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.
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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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
Even 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