BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson

Escape From KathmanduEscape From Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldy-but-a-goody. It was originally published in 1989, though I read a 2000 edition that I bought in Pokhara. Nepal is probably the only place one is likely to find this book on the shelves of a bookstore (other than used book sellers.) If you didn’t get your copy in Nepal (or haven’t been to the Himalaya) the one thing you need to know to admire the quirkiness of this book is that the grandiosity of what you experience in the Himalaya makes lost cities (ala, Shangri-La) or lost species (ala, the Yeti) seem less unlikely than you would ordinarily think them.

This isn’t so much a novel in the sense of a work with a single narrative arc as it is a novel-in-stories that consists of four adventure stories featuring the same lead characters — George Fergusson and George “Freds” Fredricks — some overlapping minor characters, and all of them set somewhere within Nepal. The cross-cutting theme of these stories is that of trying to rescue the magic of Nepal (dusty and dilapidated as it can sometimes be) from modernity and the grasping hands thereof. The point-of-view character varies from one story to the next (though not within stories.) The setting criss-crosses Nepal from Everest to Chitwan forest to ill-defined border areas, but always going back to — or cutting through — Kathmandu.

The titular first story of the book is about an attempt to rescue a Yeti that has been captured and taken King Kong style back to civilization by way of Kathmandu. The second adventure presents a race to hide the body of a famous deceased climber before it can be found and plundered by individuals who would like to take it from Nepal to make their names from the investigation of it (or, possibly, the novelty of it.) [You may or may not be aware that the bodies of most of the people who’ve died climbing Everest remain up there – often buried in snow and ice but, occasionally, exposed.] The penultimate story is about trying to save Shangri-La by stopping a road that is to be built too close to it for comfort. The final adventure imagines that there are ancient of tunnels under Nepal and centered in Kathmandu. In this story, the conflict between the old and modernity is brought to a head is a most challenging way by the fact that the threat to the secret, ancient tunnels is a badly needed sewer system for Kathmandu. While in the first three stories, the reader readily knows who to root for, in this last story, he or she is hung on the horns of a dilemma.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s humorous. The two Georges (though one conveniently goes by the name “Freds”) offer a classic odd couple dynamic. The stories and characters are quirky, but the book still manages to hang on to its theme and lessons. I’d highly recommend this book for those who like humorous adventure stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of WarDogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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What will it mean when there are other entities that (who) are intelligent on a human scale (e.g. master of technology, complex planning, and long-term planning?) This is a question that science fiction has addressed many times and in many ways. Tchaikovsky’s approach is interesting because it doesn’t just ask what if one produced a computer intelligence or if another biological species became (human-style) intelligent, but – instead – it imagines an entity that combines human and animal intelligence with computer capabilities and protocols?

The protagonist, Rex, is a supersized dog-man optimized and super-powered for warfighting. Rex’s general intelligence is about at an elementary school level, but his instincts, programming, and capacity to process and analyze complex and abundant information make him much more competent than that level of intelligence would suggest. The dog-part of Rex has the simple animal instincts that make dogs both loving pets and devastating predators, with both capacities rolled into one (even if one side often remains latent.) His human capacities include a limited ability to reason and – crucially – the ability to communicate via language. The computer part of Rex, besides giving him the ability to process and respond to multiple information streams at once effectively, keeps him in check by creating a hierarchy of command and by giving feedback by way of a crude proto-emotional system (i.e. feelings of being a “good dog” or “bad dog.”)

Rex is the leader of a squad of creatures of various speciation. There is a giant bear named Honey, who serves as the team’s heavy weapons platform. She’s easy to see but packs a wallop in weapons and strength. There is a reptilian member called “Dragon” that genetically shares certain lizard characteristics. Dragon is a sniper. He is stealthy, and exists to take out particularly designated targets. Staying hidden is essential because Dragon doesn’t have the fantastic durability of Rex or Honey. The final team member is Bees, a swarm intelligence of bees. Bees can go anywhere by flight, can disperse or gather as needed, and can sting with various styles of poison. The individual bees of Bees are fragile. However, losing a few here and there has little effect on Bees capacity, but its intelligence does degrade with continued loses, and the ability to act and think as a unit disappears altogether at some level of loss.

The antagonist throughout most of the book is a man named Murray, who is an overzealous military contractor carrying out a brutal war in Central America using teams like Rex’s, but also laying waste to the Geneva and Chemical Weapons Conventions as he sees fit. (The book imagines a world in which the United Nations and global corporations are strong, but national governments are weak – at least relatively.) To cover up his war crimes, Murray kills a technician named Hartnell who is beloved by Rex (though below Murray – his “Master” – in Rex’s hierarchy,) but not before Hartnell can jettison Rex’s command hierarchy. This puts Rex in a rudderless position of having to make his own decisions. While the hierarchy is gone, Rex still has canine instincts and gets signals from his feedback chip. He doesn’t have to follow orders, though it’s still his inclination to do so. Two classes of individuals sit easy with Rex. Friends are individuals that one protects at any cost. Enemies are individuals that one destroys at any cost. Rex has sufficient intelligence to recognize that not everyone fits smoothly into one of these classes, but he doesn’t know how to respond to such individuals.

After Rex and team go “off-leash,” he is adrift in a world he doesn’t quite understand and there are events going on behind the scenes that he can’t fathom. Left entirely to his own devices, Rex might yield to his instinct to try to return to his Master (Murray) and try to get back to life as usual. However, while in command, Rex has gotten used to taking the advice of Honey because he realizes that she is more intelligent than he. (What he doesn’t recognize is that Honey was accidentally over-engineered and is super-intelligent – i.e. smarter than the smartest humans. She is quietly using that intelligence in the background, including finding allies.) While Rex is an autonomous decision maker, he isn’t at ease with this autonomy, and finds himself processing conflicting arguments to make challenging moral decisions throughout the book. Using the combination of his canine instinct to protect friends and fight enemies and his (albeit limited) human capacity to draw conclusions based on information, Rex tends to make satisfying decisions. Though the author does show Rex making cringe-worthy decisions as well. This way the reader feels the stakes, and recognizes that Rex’s mish-mash of instinct, thought, and programming could lead to a poor moral choice at any moment. (If this internal conflict seems complicated, it’s not so much different from the potential wars between the reptilian, mammalian, and human [prefrontal cortex] brains that we see in human beings.)

I enjoyed this book tremendously. I found it hard to put down. It does have intense scenes of violence, but that raises the stakes. Because, the book also asks an interesting question about what “someone” like Rex would be considered and what the legal and moral response to it would be. Is Rex a person, with all the the rights and responsibilities of that condition? Is he an animal that faces the same logic we apply to dogs (i.e. no animal cruelty allowed, but dogs that bite must be put down?) Or is he something else, and what does that mean? Can Rex be decommissioned like a bomb or a tank? What is the legal and moral obligation to an intelligent creature that can be [but isn’t necessarily] a killing machine? Is it right to create an intelligent entity and then install a command hierarchy such that it is a slave to the wishes of others?

If you enjoy science fiction, I believe you’ll find this book intense and entertaining.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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BOOK REVIEW: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella’s protagonist is a security cyborg that is corporately-assigned to protect a survey team of human scientists. What makes the story intriguing, not to mention humorous, are the features that we consider human frailties that are witnessed in the thoughts and behaviors of this cyborg. There is his discomfort in interacting with humans. He refers to himself as a “murderbot” and displays some of the awkward mannerisms that are familiar to me as an introvert, though — in this case — they aren’t so much about being easily overstimulated as being uncomfortable with the fact that humans see him as giant robot with great capacity for violence. (Hey, it dawns on me that maybe it is the same with me.) The Murderbot also displays the human traits of laziness and desire to be entertained, and is often watching serial shows when an ordinary robot would either be doing work-a-day tasks like downloading protocols or would be off-line.

The most salient human trait is that he bonds – if awkwardly — with part of his team, and – even though he’s lazy by nature – he goes to great lengths to make sure they survive. Because the Murderbot is notably lazy, the reader must consider whether his willingness to put his life on the line comes from something beyond his protocols. The reader doesn’t know to what degree the cyborg is free, though we do know it has hacked the governor unit that overrides autonomous functions, and so one knows it’s freer than most units in its line of work. [Of course, “putting it’s life on the line” isn’t necessarily as solemn a matter as with humans because murderbots are notoriously difficult to kill, and can suffer severe damage and be quickly repaired / healed – provided they have access to the requisite facilities.]

I won’t get into specifics of story except to say that it takes place on a remote planet that is newly being charted, and the Murderbot’s team is one of a couple teams independently surveying different parts of the planet. Things go wrong and the Murderbot’s team of humans must find out who is the culprit, why said culprit has done what they did, and get out alive.

I enjoyed this novella. The subversion of expectations that comes from the cyborg being perhaps the most neurotic of the characters provides plenty of opportunity for humor, not to mention light philosophizing about the nature of being human and how trust forms. Readers of sci-fi will certainly enjoy this story, non-genre readers should give it a try as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

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5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

BOOK REVIEW: The Velderet by Cecilia Tan

The VelderetThe Velderet by Cecilia Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The dual protagonists of this novel, Merin and Kobi, live in a society in which equality is the supreme value, and in which sexual freedom is nearly complete (except where it bumps up against the aforementioned value.) For many, this would be a utopia, but the problem for Merin and Kobi is that they crave subjugation. That might seem an unusual desire, but one need not look far to see how urges develop for little apparent reason other than a person being told that such activities are prohibited or taboo. Merin is a straight female serving as legislative worker bee. Kobi is a bisexual male who bartends at a leisure club that not only serves drinks but facilitates virtual reality cyber-sex. The two are roommates (part of equality is a pairing of unattached without consideration of gender or sexual orientation), and one evening in a buzz-fed stupor Kobi admits that he would like to know what it’s like to be enslaved.

This story in which these two try to figure out how to develop an underground community of those who revel in power dynamics as part of sexual activities, plays out in a larger geo-political and historical context. It turns out that the reason that this society (i.e. the Belledonians) is so keen on equality in all activities is that they were once a slave-owning empire, and they basically killed off another race of people who they’d enslaved (i.e. the Gehrish.) So, it’s a guilt-driven policy. As the individual level actions play out, this society is in trade and security negotiations with the Kylarans, a more technologically advanced society that still practices slavery. There is a fear that the Kylarans might decide not to trade as equals but to colonize the Belldonians.

The resolution of the story brings this sadomasochism fight club story line into contact with the larger geo-political story, and that raises the stakes and presents one with varying philosophical stances on the dominant – submissive relationship. While the Belledonians had brutally oppressed the race they subjugated (i.e. the Gehrish,) the Kylarans have a much more traditional, protocol-driven, and complex approach to these power dynamic driven relations. For example, leaders must spend time as slaves before they can progress upward in the chain of command.

As I hope has been made clear, this book combines erotica with sci-fi and sex scenes are ubiquitous and kinky. Readers who are squeamish about such matter will probably want to steer clear. However, if one isn’t disturbed by sex, and sexual power play, this story is readable and intriguing. I would recommend it for those who are intrigued by stories at the nexus of science fiction and erotica.

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BOOK REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of eight smart short stories is most well-known for the eponymous story that served as the basis for the movie “Arrival.” The stories are sci-fi, but in the broadest sense of that word. “Speculative fiction” is probably a more apt descriptor. At any rate, the pieces all have nerd appeal and offer philosophical food-for-thought as well as entertaining stories.

1.) “Tower of Babylon:” The Biblical myth re-imagined. What if god didn’t sabotage construction by introducing varying languages and spreading humanity to the four winds? What if, instead, the tower did eventually reach to the heavens?

2.) “Understand:” A man who suffered severe brain damage due to a fall through thin ice, is put on an experimental medicine that begins to stimulate neurogenesis on a massive scale. The protagonist becomes preternaturally intelligent, realizes that such super-intelligence is considered a threat, but is able to keep one step ahead of the ordinary minds who pursue him. That is until he runs into another patient who had a similar accident and treatment. A thinking man’s “Lucy” (referring to the Scarlett Johansson movie), this piece considers the question of how different people would use such a gift, and whether differences could be reconciled.

3.) “Division by Zero:” If a scholar’s life was invested in an idea or way of thinking about the world, but then the scholar proved that that way was in error, might it cause a descent into madness and even a crumbling of one’s world?

4.) “Story of Your Life:” This is the story that the Amy Adams’ movie “Arrival” is based upon. The protagonist is a linguist charged with helping to communicate with a newly arrived alien species that has a very different approach to language. In the process of learning their language and interacting with them, she begins to see the world as they do – time being an illusion. Stories from her daughter’s life, which the lead character has seen in full before conception, are interspersed with the description of her work with the alien language.

5.) “Seventy-Two Letters:” This is a golem story. In this world, names have the power to animate matter and golems can be created. (A Golem is a living being created from inanimate matter; the idea comes from Jewish folklore.) The story ads a layer to the question of what would be created if humans could make a simulacrum of themselves – e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster style – and asks the reader to consider what would be the reaction to the dawn of an era in which the golems might be able to make themselves.

6.) “The Evolution of Human Science:” This is one of the shorter pieces and is also the least story-centric entry. It considers philosophical questions around the development of meta-humans.

7.) “Hell is the Absence of God:” This story is also not as story oriented as most of the others, but it is thought-provoking. It revolves around a support group for people who’ve lost significant others in tragedy and asks one to consider the various approaches to belief in the wake of tragedy.

8.) “Liking What You See: A Documentary:” This clever piece imagines a technology that prevents wearers from being able to recognized beauty (and ugliness as well.) As the subtitle suggests, it’s presented as if it were a documentary that is following a college’s debate over whether to require the student body to use said technology.

I enjoyed this collection of stories. “Understand,” “Stories of Your Life,” and “Seventy-two Letters” are gripping stories, and all eight are thought-provoking and well-written. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of short fiction, particularly speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a work of dystopian fiction set in post-pandemic America. It’s the Zombie apocalypse sans Zombies, but with something additional: arts and entertainment. The fact that, not only is there an arts and entertainment industry but that it’s central to the story, is critical to Mandel’s ability to set her story apart amid the sea of post-apocalyptic wasteland stories that have been gracing the shelves of bookstores in recent years. Other branches of dystopian fiction have entertainers (e.g. “Hunger Games”) – often in a morbid form of gladiatorial combat – but one of the ways that post-apocalyptic wasteland stories show how dismal and colorless life has become is to eliminate all mentions of art or entertainment – presuming that in survival mode people “put away childish things.” Mandel, on the other hand, places members of a traveling symphony that roams about performing music and Shakespearean plays among her core characters.

The title, Station Eleven, is the name of a sci-fi comic book. I won’t get into specifics as it’s involved in the resolution of the story in a way that I don’t want to spoil. However, I will say that emphasizing what seems like a minor element of the story (through most of the book, anyway) is interesting in that it’s another way in which the author shines a light on how art – highbrow or low – will inevitably shape human culture, behavior, and mythology.

Mandel also shows how, even in a world in which the majority of the species have been killed off, there will always be connections in the web of human interaction. Through out the book flashbacks to pre-apocalyptic happenings are offered, mostly around an actor who – if not patient zero – was one of the early casualties of the pandemic. The actor was married multiple times and sired one child that is known about, and these characters – as well as friends and acquaintances — are seen in pre- and / or post-apocalyptic settings. And this allows the reader to imagine a web of humanity surviving massive fatalities. Often in this sub-genre, at most a dyad (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”) survives, and that existence amid strangers is part of how the wasteland is shown.

This is a highly readable book, and well worth the read. Even if one is prone to think, “Ugh, another post-apocalyptic wasteland novel,” one will find something a bit different in its supposition that art is necessary and inevitable for humanity and that there aren’t enough degrees of separation to kill off all connections without killing off the species.

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