5 days ago

Secrets and lies in a young adult thriller, and it’s not science fiction

young adult thrillerThe Doubt Factory, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Let’s start with a confession. I’ve been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction ever since reading The Windup Girl, which I regard as one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. The future scenario the author portrays is compelling and strikingly imaginative, and I’ve found much the same evidence of creativity in his other science fiction novels. So I turned to another of Bacigalupi’s books, The Doubt Factory, expecting more of the same. It’s not. This one, set in the United States today, is a contemporary young adult thriller, pure and simple. Combining the author’s clever plotting and fluid prose with deft development of characters who are unique and believable, The Doubt Factory is an accomplished example of his craft. I liked it a lot even though it isn’t science fiction!

Alix Banks is a 17-year-old senior at an exclusive Connecticut prep school, daughter of the founder and chief executive of a public relations firm, Banks Strategy Partners. She lives with her parents and hyperactive younger brother, Jonah, in a luxurious suburban home near other wealthy executives and professionals. Alix is a top student and track star at Seitz Academy, but she has to work to get the top grades she and her parents expect. By contrast, her friend Cynthia effortlessly earns all As. Cynthia spends evenings and weekends “partying,” and routinely invites Alix to duck her parents and come along.

Meanwhile, a young man named Moses Cruz is somehow monitoring Alix’s every move at home and at school through surveillance devices that are obviously well hidden. Then Moses shows up in the quad at Seitz Academy in the midst of a massive prank that draws all eyes to him. Someone, somehow, has caused an enormous red tag (“2.0”) to show up on the side of the chemistry lab and released a prodigious number of white rats inside. As the rats scurry away over the quad, the headmaster attempts without success to detain Moses. A tall black man dressed in fatigues, he’s obviously out of place at Seitz, where students wear uniforms. Alix is fascinated and runs after him as he makes his escape from campus security and the police who’ve been called to the scene.

Moses calls his team 2.0. Like him, the other three are all brilliant teenage renegades: a Goth coder, a young gay man, and a 12- or 13-year old mechanical genius. They’re obviously up to something, but we won’t learn what until much later in the story. Whatever it is, it has something to do with the “Doubt Factory” of the title, but that name doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the novel.

The Doubt Factory is an action-packed young adult thriller and the story of an unlikely romance as well. It’s all based on a monumental secret and the lies that are told to protect it.

FYI, my review of The Windup Girl is here: One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Another novel set in the same imagined world is here: Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. For my reviews of dozens of other thrillers, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

7 days ago

Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel

alien encountersRemnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Stephen Spielberg’s iconic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, appeared in 1977, starring Richard Dreyfuss and François Truffaut. Nearly forty years later, in 2016, Arrival covered similar territory with a cast headed by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Both films featured uniquely original ideas about the nature of the first alien encounter between the human race and an intelligent species on another world. In Remnant Population, originally published in 1996, American science fiction author Elizabeth Moon displays an equally imaginative idea about an alien encounter—on the printed page.

Remnant Population centers on the life of Ofelia Falfurrias, a widow who is seventy years old as the story opens. She lives with her unlovable youngest son and his demanding and disdainful wife, so it’s no surprise that Ofelia resolves to stay behind when the whole colony is shut down and the colonists shipped off to another planet. Ofelia revels in her aloneness, tending the vegetable garden, the sheep and cows, the “fabricator,” and the power plant that drives the refrigeration and stove in her home. For the first time in her life, nobody is telling Ofelia what to do. She loves it.

Months go by, then years. All of a sudden, a mission arrives on-planet to establish a new colony at a distant location. As the shuttles land, depositing teams of colonists, their landing site is viciously attacked and all the humans are killed in short order. The shuttles are destroyed by bombs some unknown species has placed there.

Much later, a group of the “monsters” who killed the human party begin showing up in Ofelia’s village. To them, she’s a monster, too. But each soon realizes that the other means them no harm. The locals, who call themselves the People, are endlessly curious. They follow Ofelia everywhere, observing everything she does. As Ofelia learns to distinguish individuals among them and to appreciate their child-like inquisitiveness, they grow to respect one another. It also becomes clear the People are extremely fast learners.

Then a second new human mission arrives to investigate why the colony’s power plant remains open. The corporation that evacuated the planet had insisted they’d turned everything off to prevent any potential intelligent life from gaining access to advanced human technology. The survey team includes exobiologists and exolinguists as well as soldiers because the bombing of the earlier landing site suggests that, against all odds, there may be an intelligent species on the planet. As they arrive in Ofelia’s town, the prospects for a friendly encounter seem dim. Ofelia is determined to keep things peaceful and protect her new friends among the People.

Elizabeth Moon skillfully tells her tale, building suspense all the while she develops characters as complex as humanity itself. The novel starts slowly, dwelling on Ofelia’s thoughts and feelings over the initial months after her family and neighbors had left. But it’s worth the wait. This is a truly delightful tale of an alien encounter unlike any you’ve ever imagined before.

Not long ago I reviewed a very different novel on a similar theme: Saturn Run by the thriller writer John Sanford and Stein. My review is at First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. On a slightly different vein, I recently posted A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

a couple of weeks ago

A promising start to a new John Scalzi series

John Scalzi seriesThe Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1), by John Scalzi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s not hard to see why John Scalzi has so many fans in the science fiction community. His writing is unusually accessible, frequently profane, and often funny. If anyone is writing expressly for the proverbial 14-year-old sci-fi fan, it’s John Scalzi. And there’s just enough of the 14-year-old still in me to love his work.

If you’re a fan, then you know that Scalzi is extremely prolific and you’re probably familiar with his writing. He’s best known for his six-book Old Man’s War series. Scalzi has been nominated for many awards and has won some, including the Hugo Award for his standalone novel, Redshirts. (I loved the book. My review is here: Diabolically clever, and very, very funny.) He seems to be popular among his peers as well, having served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

The Collapsing Empire, published March 2017, is the first book in a John Scalzi series of at least two novels about a distant future empire called the Interdependency. The central character, Cardenia Wu-Patrick, is an illegitimate daughter of the reigning emperox. The emperox is not just the political and ceremonial leader of the thousand-year-old Interdependency but also head of the Church, a member of Parliament, and director of the realm’s predominant trading company (called a “guild”), the House of Wu. As the novel opens, Emperox Attavio VI is on his deathbed. Cardenia is his designated heir—and she’s not especially happy about it. Until recently, her half-brother was slated to succeed as Emperox, but he died in a racing accident. Now she must learn how to command a realm consisting of 47 planetary systems and billions of people.

The 47 planets of the Interdependency are scattered far from each other, often tens of light-years distant. Faster-than-light travel is physically impossible, but more than a millennium ago humans had discovered the Flow, a network of streams or tunnels through space-time resembling what other science fiction authors call wormholes. However, travel through the Flow is not instantaneous. The trip from Hub, the realm’s central planet, to End, the farthest away of the other worlds, takes nine months. Ever since the 26th century, a millennium ago, when the Interdependency was founded, the Flow has been stable. But now the Flow is beginning to collapse—and the Empire will collapse with it. Cardenia is destined to become the last emperox.

The trouble begins shortly after the death of Attavio VI. Midway through the ceremony of her coronation as Grayland II, a powerful bomb explodes at the imperial palace, killing her best friend and adviser and nearly killing Cardenia herself. Meanwhile, on distant End, a rebellion is underway against the reigning Duke. In the midst of the chaos, a Flow physicist is putting the finishing touches on the paper, years in the making, that predicts the collapse of the Flow. Jamies, Count Claremont, then charges his son, Marce, to travel to Hub and inform the emperox, an old friend.

The ensuing action revolves around the lives of Marce and Cardenia. Each faces peril at every turn as they strive to outsmart and evade the machinations of the supremely ambitious House of Nohamapetan.

Don’t think for a minute that everything will turn out all right in the end. The title of this novel is, after all, The Collapsing Empire. Space opera? Of course! But John Scalzi makes it fun from start to finish.

For a list of the sci-fi books I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And here’s my review of the first book in another John Scalzi series: A sci-fi novel that harkens back to the bad old days of the pulp magazines. I didn’t like that one so much.

a couple of weeks ago

The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera

space operaBarrayar (Vorkosigan Saga #3), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Captain Cordelia Naismith is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across in science fiction: empathetic but tough, brilliant but self-effacing, loving mother and coldblooded soldier. In Barrayar, the third book in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, she is now married to Admiral Aral Vorkosigan. When the two met, they were enemies, both stranded on an alien planet. They came together to defend themselves against the traitors in Vorkosigan’s army who had seized control of his battleship. Now, months later, living in luxury on his home planet, Barrayar, Cordelia is reasonably content—until the Admiral is appointed regent for the four-year-old heir to the Barrayaran imperial throne, Prince (now Emperor) Gregor. As she soon discovers, the new position takes Aral away from home most of the time. Cordelia becomes increasingly unhappy. “She hadn’t married the regent of Barrayar, four months back. She’d married a simple retired soldier.”

Life in a militaristic patriarchy plagued by factional fighting

Barrayar is a hierarchical and militaristic patriarchy riven with factional disputes. Aral, an aristocrat with the title “Lord” as the son of General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, is a rare example of tolerance and flexibility in a society that is stubbornly resistant to change. Only 80 years earlier had Barrayar emerged from its Time of Isolation and “made contact with the wider galactic civilization again.” Prince Gregor’s grandfather, Emperor Ezar Vorbarra, had been largely responsible for suppressing the factional fighting and reintroducing contemporary technology to the planet. However, by Cordelia’s standards, Barrayar is a primitive place compared with her home world, Beta Colony. The society’s relative backwardness proves problematic when she gives birth to a son months later.

Not long after Aral’s appointment as regent, a near-successful assassination attempt upends his and Cordelia’s lives. But even that horrific event pales by comparison with the civil war that breaks out some time later following a conservative revolt against his “progressive” rule as regent. The struggle that follows tests both Aral and Cordelia to the limit. Though we’re confident they will triumph in the end, the path to victory will be strewn with costly losses.

Much more than a space opera

Superficially, Barrayar is a space opera. But it’s much more and better than that. What sets Bujold’s writing apart from that of most other science fiction authors is the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories. Cordelia is at once strong enough to best some of her most fearsome enemies, a loving mother, a homesick off-worlder, and a leader who inspires both respect and affection from those she commands. Her internal dialogue is colorful, full of internal inconsistencies, and all too believable. She is truly a unique character. Aral, too, often surprises, as do several of the soldiers who surround them. Barrayar is superior science fiction.

For links to my reviews of other science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

About the author

Lois McMaster Bujold has won multiple awards for both science fiction and fantasy. The only other author who has won four Hugo Awards as she has, is Robert A. Heinlein. The Vorkosigan Saga, one of the three book series she is writing, consists of 30 novels to date, spanning the 30-year period from 1986 to 2016.

last month

A chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

American Civil WarAmerican War: A Novel, by Omar El Akkad

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In American War by Omar El Akkad, the Second American Civil War erupts in 2074 when Sara T. (“Sarat”) Chestnut is six years old. Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. And much worse is in store for the unfortunate people of this once-democratic nation.

In previous decades, rising seas and monster storms have submerged large swaths of the Eastern and Gulf Coasts, driving millions of people far into the nation’s heartland. Boston, New York, Washington—every low-lying city on both coasts—they’re all now under water. Elevated temperatures have eliminated countless animal species and destroyed huge areas of formerly rich farmland. Mexico has seized Texas and most of the Southwest, governing them under a Protectorate. And the United States has long been isolated on the world stage. “[T]he 2030s and 2040s [were] the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.” The “newborn superpowers” are China and the Bouazzizi Empire that spans North Africa and the Middle East.

What’s left of Louisiana is neutral territory, considered Purple, wedged between Texas and the core Southern states that are called the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia). There, Sarat, her fraternal twin sister Dana, and her older brother Simon live in deepening poverty with their parents. In hopes of obtaining a work permit and the means to move his family to safer ground, their father sets out for the North—and there at a federal courthouse he falls victim to another Southern terrorist bomb.

American War spans the years from 2074 to 2123. The story is narrated in old age by Benjamin Chestnut, Sarat’s nephew, whom we meet by name only late in the war. Benjamin regards the tale as tragedy in the classical sense. “Some people are born sentenced to terrible inheritance,” he writes, “diseases that lay dormant in the blood from birth. My sentence was to know, to understand.” Interspersed with Benjamin’s narrative are brief excerpts from speeches, official documents, and interviews with incidental characters that broaden the scope of the tale beyond Sarat and her family. But Sarat is the tightly focused subject of this chilling tale.

At times, the action in American War is almost unbearably raw. A massacre scene that’s central to the story conjures up memories of survivors’ reports from the 1982 invasion of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon, when right-wing Christian militiamen were unleashed by the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon. Those reports haunt me to this day.

Sadly, the scenario El Akkad paints in his novel of a Second American Civil War comes across as all too credible in today’s darkening political environment. His portrayal of the toll taken by the rising sea level may be exaggerated, since current scientific projections foresee a much more gradual process. But the fanaticism on both sides of the Second American Civil War—the standoff between Reds and Blues—is little greater than the polarization that has come to dominate the country’s politics in recent years. And the heated dispute over the use of fossil fuels is by no means beyond belief. Dystopian fiction is typically cautionary. American War is a perfect example.

The author, Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad, has reported from around the world for the Toronto Globe and Mail. American War in his first book.

For reviews of other dystopian novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, see A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

a couple of months ago

A powerful feminist story in a dystopian landscape

feminist storyThe Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Meg Elison‘s debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award and was included among the Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year, 2016, and Amazon Best Books of the Year, 2016. It’s another sign that science fiction has come of age, no longer confined to a readers’ ghetto. The novel is a powerful feminist story set principally in the US in the near future. An unstoppable “plague” has killed off nearly all the human race but has proven far more lethal for women and children than for men.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, a registered nurse-midwife at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) has awakened after a weeks-long bout with the illness, only to find that her lover, a physician named Jack, has disappeared and everyone else in the hospital is dead. We never learn the midwife’s name: as she staggers through the desolate world, encountering other living human beings only occasionally, she introduces herself under a series of assumed names. “The book” of the title is her diary, a searing account of her feelings and experiences in a world gone mad. A diligent diarist, she incorporates stories from others she meets along the way. Several generations later, the midwife’s book represents for at least one community the only full account of the collapse that followed the plague. In a twist reminiscent of Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the book is treated with reverence by the survivors, who are gradually building a new, matriarchal civilization.

The midwife slowly makes her way, partly on foot, partly by car or bicycle, and later by snowmobile, from San Francisco through Northern California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah. She frequently encounters violent, sex-crazed men who victimize every woman or girl within their reach, typically enslaving them. Much more rarely, she comes across a woman or a helpful man. She survives by plundering abandoned homes, avoiding the rotting corpses of the dead—and by using the guns and rifles she manages to accumulate from time to time. (Her father had taught her to shoot.) As the months go by, remaining food, fuel, weapons, and ammunition become ever more scarce. From time to time, she joins one or two others and settles down temporarily, but those connections don’t last. Later, she comes across a new phenomenon: a “hive” in which a single woman rules over a household of several or even dozens of men, doling out sexual favors at whim. Most of the small towns she visits are abandoned. The midwife chooses to avoid the cities, where greater danger lies. Eventually, after harrowing experiences that force her to kill without compunction, the midwife arrives in a peaceful and thriving community, where she takes up her practice as a nurse and midwife once again. Since the plague struck, no babies have survived birth. In fact, many of their mothers die as well. The midwife has lost hope—but prematurely so.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a rewarding read, but it’s flawed. I found myself wondering who was telling the story. The tale unfolds in a series of excerpts from the midwife’s book, interspersed with a third-person narrative. For much of the book, the narrative focuses only on the midwife. Then the narrative’s scope widens, first to other people and other parts of the US and later to the entire planet. Perhaps it’s irrational of me to expect that a contemporary novel would follow all the dictates of logic. Maybe I’m just too old.

a couple of months ago

Terrorism. Homeland Security. Teenage rebellion.

Teenage rebellionLittle Brother, by Cory Doctorow

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Welcome to dystopia. In Little Brother, the Department of Homeland Security runs amok in San Francisco after terrorist bombings take out the Bay Bridge and the cross-bay BART tunnel with the loss of more than 4,000 lives. The city is flooded with heavily armored agents who seize anyone who looks suspicious to them. This seems to mean mostly teenagers and people of color. 15-year-old Marcus Yallow, a talented programmer and gamer, is out on a walk with his three best friends when they are all roughly apprehended by DHS agents, trussed up and tossed into the back of a huge truck, and moved to a secret jail ten minutes away from the city. There, Marcus is subjected to abusive questioning that verges on torture before he is released, days later, shaken and furious.

This, we soon learn, was all a big mistake. DHS has taken on the wrong 15-year-old.

Using his advanced programming skills and intimate knowledge of online security and encryption, Marcus sets out to organize a teenage rebellion to take back the city. Drawing his friends into his net, along with their friends and their friends’ friends, Marcus soon becomes the coordinator of hundreds of teenagers. This is a force that proves formidable even against the massed might of the Department of Homeland Security—and the resources of the White House, which unsurprisingly has instigated the DHS coup. With civil liberties suspended and the government’s goons acting more and more brutally as resistance mounts, the rebellion predictably spreads to the more thoughtful adults in the city. We can all guess where things are going—but we’ll still be surprised by the ending.

Cory Doctorow is widely viewed as one of the leading lights of the new generation of science fiction writers. As of mid-2017, he has written ten novels and at least seven works of nonfiction. He’s also a prolific blogger on copyright law, digital rights management, file-sharing, and post-scarcity economics. Little Brother was Doctorow’s fourth novel.

In his review for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Austin Grossman treated Little Brother as a young adult novel—a natural instinct given the teenage protagonist and the peripheral roles of adults. Like so many contemporary YA novels, however, Little Brother can be rewarding for readers of any age. Grossman wrote, “An entertaining thriller and a thoughtful polemic on Internet-era civil rights, “Little Brother” is also a practical handbook of digital self-defense. Marcus’s guided tour through RFID cloners, cryptography and Bayesian math is one of the book’s principal delights. . . . This is territory the author knows well . . . His grasp of the implications of present-day information technology is authoritative. . .”


a couple of months ago

An engrossing tale of aliens, giant robots, and a motley collection of scientists

giant robotsWaking Gods (Themis Files #2), by Sylvain Neuvel

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Here’s how I began my review of Sleeping Giants, the first novel in the Themis Files series: “Every once in a while you come across a work of fiction so puzzling that you simply can’t put it down. No matter that the story seems not just farfetched but downright silly. The narrative drive, the sheer suspense, keep you turning the pages all the way to the end. If you can’t figure out why, it’s probably that you keep wondering whether the whole thing makes any sense at all. At any rate, that was the experience I had when reading Sleeping Giants by the Canadian author Sylvain Neuvel. This debut sci-fi novel is strong on plotting but weak on plausibility. Hard science fiction it’s not.”

I can’t say that I feel a great deal differently after finishing Waking Gods, the second of the Themis Files novels. All I’d add is that I found the book enormously entertaining. The dialogue, reproduced in a series of transcriptions and documents that together comprise the “Files,” is often funny. Very funny. Author Sylvain Neuvel has a terrific way with dialogue.

Years after the conclusion of Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods picks up the story of Themis, the giant alien robot reconstructed by American and Canadian scientists. The United Nations has formed the Earth Defense Corps (EDC) to deploy Themis in the event aliens (or simply more giant robots) attack the Earth. The mysterious, unnamed interviewer of the first novel continues to play the role of intermediary between the scientists and (apparently) the White House. The team of three—Dr. Rose Franklin, Captain Kara Resnik, and Vincent Couture—remain in direct control of Themis. Dr. Franklin, who discovered the robot as a child, is head of the scientific division of EDC. But she’s not completely convinced that she really IS Rose Franklin, because she died and came back to life four years later with no memory of the time elapsed. (“I don’t know what I am, but I know I’m not . . . her. I’m trying to be. Desperately trying.”) Kara and Vincent, now married, are the robot’s pilots. They appear to be the only people on Earth who can manage the alien controls.

Waking Gods begins with a shock. A 200-foot-tall robot has appeared in the middle of Regent’s Park in London. It looks like Themis, but it’s ten feet taller and radiates a different color. For a long time, the robot simply stands, motionless, while the Earth Defense Corps and the world’s governments debate what to do in response. Send Themis as a good-will gesture? Attack with every weapon at NATO’s disposal? Naturally, when the question is finally resolved, by default, all hell breaks loose—including, of course, a battle between giant robots. You’ll have to read the book to learn just what happens. And if you do, you’ll find yourself surprised, again and again.

a few months ago

San Francisco after the Plague

plagueThe City, Not Long After, by Pat Murphy

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Pat Murphy’s novel, The City, Not Long After, is a puzzling piece of work. With generous helpings of fantasy, it doesn’t quite qualify as science fiction. Sometimes the book is categorized as a dystopian novel. Since the near-future American society Murphy depicts is in shambles because of a pandemic that took place 16 years earlier, it fits the general description of dystopian fiction. But the manner in which the pandemic occurred is fanciful in the extreme. And many of the characters find it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy: the future San Francisco of the novel seems to have a larger population of ghosts than of living human beings.

Here, more or less, is what happened . . .

San Francisco peace activists led by a Buddhist named Mary Laurenson launch a campaign to secure a large number of monkeys from a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas. These are very special monkeys—”peace monkeys.” As the prophecy goes, the monkeys will bring peace, but in an unexpected way. And so it comes to pass. The activists distribute small colonies of monkeys to major cities throughout the world: New York, Washington, Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and so forth. Everywhere “people welcomed them as harbingers of peace.” Unfortunately, fleas living on the monkeys transmit a deadly virus known as “the Plague” to the human population. The virus spreads worldwide, killing nearly everyone in its wake.

As the pandemic breaks out, Laurenson gives birth to a daughter. Though she learns to read and gain some understanding of human affairs from her mother, the girl grows up essentially wild. She roams free all over the countryside around Woodland, a small community near Sacramento. She learns to hunt with a crossbow, becoming a deadly shot, and to break into abandoned houses to find salvageable canned goods. Meanwhile, all around them, society is disintegrating. Small numbers of people have gathered in towns and cities. Others drift about the Earth, hostile to everyone who approaches. Somehow, a large number of soldiers—about 150, we learn later—have survived. Under the command of a self-styled general named Alexander Miles, known to most as Fourstar, they are invading the towns in Northern California as part of his plan to reconstitute “America.”

At the age of 16, Laurenson’s daughter accompanies her on a trek to San Francisco. Along the way they are stopped by one of Fourstar’s patrols. The young woman—still nameless—is released after a time, but her mother is kept for longer. The young woman finally manages to gain her mother’s release, but Laurenson has become extremely ill in captivity and soon dies. The young woman heads off alone to San Francisco, urged on by her mother shortly before her death. At the army camp, they have learned that Fourstar intends to invade the city. The young woman’s mission is to warn them.

San Francisco is a disorienting experience for the nameless young woman. She is frightened by the sheer size of the buildings and put off by the people she meets. The city’s population totals about 100, leaving her to roam unmolested virtually everywhere. In one abandoned home, she finds an old Scrabble game laid out on its board. Three letters stand out: J-A-X. She immediately resolves to take Jax as her name.

Jax finds the people of the city unconcerned about Fourstar’s planned invasion. Most of them are artists of one sort or another. Danny-boy is a painter whose canvas is the city itself: the big project he soon undertakes is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue and invite graffiti artists including Snake, Mercedes, and others to express themselves on the bridge’s pillars and cables—but only in shades of blue. The Machine is a young man, the son of a deceased robotics engineer, who believes he himself is a machine created by his father. The boy is a mechanical genius and spends his time scavenging for materials to construct solar-powered metallic insects and other robotic creatures as well as a robocopter he flies all around the city. Ms. Migsdale is a former school librarian who had lived along before the Plague. She publishes the city’s occasional newspaper, the New City News, and tosses cryptic and mysterious messages in bottles into the Pacific in hopes of getting a response. Ms. Migsdale spends a lot of time with an obsessive man named Books, a former senior research librarian at the San Francisco Library. Though slow to warm to these people, Jax eventually becomes friendly with many of them, especially with Danny-boy. At length, she moves in with him in the St. Francis Hotel suite Danny-boy has claimed as his own.

When it becomes clear that Fourstar’s invasion is imminent, Jax is unable to persuade Danny-boy and the others to defend themselves by meeting the army in combat. They insist on doing things their own way, as artists. When the invasion actually occurs, she reluctantly agrees to their plan. Now, with astonishing creativity, the people of San Francisco baffle and frustrate the soldiers and their leader by refusing to exchange shots with them, even though they have ample arms in the city. Instead,they adopt a plan Jax has devised: one by one, sneaking up on individual sentries and members of patrols, they anesthetize the troops and paint the word “DEAD” on each of their foreheads, autographing the work on the soldiers’ cheeks. Meanwhile, others have built barricades and mazes, and The Machine has used his robocopter to bomb the army with stink bombs and other annoyances.

Eventually, once more than a third of the soldiers are marked “dead,” it becomes clear that someone will have to label the general himself—or kill him outright, as Jax wants to do. Sneaking behind the army’s lines through tunnels and storm drains, Jax succeeds in getting into the room where Fourstar is sleeping. Against her better judgment, she simply uses ether to immobilize him and mark him “dead” like the others. When escaping, however, she is seen by an army patrol. She manages to elude capture only because The Machine, flying overhead, crashes into the soldiers in a suicide mission to save her. Undone by the death of her friend, Jax wanders unthinkingly all over the city. Eventually, she is captured by troops and taken to the general, who orders her death by hanging.

On the gallows the following morning, with the noose around her neck and Fourstar by her side, a shot rings out from a nearby rooftop. The general collapses, dead. But the shooter, who turns out to be Danny-boy, acting entirely against his pacifist principles, is himself shot dead by troops near the gallows. Jax, freed from the noose, manages to persuade the troops to end the war. Some will join the people of the city, and others will simply leave.

Life goes on in the city, and Jax lives to an old age.


a few months ago

Life on Earth after the apocalypse

apocalypseStation Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

This is not the plot for Emily St. John Mandel’s captivating post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven:

Doctor Eleven has fled the destruction of Earth to take up residence on Station Eleven, a space station the size of a small planet that is nearly covered by water. (He has taken his name from that of the station.) There, he struggles against the dark forces of the Undersea, who have murdered his mentor and the station’s former chief, Lonagan.

That was no plot synthesis. It’s the prophetic storyline of a series of graphic novels created over several years by Miranda Carroll, one of the central characters in the intricate web of events St. John Mandel relates in her engrossing novel. Though the comic books appear to be incidental early in the story, they crop up again and again along the way and will prove to be the thread that ties together the fates of the novel’s characters.

Station Eleven is, at heart, the story of an A-list Hollywood film star named Arthur Leander and several of the people whose lives cross with him before the Collapse. Leander, playing the part of King Lear in a stage production in Toronto, suffers a heart attack and collapses on-stage during Act IV. A paramedic-in-training named Jeevan Chaudhary instantly leaps onto the stage from the audience but is unable to save him. The tragedy is witnessed by Kirsten Raymonde, one of three eight-year-old girls who have been playing small, silent roles in the production. Meanwhile, a virulent mutation of influenza, called the Georgian Flu, has been killing off the population of Georgia and Russia and is rapidly fanning out across the world in airplanes filled with refugees from the pandemic. Arthur has died just days before the disease reaches North America.

St. John Mandel’s story unfolds in a rapid succession of short scenes in the post-apocalyptic world along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan 15 and 20 years after the collapse. “Collapse” is the popular term for the apocalypse brought on by the pandemic. There are frequent flashbacks into the lives of the central characters: Arthur Leander; Miranda Carroll, Arthur’s first wife; Elizabeth Colton, his second wife, and their son Tyler; Clark Thompson, Arthur’s British friend from acting classes in Toronto decades earlier; Kirsten, whose life St. John Mandel chronicles in detail throughout the years after the Collapse; and Jeevan Chaudhary. Through the twists and turns of the plot, the lives of these characters frequently intersect. One of them dies of the Georgian Flu. We visit the others both in flashbacks to their pre-pandemic lives and many years after the collapse.

In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. The most populous community is one that occupies the airport at a fictional Michigan town, Severn City, near the shore of Lake Michigan. There, someone has set up a Museum of Civilization in the Skymiles Lounge, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone.

This is a world fraught with danger. In the years immediately following the collapse, many survivors walk for hundreds of miles in search of food and other resources. Distrust leads many to kill anyone who approaches them. Meanwhile, feral humans rove the earth, preying on travelers unable to defend themselves. Soon, madness takes hold of many, and would-be prophets begin to collect followers, imposing their will through force on anyone they encounter.

“Civilization in Year Twenty is an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn’t go out of their way to welcome strangers.”

In this bleak environment, the Traveling Symphony provides a desperately needed break from the tedium and danger of survival, wandering from town to town in old pickup trucks drawn by horses. The lead truck displays the Symphony’s motto: “Because survival is insufficient.” A merger between a small troupe of actors and the survivors of a symphony orchestra, the “Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare.” Kirsten, the eight-year-old girl who witnessed Arthur Leander’s death, has joined the Symphony as an actor. “[T]his collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together, 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour.”

St. John Mandel writes, “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot . . . Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair . . .”

As Kirsten observes in an interview in Year 15 with the first newspaper to appear in the region (a hand-printed monthly) , “Some places, you pass through once and never return, because you can tell something’s very wrong. Everyone’s afraid, or it seems like some people have enough to eat and other people are starving, or you see pregnant eleven-year-olds and you know the place is either lawless or in the grip of something, a cult of some kind. There are towns that are perfectly reasonable, logical systems of governance and such, and then you pass through two years later and they’ve slid into disarray.”

But this is not a story without hope. In the final scenes of the novel, electric streetlights are shining brightly in a town distant from the Symphony’s last stop at the Museum of Civilization. A livable world may yet come to life.

Station Eleven is science fiction at its best, a powerful depiction of a dystopian future.


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