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Movie Review: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016.  I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.

The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”.  In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality.  These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy.  The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.

Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.

And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.

What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection.    The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.

The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.

The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.

My Rating:


Novella Review: COUNTDOWN, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered two short stories that acted as a prequel to the events described in Feed: one was Countdown – the story of how two independent viral researches combined into the infection that caused the dead to rise; and the other was San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats – a look on the first few days of the outbreak from the point of view of the participants to a sci-fi convention.

With time, these two stories were joined by a couple of novellas, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea – set in a post-outbreak Australia, and The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell – a tale of the post-Rising world focused on a group of school children and their teachers.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories I did not review at the time, or enjoying the new ones.

COUNTDOWN

Countdown is indeed the tale about how it all began, how the seeds for the end of the world as we know it were sown, marrying human desire to cure both big and small ailments and the equally human stupidity of acting without thinking about consequences.

In Denver, Colorado, Dr. Wells is satisfactorily progressing with his experimental cure for cancer that uses a mutated strain of the Marburg virus to attack cancer cells and truly give a second lease on life to his patients. He’s checking in on one of his youngest patients, 18-year old Amanda Amberlee, who’s looking forward to her prom night and finally enjoying the freedom of simply being alive.

In Reston, Virginia, Dr. Alexander Kellis is conducting experiments on monkeys and guinea pigs with his miracle cure for the common cold: it might not look as ground-breaking as his colleague’s research into cancer, but alleviating even something as banal as a cold would greatly improve mankind’s living conditions.

In New York, journalist Robert Stalnaker writes an inflaming editorial concerning Dr. Kellis’ work, claiming that the cure will be available only to people with means, and calls the scientist’s efforts a “money scam”, reveling in the huge response – both positive and negative – the article receives.

And finally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Brandon Majors, “self-proclaimed savior of mankind” decides to start a crusade that will result in the destruction of Dr. Kellis’ lab, the dispersal of his as yet not-fully-tested cure in the atmosphere, and its interaction with the Marburg-Amberlee cancer-fighting strain.

Countdown does not only lay the basis for the zombie apocalypse and its aftermath, but also shows the failure of institutions and media in keeping the public informed about what is really happening, in a last-ditch effort of containing the inevitable by burying everyone’s heads under the sand.  This is the point from which independent bloggers will take up the slack and fill the niche left vacant by more traditional information channels: one of the more interesting narrative threads concerns indeed Georgia and Shaun Mason’s adoptive parents, both teachers at the time of the Rising – they are pictured as normal people having to face extraordinary circumstances, showing the first glimmers of what they will become in the immediate future.

There is a sense of inevitable doom hanging over this story, of an unstoppable chain of events that will lead to an explosive climax, and knowing beforehand what’s going to happen only enhances the power of this tale of how the Rising came to be.

My Rating:


Review: CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT, by S.C. Flynn

29864261I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: unlike other submissions I accepted in the past, this one took a different path. The author is also a fellow blogger, and he built some anticipation for his book by sharing first an excerpt and then the cover art, an interesting – if puzzling, at the time – image that further piqued my curiosity.

Children of the Different is a post-apocalyptic novel dealing with the aftermath of the Great Madness, a wave of murderous, virus-driven insanity that swept the globe some twenty years previously, whose victims fell prey to an unstoppable killing instinct.  Apart from a number of people who proved to be immune – as it often happens with any kind of plague – the only ones to avoid the Madness’ effects were those who had previously exhibited mental problems of various gravity: they not only survived the infection, but their afflictions were cured. Those who did not fall into either category became Ferals: as the name suggests, they are little more than beasts attacking other people, killing them and feasting on their flesh.

Now, all children born after the Madness undergo, once they reach puberty, a process called “the Changing”: they enter a comatose state in which they experience the Dreamland, a place of the mind capable of affecting the body as well, so that an injury sustained there shows in all its painful tangibility in the waking world. The Changing can bestow unique powers on those youths, or transform them into Ferals, who are driven away from the communities where they grew up.

As the novel opens, young Arika just started her Changing, observed with huge trepidation by her twin brother Narrah, who is alternately worried for his sister and for the ordeal that will shortly claim him as well. The story unfolds following the twins’ experiences – both in the Changeland and in reality – while they slowly discover more about the world they live in, as it once was and as it is now: until their Changing they lived a very sheltered life in an isolated settlement, the only information about the outside provided by the elders of the community, and therefore lacking many important details that they need to complete the puzzle.

Arika and Narrah’s path is both a coming-of-age journey and a quest, and a fascinating one at that, since it develops on several planes, due to the intermingling of reality and dream-state, without forgetting the peculiar powers that both of them gain from their Changing: here is where I finally comprehended the full meaning of the cover image, and where I understood my feelings of dread when I observed the figure of the echidna, the Ant-eater that keeps plaguing the young protagonists both in the material world and the dream state. The malevolent countenance and the red eyes of this creature struck me as totally evil on the cover, so that when it appeared in the Changeland, threatening the twins, it appeared even more of a danger than it would have from description alone.

As far as dystopian novels go, this one was quite unlike my previous experiences, and it was a very welcome change: for starters, the Australian setting is unusual for the genre, and it adds a further dimension to the post-apocalyptic landscape, imbued as it is with some Aboriginal wisdom and customs, which give it a distinctive flavor in respect of similarly set novels.  Then there are the main characters: forget the much-used (and abused) tropes of angsty youngsters, whining about the unfairness of the world or dealing with the equally ubiquitous love triangles – Arika and Narrah feel like real, flesh-and-blood teenagers, eager to take their place in the world and at the same time plagued with doubts and uncertainties, but strong enough to want to face any obstacle before them. Their courage comes from the awareness of the responsibilities they carry toward each other first, and then toward their community and, later on, the wider world; the love and the strong bond they share is the power that drives them forward through hardships and terror, and it’s a delightful and very real emotion to behold.   

The interweaving of reality and mind-scape is another fascinating side of this story, because it helps focus on the changes that the Great Madness brought to what remains of humankind: if the real world is scary enough, what with the constant threat of Ferals, or other humans preying on the weak, the Changeland is much worse, if nothing else because of its unpredictability and the opportunity for other, stronger minds, to affect it and create nightmarish dangers.  Following the twins during their Changings, or the later visits they are compelled to pay to this dream-state, can be a disturbing experience, one that personally made me hold my breath more than once, such was the power of the images I found there.

This is a novel primarily directed at a young audience, and as such it suffers a bit from the need of detailed exposition and the reiteration of a few basic concepts – both instances probably aimed at strengthening the understanding and attention span of its intended target, though slightly jarring for a more… mature reader. That notwithstanding, the story is a fascinating one, and the characters very easy to relate to and care about, so that I feel perfectly comfortable in recommending this novel to everyone who wants to hear a new voice in the speculative fiction panorama.

My Rating:


TEASER TUESDAY #11

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

This week I’m very pleased about sharing a quote – or rather, the very beginning – of a book I read very recently, the first book of a writer who’s also a fellow blogger: I’m talking about Children of the Different, by S.C. Flynn.

It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario and a coming-of-age story set in Australia, and depicts a world dramatically changed by a terrible epidemic. But it’s also a story about bonds of love, about courage and determination, and the hope for the future.

The group were getting ready to go on a Wrecking when Arika’s Changing started. Narrah heard the strangled choke in Arika’s throat and spun around. Arika was lying on the wooden floor of the hut, her limbs tense. Her green eyes turned up in her head and then closed. Narrah gulped. His mouth was dry and his heart was racing as he watched his twin sister turn pale and shiver like rippling water.

I urge you to check out the amazing cover as well, and I just learned that there is an official publication date as well: September 10th. Here you will find all the information you need (including an animated version of the cover!)

Review: HELL DIVERS, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

28464896I received this book from NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

I have no trouble admitting my weakness for post-apocalyptic scenarios (I can lay the blame on Stephen King’s The Stand for this…), so when I saw the synopsis for this novel I was immediately interested: the Earth surface has become uninhabitable after being ravaged by nuclear explosions in World War III, and what remains of humanity dwells on huge airships that have been transformed from instruments of death into arks in which the last survivors barely hang on through increasing difficulties.  The ships are old, overcrowded; supplies and foodstuffs are never enough to satisfy everyone’s needs; and the vessels require constant maintenance, achieved through scavenging runs operated by the titular Hell Divers.

These are men and women who dare the dangerous descent toward the radiation-riddled surface in search of spare parts or fuel cells in the abandoned pre-war depots: first they glide down to the surface braving constant electrical storms generated by the massive nuclear explosions of the war, then they have to scour the land for the needed supplies, trying to avoid the dangers and pitfalls on the ravaged ground, the broken-down cities and the hot zones where radiation still runs rampant.  As the story opens, a new threat is added to an already terrifying scenario: nightmarish creatures, the result of radiation-induced mutations, prey on the Hell Divers and their already dwindling numbers, adding a new level of hazard to a mortally dangerous profession.

The average life expectancy for a Hell Diver is fifteen runs, but the main character Xavier Rodriguez (simply called “X”) is a veteran with almost a hundred drops under his belt: disillusioned and despondent, he lives only for the scavenging missions, knowing that each one can be his last but apparently not caring either way. He lost his wife to cancer – a common occurrence on the ships, since the residual radiation cannot be shielded with one-hundred percent success, even far above ground – and he feels no anchor to the pitiful remnant of humanity living aboard the Hive, his days spent, like most of his fellow divers, on scavenging missions and the wild drinking bouts in-between each one.

With only two ships remaining afloat – Xavier’s own Hive and the Ares – humanity stands on the brink of extinction, and when Ares suffers a terminal breakdown and crashes to the ground, only X and the remaining Hell Divers stand between this same fate for Hive and the remote possibility of finally finding a landing place where try and rebuild some sort of civilization.

The picture painted in this premise is quite grim, and the most riveting part of the novel resides in the bleakness of the situation and the way in which human society – or what’s left of it – has adapted to the new living conditions: space aboard the ships is at a premium, and a good portion of it is devoted to raising crops and livestock to feed the survivors. Social differences have transcended color and gender and veered toward usefulness to the ship: engineers and farmers are among the privileged, right after the crew members and the Hell Divers, of course.  All the others are relegated to the cramped spaces of Below Deck, where illness, malnutrition and resentment run rampant, and where the more industrious manage to eke out a slightly better life through the sale of black market goods or straightforward crime.

Conditions on the ground are even worse: under the constant cover of roiling black clouds, where electrical storms rage in waves and the sun never shines through, the land is covered by the ice of nuclear winter; rubble and the remnants of once-proud skyscrapers dot the landscape and offer a perfect breeding and hiding ground to the Sirens: blind and hungry creatures gifted with razor teeth and an unerring sense for prey – the evolution of some hardy animal or perhaps of those humans who did non perish immediately after the holocaust.

It’s on this unforgiving background that the story develops, starting without preamble with a fateful dive and from there expanding the focus to humanity’s overall situation: it’s a quick, immersive story that captures your attention and keeps it there, with almost no space for a breather. This is more of an action-driven novel, which means that deeper characterization is sacrificed on the altar of pacing and narrative speed: on the plus side, this allows for an almost cinematic quality to the storytelling – and this would indeed make for a great movie with breath-taking visuals, where the Hell Divers’ descent through the cloud layer could work as an amazing opener, and the scenes of the attacking Sirens offer several nerve-wracking moments. Still, I would have liked something more from the characters, that at times tend to be more tropes than people: the disillusioned veteran, the beleaguered captain, the former thief-turned-diver who finds a new meaning in life, and so on. A few events seem a little too convenient as well, like the young orphan who finds himself in Xavier’s care and goes from grieving, sullen silence to affectionate acceptance almost overnight with no visible progression.

Nonetheless, these are simply personal issues and the fact remains that Hell Divers is an engaging story that holds one’s attention from start to finish and will certainly satisfy the readers’ need for adventure in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The kind of book that can keep you awake till the small hours…

 

My Rating:

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

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This week’s subject is: Books with “hard” topics

When I discuss my reading preferences with people who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, they often complain that the genre does not deal with “real” issues and they could not be more wrong, as testified by these few examples:

The Detainee by Peter Liney:

In this dystopian future, society relegates unwanted citizens on an island that is also a huge garbage dump. Among these rejects the most unwanted of all are the old: left there to die of deprivation, of the pollutants brewing among the garbage piles, and of neglect. But what’s worse is that the youngsters who have been marooned to the island with them are taught that their plight is the old people’s fault, so bands of angry teenagers hunt the old and defenseless as a bloody sport.  Science fiction? Not really: merely the extrapolation of the many small incidents we can observe in our everyday life…

Lock In by John Scalzi:

In this novel, the author postulates that a vicious form of flu has left many of the victims prisoners of their own bodies: their minds are fully functional, but the bodies don’t respond to the brain impulses any more. After a while the affected people are able to interact with society once more by connecting to a sort of android bodies called “threeps” and have a semblance of normal life but after the initial wave of social awareness, the general public starts to turn against the threeps, the most vocal maintaining that too many resources are being employed for the locked in, resources that could be better spent elsewhere. It does sound frighteningly familiar, indeed.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee:

When eight-year old Jos’ ship is attacked by pirates who kill the adults and take the children prisoners to turn them into slaves, the young protagonist starts a nightmarish descent into Hell, one made of fear, terror and abuse that will forever scar him, even when he will find the strength to escape from his tormentors.  I usually avoid stories that contain this kind of theme because I believe that there is nothing more terrible than stealing a child’s innocence, robbing them of what should be the most carefree years in a person’s life, but in this case the author described young Jos’ journey with such a light hand, through suggestion more than outright detail, that I had to stay until the very end. This is a book that will leave its mark on you, but it will be worth the pain.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

No need to describe this story, the one that opened the road to so much YA dystopian narrative – both for the good and for the bad. What I found truly horrifying in the whole scenario was not only the cruelty of pitting young people against each other in a ruthless battle that would see only one survivor, but the fact that the whole scenario was used as both a bloody spectator sport and as admonition against rebellion. I remember thinking, as I read through the book, that we are not so far from the Capitol citizen watching teenagers die horribly: after all there seems to be a huge audience for those so-called reality shows where people face dangerous or harrowing situations. What it says about us, as human beings, is something I prefer not to dwell upon too much.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy:

In a post-apocalyptic landscape a man and his son travel over a wasted land, where the few survivors are more beasts than men, toward the coast and the sea in the hope of finding something better – or maybe just to give themselves a reason to go on.  It’s a hard, harsh story that at the same time lights the darkness with the love binding the two of them: it’s an understated kind of love, but it shines through and makes the nightmarish scenes almost bearable. Almost.

Review: DANGEROUS WOMEN – Various Authors

17279560In my new-found interest for short stories’ collections I ran across this one that promised interesting female characters and sported several names of authors I either already appreciate or I’m curious about, so I thought it would be a good starting point for new discoveries.  While the journey was a good one, in several cases I wondered where the danger represented by these ladies was: most of them are strong, capable women, but not exactly threatening, and in one particular instance there was no woman, dangerous or otherwise, carrying the tale – so that I suspected, at times that the anthology title was more of a sales pitch than anything else.  I have no reason to complain, though, because the ones that were interesting, or downright intriguing, kept their own stories flowing smoothly.

Neighbors – By Megan Lindholm aka Robin Hobb

Sarah, an elderly widowed lady living by herself, shows the first symptoms of a failing mind, and therefore keeps to herself the amazing things she witnesses on foggy nights…

The main character in this story is indeed an unreliable narrator due to her problems, and yet there are extreme clarity and realism in the everyday occurrences she goes trough, both on her own and while dealing with concerned family members: what she sees through her windows has all the marks of reality, and yet we readers cannot avoid wondering if it’s all the product of her progressively deteriorating mind – probably picking that up from the echoes of Sarah’s own inner doubts. But after a while it all ceases to be important, since all that matters is the poignant story and the excellent way it’s told, clear-cut and with no need for excess sentimentalism. One of the best offerings in the whole anthology.

Shadows For Silence In The Forests Of Hell – By Brandon Sanderson

Silence Fontaine runs a inn at the edge of the dangerous Forest, where shadows hunt the living and prey on them. When her way of life and the safety of her family are threatened, she will do anything to protect them…

I have to confess I never read anything by Sanderson before, and this story showed me I’ve been missing out on a good author – a situation I must correct as soon as possible.  Despite the shorter form, the world building is solid and convincing, and the characters stand out quite clearly, but what took hold of my imagination is the story itself: the creepy, not-fully-explained danger lurking in the forest is much more terrifying because of its indetermination, not in spite of it. The characters’ dangerous journey through that forest is one of the most adrenaline-laden stories I ever read, the fear of the unknown and the unseen becoming almost tangible. After this sample of Mr. Sanderson’s work, I’m certain I will enjoy his novels quite a bit.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly – By Nancy Kress

In a post-apocalyptic future in which a plague has made most of humanity sterile, people run in packs for protection: an aging woman with nursing skills, attached to one of these packs, inadvertently shows to two members a glimpse of past beauty through old ballet videos.

Easily my favorite story in the whole book, and another discovery of an author I never read before.

There is a poignant dichotomy in the world as it is in Nurse’s times, long after the collapse, and her recollections of better times passed on in the words of her grandmother, so that Nurse sees both things as they are, but also imagines them as they were in happier times. Yet even more poignant is the discovery of beauty and grace by the two young pack members, who are so overtaken by what they see in the old video, that they are ready to flaunt the pack’s rules in pursuit of something they didn’t even suspect could exist, also convincing others of the rightness of their path.  I’ve always been partial to ballet, so this story had one more reason to resonate with me, but the contrast between the world’s stark, brutal reality and the glimpses of a better past is more than enough to reach a reader’s soul. Very moving.

Pronouncing Doom – By S.M. Stirling

Another post-apocalyptic Earth, where what remains of humanity, gathered in clans, must re-learn the old ways of living to survive. Unfortunately, some people seem quite attached to the old world’s worst sins…

When the world as we know it collapses, what do we do to keep a semblance of civilization? And better yet, how far are we ready to go? This is the dilemma that Juniper McKenzie faces when she needs to mete out justice on the wolf hiding among her flock, and the interesting part of the story comes from the decision she takes and the way she arrives at that decision. Unfortunately, the “flavor” of the story was marred by the little voice whispering in my ear that such huge changes in social customs, complete with neologisms, were a little too fast for a world that’s only one year away from the big catastrophe. But it was not enough to prevent me from enjoying the tale.

The Princess and the Queen – By George R.R. Martin

A few centuries before the time in which ASOIAF takes place, a brutal war for power is waged between branches of the Targaryen family, and takes the name of “Dance of the Dragons” because the fiery creatures play a major role in it.

In truth, this story was disappointing: I expected more from GRR Martin, some story that would expand my knowledge and understanding of the rich tapestry of Westeros, and the same satisfying characterization I’ve come to enjoy in his ASOIAF saga. Sadly, I found none of this: this looks more like an outline for a story, with an almost endless list of characters and deeds (mostly bloody and ruthless, but that’s Martin for you) and no perception of depth. It’s entirely possible that the author’s choice of relaying the events from an historian’s point of view robbed the narrative of any human interest, preventing me from feeling any attachment for the various figures depicted there. If I had come across this before taking up the first ASOIAF book, I don’t believe I would have given the saga a second thought.

Overall Rating:


Review: WASTELANDS 2 (Various Authors)

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When I ran across this collection of post-apocalyptic short stories the names of a few authors I enjoy reading jumped at me from the cover and I knew I had to try this book out, even though I’m not exactly partial to short stories. But after all, part of the reading experience includes getting out of beaten paths now and then, doesn’t it?

Here are a few of the stories that caught my attention: not all of them, of course, but merely a sample of the best ones in this book.

“Animal Husbandry” by S. McGuire

In this tale of a decimated humanity in the aftermath of a series of devastating plagues I discovered that McGuire channeled her writing “twin”, Mira Grant, in themes and narrating voice. There is the same sparseness of words, the same terseness of tone that I first encountered in her highly successful “Newsflesh” series: the horror is conveyed in an almost detached way that perversely makes it more detailed, more cutting, and it’s one of the characteristics I have come to appreciate in this author.   The main character, Mercy Neely, is a veterinarian who’s traveling across the country to join her daughter, in the hope she survived the onslaught of sickness: this hope, though understated, is the fuel that makes her go on despite the loneliness and the terrible sights she has to face day after day. With Mercy travels a veritable menagerie she has rescued along the way: horses to pull her wagon, dogs for company and protection, goats for the milk: with her knowledge as a veterinarian, the protagonist knows which kind of animals can survive and be more useful and which are best put down to spare them useless suffering. What struck me as I was reading was the level-headedness of this woman in front of a worldwide catastrophe and its aftermath: at some point she recalls coming back to consciousness after being bedridden because of the plague, and discovering that her small town had turned into an open-air grave – she says something about “freaking out a bit” but almost immediately turning to practical matters of survival.  What I didn’t expect was the turn of events and the revelation about her that occurs at the very end of the story, a chilling denouement that left me staring at the page for a long time, literally dumbstruck.  On hindsight, I could have expected it, knowing this particular author, but once again she managed to lull me into a false sense of security before delivering her blow.       Well done indeed!

“… For a single yesterday” by George R.R. Martin

George Martin’s fame is of course tied to his Song of Ice and Fire saga and to the medieval fantasy world he created, a world of violence, cruelty and intrigue. Yet there is a different GRRM to be found in his short stories, a writer capable of deep insights in the human soul and of lyrical flights of imagination: this story is one such example.  The world has been profoundly changed by the Blast – clearly a nuclear holocaust – that targeted the main cities killing millions, and humanity survives in small pockets of civilization, like the hippy commune where the action takes place: created long before the Blast, it shelters both the original founders and the few strays that managed to get there escaping from the doomed cities and the bands of murdering foragers prowling the land.  Musician Keith is one of those people, and he plays his songs every evening, recalling a world that does not exist anymore.

Having lost everything, including the woman he loved and for whom he still yearns after four years, Keith has found solace in a drug scavenged from an abandoned hospital: this drug, created to tap buried memories, has the power to re-create the past in such a vivid manner that he’s convinced he’s truly back in a better time, with his Sandy.  Keith knows the supply of the drug is not infinite and someday he will have to give up his “timetripping”, as he calls it, but when we meet him he’s biding his time and dwelling in peaceful denial.  Of course the bubble bursts when a newcomer to the commune starts leading the survivors toward a more pro-active attitude, trying to convince them not to think only of the present, of day-to-day survival, but to plan for the future: for this he needs Keith’s drug, to trigger individual memories of useful knowledge in the technical or medical field.   This theme strongly reminded me of another short story from Martin, “With Morning Comes Mistfall”: once again the battle between harsh reality and dream, cold science and the realm of imagination is being waged, and once again the magic is killed by reality, taking away with it something precious and irretrievable. As in that other story, there is a poignancy, a sense of something fleeting that’s too easily broken and leaves behind an emptiness nothing can adequately fill, and Martin describes it with emotional intensity without ever turning maudlin, in the kind of perfect balance I encountered before in his writing. This is the kind of story I will not easily forget…

“Jimmy’s Roadside Café” by Ramsey Shehadeh

This is a short but poignant story that tells you almost nothing about how the world ended and rather concentrates on one person, the titular Jimmy, trying to find an oasis of normalcy in the aftermath of the collapse.  Jimmy opens a makeshift café along the highway, congested with stalled vehicles, all that’s left of the final stampede to avoid the plague that decimated the human race, and there he waits for customers. He’s not crazy, nor deluded: he’s quite aware of what surrounds him, but he waits for other survivors like him to pass through, offering a moment of respite, some companionship and stale doughnuts. There is a sort of cheerful acceptance in Jimmy, the unspoken awareness there’s nothing to be done to change things but also that one should not give in to despair. He can find beauty even in the desolated landscape of rusting vehicles, as he watches the sunset: “A wash of brilliance exploded up out of the highway, the slant of the sunlight reflecting up from thousands of sloped windshields, and suddenly the road below them was a sparkling, blinding sheen of narrow white light”.

Post-apocalyptic stories tend to concentrate on the ugliness that takes hold of the human spirit after a global disaster: this story, though it offers little or no hope about survival, hints at the possibility that we might still find our better angels even in the midst of chaos. And it’s enough.

“Advertising at the end of the world” by Keffy R.M. Kehrli

What started like another story about the lone survivor in the world – a woman living by herself in a mountain cabin – soon became a weird peek into this future where ads are walking humanoid shapes, built to interact with humans. Marie, the main character, finds a group of them on her front lawn, remnants of the past civilization who have managed to contact one of the last surviving humans: there are many scientific hypotheses about the creatures that will inherit the Earth once mankind has managed to wipe itself out of the equation – some say cockroaches, others say rats, but no one ever thought about ads, and I found this idea even more unsettling than the other ones.

In our present society we are literally hounded by ads – on the radio, on tv, even before movies start in theaters. And let’s not go into the obnoxious telephone ads that come through at all times, especially the most inconvenient ones, defeating your attempts at shielding yourself… When Marie, in the story, tries to make her unwelcome “guests” go away she is just as unsuccessful as we are: “The ads turned to face her. They were designed to understand when they were told to leave. This was meant to limit the annoyance factor. Even in the best of times, the command had rarely worked.”  Strange as it might look, I found this even more scary than the extinction event itself, the idea that such a modern – and very real – annoyance might survive even longer that its creators.

Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back by Joe Lansdale

Nuclear apocalypse is nothing new to genre fiction, nor are the plight of survivors and the desolate devastation that’s their legacy, but this story managed to put a different spin on this particular topic, adding a few shades of horror that made the total annihilation of the human race almost pale in comparison.  We learn about what happened from the journal of Paul, living with his wife Mary in an abandoned lighthouse: the two don’t speak to each other anymore, since Mary holds Paul responsible for the death of their teenage daughter Rae, wiped out by the nuclear holocaust that ended the world as we know it.  Paul worked with a team of scientists “teaching, inventing and improving on our nuclear threat” and the two survived, with a handful of others, because Mary was driving him to work on the day when the Big One was dropped, and they made it to safety inside the compound’s shelter. Of course Rae didn’t and that’s what Mary blames him for, building a wall of silence and resentment between them: their only interaction the tattoo she’s drawing on his back – slowly and painfully – of a mushroom cloud on which a weeping Rae’s face is etched with realistic care.  Paul accepts the pain from the tattoo because it’s become the only point of connection between him and Mary and the only way to somehow re-create the loving triangle that existed, prior to the bomb, in their family – and because that pain is the only thing that can keep his deep-seated guilt at bay, at least for a little while.

The horror – besides that of the awareness that the human race has been wiped out and the world has undergone terrifying changes – comes from a race of mutated roses that take hold of bodies, transforming them into zombie-like creatures that might very well be the new rulers of this devastated Earth: what’s more poetic and beautiful than a rose? And what’s more terrifying than something beautiful twisted into a creeping mortal danger?  This is a disturbingly excellent story, one that will give me nightmares for quite a while….

Overall Rating: 8/10

Review: ORYX AND CRAKE – Margaret Atwood

46756Even though I greatly appreciated Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, I never read anything else by this author, and I needed a friend’s enthusiastic comments about this book to finally try her other works: I must recognize that Atwood does dystopian landscapes quite well, and even though I needed to take a break, now and then, from the bleak scenario she paints here, this story is indeed a compelling one.

We start at the very end – or rather the aftermath: Snowman, once known as Jimmy, is probably the only surviving member of the human race, wiped out by a devastating plague that swept across the globe. He survives in a radically changed world, where climate has gone crazy with high temperatures, flooding rains and tornadoes, and a damaging level of UV – probably due to the thinning of the ozone layer.  Snowman is not alone though: he acts as a sort of indifferent shepherd to a group of people that have been genetically tailored to be the new inhabitants of planet Earth, placid, innocent creatures he calls the Children of Crake.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn how the situation came to the present state, and it’s a disturbingly hopeless picture: overcrowding and lack of resources have brought Earth to the brink of collapse, while the population is divided between the Compounds – guarded enclaves where the privileged enjoy higher living standards – and the Pleeblands, where the rest of humanity lives in the polluted remains of the cities.   Jimmy is one of the privileged, since his parents work for one of the bio-tech companies more interested in profit and exploitation rather than the betterment of living conditions. He’s not living a charmed life, though, because he’s a lonely boy, largely ignored by his elsewhere engaged parents and not bright enough to be included in the circles of his peers. Things change with the arrival of Glenn – later to be known as Crake – and the start of a friendship that will profoundly mark Jimmy’s life and affect his future.

It’s through these two teenagers’ eyes and habits that we get to know the not-so-far removed future in which the action takes place, and it’s a dismal one: the deep split in social structures and the dwindling resources go hand-in-hand with illness, violence and drug abuse, while the bio-tech corporations flood the market with tailored pharmaceuticals and drugs, also providing genetically modified animals for either food consumption or organ harvesting. What’s more horrifying though, is the high level of violence in “entertainment” programs, video games and internet sites, where the common theme is the lack of value in human life: as we see these two young men watching videos of executions, assisted suicides and so on, or playing games where maximum points go to the highest body count, we understand humanity passed beyond the point of no return and that the bleak future in which Jimmy/Snowman now lives in comes as a direct consequence of these premises.

What I find fascinating here is that events are described through the point of view of unlikable characters that nonetheless manage to keep the reader’s attention focused: Jimmy goes through his life as more of a spectator than a participant, and if his apathy is the direct result of parental neglect, his constant whining about the unfairness of it all – both in the past and in the present – did nothing to endear him to me, and yet I found myself following both his life story and his current journey through the abandoned ruins of our world with deep fascination. The same fascination offered by a developing train wreck, granted, but still…

The same goes for Crake: brilliant and personable where Jimmy is average and awkward, he hides quite well a dark streak of scorn for the rest of humanity, a side of his psychological make-up that surfaces in deceptively off-hand remarks whose deeper meaning, and impact, Snowman will understand only through the obsessive recollection he spends his time on. Crake is profoundly disaffected with humanity in general and his scientific mind compels him to find a solution to the world’s troubles: the fact that this solution is quite final – and bloody – would put him in the proverbial mad scientist’s shoes, if his coldly intellectual and analytical approach to the problem did not make a sort of twisted, spine-chilling sense, or rather, it would if simply applied to a theoretical exercise and not to the real world.

Oryx is the third character in this story, a former sex slave bought from an impoverished family who becomes Crake’s assistant: her role is somewhat limited, and mostly consists in being Jimmy/Snowman’s constant obsession, and yet she represents the love Jimmy wants but can never fully attain, just as Crake represents the kind of friendship he strives for, but that might have been more imagined than factual.  This is probably the reason for the presence of both names in the title: love and friendship (Oryx and Crake) that are now forever out of Snowman’s reach and whose memory is not enough to fill the last surviving man’s emptiness.

This review would not be complete without a comment on the Children of Crake, the genetically tailored post-humans that in Crake’s plan should inherit the Earth: these lab-grown creatures are simple, innocent and trusting and in their creator’s plan they will avoid mankind’s mistakes of strife through religion, politics and unfulfilled passions. Yet we catch a few glimpses that show how human nature can’t be so easily denied, even in the absence of proper stimuli: the Crakers are intensely curious about their world, for example, and they tend to create their own mysticism in an attempt to explain what they don’t understand – this would seem like a precursor to religion, one of the components that Crake tried to breed out of them. Snowman also observes that some of them are more assertive than others, which would indicate an embryo of leadership, with all the negative elements this might entail.

Does this mean that Crake’s grand plan is doomed to fail?  The book does not answer the question, since it ends in a sort of cliffhanger that will – probably – be resolved in the following novels, but what really matters here is the journey, how humanity reaches the brink and falls to its own destruction.  It’s a compelling, if very depressing, story that offers no room for hope or respite, but still takes hold of one’s imagination and never lets go.

My Rating: 8,5/10