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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BOOK REVIEW: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While it’s a title that probably has had many readers scratching their heads, “A Clockwork Orange” is the perfect title for Burgess’s book. Our brains—while highly capable—are a stringy, wet mess of complexity, and to treat them like a clockwork machine is to invite trouble as well as to muddle what it means to be human.

This book is set in a dystopian future and features Alex, the head of a small band of teenage ne’er-do-wells who roam the streets engaging in random acts of violence. After Alex has a falling out with his band, they abandon him to be captured by the police. Institutionalized, he finds that he’s no longer a lion among sheep, but is a teenager among hardened criminal men. He’s eager to get out and after a violent precipitating event; he’s enrolled in a program that will use drugs and operant conditioning (i.e. the so-called Ludovico technique) to “cure” him of violent tendencies. Once he’s cured, they release him as he’s no longer a threat to society.

The technique works perfectly, but with the side-effect that the classical music that he used to love now makes him violently ill—because said music was used for dramatic effect in his conditioning. The days after his release are no picnic as he has run-ins with past enemies and has no ability to stand up for himself–any violence makes him ill to a physically debilitating level. He finds himself being used by anti-government dissenters who make him a poster-child for the level of authoritarianism the government has stooped to. The government ultimately caves to public opposition, and reverses the procedure. At first Alex immediately goes back to his ultra-violent ways with a newly formed crew, but he finds himself changing.

There are a couple of warnings of note. First, Alex and his friends speak in a dialect called Nadsat that is a kind of pidgin of Russian and English. It’s not hard to follow. Context usually makes the meaning clear, and only a handful of twists on Russian words are used and they are used repeatedly to the point their meaning becomes second nature. However, it should be noted that a considerable amount of the book is not in straightforward English. For example, “horrorshow” actually means “good” and it comes from the Russian хорошо (phonetically: “horosho”) which means “good.”

Second, if you’re buying a secondhand copy, make sure it has 21 chapters. In the US, an edition was released with the last chapter stripped out. (Note: some people do like it better without the last chapter, but you should probably experience it as the author intended and make up your own mind about which is best.) Needless to say, the tone of the ending is completely changed depending upon whether the last chapter is included or not.

The organization is straightforward, and consists of three parts with seven chapters each. The beginning is before Alex goes to prison, the middle is while he’s incarcerated and his experience of the Ludovico Technique, and the last part is from Alex’s release onward.

This book is a classic for good reason. It’s both an intense story and a thought-provoking morality tale. I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In Eggers’ novel, the Circle is a technology giant that looks a lot like Google + FaceBook + PayPal + Twitter all wrapped together under one corporate roof. Mae Holland, the book’s lead, is a young woman hired into the firm owing to her close friendship with a college roommate turned high level executive at the Circle, Annie. Even though Mae is brought in to work what is called “customer experience” (i.e. customer service) doing seemingly tedious work, Mae is in hog heaven. She left a job doing tedious work in a depressing environment with minimal support, and so this job personalizing boilerplate responses in a fascinating place with the opportunity to move up is a dream. The Circle is a utopian workplace where engineers are given free rein to experiment, where great minds and performing artists come to hang out, and where one gets handsomely rewarded for playing on one’s social media at work. All one needs to thrive at the Circle is a sharp mind and a willingness to accept that one’s days of privacy and solitude are behind one.

The Circle is the dystopia that some would say we are on the cusp of and others think we’ve already plunged into. It’s not Orwell’s gray dystopia of brutal state force. Neither is it Huxley’s bright and shiny dystopia of drugs and free loving. It’s a dystopia in which people willingly give up all privacy and negate the need for a neo-KGB by posting every idiotic thing that they do directly to the worldwide web. However, as in Huxley’s “Brave New World,” we see that the most nefarious character isn’t necessarily the most dangerous. The Circle is headed by an executive trinity. There’s the tech genius who we know little about until the book’s end–except that his life runs contrary to what the Circle seeks in its employees in that he’s fiercely private to the point of being mysterious. There is Tom Stenton who is the face of greedy capitalism, a loathsome character in every way imaginable. However, the real danger comes from the likable–and seemingly reasonable–Eamon Bailey who’s an idealist who thinks that people can perfect if they have no shadows in which to make mischief.

Mae is introduced to us as a likable character. She’s a hardworking but human girl next door. When we are introduced to Mercer, her ex-boyfriend and the face anti-Circle-ism, we assume that she’s being reasonable in her dislike of him. Even though he sounds reasonable, she knows him. Mercer rails against this corporatized surveillance state, and initially one may not be able to tell whether he’s a Luddite or the voice of reason. As the story goes on, however, the reader is likely to like Mercer more and more and Mae less and less. But the question remains until the end whether Mae will do the right thing as she becomes aware of the full—disturbing–picture of the Circle.

I got engrossed in this book. It’s absorbing both because of good character development and an intriguing story. That’s probably why the novel was made into a film that came out earlier in the year. It’s one of those books with the readability of popular commercial fiction, but which provides some food for thought. Some of the twists you may figure out, but the book keeps one wondering until the reveals.

I’d recommend this book for fiction readers—particularly if you have any pictures on social media with a drink in your hand or bad judgement in progress.

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The movie trailer, if you’re interested:

BOOK REVIEW: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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[Spoilers for the previous books. If you haven’t read “The Hunger Games” or “Catching Fire” you might want to before reading this review.]

This book concludes “The Hunger Games” trilogy. A rebellion has been stoked in Panem, and its architects need Katniss Everdeen to keep the fires burning. But there are two problems. Problem one is that she’s healing, disoriented, and—in a manner of speaking—mourning Peeta (who is alive but in the hands of the Capitol.) The second problem is that they want her as a celebrity spokes-model, a position at which she stinks. Once she gets her feet under her, she has other ideas, ideas that will put the Mockingjay—beloved symbol of the rebellion—in mortal peril. The reluctant heroine who refuses to play on the terms of others is a recurring theme, but it unfolds on a much different field.

Where “Catching Fire” repeated and expanded upon the “gladiatorial combat and a love triangle” theme of the first book, here the games aren’t in the arena but in rebel strongholds in the Districts and in the Capitol, itself. While the love triangle angle seems moot at the book’s beginning, it does continue to play out in an intriguingly twisted fashion. The gladiatorial combat is replaced by actual war, but the gamemakers are still around to put their diabolical stamp on the proceedings.

As an ending, “Mockingjay” is satisfying in that it ties up loose ends and leaves the story at a clear conclusion. Readers will have varying feelings about how these loose ends were resolved, the pacing of those resolutions, and the emotional tone with which one is left. (War story happy endings only get so happy.) When I read “Mockingjay” I found it a tad less enjoyable than the other books, but for reasons that I’ll admit are hard to explain. Collins presents a bitter-sweet, realist conclusion, but in the shell-shocked miasma in which the reader is left, it’s hard to tell if one is satisfied or just done. I suppose the fact that it triggers an emotional response at all makes it a good ending.

I’d recommend this book, and the rest of the trilogy as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Futureland by Walter Mosley

FuturelandFutureland by Walter Mosley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As suggested by the subtitle, this is a collection of nine short stories about a dystopian world. What makes it a particularly intriguing read is that the stories take place in one world, and the events all exist within a greater context that could qualify the book as a loosely plotted novel had the writer not defined it as a story collection.

Some characters recur in different stories. For the most part the recurring characters are cameo appearances (e.g. Folio Johnson, a detective and the lead in one story, commiserates at a bar in another). However, the character of Ptolemy “Popo” Bent is a critical character in both the first and penultimate chapters.

Race and politics aren’t subtle in this book. Given the [sad] proclivity of American readers to only read / enjoy politically charged works with which they agree (unless the book in question is making fun of the opposition), it’s safe to say that—on the whole–those at the left-end of the political spectrum will find this book more palatable and on-point and those to the right-end will find it unbelievable and overbearing in its message.

Having said that, I’m of the persuasion that finds Mosley’s dystopian vision strains credulity, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories. This book’s dystopia is characterized by global domination by a corporation and a religion called the “Infochurch,” both led by the same man. The corporate control of the world storyline is a little hard to swallow. A monopoly can’t enslave people (or even enforce its monopoly status) unless it has a monopoly on force, and it’s hard to imagine a path by which a private business gets the people to give them a monopoly on force. That being said, Mosley’s stories are engrossing, creative, and readable.

The nine stories are as follows:

1.) Whispers in the Dark (6 Chapters): A man makes the ultimate sacrifice to help nurture a brilliant child’s special gift.

2.) The Greatest (9 Chapters): A female boxer becomes the world champion while seeking to help her father, whose addition to a drug called Pulse has left him in dire health. (The father’s story, Voices, appears later in the collection.)

3.) Dr. Kismet (4 Chapters): The man who is, for all intents and purposes, Emperor of the World tries to co-opt the co-chair of the 6th Radical Congress—a leading member of his opposition.

4.) Angel’s Island (5 Chapters): A hacker, sent to prison for Antisocial Behavior, has a device called a snake-pack installed that can control him by administration of drugs and shocks. But the ultimate hacker might not be the most easily controlled using technology.

5.) Electric Eye (4 Chapters): Folio Johnson, a private eye with an electronic eye, is hired to find out why young International Socialists are dropping dead left and right. Johnson learns that any hardware, even his eye, can be hacked.

6.) Voices (8 Chapters): Professor Jones, father of the female boxer from The Greatest, undergoes a transplant of neural matter to repair damage from his Pulse addition. After having dreams and memories that are not his own, Jones discovers that his treatment is not all that it seemed.

7.) Little Brother (3 Chapters): Frendon Blythe is on trial before a computer that acts as both judge and prosecutor. He pleads his own case, and finds he was a pawn.

8.) En Masse (12 Chapters): A worker gets sent to a new division only to find that it’s nothing like his previous divisions. Instead of strict rules, GEE-PRO-9 has no rules. He wonders if it might be a test by the management. It turns out that it is a test–just not of the type he imagined.

9.) The Nig in Me (6 Chapters): After a plot to destroy certain races backfires, a surviving man finds himself missing those with whom he was closest.

There’re no stinkers among these stories. They are all intriguing and readable, but a few of them stood out as being particularly good. These were: Whispers in the Dark, Angel’s Island, Voices, and En Masse.

I’d recommend this for readers of soft science fiction.

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