Posts Tagged dystopia

SBR 2-for-1 Special: “Station Eleven” and “Timebound”

Folks, I’m sorry about the length of time between reviews here at Shiny Book Review. There are a number of reasons for that, including a catastrophic hard-drive failure and putting the final touches on A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE while also trying to hash out editorial changes for CHANGING FACES. Both are due out within weeks of each other (no more than six weeks between them), so I’ve been completely focused on that to the detriment of much else — including book reviewing.

That’s why you’re getting a 2-for-1 special today. I’d hoped to review Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN on Thursday, but time did not allow. And I’d planned already to review Rysa Walker’s TIMEBOUND for our Romance Saturday at SBR promotion.

So, here we are…let’s get started!

Emily St. John Mandel’sStation Eleven STATION ELEVEN is a post-apocalyptic dystopia of an unusual type. Mandel postulates that a nasty flu, something thousands of times worse than the Swine Flu or even the Spanish Flu of 1918 has hit the entire world. This flu devastates the world economy, to the point that almost nothing can function. People are thrown back into barbarity, left without electricity, without phones, without computers. And must try to survive.

You’re probably rolling your eyes by now and thinking, “So, Barb, what’s so interesting about that? Other people have done that before. What gives?”

Well, Mandel uses an unusual device to structure her novel. She finds a way to revolve everything around one man — an actor, Arthur Leander. While he’s not the plague-carrier, and while he’s also not truly the protagonist, everyone at the heart of this novel knows something about him and are connected, in a weird way, to one another — whether they know it or not.

We start out in our world, as Arthur Leander is on stage for the very last time, performing as King Lear. The fiftyish Leander is about to have a heart attack — meaning he misses the plague and all its fallout — and several people try to revive him, including Jeevan Chaudhary. Jeevan comes into contact with a child actress named Kirsten Raymonde, who’s been standing by watching Leander die without anyone paying attention…then as we see Jeevan struggle to keep himself and his paraplegic brother alive during the next few desperate weeks, Kirsten fades to the background.

She’s next seen at the age of twenty-eight, still an actress, performing with the Traveling Symphony — a group of actors and musicians who travel about using horse-drawn wagons cannibalized from old pickup trucks. She’s grown old before her time, has lost teeth, has dealt with privation and even had to kill people who’d tried to hurt her or others in the Traveling Symphony. But she still believes in what she does, and feels it’s the only way she can make any sort of positive difference in the world.

See, in twenty years, the world has lost nearly everything. Medical care has devolved; if you step on a nail, you can die of lockjaw as no medicines are available to help you. If you get food poisoning, you probably will die, because you’re weaker than you should be due to the lack of decent food. If you have a fever, the only treatments that seem to work are holistic things like soaking rags in water (which maybe isn’t even cold, as most people can’t figure out how to make ice any more, absent electricity and refrigeration).

And groups like the Traveling Symphony are warmly welcomed as a way to break up the monotony.

Then Mandel shifts again to Leander and his three ex-wives. We see the first of them, Miranda, who’s an artist — it’s her graphic novel, not-so-coincidentally called “Station Eleven,” that Leander gives to Kirsten a day or two before he dies, as Leander was given it as a present by Miranda and he doesn’t know what else to do with it. And we view her life before and after Arthur — she becomes a powerful executive and dies in Malaysia of the plague.

And we see Leander’s best friend, Clark, who gets stranded in a regional airport in Michigan due to plague concerns, who eventually runs into Kirsten as well.

All of this sounds much more amorphous than it actually is. Mandel found a way to make this humane. She shows all of these people in a nonjudgmental way. They are all flawed, including Kirsten. But they all have their strengths, too — and what’s good about them, what’s creative about them, is what somehow survives despite the way the economy has collapsed and also despite the way many humans have actually seemed to embrace the barbarism.

Mandel looks at consumer culture — iPhones, laptops, even handheld book readers — with a jaundiced eye, but even there shows the good things about it. How it helps to connect us. How losing it suddenly actually makes the barbarism that follows even worse. And how some people in this new, post-apocalyptic world don’t even want their children to know just how far the human race has fallen — because they’re afraid if they admit it, they’ll have to deal with their own buried grief over what they have become.

All of this is told in a decidedly matter-of-fact way. This is just what life is, after the plague (a word Mandel doesn’t use by the way). This is how they all have to survive.

But the hope is that if some — like Clark, who’s decided to make a museum out of the airport and collects the non-working technology of the early 2000s to show people what life was once like — can remember well enough, perhaps at least some of the “old world” can be restored.

Or at least kindness can continue, in its odd and disparate ways.

STATION ELEVEN is a phenomenal novel. It is strong, it is uncompromising, and yet it is somehow very hopeful.

The only thing Rysa Walker has in common with Emily St. John Mandel is that they both were once indie writers. (Well, they’re also both very good writers — but I’ll get to that.)

TimeboundCover_smallWalker’s debut novel, TIMEBOUND, was originally published independently as TIME”S TWISTED ARROW. (But as I didn’t read it or review it while it was an indie — shame on me! — I’m only going to refer it as TIMEBOUND from here on out.) It stars Kate PIerce-Keller, whose real first name is Prudence — but of course she hates it. She’s sixteen, a prep school student in Washington, DC, and is told two things very early on: Her grandmother, Katherine, is dying of cancer. And her grandmother is a time-traveler, marooned in time due to some deliberate machinations by other time-traveling bad actors.

Of course Kate doesn’t want to believe this. But Katharine shows Kate a medallion which glows blue; her parents can’t see it, but Kate can. And once Kate is nearly dragged somewhere in time by the medallion, Kate believes that it’s definitely out of the ordinary.

Then something happens to alter the timestream. Her parents never met each other, and Kate should not exist; she does solely because she wore one of these medallions (called a “Chronos device”) around her neck when the timestream shifted. And the school she’s been going to doesn’t recognize her, either. Even Kate’s best friend, Charmayne, no longer recognizes Kate.

Obviously, Kate is in big trouble. Time-traveling malcontents are out to stop her, because they believe that she can somehow stop them from perverting the timeline and doing whatever they want. And she has next to no allies.

Then, a young man, Trey, fortuitously comes into Kate’s life. (Trey would not have met Kate except for the timeline being muddled by the others using the Chronos device for their own gain.) And he decides he’s going to help her, because despite it all, he believes that Kate is telling the truth even though he can’t see the glow from the Chronos device any more than her parents could.

Kate’s only other allies are her grandmother and her grandmother’s “research assistant” (a younger man who lives with Katharine and wants the original timeline restored for reasons of his own). This is useful, because it means Kate isn’t entirely alone — but only Kate can use the Chronos device due to being genetically suited for it.

Then an attempt is made on Katharine’s life. And Kate must go back to 1893 to stop it.

Will Kate manage to survive long enough to save her grandmother? And will her new boyfriend, Trey, remember her if she does?

Also, what’s going on with the mysterious Kiernan — a dark-haired, enigmatic young man who seems to know Kate, even though Kate’s never laid eyes on him in her life?

All of these questions will be answered. But of course they lead to even more questions…which is just as well, as there are a number of sequels (and prequels) yet to be read and savored.

TIMEBOUND’s a fun, fresh, fast-reading YA novel. It has romance, intrigue, derring-do, excellent characterization and plot up the ying-yang.

My recommendation? You should grab both of these novels and read them as fast as you can. Then turn around and read them again. And yet again.

Grades: TIMEBOUND and STATION ELEVEN both get an A-plus.

Go read these impressive novels already!

–reviewed by Barb

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Under a Graveyard Sky: Fast zombies, smart survivors

Ed. — Once more we welcome Chris Smith and thank him for reviewing for us. Barb’s been fighting a sort of pneumonia/bronchitis/flu  for the entire summer (a whole world of suck there) while I’ve been slacking off on my reviews. So thank you, Chris, for filling in admirably. Good reviewers are not easy to come by; especially the funny ones.

Under A Graveyard SkyUnless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you may have noticed the fairly large amount of zombie related entertainment in today’s market.  For the rock dwellers, welcome! It’s the year 2013, the country is still in a recession, Obama won a second term, and zombies are extremely popular these days. Oh, and still no flying cars or hover boards. (Personally, that stings the worst.)

Now that everyone is caught up…

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, zombies still seem to be going strong. Books, movies, comics, TV shows, even ammo- they’re everywhere.  Funny, since Romero’s original use of the monster was to satirize American consumerism. I wouldn’t be surprised if ol’ George was praying for death, so he could get started on the ‘spinning in his grave’ process.

What is the appeal? Hard to say, as there are many different, and reasonable answers. Zombies represent an unstoppable force of destruction; They’re the embodiment of the faceless masses, a collective of unthinking, uncaring and insatiable consumers, able to overcome individual free thinkers with sheer numbers and mindless determination; An excuse to use creative killing techniques on something you don’t have to feel guilty about. (My favorite, oddly enough. Redneck and proud, baby!)

Here’s my problem with the genre:  In general, there can be no smart people in zombie fiction. Why? Because the smart people wouldn’t have an issue with the zombies. They’d hole up, figure out the best course of action against the monsters, and get down to the business of survival. This is my main issue (and the reason I scream at the TV) with ‘The Walking Dead’.  In ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Zombieland’, we are supposed to laugh at the idiots/tropes and go along with poking fun at them. It works, because it’s a huge nod and wink at the genre. ‘The Walking Dead’ and the Romero remakes (not the originals) are meant to be taken seriously. That’s what makes the huge, glaring mistakes so difficult to stomach.

Here is my short summary of ‘The Walking Dead’:

“AAAAAHHHH! Walkers! Aaaahhh!”

“Om nom nom”

“Oh thank God, we survived! That was terrible and unforeseen!”

“Yes, thank God it’s over.  Let’s continue on with our lives, secure in the knowledge that it will never happen again,”

“AAAAAHHHH! Walkers! Aaaaahhh!”

I realize the characters live in a world where zombies were unknown. However, we start the series three months into the plague, and are following a group of survivors. They should know the threat, and more importantly, know how to DEAL with the threat. Apparently, the writers decided that, to move the story in its various dramatic arcs, the characters needed to be completely incapable of making consistently good decisions. They make the same lousy choices time after time.  It’s frustrating.

Which–finally, right?– brings me to Under a Graveyard Sky (UAGS from now on).

I like this book. I have recommended it to as many people as I can. This book does zombie apocalypse right. No, wait, let me rephrase that: This book does ZA SURVIVAL right.

We focus on the Smith family (no relation)– Steve, Stacey, Sophia, and Faith. Dad, Mom, older sister, younger sister. They are smart, prepared, and capable. This is a group of folks that would be odds on favorites to survive ANY major disaster, short of the Sweet Meteor of Death. And even then, they may pull through.

Steve is ex-military, and fills the role of team leader. Stacey falls into a mostly support role, but isn’t portrayed as though she is less important than Steve. She is equally important, and vital, to the group’s morale and cohesiveness. Sophia is the team’s medical officer. Then there’s Faith.

Oh, good God, there’s Faith.

If this were a D&D party, Steve would be a Ranger, Stacey a magic user, Sophia the team’s battle cleric/healer, and Faith would be the fighter/berserker. (Roll a 2d-20 for a geek save. If you have 2d-20, you passed it.)

The ‘zombies’ in UAGS are bio-type, much like ‘28 Days Later’. They’re still human, infected with a rabies-like virus that degrades brain function down to a feral animal type level. The first act of three concerns the beginning of the infection, allowing us to follow along as the Smiths make their preparations to survive what’s coming. It does bounce around a bit, giving us several viewpoints, but does a good job of adding depth to the universe. This is the more technical section, providing info as to how the virus works, how it was spread, and how it affects the infected. This doesn’t slow anything down, however, as the tech info is worked smoothly into the story with the action, humor, and tension. While all the Smith family members are well represented throughout the section, the focus begins to shift towards Faith at roughly the halfway point. She has the best lines and scenes, and is generally the center of the action. (I still chuckle about her disarming before entering New York-think Mad Max as played by a thirteen year old girl.)

Act two takes place just after the plague has spread, following the Smith’s as they scavenge the seas for supplies. Here we begin to encounter other groups of survivors, setting up the “well, now what?” question. This is the pivotal point that sets the tone for the rest of the series. Steve’s decision to not just survive, but to fight back and rebuild, separates UAGS from most of its contemporaries. We also see groundwork laid for possible future conflicts, as various personality types come in contact.

In something like ‘The Walking Dead’, these conflicts would be met with some hand-wringing “we all have to get along, because TOLERANCE” attitude, until it became a major distraction/threat. Dealing with the distraction would be the perfect time for “AAAHHH! Walkers!” and the inevitable death of the source of the conflict. Until the next time.

In UAGS, Steve deals with potential problems immediately, before they become a threat to the group’s survival. This is what normal people refer to as “smart.” It goes a long way towards establishing the credibility of the book. The characters will deal with issues in a realistic fashion, display the necessary mindset to make the difficult decisions, and the intelligence to handle things before they develop into obstacles. Random and consistent good luck will not become a major plot device. This is a good thing.

Act three has the most action, as the now named Wolf Squadron has grown significantly. Switching the mission from simple survival to search and rescue means clearing larger and larger vessels. More action doesn’t mean less character development, however, even if it is mostly centered on Faith. Beneath the ‘kill ‘em all’ exterior, there is still an innocent thirteen year old, dealing with the reality of her ‘kill, or become lunch’ world.

Be warned, while it wraps up neatly (figuratively speaking- there was nothing ‘neat’ about the big fight scene) UAGS ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.

All in all, it is a well thought out, well written and, most importantly, fun novel. As with other works in the genre, I can see potential for future novels to get bogged down. Concentrate on the politics of rebuilding society, and it gets boring quick. Throw in a lot of zombie killing, and you run the risk of “been there, done that, got blood on my T-shirt” type action.  However, as long as the series continues to build on the personalities of the characters and the strong human element of the story, the desire to see Wolf Squadron succeed where others have failed could override any problems.

Reviewed by Chris

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2-for-1 SBR Special: Lauren Oliver’s YA Dystopian Romances

Tonight, Lauren Oliver’s two YA dystopian romances are on the table.  These, of course, are the critically-acclaimed DELIRIUM and its immediate sequel, PANDEMONIUM.  Both feature Lena Haloway, a teenage girl from a troubled background who lives with her aunt and uncle in Portland, Maine, as her mother is unavailable.  (At first, Lena believes her mother is dead, but later finds out that isn’t so.)  And both feature a world that’s nearly entirely unrecognizable due to one thing: love has been outlawed, and anyone who dares to love despite societal prohibitions ends up shunned at best, incarcerated or killed at worst.  This is because love is now called a disease, and goes by the name of amor deliria nervosa; it is not considered to be a benign ailment, which is why society continues to incarcerate and kill people who dare to love.

Worse yet, the world, or at least the United States, has become extremely regimented.  Your mate is picked for you (obviously, if you try to pick your own mate instead, you’ve shown that you’ve contracted the “disease” and must be removed from society).  Your choice of career is picked for you.  Your behavior is monitored, your associations (friends, family members, etc.) are not always freely chosen, either (though friendship still exists, true, deep, lasting friendships are quite rare), and everyone in polite society wishes for one thing: the Cure, otherwise known as unnecessary brain surgery that’s equivalent to a lobotomy.  A whole religion has grown up around this, and no one questions it because the older religions have all been swept away.  (This is a bit of a plot problem, but I’ll get into it later.)

So, for nearly seventy years, the U.S. has existed in a twilight state.  Anyone who loves is declared a criminal; the lucky ones manage to get away into “the Wilds,” areas around big cities that have been cleared of permanent habitation, while the unlucky ones get placed into mental institutions or are killed outright in the attempt to escape their terrible fate of an unnecessary lobotomy.

All of this is necessary in order to understand Lena’s problems in DELIRIUM, as she starts out knowing that her mother was not able to be Cured despite several procedures.  At first, Lena doesn’t question authority or orthodoxy, which made me want to scream and throw things; ultimately, she falls in love with a guy named Alex, who tells her many things she needs, but doesn’t want, to hear.  (Such as the fact that there are a number of resistance fighters out in the woods — excuse me, the Wilds — and that there are many people who disagree with the government’s official stance that everyone needs a lobotomy to protect them from themselves.  At this point, I muttered, “Thank God,” and kept turning the pages.)

One of the highlights of DELIRIUM is Lena’s true and strong friendship with a young woman named Hana.  These two met because they’re both runners; because their social standings are wildly different (Hana’s family is wealthy, which in this society means her TV actually gets seven channels), once they’re both Cured, they probably won’t have anything to do with one another.  Yet as they’re still in high school at the beginning of this book — and as neither of them has been Cured — they still care deeply about one another and want each other to be happy.

Hana, you see, is one of those people who rebel, but only within limits.  She will have a comfortable life if she submits to it, which she knows.  But she still doesn’t like the idea of that comfortable life; she just doesn’t have the inner fortitude to escape considering the massive problems escaping from their dystopian society will engender.

Yet Hana has lit a fire under Lena, and that fire can only be quenched by two things: freedom, and Alex.  And for the most part, I bought it, as Ms. Oliver’s storytelling ability is quite good. 

But one thing really bothered me: because this is a young adult dystopia, much emphasis is placed on Lena getting to know Alex body to body, even though they do not, technically speaking, have sex.  (In this society, touching one another and kissing deeply seems more illicit than merely having sex, which is something all of these societally approved couples must get around to now and again even considering they’ve all been effectively lobotomized for their own protection.)  Lena, of course, goes into raptures at Alex’s physical attributes (the broadness of his manly chest, how his muscles catch the light of the sun, even musings about Alex’s shoulder blades, for pity’s sake), and of course Alex is also stricken dumb by Lena’s physical beauty even though she’s 5′ 2″ and from her own musings isn’t considered to be a raving beauty by any standard. 

All of that lavish bodily description was excessive.  It detracted and distracted from the main plotline, which of course is this: how do these two young lovers successfully escape their dreadful society?  Or is that even possible?

Yet the road into the Wilds is perilous; will they make it out alive?  (Hint, hint: at least one of them does, otherwise the second novel under review, PANDEMONIUM, wouldn’t have been written.)  Even if they do, will their relationship grow, change, or . . . die?

Next, we move on to PANDEMONIUM, where Lena is now in the Wilds.  Alex is not with her, so Lena has to endure the Wilds on her own.  She meets up with a resistance group led by a tough young woman, Raven, and several tough young men, including Tack, who seems to be Raven’s boyfriend though this is never really explored.

After a number of travails (mostly having to do with the lack of electricity, food, and medical supplies), Lena ends up relocated to a different city and becomes involved with the influential DFA group — DFA standing for “Deliria Free America” — as Raven and Tack have come along to pretend that they’re Lena’s relations.  (There’s no way Raven and Tack would be old enough to be Lena’s parents, so they’re posing instead as her Aunt and Uncle.)

Of course, there’s yet another handsome young man in Lena’s future, with this young man being the son of the head of the DFA, Julian Fineman.  Julian has had seizures his entire life, and believes that if he’s allowed to have the Cure (he’s had many operations, as he’s also been stricken with some form of brain cancer), he may truly end up medically cured.  Or he’ll end up dead, which to him is an acceptable risk — and because he’s a politician’s son, Julian’s been groomed to tell everyone in this overly polite society that he’s willing to die for the Cure, which of course is a strong societal message.

Then, as the plot progresses, Lena and Julian end up getting kidnapped by a hostile bunch of thugs called the Scavengers.  These aren’t like the freedom fighters, who just want to live in peace and love whomever they want; instead, the Scavengers are anarchists, who glorify violence in the name of upsetting the current “natural order of things” in the U.S.  Lena ends up confessing to Julian that she’s not really Cured as he thinks she is; instead, she’s part of the resistance, what Julian thinks of as “Invalids” (this concept, of course, has been done before by movies such as Gattaca), with the normal run of zombie-like sheep — er, Cured human beings — being the Valid citizens.  And eventually, she manages to get the two of them free of their nasty captors, oddly enough without a single seizure from Julian to gum up the works.

But of course that’s not the end; along the way, Julian falls in love with Lena, while Lena slowly grows to like touching Julian the same way she touched Alex in the past.  (Once again, there is no sex going on; the closest these two get to intimacy is when they kiss, or one of them sees the other half-naked.)  Lena convinces herself that she must be in love with Julian — after all, he’s a good guy, has stood by her throughout all their trials and tribulations, so what’s not to like about that? — because she does, after all, like touching him.  That she doesn’t seem to realize that touching someone and truly loving someone are not the same seems oddly naïve.

Anyway, just as Lena and Julian think they’ve gotten away scot-free into the Wilds, they end up getting recaptured.  But Lena doesn’t end up incarcerated; instead, a member of the resistance gets Lena away.  This member of the resistance acts oddly, too, in a way reminiscent of Lena’s long-lost mother (hint, hint), but Lena has no time for it as she must get Julian free as he’s about to be put to death.  The fact that he’s a politician’s son doesn’t save him under the circumstances, nor does the fact that he and Lena nearly died several times in their escape from the brutal thugs because  this is an extremely inflexible, unforgiving society.  Because Lena knows that, her focus shifts toward getting Julian away; anything else will just have to wait.

So, the cliffhanger here is, does Lena save Julian, or not?  And if she does, will she realize that she doesn’t really love Julian (instead, she just likes him and likes how it feels when he touches her)?  And note, while one of these two questions is resolved by the end of PANDEMONIUM, there’s still a great deal left outstanding — which probably is why the third book of this trilogy, REQUIEM, is due out in 2013.

While there are many things to like about both of Oliver’s books, there are some major problems here. 

  • First, the “new,” zombie-like society that the DFA-types have created has only been in existence for about seventy years, which isn’t long enough to have expunged every trace of any other religion besides the state-sponsored one. 
  • Second, there’s way too much time spent on how gorgeous these people are; even when Lena characterizes herself in a deprecating fashion, somehow it comes off a bit overdone. 
  • Third, while I believed Alex was truly in love with Lena, I was never sure if Lena loved Alex or loved the idea of being in love with him; this went double for Lena’s odd relationship with Julian. 
  • Fourth, I do not buy that a young man like Julian, who’s had seizures all his life, can be beaten and nearly killed yet not have one, single seizure while doing his level best to escape.  (Or afterward.) 
  • And fifth, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how any form of a society could function when everyone in polite society, effectively, has been lobotomized in order to “take the Cure for their own protection.”

So despite Oliver’s excellent storytelling abilities, the foundation on which these stories stands is a bit rocky.  That’s why despite two decent YA romances set amidst a convincingly grim milieu (the back story is weaker than I’d prefer, but the ambience is superb), the better of these novels rated a B.

Bottom line: the ambience is excellent.  The milieu is distasteful, appropriately dystopian.  The romances work to a degree, at least considering very young, untried people are involved.  But the back story did not convince.

Because of this, while I’ll still do my best to read REQUIEM when it comes out next year, it’s not likely to be at the top of my list.  (Sorry.)

Grades:  DELIRIUM — B, mostly because of the Lena-Hana relationship, along with the convincing Alex-Lena romance. 

PANDEMONIUM — C-plus, mostly because Lena doesn’t seem to realize Julian’s just a guy — albeit a hot-looking one — and that being willing to touch someone does not necessarily mean that you love him.  Not even in this society.

— reviewed by Barb

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Disturbing Dystopia: Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse”

Rarely have I read a book as thoroughly disturbing at Will McIntosh’s SOFT APOCALYPSE.  In it, we meet Jasper, a formerly middle-class man who’s hit the skids in a big-time way.  Jasper has fallen in with a bunch of others in similar positions to his own and has formed a “tribe” which is nomadic, lives in tents, and does its best to gather power from windmills and solar panels in order to fill fuel cells and sell them to the remaining places that need this energy to survive.  But society has more or less collapsed, reasons unknown or untold, and Jasper’s tribe is having a very tough go of it, partly because the people who are still working (anywhere from 60 to 70% of the population are employed at the start of this novel) look down on folks like Jasper with distaste and scorn.

Now, the first question I had was, “Why is so little empathy being shown here?”  Because wouldn’t some of these folks think to themselves, “There but for the grace of God go I?”  Yet they don’t — instead, most people hate Jasper’s tribe, and others like them, right off for no good reason whatsoever. 

Next, we meet Jasper’s erstwhile lover, Sylvia, a woman who still has a job.  Sylvia and Jasper have a more or less platonic affair because Sylvia still loves her husband; apparently Sylvia’s husband just doesn’t excite her any more.  Sylvia’s help and money are the main reason Jasper’s tribe has survived to date.  Sylvia is important to the plot because she’s found Jasper a job in Savannah, Georgia, in a convenience store and brings Jasper a clean, white shirt for the interview.  So there’s at least one good person left; this helped me settle down for a while.

Moving on, as this book is told in a series of vignettes that move in time from weeks to months or years, we see Jasper trying to date as he’s given Sylvia her freedom now that he has a job and has been able to put up his tribe in a one-bedroom apartment. (Nine or ten people living there would be cramped, methinks, but McIntosh skims over this rather quickly.)  Jasper meets an upper-class young woman who gives him reason to go visit a club, something he hasn’t done much of since falling so far economically, only to have this gal reject him once she’s around her friends.  This makes Jasper sting — he can’t help it he’s fallen so far — and he ends up going home in disgrace.

In another vignette, Jasper’s still trying to date (and is thankful he still has his job at the convenience store as unemployment has now risen to 60%), and meets the one woman who’s truly worthwhile in all 256 pages of SOFT APOCALYPSE — Maya, a paraplegic.  Maya is smart, funny, down-to-earth and an economist; she says with conviction that there’s no chance that America will come back and we believe her.  However, Jasper can’t wrap his mind around the concept of dating a disabled woman and we don’t see Maya again, which is a real shame: while she was involved with Jasper, this story made sense and was enjoyable.  But Maya’s involvement here is, at best, four pages in length; obviously she cannot carry this novel.

SOFT APOCALYPSE meanders from place to place, and some of what happens is intensely disgusting, especially with regards to animals.  First, we see one of Jasper’s friend’s dogs getting killed due to being used as an innocent, road-side bomb carrier because, apparently, anarchists are everywhere and they like doing stuff like this to dogs for fun.  Next, we see another bunch of anarchists (or possibly paramilitary men) shooting up a bunch of people who’ve exited an art gallery showing, but they don’t kill Jasper because they know he’s poor.  However, they instead force him to eat a cat fetus, which they’ve apparently been carrying around on the off-chance that they’ll get their chance to torment some benighted soul like Jasper with it, which doesn’t make any sense.

The only real themes here are that Jasper can’t relate to women, nor can he really articulate what the Hell has happened to him or his society despite being a former sociology major in college.  These two things are not enough to carry this novel.  Further, all the terrible stuff done to animals seemed at best exploitative, and at worst was nonsensical; you’d think that with society having utterly collapsed that the only bad thing that would be likely to happen to most animals would be to be eaten rather than tormented or made to carry live bombs for the pleasure of some sick anarchist somewhere.

As for the characters, I didn’t like Jasper at all.  I found him whiny, self-centered, unable to process what had happened whatsoever even though this book spans ten years (this also is nonsensical), and unable to find many good people to help him rebalance his life.  I did like Sylvia, for the most part, and I definitely liked Maya, but they didn’t have that much to say or do in SOFT APOCALYPSE except play off Jasper’s complete incomprehension; maybe if this story had been written from their viewpoint, it would’ve made more sense.

Next, we get to the biggest problem of all in SOFT APOCALYPSE, that being the lack or omission of important details.  Consider that Jasper starts off this novel walking.  The other members of the tribe mention how hard it’s been to keep clothes on their back, but they never mention the shoes on their feet.  This is completely unrealistic, because if your only method of locomotion is walking, your feet are going to get bigger in a hurry — we know this from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, because peasants who did not have horses to draw carts had to get around by walking and their feet were often much, much bigger than any of the “civilized” Lords and Ladies because the latter group got to sit down for much of the day; the former group (the peasants) had to be standing up most of the time in order to do their jobs, then had to walk home afterward.

Then, there’s the lack of depiction, or any sense of strict delineation, between cities and the countryside in SOFT APOCALYPSE despite much of this novel being placed in Savannah, Georgia.  We should see that the suburbs are having trouble getting power due to all these anarchists (some of whom are called “Jumpy Jumps”) around causing randomized trouble, more so than just at the beginning of this novel when Jasper and the others are obviously floundering.  We should see “brown outs” in Savannah once Jasper is well-situated.  We should see problems getting good quality water.  We should see problems, period, and aside from the disgusting stuff with animals, we really don’t see much of that.

Finally, what bothered me the most about SOFT APOCALYPSE was the lack of there being any hope for the future aside from something that is really jarring — that of an engineered virus called “Dr. Happy” that makes most people calmer, more rational, or at least happier but doesn’t work for everyone.  (For those people, they tend to commit suicide, quickly, laughing all the way down — we see one of those suicides and it isn’t pretty.)  This doesn’t make any sense at all; in other dystopic novels I’ve read, including Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s classic A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ and Sam Landstrom’s recent MetaGame,  there were people to root for in the story as well as against.  There also were reasons to believe that at least a few people would learn from their experiences and become more empathetic; not everyone in these stories were good people, mind, but not everyone was a useless waste of space, either.

What I found in reading SOFT APOCALYPSE was this: it’s disturbing.  It’s depressing.  It’s obviously dystopic even for a dystopian novel, and it’s one of the most disgusting novels I’ve ever read due to the consistent abuse of animals throughout the course of the story.

Mind you, this novel has some fans in high places; Walter Jon Williams really likes this book and wrote a cover blurb for it.  Well-known full-time book reviewer Paul Goat Allen said this:

Bottom line: If Soft Apocalypse isn’t nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award, I will eat the entire book page by page…

And Tor.com wrote a glowing review for SOFT APOCALYPSE here during April 2011’s “Dystopia Week.”

All that aside, this is a dark, disturbing, depressing and disgusting work of fiction I’d have rather not read.  However, since I did, here are my grades:

Ambience: A-plus.  No doubt about it; this aspect was done well because the story’s depressing and it was supposed to be.

Concept: A.  The idea of SOFT APOCALYPSE, by itself, works.

Execution of story’s concept: F.  The way it’s told didn’t.

Writing: C-plus.  McIntosh told the story he wanted to tell, but missed some vital details that would’ve made this book stronger and more believable.

Plot: F.  Bad detailing.  Good characters like Maya and Sylvia don’t stay around long enough.  No real overarching plot except for Jasper and his friends fumbling around.  Worst of all, the plot was not believable much of the time.

Characterization: C.  Obviously McIntosh can write good characters to root for, as I loved Maya and Sylvia.  He also can write terrible characters to root against, like the anarchists and paramilitary types.  But he wasn’t ever able to give me one good reason to root for Jasper, and that’s a cardinal sin.

Overall Grade: C-, and that’s generous. 

My advice is to read this at your own risk unless you’re an animal lover.  But if you love cats, dogs, or other animals, please do yourself a favor and skip this book.  You’ll be glad you did.

— reviewed by Barb

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