dex did and reflecting upon it as a group.

I eventually figured out that it was simply language intended to bypass gender and, indeed, when Dex meets the robot Mosscap, one of the first questions asked is, “Do you have a gender?” Mosscap answers no, and Dex replies, “Me neither.” So that was settled. But once the two met up and were sharing an adventure together, the third-person plural became particularly confusing because when the sentence talked about “they” or “them,” I couldn’t tell, except by concentrating hard on every surrounding word, whether that was referring to Dex and Mosscap, or just to Dex “themself.” (And is themself even a word?)

I have to say that the fact that this grammatical twist didn’t completely put me off the book is a testament to the author’s clever story-telling. I have spent my life as a grammar tyrant, and this new attempt to level the gender barrier is a difficult one for me to take on board. But once I got (somewhat) used to this narrative, I was wholly caught up in the life story of Sibling Dex, a devotee of Allala, whose current mission in life is to be a tea monk.

It’s not like working in a café and offering someone a top-up, it’s more like a mobile Japanese Tea Ceremony combined with therapy. Basically, Dex travels from town to town in a laboratory/home they pedal like a bike (but with solar motor assistance), sets up in each market square by creating an altar of sorts, puts the kettle on to boil, and waits for the people to come. Then, Dex asks each person what they need, the person responds with their exhaustion, their troubles, their questions or fears, and Dex blends them the perfect cup of herbs and spices to address that issue, along with offering such advice as they can muster for whatever the person requires. Sometimes it is concrete advice, but many times it is simply to sit with the issue and drink their tea and solutions will present themselves—or at least they will have had a nice rest and a hot cuppa.

The world-building in this book is so gradual that you don’t realize it’s happening. You come to find out that the planet is not Earth (although the description on Goodreads confusingly says that it is), it’s called Panga. But it shares a past similar to Earth’s, in that it was a technological world in which robots did a lot of the industrial work. At some point (a couple hundred years ago) the robots became sentient and decided that they did not wish to do this work any longer, and the humans (wiser than we would probably be) let them go. The robots dispersed, making a departing Pact that they will check in on the humans from time to time.

One night, just as Dex is anticipating a well-cooked dinner as soon as they finishes (finish?) their shower, that’s just what the robots do, in the person of Splendid Speckled Mosscap (Mosscap for short), who shows up and startles the wits out of Dex. This seven-foot-tall metal robot has a familiar question for Dex: “What do humans need?” and since Dex can’t even answer that question for themself, this begins an ongoing conversation between the two, as they also pursue other goals together.

I won’t say more than that about the story line; but the relationship and the dialogue between these two is both delightful and insightful. I wouldn’t go nearly so far as to compare this book to the late great Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but the conversations did remind me a little of the ones between Genly Ai and Estraven as they endured the dark night of winter alone together.

One Goodreads reviewer characterizes this author’s work as “comfort science fiction,” or “cozypunk,” because the worlds she builds are the idyllic ones in which people learned from the mistakes of the past and moved on in better directions. The reviewer describes it as “a philosophical dialogue in the setting of ecological paradise, a cozy version of Plato’s symposium held in the wilderness with some tea.” I had to quote this (thank you, Nataliya) because it so perfectly describes this good-natured novella. But just as many of us gravitate towards cozy mysteries or cozy love stories, there is a place for the optimistic science fiction novel in the midst of dystopian and post-apocalyptic nightmare, and this book fills that place. I look forward to the sequel, when Dex and Mosscap take their question to a wider audience. (Now, did that “their” refer to both of them, or only to Mosscap’s question? A grammarian can never be sure!)

NOTE: I had to come back in and change three gender referents after the fact! Old habits die hard…

A boy and his dog

I seem to be gravitating lately towards coming-of-age stories about boys and their dogs (see The Story of Edgar Sawtelle), but although it is, in fact, a coming-of-age story, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher, is a special one, being as well a post-apocalyptic saga. I am a sucker for dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction; I don’t know exactly what draws me, but I think it is, as the character Griz says about his own liking for these books, that “it’s interesting to see what the Before thought the After would be like.”

This is an unusual sample of the genre, since there was no bomb, no pandemic, no big catastrophe—just a slow dwindling of fertility (speculatively attributed to pesticides, food additives and pollution) until humanity arrived at the Baby Bust generation, whose members got older but didn’t reproduce (except for about .0001 percent), and as the people died out, nature slowly began to take over. Griz’s family are among that infinitesimally small percentage, Griz’s parents having given birth to four children. The family has isolated itself in the Outer Hebrides, on one of a series of islands off the coast of Scotland, and lives a careful life, coming in contact with only one other family (who live on another island)—one of whose sons will presumably eventually marry their daughter. They take judicious foraging trips to the mostly empty mainland to acquire the things they are unable to build, so that they have a couple of sailboats, a windmill for power, some miscellaneous tools and weapons, and a fair number of books—nonfiction how-to in the case of the father, and fiction/escape in the case of Griz, who is something of a bookworm. They call these foraging trips “viking,” turning the noun into a verb. They also have several dogs (also a rarity in terms of fertility), two of which (Jip and Jess) are Griz’s.

One day they spot red sails on the horizon, and a stranger comes to visit—a man named Brand, who brags about his extensive travels to other exotic shores and who has both necessities and wonders to trade. The family treats him with a healthy dose of suspicion, but his engaging manner and the tall tales he shares over dinner soon has them more at their ease. Next morning, however, Brand’s sailboat is seen fleeing over the horizon, and he has taken Griz’s dog Jess with him. Griz, in a rage, grabs some basic supplies and jumps in his own boat to follow. No one is stealing his dog. This is the set-up for all the adventure and discoveries to come.

The world-building in this book seems both inventive and inevitable, with the author knowing just what would happen to a world without people. The huge, nearly empty environs are beautifully depicted, with the overtones of the tragedy of the past subsumed into the matter-of-fact acknowledgment of present-day details. The voice is appealing—Griz is an endearing combination of knowledgeable and innocent, relying on what he has been told but also able to take in new information, process it, and find inventive ways to use it. And despite a difficult and challenging journey, he remains doggedly optimistic (pardon the pun). The prose is simple, beautiful, and full of meaningful observations. There is a lot of content packed into this fairly short book by the time you take into account the back story, current events, musings, and action sequences. It also keeps you moving because you get the occasional ominous hint of things to come, which I normally find irritating but didn’t mind here because of the format of the book (it’s written as a journal, partially after the fact).

The bottom line: I’m just going to say it without reservation—I loved this book! I think it would appeal to anyone who enjoys this genre of fiction, whether (older) teen or adult, and perhaps even those who don’t normally read the genre, because of its inventiveness and the headlong manner of its story-telling. It’s completely self-contained, but I would definitely not say no to a sequel! The potential is there…

Chosen

I’m struggling with how to convey my reaction to this book. It’s Chosen Ones, by Veronica Roth, her first “adult” novel (she’s famous for the Divergent YA series). It’s almost like there were three books contained within this one, and I really liked one of them, I mostly liked but was confused by the second one, and about the third one I was quite ambivalent. (Not in that order.)

ChosenOnesI like the concept, which is, What happens to heroes after their mission is complete? They have done their job and defeated the evil force, and now what will life look like? But the concept is also part of the problem: Because the book is being written 10 years after the central event—the defeat of the Dark One—that was the major turning point in the five Chosen Ones’ lives, we get a confusing and contradictory look at those events, depending on to whom we are listening. It’s obvious that the trial had a devastating effect on at least some of these people, but a couple of them—Matt and Esther—seem to have recovered just fine and are using their fame to good purpose. The others—Ines, Albie, and Sloane—seem permanently stuck. Albie and Sloane, who were held and tortured by the Dark One, suffer cruelly from PTSD and are awash in misery and guilt. When the book opens, Sloane has just requested some top secret documents from the government about the events in question because, even after all these years, she feels like she doesn’t know either the truth or the scope of what happened, and she needs to make sense of it so she can move on. The documents do add to the narrative (and it’s fun to have them inserted into the text), and they do explain some things, but they bring up as much as they explain.

Anyway, the Dark One has been vanquished, the five are trapped in their celebrity stereotypes, doing the rounds of public appearances for such things as anniversaries and dedications, and everyone is in a holding pattern. Then, a tragedy brings them together, and they are suddenly being challenged to do battle again, with a foe possibly even more powerful and terrifying than the first.

At this point in the book, right after a major transition, things kind of come to a halt. There’s a lot of talk-talk about the sitch, multiple training scenarios for new techniques to vanquish the enemy, and the narrative gets a bit turgid. Then Sloane, ever the curmudgeonly rebel and loner, decides to step outside the box, and in Part Three, things finally get lively.

I have read many books in which it is necessary to set up a past, to explain current scenarios, and then move into the present-day action. This book doesn’t do a great job at that. Part of it is that we are too much inside people’s heads (mostly Sloane’s) and it’s a mess in there. Part of it is that there is not much focus—no linear story-telling here, you’re supposed to pick it all up on the fly as events and people jump around, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I did end up liking the book, mostly because of two characters (Sloane and another I won’t mention because it’s a spoiler, but he’s way cool). When they finally begin to figure things out, plan, and interact, the pace accelerates and we get not only some action but also some surprising information that causes the rest of the story to suddenly make more sense. But it seems to me it’s way too long in coming,
and a less motivated reader might give up before arriving at this point in the book.

There were also some inexplicable things: In mystery writing they always tell you, Don’t mention a gun unless it gets used in the next scene. The same goes for characters, and one person in this one who you rightfully expect to be major (or at least present!) simply disappears from the action, with no comment or explanation, despite her supposedly central role. There are also some “reasons” for various phenomena that are patently absurd, but…it is a sort of a comic book of a story, after all. Still, it’s nice when science fiction actually adheres to some consistent form of science, even if it’s invented.

Finally, this book is numbered “Chosen #1” in Goodreads, which would imply a sequel; but there is no cliffhanger or any sign at the end that a sequel will be forthcoming or even necessary. Perhaps that’s a good way to handle it—since there is no foreshadowing, the sequel could be literally anything the author pleases. It just seemed weird not to have at least a few ominous threads left dangling.

I would recommend the book, because the ideas are ingenious and at least two of the characters are compelling, ironic, and occasionally darkly humorous. And I will read the sequel, because this one engaged my curiosity sufficiently about where the story will go next. But it’s definitely a mixed bag.

Also, similar to Leigh Bardugo’s “adult” book Ninth House, this feels more like NA (new adult) than anything more mature.

 

Nnedi Okorafor

BintiFor some time now, I have meant to catch up with other readers, reviewers, and critics who have sung the praises of Nnedi Okorafor and bestowed multiple science fiction awards on her various writings. I was initially only aware (because of my profession) of her young adult books, Akata Witch and Binti, so I decided to start with Binti.

I was immediately fascinated. Binti is a marvelous protagonist, a 16-year-old of the Himba tribe of Namibia, whose traditional and isolationist family and culture nonetheless prepare her, through a magical gift for mathematics, for defiance of her family’s wishes. She receives a mathematics scholarship from the prestigious Oomza University, and bravely and optimistically chooses to attend this cosmopolitan and multiracial (as in, alien races) galactic institution despite the many fears with which she has been imbued by her family. The details of how she insistently brings her cultural identity along with her, despite the judgment and sometimes shock of the reactions around her, and her quiet persistence in finding a way to fit in are an arresting narrative. On the transport ship, she meets a diverse group of young people headed for the university and begins to find her footing and make friends.

Then, five days before the ship reaches its destination, a cultural conflict confronts the entire university as the Meduse, a fantastical race of beings bent on revenge over a thoughtless cultural appropriation, turn Binti’s transport into a nightmare of death, and Binti must act as the representative for the human race, despite her marginalized placement within it.

I was completely fascinated by this tale and thus completely outraged when it ended a few pages later! I had no idea it was a novella of 90 pages, and frankly wonder why it was published in that form. There is a huge story here, with so many intriguing ideas and influences to be unpacked, and rather than developing it into the full-length book that those details demanded, Okorafor instead wrote three novellas to cover the same material, and sacrificed continuity, in my opinion.

WhofearsdeathI decided, based on her facility for character creation and world-building, to give one of her full-length adult novels a try, so I picked up Who Fears Death from the library for my Kindle and began making my way through
that one.

For sheer scope and number of ideas and themes, I’ve never read anything comparable; but one could wish that Okorafor would slim down her vision to tell just the story she’s in at the moment, instead of including every conflict, controversy, and social injustice of which she can conceive.

This is at once a post-apocalyptic tale of the Sudan, centuries older than our own but still plagued by savage internecine war between the Okeke and Nuru; a coming-of-age story; and a “savior” quest. The initial focus of the book’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is on her own story and how it highlights all the problems of her society. She is a child of rape who faces persecution based on her mixed-race status as an Ewu, and is also discriminated against because of her gender. It is a severely misogynist landscape in which such horrors as female genital mutilation are still practiced. The early parts of the book relate her struggles in these areas, as well as her frustrated pursuit of a magical mentor to help her come to terms with her emerging powers.

I had trouble at first understanding that this was supposed to be post-apocalyptic. The problems with the society seemed both contempo-rary and timeless, and it wasn’t until well into the book, when some comments were made about the sins of the Okeke as regards technology, that I realized that was part of the history. It was hard to distinguish between the Okeke and the Nuru when all was said and done, since the Okeke were the victims while having previously been the people with the upper hand in society, while the Nuru, despite their single-minded persecution of the Okeke, seemed in some ways more advanced, or at least more benign. (Don’t misunderstand—both tribes were repellent in their treatment of anyone not “one of us.”)

After the growing-up phase of Onyesonwu’s life, the story takes a turn towards the necessity for her to learn and control her powers, and the reluctance or outright refusal of most of the (male) wizards to take her on as an apprentice or, in fact, teach her at all. She does manage to get her training, but it’s a rather interminable part of the book as you watch what she goes through to achieve it, and grew wearying before the end.

Then, the story turns again as Onyesonwu realizes that she has a pivotal role to play in the salvation of her people. She and her lover and friends set out on a quest across the desert to stop the genocide happening in the Seven Rivers region, and their squabbles and travels are at some points interesting and at others aggravating in their repetitiveness.

My favorite part of the book is in this third section, when the travelers meet up and stay with the Red People, nomads protected by a dust storm who, unlike the other tribes of the country, embrace their social pleasures without being proprietary about them, and to whom the concept of misogyny seems largely foreign. Being open to all things, they find that life is sweet, which is a strange concept to Onyesonwu and her companions.

At the point where the travelers, number reduced, depart the desert and head into their destiny as saviors of the Okeke and Nuru is where the book completely lost me. Onyesonwu has various ideas about how she is to accomplish this mission: One is destroying her father, the powerful magician whose act of rape created her; another crops up out of nowhere near the end of the book, which is to physically rewrite the “Good Book” followed by various sects of each tribe (but with no explanation of specifically how it would be rewritten and what that would achieve in terms of the genocide); and yet another seems like simply a fatalistic meeting of her ordained death, which will somehow transform the world. And that’s what we are left with—a confusing exploration of all of these things, with no real resolution or sense of a goal met. I have absolutely no clue what actually happens at the end.

I found this book so ambitious and at the same time so frustrating. Okorafor unflinchingly explores such issues as rape, child abuse, female genital mutilation, adolescent sexuality, and genocide, all subjects that need to be faced. But she does so by creating some frankly unlikable characters whose flaws are so great that it’s hard to have patience with them, let alone read nearly 400 pages about their journey. I still could have gone with it, however, if not for the utterly confusing ending, which takes the entire slow, minutely examined quest of Onyesonwu to “solve” genocide, sums it up in a few pages, and then rewrites itself in three separate epilogues! (I think I have mentioned before how little I enjoy 99 percent of epilogues in fiction.)

Perhaps I am just not sufficiently tuned into this book or its author to get the point of this saga; but from my perspective, a story with meticulous world-building and an interesting premise simply went off the rails and failed to fulfill its promise despite its author’s obvious brilliance.