The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

An alternative to bone spurs…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When it looks as though war is inevitable, Hugh and his wife, Terry, decide that he will not fight – that killing is wrong especially when the reasons for it seem so obscure. So they decide to flee into the wild highland country of the north of Scotland, making their home in a cave to wait the conflict out. Hugh knows how to hunt and poach while Terry has a full range of country skills in preparing and preserving food, so they are better equipped than most to survive. But in the distance they can hear the guns of war, and they seem to be coming nearer…

This is issued as part of the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series, but it doesn’t seem to me to sit comfortably there. First published in 1936 and set in a then future of 1944, I suppose it’s that speculative element that allows it to be categorised as science fiction, but in reality it’s more of a survival adventure with the bulk of the book being a man versus nature story. I use “man” advisedly here – although Terry is present throughout, she is certainly the weaker of the two, following Hugh’s lead and existing, it seems, merely to provide him with the domestic and emotional support that a good wife should.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to allow our own prejudices to colour our view of a book. I have great admiration for those conscientious objectors who refuse to fight in wars, but who either choose to serve in some other capacity – in the ambulance service, for example – or are willing to take a public stand and risk going to jail for their principles. I’m afraid I have very little respect for people who run away and hide while waiting for other people to return the world to safety for them. Macpherson does his best to show that Hugh’s decision is born of principle, but the whole premise made it impossible for me to sympathise with Hugh and Terry as I felt I was supposed to, as they endured the various hardships and misadventures of their life in the wild.

The book has two major themes, it seems to me: firstly, man’s relationship to the natural world and his ability to survive without the trappings of civilisation; and secondly, how even those so strongly-held principles can be eroded as the veneer of that civilisation is stripped away, quickly returning man to a state of survival instinct. The writing is at its strongest when Macpherson is describing the beauty and power of nature and man’s vulnerability to its whims. It is at its weakest when Hugh tells us again and again in exalted and overblown terms of his great love for and need of Terry – this idealized woman who seems to be mother to him as much as wife.

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There is much killing and butchering of deer and other animals, but in the realism of the need for food rather than in any gratuitous way. There are also detailed descriptions of the practical steps Hugh and Terry take to make life in the cave possible, such as cutting peat and making a fireplace, making lamps from fish oil and animal fat, pickling eggs and salting venison, and so on. I veered between fascination and boredom throughout all of this, but fascination won in the end, and I found even the stalking and hunting scenes won me over, done with authenticity and a great sense of man’s deep connection to the natural world – something I, as a city girl, completely lack. The descriptions of the landscapes are great, although there were many times I felt the need for a map of the area. It was only once I’d finished reading that I discovered there is in fact a map, tucked in at the end of the book and not listed in the index – annoying.

The book is a bleak account of this survivalist life – there’s no attempt to present some kind of false idyll. As summer becomes autumn and then winter, the harshness of the weather, the scarcity of food and the fragility of health are all shown in full. And as the distant war rumbles closer, the story turns bleaker yet, with the tone becoming almost dystopian towards the end.

A strange book which I found compelling despite my distaste for the premise, which is a tribute to how well it is done. There’s a short essay from Macpherson included at the end (after the map!), written in 1940 when the real war had been underway for a year, and it’s intriguing to contrast his own views about participation in the war effort to those of his character, though they certainly seem to share their opinion of women. Recommended, but more to those who enjoy bleak survival stories than to science fiction fans.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Far North by Marcel Theroux

The end of civilisation…

🙂 🙂 😐

Makepeace Hatfield lives alone – the last resident of the town of Evangeline in Siberia. Some unexplained catastrophe has destroyed civilisation and decimated humanity. But one day Makepeace sees something that makes her think that somewhere remnants of civilisation may still exist and she sets off to find out…

This is a pretty standard post-apocalypse story, and I might as well start by saying I found it rather dull and pointless. We never know what caused the catastrophe – possibly climate change, though if so it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the snowy wastes of Siberia. And, while we see humanity’s struggle to survive, there’s nothing terribly insightful about it. Scenes of horror and misery abound, there’s the usual cult religious aspects that are always included as part of apocalyptic dystopian fiction, man’s inhumanity to man is given full play, and we see that those who had stuck to their old traditional ways of life are better suited to survival than those who had lived in cities, far removed from nature and with skills that are useless in this new/old society. It has been compared (probably by the marketing people) to The Road, but it has none of the profundity or bleak beauty of that book – this is simply a kind of adventure story that quite frankly doesn’t have enough adventure in it.

I read it as part of my Around the World challenge, thinking it would be a good one for the Arctic. But while there are lots of descriptions of the wildlife of the area and mentions of the local indigenous tribespeople, I never found the setting came to life for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think it may be because I felt that survival in the Arctic region should have been much tougher, oddly, than it’s portrayed. Perhaps that’s my misunderstanding of the region – I know people have populated the area for millennia so clearly survival is not impossible – but I can only say I didn’t feel the cold seeping into my bones as much as I anticipated.

I’m struggling to find much to say about this one, to be honest. It is quite readable, the writing is good and Makepeace is a likeable heroine. I didn’t hate it, but I suspect I’ll have forgotten all about it in a couple of weeks. I think I’ll look for a different book to give me Arctic chills…

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The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Careful what you wish for…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Guy Martin isn’t happy. It’s 1925, and he seems to be settled in a job as a bank clerk which gives him little satisfaction, either intellectually or financially. Thanks to a scholarship he’s educated a little above his class, but has failed to rid himself completely of the Cockney accent that gives away his humble origins. As a result, he feels he doesn’t really fit in socially anywhere except for the Socialist Club, which he has joined, not so much out of a love for the poor and disadvantaged, but for the access to people who don’t judge him by his class. But, of course, they do, especially the middle-class young woman on whom he has set his heart, whose egalitarian instincts don’t stretch to romantic liaisons with the hoi-polloi. It is in this mood of disillusionment about society that he finds himself suddenly transported to the 22nd century, where he finds that all humanity’s needs have been met by increased mechanisation and people are free to pursue whatever course in life they choose…

Jaeger was writing this in 1926 in response to the rash of Utopian fiction that was prevalent in that period. Her own introduction tells us that, to a degree, she buys into the idea of the socialist utopia, at least in so far as that she believes that soon, given the will, society will have the means to provide decent living conditions to all citizens, and that mechanisation will free people from the drudgery and exhaustion of repetitive and uninspiring work. However, she sets out to speculate what, in that event, would happen to humanity – how would we develop, individually and as a society? And she suggests that the Utopias that assume that, freed from poverty, suddenly all people will become good and kind and devote themselves to art and culture are perhaps not taking account of human nature.

While reading, I felt this owed more than a little to Wells’ The Time Machine and it also reminded me a little of Huxley’s later Brave New World, so I was glad to read in the short but very interesting and informative introduction by Dr Mo Moulton of the University of Birmingham that she sees this as a link in that chain too. She also says it alludes directly to Bellamy’s classic Utopian novel, Looking Backward, one I haven’t yet read but really must since it gets referenced so often.

However, I felt this had a more human feel than Wells’ far distant future, where humanity had evolved almost beyond recognition. Jaeger’s people are still very much like us – they smoke and drink and speak English, play sports, argue, marry, etc. (Though not necessarily in that order.) This makes them far easier to understand and empathise with than Wells’ Eloi. Also, by beginning the book in 1925 and letting us see the class and economic divisions of her own time, she avoids the odd kind of nostalgia that some dystopias indulge in, as if the past was somehow a lost idyll to which we should try to return. Jaeger’s depiction is nicely balanced – both her present and her future have good and bad in them, with the clear suggestion that economic and social changes will change our problems rather than rid us of them entirely.

At first, Guy is entranced by this new world. He finds himself living with the doctor who has, in some unexplained way, brought him to this time, and is introduced to the doctor’s nephew, John Wayland, who will be his initial guide to the society. Dr Wayland and John are both intellectuals, choosing to spend their days on scientific and artistic pursuits, and indulging in philosophical debate with their friends. But soon Guy begins to discover that this society is just as divided as in his own time. Many people don’t have either the capacity or the desire for an intellectual life. They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits. The intellectuals treat them kindly enough, but with an amused contempt at their antics. Guy finds himself again standing uncomfortably on the dividing line between two classes, and gradually begins to wonder if the advances of the last two hundred years have made things better or worse.

Muriel Jaeger

Despite its age, I found that this book is addressing questions which are perhaps even more urgent today. With increasing automation, we will soon have to decide what we as a society will do with vastly increased leisure time. While it’s easy to think that would be a great thing, as usual it will be the least skilled and least intellectually inclined people who will be affected most. Will we step up to the plate and find ways to give people a fulfilling purpose, or will we simply throw millions, billions, of people out of work and leave them with nothing to strive for? Jaeger doesn’t give answers but, although in her future people have not been left in material poverty, reading between the lines her society seems to be becoming depopulated – not in a healthy, planned way, but more as a response to the lack of purpose and hope; and with intellect as the new currency, there is still a major divide between rich and poor.

Well written, thought-provoking, and a rather more human look at utopian society than we often get. I thoroughly enjoyed this and, as so often, am at a loss to know why this would have been “forgotten”, since it seems to me as good as many of the ones which have been granted classic status. (I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that all the “classics” were written by men… 😉 )

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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On the Beach by Nevil Shute

This is the way the world ends…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…

Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…

Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.

Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in the 1959 movie version

It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.

If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed.

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I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”

Nevil Shute

But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.

A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.

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The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…

Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.

The 1962 movie…

First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.

1962 again… and yeah, the woman in the book really doesn’t dress like that to fight monsters…

The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?

The 2009 TV miniseries version…

Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!

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For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our narrator, D-503, is a cipher in the utopian One State. He is the Chief Builder of the Integral, a rocket ship that is to be sent out into the universe, bringing uniformity and happiness to all alien species who may be out there still messily living with free will. All ciphers have been encouraged to prepare something for inclusion on the mission – poems of praise to the Benefactor who serves as a replacement for God in this society. D-503 decides to keep a journal of his daily life – this journal that we are reading – as his contribution. But D-503 is about to meet a woman – I-330 – who will disrupt his contented existence and lead him to reconsider just how utopian life in the One State really is…

First a word on translations. I started with the Momentum publication of this which as far as I can see doesn’t credit the translator by name. It’s dreadful – so bad I found it almost unreadable and was about to abandon the book completely at the 30% mark. However, I then changed to the Vintage Classics edition translated by Natasha Randall, which is excellent – like reading a different book. So if you decide to read this, make sure you check the translation first.

Even given the much better experience of the good translation, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to be as fulsome in praise of this as I’d like. D-503 is a mathematician, so his narration is full of mathematical metaphors and everything is described in vaguely mathematical terms. It’s well enough done, but I found it tedious. Zamyatin also has a technique of leaving sentences unfinished and uses ellipses even more than I do… This gives a sensation of the speed of events, of the increasing confusion D-503 is feeling, but again I found it got pretty tiresome after a bit.

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It also has an issue that I think may be really more my problem than the book’s, an issue I’ve found with other early dystopian fiction: namely, that I think the societies they describe sound considerably more attractive than the savage societies they hold up as the better alternative. What exactly is so wrong with being happy? I get it – I really do – that they achieve their happiness at the expense of free will, that their lives are unexciting because everything is decided for them, that art and literature have no real place in such societies; and no, I don’t aspire to that kind of society. But the flaw, if it is one, is that the characters are happy in their lives until they discover how much better it is to be miserable, chewed up by desire and jealousy, living lives that are nasty, brutish and short. In We, the savage society has reverted almost to chimp lifestyle – I don’t aspire to that either! Current dystopian fiction is much more likely to have the characters be fundamentally unhappy in their regimented societies, to be aware of how restricted and unfulfilling their lives are, and to have something more appealing to aim for. This works so much better for me. I had exactly the same issue with Huxley’s Brave New World when I read it at school – the characters liked their lives and were happy, until savagery burst in to make them realise what they’d been missing – unregimented sex, mainly, which is pretty much what sets D-503 off too…

This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft. Personally, I’m a bit baffled by the timing – I wouldn’t have thought Bolshevik Russia had reached anything close to this kind of society as early as 1920, while the civil war was still being fought. Zamyatin was either very prescient or he was writing as much about the general philosophical zeitgeist of the time as about the realities of his society – I suspect probably a bit of both. Marxism was on the rise, some authors were presenting utopian societies as a good thing, and Zamyatin references Taylorism more than once – something I wasn’t familiar with but which seems to have been an extreme form of regimentation within the workplace; what in my youth we called ‘time and motion studies’ – the desire of management to turn workers into unthinking, exhausted drones or human robots. (That’s not necessarily how management would have described it, but I was a worker bee back then… 😉 )

Yevgeny Zamyatin

The book therefore feels as if it’s arguing against philosophical ideas about utopias rather than reality, as does Brave New World from what I remember. 1984, on the other hand, while using the same basic story, is very specifically arguing against the actual rise of totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, and Orwell’s characters give no impression of being in any way “happy”. This makes it by far the more powerful book of the three from my perspective and it’s also much better written (though obviously Zamyatin is at a disadvantage with me on that score because I have to rely on translators). In fact, We feels to me much more like North Korean style totalitarianism than the Soviet version – both may have been aiming for the same, but possibly North Korea’s smaller size and more uniform population has enabled the Kim clan to more fully achieve and sustain a completely regimented society entirely dependent on the whim of its God-like “benefactor”. And I doubt anyone thinks the North Koreans are actually happy, however much they’re forced to appear to be.

Had I read this first, the ideas in it would have felt more original, as indeed they were when it was written. So although I didn’t find it the most pleasurable reading experience, I still highly recommend it as a classic that has helped to shape so much later literature. Maybe the secret is to read all the world’s literature in strict chronological order. Now isn’t that a nice dystopian thought to end on?

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

“Man is the measure…”

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike Facebook? And seeing people walking along reading badly written, inane texts while there’s a rainbow in the sky above them? And the whole concept of having 5000 “friends” most of whom can’t even be bothered to “like” each other? Asking Google about everything instead of asking a person? Pressing option 1 only to be given a further five options? Listening to a robotic voice telling me to turn right instead of getting serendipitously lost? Having opinions fed to me 140 characters at a time? Sometimes I dream of it all just stopping…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

The Machine Stops
by EM Forster

EM Forster
EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it its filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

They never leave their rooms to find inspiration, so increasingly “ideas” are in short supply. Much of their time is spent asking their friends if they’ve had any new ideas today, but the answer is usually no. For entertainment, they prepare lectures to give to their friends – via the Machine, of course, not in person. And the lectures are short, since everyone is so busy dealing with incoming messages from friends that they can’t concentrate for long. Their friends know only how they look on a blurry viewscreen and how they sound through speakers, their voices competing with the constant hum of the Machine.

Sounds horrifyingly familiar, huh?

Hawkwind have released a new concept album based on the story
Hawkwind have released an album based on the story

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

But one day, Vashti’s son contacts her with an unusual request. He wants her to leave her room and travel by airship around the world to his room, to speak to him face to face. She finds the request distasteful, almost obscene, but he is her son. So eventually she makes the journey, ensuring as far as she can that her blinds on the airship are always drawn so that she is never subjected to the hideous sunshine, so much brighter than the ambient lighting provided by the Machine; and doesn’t see the empty, meaningless landscape with its mountains and oceans, or the disorientating stars.

“Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.”

When she arrives at Kuno’s room, he tells her that he has been outside and what he found there. He tries to convince her that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.

the machine stops art 2

* * * * *

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing. Sign out of Facebook, stop watching cat videos on youtube, turn off your computer – yes, even switch off your smartphone for an hour… if you still can… and read a story that will make you just a little reluctant to switch them all back on. Then go out and look at the stars…

* * * * *

the machine stops

Here’s a link, but it’s novelette length, about 12,000 words, so you may prefer to get one of the many versions available for e-readers for a £/$ or two. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony… 😉 )

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

i am legendLoneliness, prejudice and the will to survive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Robert Neville is the only human left in his neighbourhood and possibly the world. It’s some months since a devastating plague swept through humanity, killing many and turning the rest into vampires. For some reason, Neville alone seems to be immune. Now he spends each night barricaded into his house, surrounded by all the traditional anti-vampire weapons – garlic, crosses, mirrors – while a growing horde of vampires gathers outside howling for his blood. By day, the vampires go into a coma-like sleep and Neville uses this time to fight back the only way he can – by killing as many of them as he can find.

Put away your anti-vampire fiction prejudices for a moment. The book is sci-fi in the sense that it’s set in a near-future and involves a plague, Neville’s world is about as dystopian as you can get and there are passages of great horror writing. But Matheson combines all these genres to produce something that is fundamentally about humanity – about loneliness, prejudice and the overwhelming will to survive.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The story is told from Neville’s perspective, though in the third person, and begins by showing his day-to-day existence – checking his house is still secure, making good any damage the vampires have done the night before, collecting any supplies he might need from the abandoned grocery stores. Then if there’s enough daylight left, he takes his stock of wooden stakes and hunts for vampires. The horrors of the plague are never far from his mind, though, and it’s through his memories that the reader learns what happened at that time. And Neville hasn’t given up all hope yet, either that there might be other people who escaped with their humanity intact, or that by studying the medical books in the abandoned libraries he might be able to fathom out the cause of the plague and develop a cure.

Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson

The quality of the writing is very high, not always a given in sci-fi. Where a modern day writer would doubtless waffle on for a stultifying 500 pages and throw in a love triangle, (yes, I am bitter…), Matheson cuts to the chase and packs a huge amount into a relatively small space. The search for a cure is done interestingly, with Neville taking the usual vampire story tropes one by one and testing them out to see which ones are true, then speculating on possible scientific causes for why they should work. Why garlic? Why do they only go outside when its dark? Why wooden stakes?

But when evening comes and the shouting and howling begins, then we see the utter loneliness and despair that haunt his nights, with memories of his happy, normal life before the plague constantly reminding him of all he has lost. It’s at these times that he questions what it is that makes him go on day after day, why he is driven to continue with the futile task of killing vampires when he knows that he’ll never be able to make even a tiny dent in their overwhelming numbers. Would it not be easier to give up, go outside and join them? But he is disgusted by them, a visceral, instinctive disgust at their very nature, a disgust that comes as much from hatred of difference as from fear.

Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The descriptive writing is spare but very effective in building an atmosphere of fear and tension, with occasional gleams of hope serving only to deepen the pervading darkness of despair. Neville isn’t a super-hero – he’s just a normal guy, meaning that the reader empathises with him (this reader empathised so much, she did her usual crying thing again at a couple of points). But what pushes this book beyond good and towards great is unfortunately the thing that cannot be discussed in a review without major spoilers. Suffice it to say that, when you have finished reading, you will probably find that you feel very differently than you expected to, and might well be left pondering the very nature of what it means to be human. Intrigued? Then read it…

PS If you’re thinking “Oh, but I’ve seen the Will Smith film and I know the story already” apparently you don’t. I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s been changed out of all recognition, losing the whole point of the book in the process – why do they do that?

Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Book 6
Book 6

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

do androids dream...“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” Spock

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Here we are back in our dystopian world of mid-20th century nightmares, when man has destroyed the planet in yet another global nuclear conflict. Most of the remaining humans have been persuaded to emigrate to other worlds, bribed with the promise of their own android if they go. Back on earth, the remaining population lives with the constant fear of infertility or worse, as a result of the radiation that covers the planet’s surface. Most animals have died and it has become a status symbol to keep a live pet. But these are hard to come by and expensive so some people keep electric pets instead – so well designed they are indistinguishable from the real thing without close examination. On these pets, real or fake, people pour out their feelings of empathy, feelings boosted by the Empathy Box – a machine that brings all humanity together to share in the suffering of their religious prophet, William Mercer.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, hunting down androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and returned to Earth. Rick owns his own electric sheep, his live one having died. He dreams of one day having another live animal to care for. As the book begins, he has been given the task of destroying a group of six of the latest model androids, so convincing it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from humans. In fact the only test that works is one that measures lack of empathy – thus making this the characteristic that most defines humanity. If Rick manages to ‘retire’ all six androids, the bounty money will let him buy a real animal to cherish.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

I’ve read this book three times now and each time I come away with the same feeling. It’s very readable, has some interesting ideas and the characterisation of Rick is excellent. But fundamentally the book makes no sense. There are so many inconsistencies in it that I always come out of it wondering what message exactly Dick was trying to send. The thing is I know what he was trying to say, because he explained it in interviews – he was saying that no matter how humanoid the androids appeared, they were still soulless and heartless, but that the very task of hunting and destroying such human-like beings puts Rick’s own humanity at risk. Unfortunately that doesn’t come out as the message in the book. I can’t help sympathising with the androids. They are created as superior beings then sold to be slaves (and Dick makes explicit reference to pre-Civil War slavery) performing domestic and agricultural chores. When they rebel, they are hunted down and killed. Humans on the other hand rely on machines not just to give them empathy but to control their moods. Seems to me that there’s very little left of humanity in the humans at all.

Mostly what the book provokes in me is a series of unanswered questions:

Why do the androids return to Earth knowing they will be hunted – why not go elsewhere when they escape?

Why have humans given up all their existing religions and taken up Mercerism? And what is the point of Mercerism? As religions go, it’s a particularly depressing one.

Why have some people decided to stay on Earth? There’s little prospect of it recovering in the foreseeable future, and they will eventually get sick and die.

Why are the humans so freaked about the androids – they don’t seem to do much harm except when enslaved or attacked. One of them has actually become an opera star – well, OK, soprano opera singers are a pestilence, I admit, but even so…

And the most basic question of all…

If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can’t be told apart from the real thing, then… why make them???

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner - the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS...
Harrison Ford in Blade Runner – the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS…

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the subsequent brilliant exploration of what it means to be human via the world’s greatest android, (no, not Marvin!), Commander Data. But I suspect Data owes his existence more to Asimov’s robots than Dick’s androids, and personally I think Asimov’s robots were the superior creation.

So while the book is an enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend because of its status as a classic of the genre, it’s lack of internal logic always prevents me from thinking of it as a truly great one.

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J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J a novel“Equipoise of hate…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Set in a near-future society, this is superficially the story of two misfits who fall in love. But the society, a kind of benign dystopia, is one trying to find ways to prevent ‘what happened, if it happened’ from ever happening again. And whatever happened, happened as a result of anti-Semitism, which is the real subject of the book.

After what happened, all people have been given Jewish surnames, the study of history is strongly discouraged, art has been restricted to the inoffensive and unchallenging, and people are encouraged to go through a ritual of saying sorry, even when they can’t think of anything they need to be sorry about. All of this is designed to prevent the build-up of the kind of antagonism that led to what happened. Although the convention is to say ‘what happened, if it happened’, it’s pretty clear that something violently horrific did happen, but it happened mainly in the cities and our story is set in a small village on the coast, possibly of Cornwall, where probably no-one was directly involved. The problem is that the plan doesn’t seem to be working so well – husbands and wives are becoming violent towards each other, friends and acquaintances are brutalising each other, and murder is on the rise. And our two main protagonists, Kevern and Ailinn, feel out of place – Kevern irrationally, (perhaps), fearful each time he leaves home that someone will break in, and Ailinn haunted by dreams in which she plays the part of the whale constantly running from an undefined Ahab.

On account of their innate aggressiveness, songs of that sort were no longer played on the console. Not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.

This is an odd book that so very nearly works brilliantly, but just misses. The structure is unbalanced – the entire first half is filled with allusion and mystery with the reader struggling, somewhat like the characters, to work out what happened and why the society isn’t working. The second half clarifies everything, but almost becomes too clear – it begins to feel a bit like a political statement rather than a novel in parts. I found it a little problematic in that, in its desire to show the repeating horrors of anti-Semitism, it comes close to suggesting that there are only two types of people in the world – Jews and those who hate them. Anti-Gentilism? The suggestion seems to be that, in order to maintain an equilibrium in society, we must have someone to hate, and it’s easier to hate someone to whom we have already done wrong, hence the Jews are the eternal target. It is satirical, but somehow not quite satirical enough to justify the over-simplification of the message.

But the shouts and smell of smoke had a powerful effect on me. I don’t say they excited me, but they gave a sort of universality to what I was feeling. I am who I am because I am not them – well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness.

The quality of the prose is excellent, and in the early part Jacobson has a good deal of fun with today’s popular culture, from jazz being banned because improvisation should be discouraged, to artists being encouraged to paint only pretty landscapes. But the humour doesn’t always fit well with the overall tone, and the satire becomes rather unsubtle as the book progresses. The characterisation has a feeling of unreality about it – each one feels more like a representation of a part of this society rather than a real person. This works fine in the context of the book, but it prevents the reader from feeling much emotional involvement with the two lead characters. In fact, given the subject matter, the balance of the book is surprisingly weighted away from emotionalism towards a colder intellectualism – though this is not a bad thing, I feel.

Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson

The ambiguity of the first half worked better for me than the more didactic second half. The government is invisible, represented only by those who spy on others. But there is a pervading feeling that everyone is being monitored and that even the smallest infractions of the new social code will be punished, though how is left deliberately vague – that very vagueness being the most sinister aspect of it. There are shades of Brave New World here, in the way the people are controlled via seemingly benign means to keep them happy; and of 1984, in the suppression and distortion of history and truth. Although ultimately this book doesn’t have quite the profundity or power of either of these, it’s still an interesting and thought-provoking read that deserves its place on last year’s Booker shortlist.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

the 5th waveThank Heaven for Little Girls…

😀 😀 😀 😀

An alien mothership hovers in the skies above Earth. But they’re not here to make new friends – it seems they’re intent on annihilating the human race. The first wave destroyed all technology leaving humanity almost defenceless, the second wave took out the coastal cities, the third wave released a virus that killed billions, the fourth wave remains almost entirely incomprehensible to me even though I’ve read the book… and no-one knows what the 5th wave will be. But fear not! The future of humanity is in the hands of a kickass teenage girl with a big gun, so I feel safe…

The book starts in the fourth wave with (oh, joy!) the first person present tense narrative of the aforesaid 16-year-old, Cassie, surviving alone in the woods after her parents have died, along with almost everyone else she knew. But her young brother was taken away, either by goodies or baddies – Cassie doesn’t know which – and she’s determined to find him. As she starts out on her journey, it’s Cassie who tells us the story of the alien invasion. Dark indeed though the story is, with some pretty horrific images, Cassie’s narrative is shot through with some much needed glimpses of humour which stop the book from becoming unbearably grim. Although she is firmly in the tradition of kickass heroines, she is nicely self-deprecating which makes her an enjoyable narrator.

We then swap to the story of Zombie, a 17-year-old boy who, like Cassie, has lost his entire family. Zombie has fallen in with a bunch of military people who are training the surviving children to be superkillers so that they can battle the aliens. (Why are they training the kids to do this rather than the adults? Because it’s a YA novel, silly! But I am deeply reassured to know that arming the 5-year-olds of today is an option, should we be invaded – in fact, I question why governments are not already doing this as a precautionary measure. I know I’d sleep sounder…) Zombie’s squad is struggling to get the points needed to graduate from training, until they are joined by Ringer, a super-kickass female who makes Cassie look quite cuddly in comparison…

Cassie meantime has fallen in with Evan, who nurses her back to health after she is injured. (Persons of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now. Here’s a little musical interlude to fill the time…)

Evan is hot! No, really, I mean it – he has chocolatey eyes and Cassie finds it difficult to concentrate on alien annihilation because she’s distracted by the ’roundness of his butt inside his jeans’. We have a lovely little interlude of teen romance here, complete with lusting semi-naked girl-in-the-bath scene and honourable male denial. Depending on your perspective, this whole section is either awfully sweet or sick-makingly nauseating. Guess which category I fell into? Fortunately I was distracted from the worst of it by my grumpy-old-woman disapproval over Cassie’s frequent use of bad language, mostly fairly mild, but still – rather than romantically washing her hair, I felt someone should wash her mouth out with soap.

(You can come back now!)

Just as I felt that I could take no more and should seek out sanctuary in the local old folks’ home, we return to the story proper, and oddly I was so much happier when we got back to kids shooting each other again. This final section is full of action and builds up to a strong tense finale. There’s enough emotional content to stop it being purely a shoot-em-up and, although the way is left very clear for the follow-up (it’s a trilogy, obviously – it’s YA fantasy, so it’s the law), the ending is quite satisfying in itself.

Rick Yancey
Rick Yancey

Overall, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. I could have lived happily without the sex-without-actual-sex scenes and the swearing, but I probably would have felt differently about those had I been in the correct age group for the book. And the basic plot premise doesn’t stand up to inspection at all. These have to be the dumbest aliens I’ve ever encountered – one feels that a race of beings who can travel across the universe and unleash all these amazing horrors could have done something to annihilate the entire human race in a oner, but then that would have ruined the story. And, avoiding spoilers, all the stuff about why the kids were being turned into trained killers makes absolutely no sense at all. But the writing is good, the characterisation is strong, and Cassie in particular is a very likeable heroine (though I’m led to believe the males in the readership think Ringer’s the coolest). And the action stuff is well done – there’s lots of violence but it’s not overly glamourised, I felt. Although it’s geared towards a YA audience, it’s one that dystopian thriller fans of any age might enjoy, so long as their disbelief-suspension mechanism is in good working order.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station elevenSoapy…

🙂 🙂 🙂

A particularly virulent strain of flu wipes out the population of most of the world within a few weeks. This is the story of before that event and twenty years after it.

Just before the flu struck, famous actor Arthur Leander died of a heart attack during a performance of King Lear. The story is based around him and the people who were connected with him – either family, friends or people who were in the theatre that night. The future story has as its main character, Kristen – a child actress in Lear, now a young woman travelling with a band of fellow actors and musicians bringing Shakespeare to the small communities of survivors that have sprung up since the apocalypse. The past story (which is set in our present) revolves around Arthur and his failed marriages.

I’m afraid I found this a book of two halves. The post-apocalyptic portion is fairly interesting, although the ‘world’ seems pretty under-developed. Mandel has decided to go with a reasonably hopeful outlook where people start to form little communities, and work in co-operation with each other. She spoils this a little by throwing in the old cliché of a fake ‘messiah’ attracting followers who then go around terrorising the peaceful folk. Her main point in this section is that there is a need to feed the mind and soul as much as the body, and though she starts out well with the Shakespearian element, she doesn’t really follow through. My view may be being influenced by the fact that I am a dedicated fan of Star Trek – by using a quote from Voyager, ‘Survival is insufficient’, she invited comparison; and, unfortunately for my feelings about the book, I feel that the episode the line comes from says considerably more about connectedness and individuality than this does. However the writing is good, and I feel this section works overall.

Emily St John Mandel
Emily St John Mandel

The ‘before the virus’ section, on the other hand, is tedious in the extreme. Why she chose to set this around the fake world of a Hollywood actor beats me, since all it does is ensure that it has no comparison to the lives of the majority of her readership. It reads like a long and rather dull daytime soap, as Arthur makes his way through three broken marriages, and since we know in advance that most of the people in this section die in the virus it’s hard to get up much emotional investment. I quickly found I was enduring rather than enjoying these lengthy passages. If the intention was to highlight differences between ‘before’ and ‘after’, I feel it would have been better to choose a more average life in the ‘before’ part. And, for the sake of keeping it interesting, it would have been better not to tell the reader the fate of the characters at the beginning.

To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why this book is garnering so many rave reviews. While the ‘after’ bit is quite well written, enough to make me interested to see how Mandel develops in the future, it doesn’t really stand comparison to the best of dystopian fiction, and the ‘before’ section pulls it right down. A disappointing read in the end, perhaps because my expectations were too high.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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Red Queen by Honey Brown

red queenLove, lust and rivalry…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The time feels much like the present, but society has been destroyed by a lethal virus. The narrator, Shannon, is a young man living in isolation with his older brother, Rohan, in a well-stocked house prepared by their now-dead father for just such a contingency, since he always feared that one day disaster would strike humanity. It’s been months since they saw another person, but one day a young woman, Denny, appears at the farm and throws herself on their mercy. Suspicious at first, both men soon find themselves attracted to her, but it still seems as if Denny may be hiding a secret…

Shannon and Rohan have little in common except their fraternal love for each other. Shannon is trusting and sensitive while, on the exterior at least, Rohan is tougher and meaner. Denny is nicely ambiguous – while Shannon falls quickly in love with her, the reader is left never quite sure of her honesty and motivations. The story moves at a fair pace and leads up to an exciting and well-executed thriller ending.

I was a little disappointed that Brown raised a couple of interesting questions and then rather failed to follow them through. Early on, there’s some discussion as to where the virus originated, with the suggestion that it may have been some kind of biological warfare. This strand is then totally dropped – just never mentioned again as if the author had forgotten about it. She does exactly the same with religion – Shannon is an atheist, while Rohan is apparently a strict Christian. This is made much of at the beginning as if Brown may be going to develop how their approach to the disaster affects or is affected by their beliefs…but very soon it’s just allowed to fizzle out into nothingness.

The ambiguous Denny is very well-drawn, and her character really holds the book together. Her actions stretch credulity at points, but not beyond breaking point. The men are more problematic. The first-person narrative via Shannon read to me throughout as if it was a woman speaking (not helped by the fact that I think of Shannon as a female name), and I kept having to remind myself that he was a man. Rohan is a bully and a tyrant, but apparently beloved by all? Hard to convince me of that, I fear, and Brown didn’t.

Honey Brown
Honey Brown

The plot revolves around lust and sex, so there are a lot of fairly graphic sex scenes – occasionally edging towards rape scenes. Too much for my taste, to be honest. The men are universally portrayed as slavering sexual predators whose moral and ethical standards are dropped at the first sight of a female. But then Denny is no slouch in the sexual predator stakes herself. The sexual manipulation that goes on amongst all the ‘goodies’ rather dulls the impact of the behaviour of the ‘baddies’, I feel. The suggestion seems to be that some forms of sexual predation are worse than others – true, but that doesn’t make me feel like saying the less bad kinds are OK then.

In the end, the book has less depth than the early chapters promised, but overall it’s a well-written and readable tale of love, lust and rivalry in an isolated post-apocalyptic setting.