Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Station Eleven: A Review

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novel set 20 years after the "Georgia Flu" pandemic, and the resulting chaos thereafter, have killed ~99% of the worlds population.  The action takes place along the re-wilded western shores of Michigan south of Traverse City.  I note it as being pre-apocalyptic because about the half the novel involves look backs at relevant characters and their activities in the lead up to the deadly event.

Emily St. John Mandel (St. John is her middle name) is a main stream literary novelist whose interest in post-apocalyptic fiction has lead her to stray into new territory.  She was born on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada. She studied dance at the Toronto School of Contemporary Dance, and now lives in New York City with her husband where she is a staff writer for The Millions: a weblog about books and the publishing industry. 
This novel combines interesting elements of main stream fiction and the post apocalyptic genre to where it has received an enormous amount of attention within the main stream reviewing media.  It has received glowing reviews all over the place and is at the moment a 2014 Book Award Finalist. Although not inclined to agree with their world view, being very much the Canadian version of the NPR gun control, socialized medicine crowd (interview), her research included a number of survivalist forums, to give the apocalypse a realistic feel.  One wonders if it is this research that prompted her to take up terrace gardening?
She notes in another interview:
My assumption is that in the immediate aftermath of a complete societal collapse, it probably would all be rape and mayhem. But probably not forever, because constant mayhem isn’t a particularly sustainable way of life and because I harbor a possibly na├»ve but stubborn notion that the overwhelming majority of people on earth really just want to live peacefully and raise their kids and go about their business with a minimum of fear and insecurity. So I think that the initial spasms of violence would most likely eventually subside, and people would start figuring out ways to live together again, with systems of local government and division of labor and such. I think that twenty years after the collapse, there’s a fair chance that at least some parts of the world would be fairly tranquil.
Maybe so, but there is still a lot of danger in this quieting post-apocalyptic world.  She noted that her original idea had been to have a simple story of a wandering minstrel type traveling through Michigan. Granting the novel's theme of "survival is not enough", her realization of societies fragility, and the basics of survival have made the story a bit darker.
The story begins, in the here-and-now,  with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander who is playing King Lear on stage in Toronto.  He misses, barely, the coming pandemic that has already reached the city.  Although Arthur can be said to have died an "actor's death" we learn that contrary to all his success, he was a restless unsatisfied sole doing the Hollywood thing of going through multiple wives, and detached from his only child.  The story goes through moments of his life, and through the moments of a variety of folks within his orbit (wives, child actresses, paparazzi, et al) leading up to the pandemic.
The title of the novel comes from a graphic novel that his first wife, Miranda, has been working on throughout here life, but never quite finishes.  She had ten copies of the first two issues printed, and in a roundabout fashion they come into the hands of Kirsten, the seven-year old child actress in the King Lear production who becomes the main protagonist, at age twenty-seven, of the post-apocalyptic portion of the tale.  As remembrances of her vaguely remembered life before the collapse, they are her treasured possessions.

The storyline of Station Eleven is that Dr. Eleven a hostile civilization form a nearby galaxy has taken control of Earth and enslaved Earth's population, but a few hundred rebels managed to seal a space station and escape by slipping it through a wormhole and hiding in deep space.  The Stations is the size of Earth's moon, but requires no sun and is mobile.  Unfortunately the artificial sun it uses has been damaged cloaking the interior in permanent twilight, and the water control systems got out of control and flooded all the dry land except for a few isolated islands.
On the station there is a rebellion, the Scientist wants to keep out of the grasp of the Earth enslavers.  The majority of the population, which has taken to living underwater in the submerged portions of the station, want to go back to Earth and plead for mercy.
They live out their lives under flickering lights, aware at all times of the fathoms of ocean above them, resentful of Dr. Eleven and his colleagues who keep Station Eleven moving forever through deep space. They are always waiting, the people of the Undersea. The spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.
There are other details of the story, but that is the main summary.  People waiting for their lives to begin.

The Traveling Symphony is both a small symphony and an acting troupe. at the time of the story A Midsummer Night's Dream: although they also do Hamlet and King Lear. The motto of this small troupe, who try to bring entertainment to an archipelago of small towns, is the Star Trek inspired "Because survival is insufficient."  They are housed in horse drawn repurposed pickup trucks. As I noted above, although in year Plague +20, the danger level is much lower, the group still keeps on the alert for trouble.
The troupe going to a remote location, St. Deborah by the Sea (possibly inspired by Frankfort, MI) the very edge of their traveling territory, to pick up a couple they had dropped off they dropped off two years ago to take care of their newborn.  They come to find the village's character has changed in the intervening years.  A rather creepy "Prophet" is now in charge.
The various pre-apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic plot lines are intermeshed.  Not all of the plotlines involve the traveling troupe, but all are in some fashion related to Arthur Leander. WE do get glimpses at the back story of various folks, so the apocalyptic story is not ignored.  It is not worthy that while the main excitement is found in the post-apocalyptic world (interactions with the prophet mostly), the look backs to the modern world about to collapse are interesting enough keep ones attention.
There are a number of themes running through here. King Lear, as one reviewer noted, is noteworthy for articulating “unaccommodated man” — humanity stripped of luxury and easefulness.
Is this all a human being is? Look at him. (to EDGAR) You are not indebted to animals for your clothes since don’t wear silk, leather, or wool—not even perfume. Ha! The three of us are sophisticated compared to you. You’re the real thing. 
The human being unburdened by the trappings of civilization is no more than a poor, naked, two-legged animal like you (modernized, King Lear Act 3, Scene 4).
In an interview, the authoress has noted:
King Lear struck me as an ideal play for that moment, because on one level it’s a play about loss. Lear loses absolutely everything—his kingdom, his family, his dignity, his life. Everyone in the theatre stands on the precipice of losing everything.  
Which is of course very much on point in a collapsing world.  The acting troupe is also has Hamlet and a Midsummer Night's Dream in its repertoire. Hamlet is of course famous for its exestention lines, "to be or not to be, that is the question."  As for Midsummer Night's Dream, the authoress notes (same interview as previous):
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sheer entertainment. It appears in the book at a moment when the Traveling Symphony has arrived in a creepy little town that seems to have changed since they last visited. It seemed to me that if one wanted to cheer up a depressing place in the middle of summer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice.
Although I think it is fair to say that the post-apocalyptic dominates the plot line, it is the difficulties, or we could almost say "the perceived difficulties" of folks who are living in the here-and-now, that give the post-apocalyptic reality its poignancy.  Within both timelines there is a search for meaning, and for what is really important.  It is not just about survival, as the troupes motto notes, but is also not about the going through the motions in the way that much of the modern world induces us to behave.  Throw in a number of thoughts about art, life and ambition (possibly influenced from the also non-linear A Visit from the Goon Squad that she lists as a favorite), and you get the complete package.
Did I like it?  Yes, I had a lot of distractions, but I still managed to work my way through it pretty quickly.  The author's use of language is excellent, and all her settings do a wonderful job of putting you in the scene: a difficult accomplishment given the number of characters, and the variety of settings.  Her post-apocalyptic world has a very plausible feel to it.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is rather easy.  It is the story of the very near future modern world that collapses due to a very (may a little overly) contagious influenza-based pandemic.  Those who don't die of the disease, often don't survive the near term rape and mayhem. Issues of the slow loss of top notch salvaged, the value of modern schooling in a post-modern world, and the difficulty of restarting society onto a modern track are all reasonably well explored.  There is also enough of a storyline in the here-and-now, and within the near term apocalypse, that you don't get that detachment from the setting that can occur with a lot of futuristic science fiction.  It is a seven.
Readability is a little tricky in that it is a pretty straight forward story, but it is not told in an entirely linear fashion.  However, I don't think at any point we are confused by who someone is when they are introduced.  As far as I can recall, all of the characters are introduced in the here-and-now timeline, before we meet their part of the post-apocalyptic storyline.  The Prophet is a partial exception, but the mystery of the Prophets origins is a major subtheme of the book, so it is used as a tension builder, not a confuser.   There are a few portions, mostly around  (the likely somewhat autobiographical) college years that go a little slow, so it is not a page turner.  So with two deducts (non-linear, not all zippy action) we'll call it an above the mid-point literary 5.

Ms. Mandel standing in front of a promotional mockup of the graphic novel "Station Eleven" that is a featured discussion point within the novel.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Star's Reach: A Review

John Michael Greer's Star's Reach is a post-apocalyptic set in the neo-mediaeval mid-west of about 550 years into our future, and about 400 years after the collapse of the "old world".

John Michael Greer is (based on blog blurb) is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and the author of more than thirty books on a wide range of subjects, including hermetic magical systems,  peak oil and the future of industrial society. He is best know here for his blog The Archdruid Report, and he recently started a slightly more philosophic blog: Well of Galabes which is stated to cover Druidry, magic, and occult philosophy with heavy doses of cyclical world systems as well.
The story takes the form of a memoir written by a professional scavenger (belonging to the Ruinmen's Guild) who has found a clue to the location of the legendary Star's Reach facility.  Star's Reach being a higher tech (remember the collapse was in our future) version of the Seti Project and its search for alien life.  In a sense the memoir tracks this Ruinman from Chattanooga (Shanuga) in his journey to look for this facility.   The journey itself has a number of twists and turns, which is simultaneously complicated by the jumpy time frame (back and forth in time) of the narration, and relieved of much of its narrative tension by the author's propensity for narrative plot spoilers.  Before we are to the halfway point, we know the general outcome of the search, who will attempt to betray the mission, and that betrayal will be unsuccessful.
So if we know much of what is going to happen, only lacking details, what is filling up 366 pages?  A few plot twists to be sure.  But mostly it is a rumination by Mr. Greer on his idea of what a far future society, with some remnant ideas of technology, but denied access to fossil fuels, and living in an environmentally damaged environment, would be like. And what would it be like?
Well it would be similar to a (very) low magic fantasy setting where their is a certain amount of religious tolerance (there are a few Christians hanging around), but dominated by a matriarchal Earth Goddess Cult.  Mexico, apparently not bothered by the global warming is the main world power. Washington D.C. and most of the East Coast megalopolis is underwater, and the isolated Midwestern U.S. is a usually female president for life elected by the ruling classes, and a variety of disabling mutations caused by left over radiation and toxins.  The author shows his allegiance to the old game, Gamma World, by having his ruins set with all sorts of impractical and implausible traps. Traps that seem to have no purpose other than to kill unwary scavengers of the future.  Granted there are no tentacle monsters or giant spiders in the mix, but it does come off more like a dungeon adventure than a archeological dig.  Apparently there is no AIDs anymore as three are a number of very loose, free love style, sexual practices noted in a few locations.
As a the storyline moves into the second portion of the novel, the plotline begins to channel Forest Gump, in so far as our hero's ability to run into all sorts of semi-legendary folks, key political instigators, and even a visit with the President for life.  The coincidences become staggering.  Since the novel does have a few magical elements to it, I am not sure if this "luck" is caused by some sort of Karmic powers, or simply forced story telling.  Our hero, as I suppose is appropriate for a story with a fantasy element, tends to be capable beyond what is plausible.  Competent street fighters armed with crowbars wouldn't normally be expected to take on nearly invisible super assassins: but they do here.  By the end of the story, our Ruinman has major seismic events coinciding with his quest.
If the social/cultural elements are pushed a bit hard, the story does work at doing a fare amount of analysis of the what a post-carbon, post-globally warmed, successor culture might look like, particularly one that is self limiting due to its efforts not to repeat past mistakes. Although the narrator, being part of it,  doesn't sense it, much of it is rather squalid and rough.
So does it work?  Not really.  The Druidic version of a PC history pushes a little bit too much into wish making, and with much of these revelations being parallel to rather than part of the storyline, it all seems forced.  Our Ruinman is a decent enough fellow, but is a rather detached sort.  He has friends and companions, but doesn't seem to really miss their company when they are not around.  The mystical element, particularly the dream sequences, are reasonably well done.  But the novelistic arguments for a more "magical" basis for reality are perfunctory once we get past the dream sequences.  He pushes for a too overt magic, while at the same time, not making the "magic" particularly credible.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

We are in too far of the future to allow for much immediacy to the realism.  The "magic" has a little more of a tacked on feel than that  of an immersive magical-realism approach, so I am not going to make a huge deduction there.  I think it is safest to put it at the midpoint and call it a 4.

Readability is a little tough. The journal approach, particularly with all the plot spoilers tends to take away much in the way of possibilities for a page turner.  Much of the activity seems to be more centered around displaying the author's view of a future post-carbon reality, than to driving the plot line.  I kept running out of steam, and putting the book down, coming back to it more out of a sense of obligation than desire.  Still, the storyline isn't that hard to follow.  It is a 3.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Peripheral: A Review

William Gibson's The Peripheral is an pre-apocalyptic novel (likely somewhere in Missouri) set in the dystopian near future (~2025 AD) U.S. Midwest, and simultaneously a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel set in the mid-distant (~2100 AD) future London.

William Gibson is famous as the author of the cyberpunk novel Necromancer.  One of the most influential science fictions of all time.  Although the cyber- part of the punk has faded in and out, varying forms of gritty, dystopian, near futures, or even speculative pasts often borrow the moniker: nano-punk, steam-punk, et al.  Lately Gibson's novels have taken place in a tech-driven, dystopian present.
The plotting is somewhat beside the point.  It is a small story, a dangerous intrigue if you will, that is of major importance to the actors, but not generally of a global scope.  You have a current near term slow-collapse, soon to reach more complete collapse rural United States.  I noted Missouri above because the topography is slightly hilly and broken and yet they are close enough to hurricane ally to note public shelters, and the main protagonist is a young lady named Flynn.  Which given the tone of the dystopia, is very likely a nod toward Gillian Flynn and her dark Midwestern novels such as Gone Girls and more in particular here, Dark Places.  It is collapsed rural landscape that features damaged U.S. special forces folks, illegal but economically important designer drug designer/manufacturers, and a variety of normal folks trying to survive in a location where all the jobs have dried up.  In the case of Flynn, she would leave for someplace else, but she is taking care of her ailing mother.
The second plot of the story involves a dystopian London.  It is a world that has recovered from a multi-locus (peak-everything, global warming, localized pandemics, et cetera) collapse.  But the here and now is not overly friendly with an oligarchy of "business folk" much like the business folk that turned up after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.  That they are referred to as the Klept, short for Kleptocracy, pretty much tells you how much fun they are.  Fortunately, technology is of a level that they don't need slave camps, and too many worker drones, but they tend to keep a tight reign on any activities of importance, and to gain their attention can be a lethal issue.
Essentially the folks of the future have figured out how to communicate with the folks of their alternative pasts.  Alternative is key because once the future contacts the past, the past goes off on a separate track, and its eventual (70 years later) present, will differ.  Of course whether you call that an alternative past, or future, is all a matter of perspective.  In any case, it is only communications (information) that can pass back and forth, not physical reality.
So the people of the future go back into the past, and hire some of the ex-veterans to "inhabit" drones of their future, to act as security guards of a sort.  The future is a little short on people, and it is easy to get hold of money when you can game the stock market at will with advanced AI-algorithms.  In any case, Flynn filling in for her brother, witnesses a murder, a murder committed by someone associated with Klept-level politics, and it turns into a murder mystery with people of both time-frames using proxy devices of the other's world to make appearances and generally create mayhem.
I will say it is an interesting read, and I did enjoy it.  Parts of it reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson's REAMDE, other parts of Corry Doctorov's Maker's, and as I noted above Flynn's Dark Places updated from the 1980s.  Oddly enough, it shares some of the failings of all of these novels.  It has a really interesting tech-heavy futuristic, speculative plot that is very hard to sustain, mixed in with elements of the here and now, that can be hard to keep exciting.  Getting your mom her meds. is realistic, but not exciting. 
So it is a fun enough read if you think you might like a somewhat futuristic mystery, with a little bit of low tech assassination action thrown in for the fun of it.  But Gibson, like Stephenson and Doctorov are, and Flynn should be, are considered thoughtful authors, so it brings into play the "worthiness" of the thoughts.
The depiction of the Missouri slow collapse is well done.  The author is extrapolating based on known trends.  Their tech is a little ahead of ours, but not by much.  It shows, realistically, the worst near future outcome for the continuing globalized, techno-future.  If Doctorov has his folks making useful gadgets that quickly get copied so that profit margins only survive a few months, we have that here:  only the useful things are drugs. We have Stephenson's mercenaries of the online roleplaying game: except they are not Chinese youth, but unemployed young U.S. vets.  The author does not assign one cause for the coming collapse, but notes a number of causal agents.
The future dystopian is obviously more speculative.  It argues, as Gibson would be inclined, for technical solutions to our current problems.  The technology is a gearing up of current AI possibilities with nano technology.  Either of which have been used all by themselves in apocalyptic scenarios. It is not completely clear just who is in charge, but neither the "algorithms" nor the Klept, can be guaranteed to have the best interests of the common folks at heart.
To the extent that there is an actionable message, it would probably center around the idea that nimble folks with resources, and allies, are more likely to come out ahead.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is a bit split.  Obviously 100 years in the future, or even 25 years, is going to throw in some distortions.  I would also say that some of the story line (the financial speculation, and the ending story line) seem to involve a little hand waving to make the story work as a story.  But within those constraints it does a pretty could job of facing off with folks who have access to more resources than you, and the problematic nature of survival in a world with a distorted legal system.  It's a 5.
Readability is mixed.  It has elements of a page turner in places, but the author's style, its detailed descriptions, make it difficult to flip-fast and still follow the action.  There are a fair number of characters to keep up with. Some don't seem to do much except add color to the proceedings. In addition there is an a lot of setup, and a lot of background/world building going on.  They are very well thought out world building exercises, but it does slow up the pacing. At 485 pages, it is a semi-doorstopper.   It is a 3, an interesting 3, but a 3 none-the-less.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

The China Pandemic: A Review

A.R. Shaw's The China Pandemic is a pandemic fueled apocalyptic novel set in Seattle, Washington, and the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. It is the first book in a series, but ends at a reasonable stopping point.

A.R. Shaw (facebook) is originally from Texas, but now lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest.  Her Summer vacations along the Skagit River inspired the bug out location for the series. Looking at her blog and facebook entries, she has an obvious interest in the prepping community.
The Chinese, who have zero direct involvement in the story, design some bio-bug virus, and then accidentally let it loose on the world.  This bug kills, in the usual mysto-fictional way 98%, of the folks who come in contact with it.  And again, everyone comes in contact except for tiny groups of people (preppers) who have isolated themselves from all of humanity. 
But this book is only  a little about the preppers.  The preppers are a group of hyper prepared folks that are reluctant neighbors of our surviving immune protagonists along the mountain lake where they have all settled.  The preppers have all sorts of expensive items, and military training and what not.  They are not quite as extreme as the folks in Thomas Koloniar's Cannibal Reign. They don't have a refabbed missile silo. 
The story mostly involves a family like gathering of survivors who make their way to a small hunting lodge in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  At the start, we have a Korean woman, who knows she is dying of the China Plague, leaving her son five year olds son, Bang, with Graham, a math teacher with a woodsy background.  Starting in a bedroom community (noted as Mountain View) near Seattle, they make their way to Grahm's father's hunting cabin.  The trip is episodic and they collect a few teenagers along the way.  Eventually they settle into their cabin with a grandfather-figure, mommy-figure, daddy-figure, teenagers, and little boy making up a reasonably cooperative ad hoc family.
The cabin sets the second stage of the story.  The virus has the now usual apocalyptic aspect of having all survivors being carriers (plague vectors) to any that haven't come in contact (aka. preppers).  That this isn't a normal part of most truly deadly pandemics (people don't worry about survivors of Ebola killing them after all), or even the flu-based relatives the Chinese designed it from, is beside the point.  It is a given truth now in apocalyptic fiction circles, so does not need justification.  So the preppers are around, and they have some interactions, but it must always be done at a distance.
The family group's main focus is getting ready for the winter, dealing with a group of bad guys that want to steal their women-folk, and the occasional run into town for supplies.  All very normal prepper-based apocalyptic fare.  The group combines a helpfully large amount of outdoor/camping survival knowledge, with a more appropriate level of general cluelessness about much else.  The bad guys are, fortunately, not Navy SEALS, so it is a somewhat fair fight.  The author is realistic in that this oversized family, with only a few able bodied adults, doesn't try to start commando raids against the bad guys, and truthfully, their defensive preparations are pathetic.  In rural America, it doesn't seem to dawn on them that their is likely a rural supply house that should have rolls of barbwire in stock to slow up and annoy intruders.
There are a few odd notes that just don't add up.  They release trapped deer, and then much later in the book, speculate about whether they have enough meat to survive the winter.  They talk about a garden, but it is not clear where in these heavily wooded surroundings they plan to plant a large enough crop to make it worthwhile.  That they won't be able to drive into town to get canning supplies (gas going bad) doesn't seem to be on anybody's radar screen.
I would give it a qualified approval. I tend to like prepper books that involve a little bit of group dynamics, and don't turn the apocalypse into some sort of weird World War 3 with semi-automatics.  The author does have the common obsession of all the wild animals becoming instantly dangerous.  After this type of pandemic, where the owners don't have time to eat their dogs, wild dogs would be an issue, but wolves and mountain lions?  Maybe a few birthing cycles after the collapse, but not in the immediate months preceding.  Two-percent is still a pretty large group of people to contend with.  The author also makes an odd comment about people naturally heading for the hills, which indicates that she really has no justification for the scenario.  Yes! Why would everyone head for the hills, if they are part of the immune population?  The answer: they wouldn't!  They would stay in town for a year or two until the supplies started to run down.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is a bit difficult.  There is a weird quirky lip service to supplies, but if the group hadn't wandered up into the mountains after 98% of the folks died, or would make a few more supply runs into town to get their share of the loot, that wouldn't be such an issue.  It is almost as if the book follows the known fictional memes, without ever really thinking through important issues of cause and effect.  Still, there are issues of survivor psychology, group psychology, psychiatry when one's meds. can't be taken, etc.  So even with that quirky feel to it, let's call it a 5.
Readability is straightforward.  Their is some activity.  There is a little drama.  But it is all fairly slow moving.  The author has a tendency to extend her gap filling/explanatory scenes far too long.  But, it is all very straightforward. There is not a ton of deep thinking going on here.  Excepting the Korean mom, you pretty much get the shallow philosophy of modern American folks here. It is in the middle: a 4.

A.R. Shaw