Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dreamer's Island: A Review

Gretchen Hummel's Dreamer's Island is a post-apocalyptic novel set on the island of what used to be San Francisco in 2060 after a pandemic has wiped out much of the worlds population.  One side effect of the pandemic is that it causes terrifying delirium dream sequences.  The islanders  have some skill in treating the critically ill, and thus the name of the novel.

Ms. Hummel is a resident of Davidson, North Carolina.  Davidson is a small college town just north of Charlotte in the Piedmont (Appalachian Foothills) Region of North Carolina.  In a Charlotte Observer interview (which is how I found out about the novel) she notes:

Writer Publishes Post-Apocalyptic Novel
Amy Reiss, Charlotte Observer (Lake Norman News), 25 January 2012
She is inspired not just by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Margaret Atwood but by her background in psychiatric nursing. Her first novel centered on schizophrenia, which her brother suffers with. She said the process of writing the book was cathartic. "I think a lot of people's first book has a lot of autobiographical elements." She's also written a collection of short stories.

Read more here:

As noted above, the primary cause of the collapse was the delirium-dream causing pandemic of forty years prior.  The plague is stated as having been "released by the melting of the ice caps." [?]  A very odd notion, that none-the-less allows global warming to be shoehorned into a pandemic laced novel. Those who survive the high fever, often lose their memories, and additionally are continually bothered by bad dreams.  The people also seem to pick up odd skills (French, metal working, et cetera) from some sort of collective Jungian collective unconscious.  The Jungian shared subconscious aspect  reminds me a bit of what  Paul Bryan noted in Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction,  "The most common side effect of radiation is not blindness, hemophilia, or limblessness; it is the ability to read minds": radiation = telepathy; dream plague = Jungian collective unconscious.

As part of the dream therapy, the author throws in a mix of new age - Wiccan folklore.  She spends a lot of time discussing Pan as Satan. The authoress is of the opinion that the early Christians suppressed Pan, by equating him with the Devil.  While it is true that  Satan is often depicted as having horns, and being devil-like fairly early on.  The early Christians tended to not have a great interest in the Greek and Roman Gods.  Early Christian (Saint Paul for instance) would view Pan as a non-entity:
Paul within 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
...As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one."  Indeed though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth - as in fact there are many gods, and many  lords - yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist , and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
She sites Saint Augustine for "killing Pan" around 300 A.D.  But Pan was actually "killed" by the Pagans at a time before Jesus began his ministries, although some later tellings (also here) have it at the time of Christs Death.  The prominence today  of Pan as Satan, seems to have come more from Victorians who were moved by the pastoralism of the Romance movement.  Thus their revival of a pastoral pagan God.  The revival of Pan was a literary one, and to some degree a neo-Pagan one.  The pagan belief system that the early to middle-ages Western European Christians had a hard time with were the Germanic traditions.  It was Victorian fops who brought back Pan.

The Dream Islanders are surrounded by dour neo-Calvinist pilgrim types.  They wear black and frown a lot- when they are not stealing children:  because we all know that the God fearing people are associated with stealing children.  The Islanders adopt a relatively open,  Pan-based neo-paganism. With the dour Pilgrim types often visiting, and occasionally occupying forcefully occupying the island, this causes some problems.

The dream plague kills people, but it can also help them with their artistic abilities.  So the Islanders like to keep some of it around in case their muse grows cold.  Of course this is said to be done in a controlled environment, but there seems to be absolutely no security, and people in their delirium can wander around and infect others.  So if the mainlanders are a bunch of sour-pusses, the islanders are a bit idiotic. 

Blare, the heroine generally does a pretty good job of making a hash out of just about everything.  If there is a delicate moment to be negotiated, she'll run a freight train through it.  If there is a secret to be kept, she'll inadvertently spill the beans.  When she find out about bad guys, she is too busy to tell anyone right away:  she will get to it later.  As Blair seems to be some sort of alter-ego of the authoress, it is hard to know what to make of her doings.  Her incompetence is almost menacing. 
The book is intended to be relatively pleasant fare as post-apocalyptic books go.  Some mystery, and suspense, but also with a positive note.  In other words it is trying to be a bit of a cosy.  Brave people, facing adversity to make a better world.  Personally I find their world of death dreaming artists to be a little creepy.  It is as if Jim Morrison, rather than Pan/Satan, was their patron.

Wiccan will likely be just fine with it, most readers are probably going to find it odd, and then a bit tiresome.

Axel, the SShakespeare quoting parrot, is entertaining.  He goes well beyond the 300 word-unit (pdf) count that parrots are supposed to max out at, but it is just as well because he steals most of his scenes.   I find tarot cards interesting, and there is a little bit of discussion about them.  But as typical, there is more discussion about "should we be discussing them" than discussion about them.

There is some mystery, a fair amount of it in the form of that old standby-cheat where characters act on knowledge that has not been conveyed to the audience:  Less a mystery, than a lack of information.   The pacing is very slow, with lots of back and forth discussions on matters that are not terribly relevant to the story line.  The final storyline is something like one big amnesiac-awakening scene.

In net, if many post-apocalyptic novels, play out like some sort of wild west adventure, this one plays out like a trip to your local renaissance fair.   A bit of a diversion, but you don't leave the place feeling like you just stepped back into 16th century England, or in this case stepped foreword to an Island of Dreams.

For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being high):

Realism?  O.k.  Pan, or some elves did not actually show up.  The parrot didn't pick any locks, or shot anyone with a gun.  So it won't get a one.  Instead it will get a 2.  Almost nothing about this story has any sense of reality to it outside of some backstage Renaissance Fair bickering.  The storyline is pretty much the wish fulfillment of the authors.  She wants a world like this to exist, and pandemic apocalypses are a good way to wipe the world clean and start over again.

Readability?  As I alluded to above, there is a tendency to drag out the action.  Relatively minor moments take extended periods of time to resolve.  On the plus side, the use of language is good.  The extensive use of dream sequences, and the methods used to disguise the mystery make it a bit difficult to follow at times.  I am going to put it right at the middle at a five.

Gretchen Hummel

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Colony: A Review

Mary Vigliante's The Colony is a post-plague apocalyptic novel set in the then contemporary setting of the late 1970s  Catskill Mountain region of Upstate New York. 

The cover actually has this soft fuzzy look to it.

Mary Vigliante is the pen name and maiden name of Mary Vigliante Szydlowski.  She has written a variety of novels and stories.  After a couple of "science fiction" novels, she seems to have focused on kids-lit, and detective stories.  Her primary career appears to have been as an inspector of mental health facilities for the State of New York.  The Colony, published in 1979, was one of her earliest works. 

The apocalypse is the result of a highly effective germ-warfare attack by unknown parties, and falls within the last-man (or in this case last-woman) on earth trope.  Our heroine, Sunny, takes a day-trip fishing excursion to the Catskills.  When she gets home, everyone is dead from some hyper-quick pandemic attack.  She notes that there must have been some sort of warning, because people are generally at home, and not on the roads when it occurs.  The exact nature of the disease is never resolved, and after its initial deadly strike, does not reappear.

Sunny, leaves the Catskills, heading down to Florida looking for people, giving up she eventually returns to the Catskills.  That is pretty much it for the apocalypse-in-progress portion of the story.

But she is not alone. And when she gets back to the Catskills, she is captured by "The Colony".
Sunny had been captured by four men who informed her she was now their wife. When the survivors organized, the men far outnumbered the women. They created a society and a family structure that supported male dominance. By their decree women existed only to serve their husbands and male masters. Sunny resisted, but was beaten and forced to submit. When she could bear no more of their cruelty, she tried to run away. But they dragged her back

What we have here is something of a sado-masochist romance soft-core porn novel mixed in with a lot of strange 1970s era hardcore feminist verbiage.   The sexual language is relatively tame (if disturbing in theme), but the punishment of the rebellious Sunny, and the psychology of the situation are detailed relatively closely.  It lacks the intentionality of something like the Story of O (of which I have only glanced at the setup portion), but that very lack of obvious intentionality makes it a very strange story.  Her captures are described by Sunny as being very handsome, and intermitently kind, which is somewhat the give away that this is not a serious tale of capture/rape.

If the story was realistic in its portrayal of events, it would be awful.  But the odd romance novel feel, and the odd psycho-babble 1970s feminism mixed in makes it an oddly funny read at times.  They build up Sunny getting hold of a gun from the very start of novel -turning the tables so to speak - but the end is actually somewhat of a surprise.

As a useful portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world, or even current social trends, it is of zero value.  Other than its sequel - The Land -set 300 years in the future, and apparently with the women having the upper hand this time- it may be unique within the apocalyptic trope.  If it is not - I don't want to know about it. LOL

O.K. , so we have our usual descriptive (versus qualitative) criteria (1 to 7 with 7 max), starting with realism/grittiness.  Since grittiness for our purposes, does not include faux-slave whippings, but how identifiable the setting is with our world today,  we will have to call it a 1.  There is nothing realistic about any of this.  That within a handful of survivors their will be a bunch of jerks is plausible.  That all of the survivors will form this cult-like group with a non-church going, but biblically justified anti-feminist bias is just not very likely.  There are no issues of survival.  Survival is easy.  So of course, we will tie up our women and make them behave!

Readability?   Tougher to decide.  It has a lot of navel gazing, and not a whole lot happens.  The language is executed reasonably well.  I am going to say that it is at the mid-point of a 4.   Easy language, simple plotting, twisted thematically.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What Came After: A Review

Sam Winston's What Came After is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel set in the near future. I say near future because Henry Weller, the main character, can remember the "better times" and dystopian because extreme elements (progressions if you will) of our society today are still extant. It was a slow collapse for almost, but not entirely, everyone.

Sam Winston describes his attempts at becoming a published author as such:

It's been long and painful. I've written six or eight other novels, two of which were "good enough" to get me a New York agent without being "good enough" to get bought by a major publishing house. Along the way I got tired of the whole circus. And in the end, I figured that What Came After was so timely that I wouldn't even attempt going through that malarkey again. So I put it out there myself.

The collapse has happened.  Since we have been highlighting pandemics, the pandemic here is an engineered one.  The Big Ag Corporations have engineered plants that will poison, kill, maime, mutate, cause birth defects, etc.  if not processed before eaten.  In most areas, the animal population is also  decimated.  This leaves many areas of the United States close to uninhabited.  It is a botany based pandemic that seems to be the principal agent for getting rid of most of the people.

The book, as I noted at the top, is dystopian as much as it is collapsed. From its website blurb:

Set in the very near future, What Came After takes place in a too-credible third-world America that's been hijacked by corporations in the service of the wealthy. The Federal government has collapsed, health care is inaccessible, and private armies keep order. The upper class is concentrated in the cities, while the middle class—decimated by disease and poisoned by genetically engineered foods—labors on in a handful of desolate Empowerment Zones.

So you see, it is an evil plot by the evil (weighted toward Republicans) politicians, and monolithic Corporations. It reminds me a little of part of one of John Michael Greer’s recent comments about video Thrive:

John Michael Greer, Archdruid Report, 11 January 2011.

The basic message of Thrive is that we all ought to be living in a wonderful Utopian world, and would be doing so if evil corporate conspiracies weren’t suppressing the inventions that would have given us limitless free energy, cures for cancer and, well, pretty much anything else your heart desires. Evidence? We don’t need no steenking evidence—and of course, in an entirely pragmatic sense, Thrive doesn’t; all it has to do is hammer over and over again on a set of emotional hot buttons until the viewer’s ability to reason is overwhelmed, and if the video fails at this, it’s certainly not for want of trying.

The novels first assumed tenant is that the our perceived normal is that of today’s world or super-abundance, and that it is only because of mean people (like the mentioned Dick Cheney) that the world isn't a nicer place.

Dick Cheney is not at the top of the list of people I would like to see get run over by a bus, but let us grant that this notion is correct: "Dick Cheney + Fast Moving Bus = Better World". I would beg the question: Has there ever been a world with humans, possibly even proto-humans, where the local Dick Cheney meeting the fast bus would not have made people happier? It seems to be a pretty much constant equation.

So to my mind, if mean-people are the constant, then you need some sort of other variable that makes your situation worse than normal. I suppose that the author would argue that the variable is the broken system that we currently live in that allows these bad people free reign. I would grant that would seem like a plausible argument, but then you get into arguments about who are the bad guys. And while I will grant you that today’s Democrats and Republicans occasionally look like they are trying to bring back some sort of fascist-lite state, it still begs the question of why they feel this need. If you want to look at the original Fascists, you would point toward economic collapse of the early 1930s, combined with other factors such as a new industrialization, new mass media, and nationalist tribalism.

The point being, that it is all very fine and good to say we need to get rid of the Fascists, but unless the underlying cause – the place and the time – change, you are not likely to change very much.  You are simply going to get a similar soup with a few different vegetables thrown in.

The name of the main character, Sam Weller, presumably comes from Dickens’ character of the Pickwick Papers.  I have not read the Pickwick Papers, so I can only take it on advice that he is one of those classical humble everyman that is preternaturally brighter than those of a more lofty status.  The character gave rise to the term  "wellerism" which is a satirical proverb or aphorism.

The basic plotting of the book, is that this everyman, wants to cure his very cute 5-year old daughter of her progressive blindness.  The plot is his various adventures, and observations as he travels down the East Coast of the United States in pursuit of the needed items to pay for the required medical treatment.  He eventually makes his way through the Carolinas on his way toward Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Except for Florida, the Southeast United States is generally given short-shrift in these novels (often wiped out by Huricanes) so it is nice to see someone wandering around the ruins of Greensboro, NC.

What was my personal take on the book? It was O.K; starting out slowly with a lot of obvious and dated polemics. I don’t think future people are going to refer to torture as Cheneying (as in Dick Cheney) someone. Arguably this is an attempt at satire, but the book is a little too self-serious to work well as satire. It finished up with a little more activity. The action and end-result are not particularly realistic, but they are mildly entertaining. The pacing is very uneven: uneven with a distinct trend toward slow.  On a plus side Weller and his family are a likeable bunch.  Weller, has almost no combat skills, but his value as a mechanic makes him very a very useful in a world where lots is laying around, but not much of it is working.  A nice change from the ex-Navy SEALs we often see in the genre.
For the non-qualitative descriptive ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being high):
Realism (grittiness) is tough to figure. It is not that what is stipulated is per se impossible, it is just that everything is polemic to the point of caricature. A book that can me either mistaken or intended as satire is usually not going to seem very “real.” The storyline, unlike most of real life, is rather mono-line, and episodic. One Amazon reviewer said that it was the Wizard of Oz meeting Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  If you could pull that off, that would be an amazing book, but not a particluarly realistic one.  I am going to say that it slightly below average at 3.

Readability suffers  because of the uneven pacing. It is certainly not a page turner, but it is not overly complicated either. I am going to say it is in the middle at 4.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Survivors- Terry Nation: A Review

Terry Nation's Survivors is a apocalypse-in-progress novel based on the British 1970s TV show of the same name.  It is not to be confused with the John Rawles' book book of much more recent vintage.  The television show was one of the most popular series on the BBC, and was recently re-released.  There was later a second derivitave attempt to relaunch the series.   I have never seen the show, but it is obvious from the storyline at Wikipedia that the novels plotline diverges greatly after what would have been the first half of the first season of the show.

The characters pictured here are from the 2008 T.V. series.

Terry Nation was a prolific television script writer in the 1970s.  He is best known for creating the Dalek characters on Doctor Who, and for intrducing the Survivors television show.

The novel starts off with what is the now fairly common mayhem that begins these pandemic-apocalypse novels.   The illness in this case is some type of mutated black death.  The gestation period is just long enough (6 days) for people to wander around and give it to others.  Survival is generally a matter of luck.  A few of the characters seem to be immune to bug, and others simply survive the sickness.  With maybe 3% of the population surviving there is no immediate supply problems because there are plenty of supplies laying around in the now empty stores.

As these stories go, the novel is a relatively light read.  The more horrific activities occur "off screen" and are heard about third-hand or through narration.   The book highlights two major points, the difficulty in gathering together enough knowledge to be able to re-advance civilization, and the political problems of the would-be-emperors who make life miserable for other survivors.

The novel is somewhat episodic, the story line disjointed.  To some extent it could be viewed as the highlight reel of a 5-year period.  Not a bad way to move time along, but the characters don't seem to develop or learn much over the period.

Unlike what I understand of the television show, it is not a cosy (British spelling).  There are a few fun and games when all the people go, but by the novels end survival success is very much in the air.  Their tiny village can barely keep up with growing their own food, and almost all their other needs are met by the dwindling salvage.  As  a side note, gasoline never goes stale, but on the flip-side, no one seems to re-introduce horses.  With the almost unlimited pasturage available, that would be a very easy route to go.

It was an entertaining novel.  The loss of so many people so quickly makes for a very strange scenario.  It is a little like living in The World Without Us- with a handful of people not getting the message that they were supposed to dissapper.  The author did make some interesting observations, and you can see a few shadows of ideas that are played out in later, more intense works, such as Alex Scarrow's Afterlight.  Our auther left the TV series in a huff, and he seems to insert little moments of payback.  He seems to have had some issues with teh actress who played Abby, going so far as to  make a point of describing her small breasts at one point.  Possibly true (she is pictured below), but rather beside the point within the context of the story.

For our descriptive (not qualitative) descriptions, rated 1 to 7 with 7 being highest:

For realism/grittiness:  It is important to note that the apocalyptic scenario itself is not included here: 

The novel exists in the here and now.  People die, and people have a hard time getting by.  There is a certain fuzziness to some of the activities, and not a lot of consequence actual happens directly to the group after the settle down period.  Their security measures are close to non-existent.  Understandable given  the rather random odd lot of people that make up the talent pool.  Group cohesion, or lack of it, are realistically portrayed.  Unlike the survivalist books where somehow these little clusters of special forces operators manage to run into each other, here it is a much more realistic grouping of people.  I will say that its realism is well above average at 67.

The second criteria, readability, is much more straightforward:

It is a fast, relatively uncomplicated, easy read.   I will knock off a point for the low activity level and call it a six.


Survivors had a sequel, called Survivors: Genesis of a Hero. It was written under a pseudonyme and I don't think anyone has ever figured out who the actual other was. It has been said to be a fairly good read, but I never saw many details on it.
I ran across this highly entertaining review of the sequel at the Quill and the Keboard.
Review: Survivors: Genesis of a Hero.
The original Abby and Greg

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Earth Abides: A Review

George R. Stewart's Earth Abides is a post apocalyptic novel set immediately after a fast acting contagion has swept the earth and killed 90+ % of the people.  It is set in the then contemporanies 1940s California.  The title comes from Ecclesiastes 1:4 — "Men go and come, but earth abides."

George R. Stewart was a very prolific writer, but Earth Abides was his only science fiction novel.  He did have other novels Ordeal By Hunger (1936), Storm (1941), Fire (1945) that portrayed natural or ecological disasters in a more contemporary setting.  James Sallis at the Boston Globe has done much to repopularize the work, and notes it best within the structure of his long career:

George R. Stewart's creative life ran forty-plus years, from a landmark biography of Bret Harte in 1931 to a major narrative of the Donner party, numerous volumes of the history of the American west, the novels Fire and Storm and five others — 28 books in all. Earth Abides was something of a sport. Yet it seems to me that, if remembered at all, Stewart will be remembered for this novel.

While told at the novelistic level, Earth Abides is also an exploration of natural cycles of population control, the size requirements needed to keep a modern society going, and racism.  Within the novel, without the the presence of the keystone species (man) we see a wave of animal booms-and-busts: first ants, then rats, then grasshoppers, and finaly cattle.  Populations explode, and then crash.

Some have also noted that the main characters nickname of Ish, is very similar to Ishi, the name given to the last survivor of the Yahi Indians, a man who came stumbling out of the mountains in 1911, and was written about Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber (Ursula K. Le Guin's father) at Cal Berkley prior to Stewarts studies, and teaching there in the early 1920s. Given that he was a toponymist (someone who studies the origins of place names) the naming of his main character is not likely to be accidental.

Another intermittent theme throughout the novel is that “the trouble you are expecting never happens (mmpb. p14), and that “’’it has never happened’ cannot be construed to mean ‘it can never happen.’ As well to say ‘Because I have never broken my leg, my leg is unbreakable (mmpb. p.7).’”  This is not a high octane shoot-em-up.  But over time the new life does not develop in expected ways.  A combination of accidents, combined with the people available to the situation, have an oversized impact on the development of their small group of survivors.  Although they don’t interact with them much, other groups with different people and slightly different situations develop along different lines.

A lot of what we might think of as modern themes are also noted:

‘…we were just at the point of running out of copper or oil, or exhausting the soil so we wouldn’t have anything to live on in the future.”

So the skeptics who note that people have been voicing Malthusian-style concerns forever, to some degree correct.  If you want to take Hitler’s neo-agrarianism as a close cousin to those concerns, you can say that their influence has been very harmful.  But as the book notes “it has never happened” cannot be construed to mean…

Did I enjoy it?  Yes I did.  It is a rather sedately based book, but it does move along in its own way.  It reminds me a lot of the World Without Us but with the huge advantage of having a handful of observers around to make the whole exercise seem a lot less artificial.  It also allows for a little more leeway in the collapse scenario:  people saw it coming and did there best to get the machinery running somewhat on auto-pilot before they did.  It is one of the few collapse novels where there is an assumption that most people tried to the right thing before overcome by the pandemic.

For our descriptive (versus qualitative) descriptions of realism (which I sometimes refer to as grittiness) and readability.

I am not a big believer in pandemics that kill 99.9% of the people.  Certainly not one that can do it in a matter of few weeks, but I don’t generally deduct points for the plausibility of the collapse scenario, unless it has some sort of ongoing effect on the novel (like a zombie plague where the zombies would keep popping up).  The death toll is so extreme that unlike similar novels written a little bit later (Terry Nation’s Survivors for example) there is little materialistic pressure on people who take an active interest in their ongoing survival.  But the book takes pains to point out that many people are not prepared to survive even at this level, and that there is a large secondary die-off.  It also is very realistic in its assessment of small groups to organize themselves.  Ish is well-liked, and respected for his knowledge, but he is not a dynamic personality.  People listen to his advice, nod their heads in agreement, and then go right on doing whatever it was they want to do.  Other groups noted in passing do have leadership, and develop (possibly unwisely) along that leadership’s vision.  One of the main points of the book, is that the survivors are a random collection of people.  Important skills will be missing, and group development will tend to be very idiosyncratic.  All of which I would say is a realistic assessment.  On the less realistic side, the book often has narrator connective thoughts that come in from the 30,000 foot level.  These give a lot of information, but tend to greatly reduce the immediacy of the situation, and allow the readers more knowledge than the characters within the book.  On balance though, I still think the novel deals with the situation in a much more thorough, and rational manner than most.  I will place it one notch above the median at 5.

The book is fairly straightforward in its reading.  The slow pacing, and at times dated world view are modest deducts.  On the plus side, although the 30,000 foot descriptive authorial narratives may hurt the “realism” of the novel, they are a plus in understanding where the author is coming from.  Today authors are told to describe, rather than tell.  But the “telling” here is more interesting than most could manage.  It is a shame that this is the author’s only science fiction novel.  He would have added some wisdom to the genre.  I will put readability at a six: about as high as I am going to go with something that is not designed as a “page turner.”

George R. Stewart

Friday, February 24, 2012

Empty World: A Review

John Christopher's Empty World. is almost the arche-type of the pandemic apocalypse-in-progress novel.  I say almost Mary Shelley wrote what is arguably the first apocalypse-in-progress The Last Man, in 1826 and they have been writing them intermittently ever since.

The best looking cover I could find.

A blurry version of what mine looks like.

If it is not fair to call Empty World the archetype of pandemic apocalypse-in-progress novels, it might be fair to call John Christopher the archetype of post World War 2 apocalyptic writers.  He is after all, one of the people that Brian Aldis was referring to (along with John Wyndham) when he coined the term Cosy Catastrophe (cosy = British spelling of cozy). 

I won't go too much into his biography, because I covered it fairly thoroughly when I did his (also classic) No Blade of Grass some time ago.  He is important enough within the genre that I could ramble on and never get to our story.  My only note in passing is that I really should do a review a John Wyndham novel now that I have reviewed two of Christopher's.

Empty World is a Young Adult (YA) novel.  It may have started the trend toward making apocalyptic YA novels.  Christopher actually does a good job of thinking through his pestilence and how it would be able to spread and reach so many people.  Essentially it is a two stage disease.  The first stage is a mild flu like disease.  People don't feel all that poorly so they go around spreading the disease for some time, and then get feeling better.  Then two weeks or so later the second stage kicks in.  It is a type of progeria specifically the Hutchinson-Guiilford Syndrome:  extremely rapid aging leading to death.  At first the disease only effects "old people": those over 40 - remember this a YA novel.  But as time goes on more and more people are affected.  The only survivors are the very youngest, but there chances are not good because few are left to take care of them.  They die in their cribs.

Our hero, Neil, is a comprehensive student in Rye, England, a relatively quiet cul de sac.  As a comprehensive student, which is roughly analogous to a combined U.S. Middle School - High School, he is somewhere in his teens.  Old enough to not be repulsed by young ladies, but with no particular experience in the matter.  Neil has lost his entire family in a horrific automobile accident just as the book is starting, and the loss of his family is used as a run up, a prequel if you will, to the greater horror soon to come.  Neal is a little shell shocked through much of the early going, but is a good enough person to make a valiant attempt to help some young children who have lost their parents.

The world is very empty.  Unlike Terry Nation's Survivors, there are so few people around that the great difficulty is not rival groups, but finding anyone at all- and that is where most of the adventure lies.  He eventually wanders of to London looking for people.  There are definitely cosy aspects to the story as he finds a Jaguar XJ to drive around for a little while.  All the dangerous adults die off very early on, and the most dangerous situation is a temporary plague of rats fueled by all the dead bodies.

1979 Jaguar XJ61

What the story best illustrates, besides being the YA version of a cosy, is the advantages of the pandemic apocalyptic as a story device.  It is very similar to the amnesia-device often used in fiction (think Bourne Identity). 

In an amnesia story, the protagonist forgets who they are, and they are generally in some location where nobody knows who they are.  This allows the protagonist a clean slate to work with.  They live what everyone dreams of: a fresh start.  Of course as time goes on the story line enmeshes the character, and they find a new set of complications, but the appeal of the initial amnesia is very attractive.

Well a pandemic novel is amnesia written large.  Everyone who is still alive gets there fresh start.  The author can reset society in any way that they wish.  And generally you get the same pattern as with the amnesia stories:  the fun of roaming an empty world, followed by complications.  It is very much like th attraction that many feel toward the survivalist style of post apocalyptic preparations.  They are not attracted to the idea of death and destruction, but to the idea of a new, less complicated start.

Did I enjoy the book?  Yes.  It is nice to read the occasionally YA novel.  They are usually faster reads, and tend to be a little less grizzly than the adult tales.  There are no paranoid U.N. militia moments.  The book can be read in two workday evenings.

We have our usual two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: realism and readability (1 to 7 with 7 being high.).

Realism?  It is not completely devoid of its gritty moments.  There are a few harrowing moments.  But the unlikely extent and speed of this type of catastrophe makes for an interesting plot line, but not a lot in common with real life.  There is almost nothing of sci-fi's speculative futuristic nature, and the people are very normal.  So I am going to put it in the middle at a 4.

Readability is the hallmark of a successful YA author.  And Christopher was a very successful YA author.  It is not a page turner: a little too introspective for that.  I will say that it is a 6.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pandemic Week

For those who have missed our earlier reviews, a summary can be found here.

The number of titles that you can associate with pandemic fiction is enormous.  There are far more titles than I will ever get to. Not are there only post-apocalyptic, and apocalypse-in-progress novels with a pandemic primary agent, but you also have an enormous list of historical fiction, medical thrillers novels, and non-fiction offerings. Goodreads has an excellent summary list that gives a hint at the breadth of the offerings.

I am going to start by covering some of the novels we have already reviewed.

Steven Konkoly's Jakarta Pandemic, Carla Buckley The Things That Keep Us Here, Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming, Honey Brown's Red Queen, John Grit's Apocalyptic Law, Sigrid Nunez's Salvation City, James Van Pelt's Summer of the Apocalypse, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, Vivi Andrew's Reawakening Eden. Of these there are couple of varieties

The first type of novel you might run into could be called the pandemic thriller. At the start of the book, there is either no pandemic, or it is just getting started in some exotic far off location.   In some novels, there is a period when they are trying to contain the potential pandemic.  If they fail, or if the attempt is made off stage (and thus fails) it becomes a pandemic apocalypse-in-progress novel.   Jakarta Pandemic, The Things That Keep Us Here, The Red Queen are mostly within this subset.  The pandemic thriller subset tends to play out much like a horror novel.  It may not be a page turner exactly, but the tension and feeling of doom are designed to keep you glued to your seat and reading late into the night.


Then there is a somewhat odder creature. For lack of anything better, I am going to call it the pandemic removed, or possibly  the pandemic never mind tale.  In these novels, there is a pandemic described, but it is obvious from either the location or timing of the narration, that the key character in the story is not going to die. Things We Didn't See Coming, The Pest House, Summer of the Apocalypse, Salvation City, and Apocalyptic Law fit within this subgroup.  In general, the pandemic is used as a scene changer, or explanatory device, to create a unique narrative setting without using the tropes of science fiction.
Closely related to the pandemic removed is the pandemic-past tale.  The primary distance is the remoteness of the pandemic, and general lack of concern for further breakouts.  You get your scene change without the dying all over.   Reawakening Eden fits in this category.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is the pandemic apocalypse-in-progress science fiction story first published in 1826.  It is as far as I know, the second apocalyptic novel written (after Le Dernier Homme English: The Last Man)), and depending on your definitions, the second science fiction novel if you take her novel Frankenstein to be the first.

I decided against reviewing it.   A typical sample follows:
Never shall I see them more. I am bereft of their dear converse -bereft of sight of them. I am a tree rent by lightning; never will the bark close over the bared fibres-never will their quivering life, torn by the winds, receive the opiate of a moment's balm. I am alone in the world-but that expression as yet was less pregnant with misery, than that Adrian and Clara are dead.
The tide of thought and feeling rolls on for ever the same, though the banks and shapes around, which govern its course, and the reflection in the wave, vary. Thus the sentiment of immediate loss in some sort decayed, while that of utter, irremediable loneliness grew on me with time. Three days I wandered through Ravenna-now thinking only of the beloved beings who slept in the oozy caves of ocean-now looking forward on the dread blank before me; shuddering to make an onward step-writhing at each change that marked the progress of the hours.
For three days I wandered to and fro in this melancholy town. I passed whole hours in going from house to house, listening whether I could detect some lurking sign of human existence. Sometimes I rang at a bell; it tinkled through the vaulted rooms, and silence succeeded to the sound. I called myself' hopeless, yet still I hoped; and still disappointment ushered in the hours, intruding the cold, sharp steel which first pierced me, into the aching festering wound. I fed like a wild beast, which seizes its food only when stung by intolerable hunger. I did not change my garb, or seek the shelter of a roof, during all those days. Burning heats, nervous irritation, a ceaseless, but confused flow of thought, sleepless nights, and days instinct with a frenzy of agitation, possessed me during that time.
There is lots of this.  And the plague doesn’t really get rolling until the middle of the book- an excruciatingly ponderous read.  It was not well accepted when it came out, and to my mind its “popularity” of the moment resides with the fact that it was written by an early female author and Mary Shelley in particular.  The basic concepts of its themes are good, and if you stay at the thematic level, a review of the novel can make it come across as a masterpiece.  But the whole exercise is polemic (she wants England to become a Republic) and overwrought.

That the novel was not “rediscovered” until the 1960s, argues that it was not a particularly influential work either.  But first is first, and I thought it deserved mention.
Our list of pandemic works will include:

The first three are classics, and have been read by many over the years.  The next three are somewhat quirky scene-changer style works, and then we finish with a variety of here-and-now in the moment stories of horror and despair.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Biblical Ashes of Empires past

Bringing to you more in the way of historical evidence of collapses past:  In this case Biblical.  In this particular passage, you do not need to be particularly religious to see the representation of a coming collapse.  It has the advantage of stories of collapsed civilizations found through archeology in that it is a spoken witness told with emotion.

Joel is referred to as one of the twelve minor profits in the bible.  It is somewhat of a standalone book, because it does not reference enough specifics to precisely date when it was written.  Thus it has a somewhat timeless quality.

As we don’t know the specific history, the locust that start of the tale of woe can be taken to be allegorical, as the generic ravaging enemy that is always waiting to pounce.

Joel 1 (New American Standard Bible (NASB))

4 What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten;
And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten;
And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.
5 Awake, drunkards, and weep;
And wail, all you wine drinkers,
On account of the sweet wine
That is cut off from your mouth.
6 For a nation has invaded my land,
Mighty and without number;
Its teeth are the teeth of a lion,
And it has the fangs of a lioness.
7 It has made my vine a waste
And my fig tree splinters.
It has stripped them bare and cast them away;
Their branches have become white.

8 Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth
For the bridegroom of her youth.
9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
From the house of the LORD.
The priests mourn,
The ministers of the LORD.
10 The field is ruined,
The land mourns;
For the grain is ruined,
The new wine dries up,
Fresh oil fails.
11 Be ashamed, O farmers,
Wail, O vinedressers,
For the wheat and the barley;
Because the harvest of the field is destroyed.
12 The vine dries up
And the fig tree fils;
The pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree,
All the trees of the field dry up.
Indeed, rejoicing dries up
From the sons of men…….

15 Alas for the day!
For the day of the LORD is near,
And it will come as destruction from the Almighty.
16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes,
Gladness and joy from the house of our God?
17 The seeds shrivel under their clods;
The storehouses are desolate,
The barns are torn down,
For the grain is dried up.
18 How the beasts groan!
The herds of cattle wander aimlessly
Because there is no pasture for them;
Even the flocks of sheep suffer.
19 To You, O LORD, I cry;
For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness
And the flame has burned up all the trees of the field.
20 Even the beasts of the field pant for You;
For the water brooks are dried up
And fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

Joel takes up with a message of repentance and forgiveness after these passages.   The follow up of Joel 2:1-12, 12-17 are very much appropriate to Ash Wednesday.  Juxtaposed with 1 Corinthians 21-22 and you have the nutshell example of what some would call the change in dispensations from the Age of the Law, to the Age of the Church.

20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

Pandemic week will start tomorrow.  Oddly enough, as we shall, pandemics are often a favorite choice for authors, who want to remake/rebirth the world in a novelistic setting.

Zombie strip malls coming to your neighborhood

The walking dead, or in this case the standing and empty dead, are coming soon to a strip mall near you. The numbers are scary:

  1. The commercial mortgage market is roughly $3 trillion dollars.
  2. There is over $150 billion in commercial mortgages (1% of GDP) in the United States are coming due.
  3. Since 2007, commercial properties have declined 50% in value.

Kevin D. Williams, National Review, 4 February 2012 (Hat tip: NC)

Typical terms included a 20 percent down payment and a five-year payment schedule that required little more than interest payments. An $80 million mortgage on a $100 million property is not so bad, but an $80 million mortgage on what is now a $60 million property is a problem. More than half of the 2007-vintage loans are expected to have trouble refinancing, and maybe well more than half.

This is true even for borrowers who have never missed a payment. Banks are required to take into account a number of factors when rating commercial mortgages. One of the most important is the loan-to-value ratio, which has a lot of borrowers over a particularly uncomfortable barrel: They may have the cash to make their payments, and they may have the cash flow to continue making payments on a refinanced loan, but their properties still are worth less than their mortgages, so nobody wants to refinance. And those are the lucky ones: Just as those loans were mostly for five years, most commercial leases are for about the same length of time. With retail and office-space rentals down, lots of commercial borrowers are sitting on largely vacant properties that are not producing much in the way of cash flow. Among the more high-profile cases, the WTC 3 tower at the World Trade Center still has not located an anchor tenant, which could put the much of the project on ice. Thousands of strip malls across the fruited plains have empty storefronts, and thousands of office buildings have floor upon vacant floor.

It goes on to note that conditions are dire throughout the country.

The author is properly alarmed.  The author might be even more alarmed if he knew a little more about commercial construction cycles- mostly that it takes time to large buildings onto the drawing board, so it is generally a couple of years behind the rest of the business cycle.

So although a lot of people in construction were alarmed because there was no new work coming in, many of them were still working off the remnants of their book of business.  We probably won’t see the peak of refinancing until 2013, and the very tail end until 2015.

A haunted shop (or so they say)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Peak peat!

As we here about various discussions of peak oil, it is helpful to understand that it is not the first time that we have run through an source of fuel and had to go looking for others.  In some cases a substiture was found, but not always at the place and time where it was needed.

Nineteenth century, whale oil depletion (pdf)  has become a popular subject to look at because markets were modern enough that you can do a reasonable job of collecting data.  But there is another major fuel source that was used right at the start of the rise of the commercial economy that was depleted:  peat.

The Dutch were the first global modern commerical economy.  Although the industrial revolution occured latter in England, the Dutch were also industrialists of sorts, and manufactured products to supply these new commerical markets.  It was the opening of these commercial markets that increased both the demand for consumer goods, and the wages of common workers, that drove the early portions of the industrial revolution.

Of course the Dutch are most closely associated with windmills.  There most famous use was to pump out water fromt their low lying coastal lands, so that they could continue to push out and claim additional lands from the sea.

But windmills supply kinetic energy (motion), they don't supply heat.  And as the author of the following post notes, 89% of energy usage today is in the form of heat. 

Low-tech Magazine, 29 September 2011

The industrial windmill was a marvel of pre-industrial technology, but it explains only partly why Holland became the most important economic power in the world during the 17th century. While sustainable providers of power, windmills could only deliver kinetic energy. To give just one example: you can use wind power to polish glass, but you can't make glass using a windmill. For that, you need thermal energy. And in pre-industrial times, as the history books tell us, the only way to reach high temperatures was to burn wood.

One problem, though: virtually all forests in the region had long vanished by the 1600s. Yet, during the Golden Age of the Netherlands, the Dutch not only made glass, they also produced bricks, tiles, ceramics and clay pipes, they refined salt and sugar, bleached linen, boiled soap, brewed beer, distilled spirits and baked bread. All these processes were based on a massive input of thermal energy.

For the needs of the time, peat was a better fuel than coal: it may have been a little bulkier, but it burned cleaner.  The British originally did not allow the burning of coal within their cities because it made such a smokey mess.  But as time went on, the British ran out of wood for heating and turned to coal.

As we noted earlier, this use of coal as a heating source started the chain of events that first modernized agriculture, and then created the supply of coal to fuel the second state of the industrial revolution.

Although the Dutch certainly had other issues that they had to contend with, the loss of their indigenous source of fuel greatly hobbled their ability to move forward into the industrial age that was to follow.  Britain, and then the Germany and the United States fueled the powerhouse economies with coal.  The Dutch had run out of peat, and had to buy their coal from someone else.