Archive for the ‘Post-Apocalyse’ Category

In which I outline the requirements for an exceptional zombie novel

Title: Zone One

Author: Colson Whitehead

What it’s about: When Last Night came, all the rules of the world were rewritten as humanity fled from the plague-stricken hungry for human flesh. But inevitably, some semblance of normality has returned, even in a post-apocalypic world, and Mark Spitz is part of the plan for a future, employed in Zone One, once Manhattan below Canal Street, and the future first resettled city in America. For now, he and his team of sweepers search buildings for remaining monsters, eliminating the already dead but still around. They’re part of the second wave, after the marines razed the island with gunfire. Mark and his team of civilians now clean up the stragglers. But in this day and age, the distinction between civilian and military has ceased to matter. They’re all survivors.

Zone One is what a good zombie book should be. It’s an exploration of humanity, what drives us, where our dreams lie, how we plan for the future, how we learn to hope, and what keeps us alive. Whitehead uses New York as that eternal symbol of renewal, a city that has constantly remade itself, where people go to start fresh, where we bring our dreams, however fantastic, and believe that through hard work and persistence they’ll become a reality. Through flashbacks we relive Mark Spitz’s journey, starting with the horrors he found in his house on humanity’s Last Night and following his travels through horrible Connecticut, the few micro-families he formed along the way, and the ultimate disintegration of each one in much the same way and with the same result: once again alone, but alive.

I was struck by the poetic language and its dreamlike and meditative quality. Though on the surface we’re reading an apocalypse account, we’re also reading about the other in each of us. Whitehead creates two brands of zombie: the “skel,” the familiar mindless wandering creature intent on devouring human flesh; and the “straggler,” an almost motionless shell trapped in the act of some everyday task—at the copy machine, flying a kite, washing a dish. It’s the stragglers that Mark and his team of sweepers are charged with eliminating, and their quiet dedication to a place is eerie and almost religious. Mark sees in them the faces of his dead neighbors and friends, ascribing significance to their final resting places, though there’s no evidence that any thought or reason draws them to a particular area. It’s this very threat of chaos that frightens and  intrigues Mark—if the dead come to these places for no reason, if everything is random, is the world only chaos, the future only an illusion? As a consummate survivor he knows that’s true, but nonetheless, he plays the game, Solve the Straggler, piecing together a narrative that led them here to a quiet corner of New York City.

I enjoyed Zone One for its depth and for being a study in the potential of zombie stories and a reminder of why they resonate with us. It’s not for the horror and gore of humans changing into cannibalistic monsters or the gruesome survivalist resolve that leads one hero through the wilderness. It’s for what they tell us about humanity and our own fears about death and the mob. Zombie books should really be psychological, not physical in nature, and Whitehead does of brilliant job of capturing this.

Would I recommend? Yes. Don’t let zombie fatigue get you down. Zone One is a high class of undead literature and worth a look.


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In which the one dreams for the many and a man named Chaos wants to know how the world ended

Title: Amnesia Moon

Author: Jonathan Lethem

What it’s about: Chaos is holed up in the projection booth in an abandoned theater in Hatfork, Wyoming. He’s become a bit of a de facto public enemy in the aftermath of whatever happened—nuclear fallout, plague, civil war, who knows—but his position is all Kellogg’s fault. Kellogg runs the supply trucks but he also runs the dreams. When every citizen, be they human or slightly unhuman, closes their eyes, they all dream the same dream, in which Kellogg is often a mythical hero and Chaos an archetypal villain. Though Kellogg insists that Chaos is critical to the balance of their fragile post-apocalyptic existence, Chaos decides to press west, hoping to discover who or what else is out there and finally dream his own dreams (literally). With Melinda, a girl covered in fur, Chaos sets off on a road trip across the country, discovering that Kellogg isn’t the only one dreaming realities. Everywhere he goes he finds alternative societies and versions of “what happened,” but no one seems to be able to pinpoint when or how the change occured. Dreams seem to envelope the nation and Chaos (if that is his real name) just wants to find the lakeside house he remembers from before it all, where he was once happy and in love.

Dreams have always fascinated me, so Lethem’s take on the theme along with the post-apocalypse element immediately peaked my interest. He creates fascinating insular worlds and the mystery of Chaos’s background permeates the novel. The book was engaging and intriguing, and I easily became immersed. Chaos is also a fascinating character, in some ways at odds with his own mind. His journey works on both a personal and societal level—he’s not just trying to find out what happened to the world, he’s trying to find out what happened to himself.

My one complaint would be that though Lethem presents many visions of the future, we don’t ever truly arrive at explanations and the conclusion of the novel is open-ended, many earlier threads never carried to their conclusion. I thought the last quarter of the book was the weakest, a sort of digression from the earlier setups in the novel and also a kind of anti-resolution. Still, I wouldn’t let that deter anyone from picking up Amnesia Moon. I think some people would be perfectly satisfied with the ending, because it does come with a build-up in dramatic tension and leads to an important decision and future course for our main character. I just felt we didn’t get the payoff of earlier questions in the novel and I was left wishing that the problems Chaos had explored from the beginning came to a deeper resolution.

Would I recommend? Yes. I really enjoyed Lethem’ style and I would read more of his books. He touched on two themes that intrigue me—the apocalypse and dreams—and treated both in a way I hadn’t seen quite done before.

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In which I discuss the allure of dystopian literature and wonder if joining Twitter was the beginning of the end

Title: Super Sad True Love Story

Author: Gary Shteyngart

What it’s about: Though Lenny has resolved to live forever, his plans for immortality are complicated by several unavoidable matters. First there’s the problem of his appearance as a visibly middle-aged, balding man whose attention to fitness and healthy eating has not been up to current standards. Secondly, though his income certainly puts him above the Low Net Worth Individuals, he still hasn’t saved enough to have Smart Blood pumped into his veins to rehabilitate his deteriorating body. And now he’s been pegged by the American Restoration Agency for potential sedition, all because he told Jeffrey the Otter he’d slept with “some Italians” and the ARA mascot logged it as Somalians. After they dragged that fat man off the plane for un-American activities, Lenny doesn’t know how he’ll ever fit in to the culture of youth, data, Images, and technology.

His one and only bright spot is the young and beautiful Eunice Price, an emotionally damaged Korean woman whose fragility attracts Lenny. He becomes determined to make her love him, not only because he is attracted to her, but because she can undoubtedly  increase his Physical Rating by sheer proximity. What follows is a super sad love story, told in the alternating perspectives of Lenny’s long-form journal and Eunice’s emails and chats to her friends and family on GlobalTeens. Both Lenny and Eunice hate and love one another, seeing in the other something they want but can never have. Eunice sees Lenny as cultured and smart in an almost embarrassing way, but values him as a truly good person, though his goodness leads to an intensity she’s unable to handle, as most of her interactions are via the internet. But the story is bigger than Lenny and Eunice. Around them the world starts to unravel and they will discover if their relationship is made from something real.

Frighteningly close to home: Part of the allure to dystopian literature is in seeing the similarities to our own society, in finding the breaking points. We say “we’re just like like” and that frightens us a little. But isn’t that the idea? Dystopian literature helps us find the extremes of our society and in turn stay away from them. In Super Sad True Love Story, each person carries a digital device quite similar to the iPhone, on which they spend time “emoting” and “verballing,” which basically breaks down to what we would call Twitter, FourSquare, Facebook, and blogs. People gain points by ranking one another, just as we get a high when we gain a new Twitter follower. The role of our credit rankings and the government’s ability to wipe away privacy and make judgments about our worth based on citizenship and assets also rings too close to home. Our world hasn’t taken it quite so far as Lenny and Eunice’s, but the degree of separation is quite small. It’s these types of tales, that don’t involve huge leaps in technology or transitions in values, that are the most chilling. It reminds us what we should not become…But then again, you know I’m going to Tweet a link to this blog…

Would I recommend? As you may have noticed, I am drawn to the post-apocalyptic. I loved Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey, and even The Hunger Games has a bit of that world-exploding flare. My love of this genre is nothing new though. I was reading 1984 and Brave New World long before “dystopia” was the buzzword of all things cool. So when my mother recommended Super Sad True Love Story to me I was, of course, excited. The book has not let me down. The allure of dystopia is in imagining what could be, shuddering, and becoming determined to avoid it.

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In which I finish a series that imagines the extreme result of the reality television society in which we currently live

Title: Mockingjay

Author: Suzanne Collins

Warning: Spoilers Ahead! If you haven’t read The Hunger Games or Catching Fire, I don’t recommend you read this review! What you should do is go read those two books, because they are great, then read this book, because it is great, then report back here and we can talk about it. Those who are not willing to take that advice proceed at your own risk! Don’t come crying to me when you find out that Peeta dies!


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In which I decide that if I was a color, I’d be a shade of Blue

Title: Shades of Grey

Author: Jasper Fforde

What it’s about: In Shades of Grey, status is determined by which part of the color spectrum you can see; Purples are the highest, ruling class, while the no-status Greys make up the bulk of the workforce. Eddie Russet is able to see Red, the lowest on the color spectrum (but still a Prime, which does count for something as he points out). He plans to marry into the prestigious Oxblood family and spend his life following the Rules of politeness, developing a patented system for queueing, and (if he can pass the rigorous color exam) selling synthetic hues for National Color. But his plans start to unravel when he falls for a Grey, even though she does try to kill him, twice.

This book was an absolute treat. I have to admit, I’m a little biased because I love Jasper Fforde. He’s written two other series, Thursday Next and Nursery Crime, both of which tell whole new stories (or one might say the real stories) about famous book characters like Jane Eyre or Humpty Dumpty. His books are always extremely witty and fast-paced. The society in Shades of Grey is supposed to exist about 800 years after our own, so tantalizing fragments of the past still exist and the book is peppered with clever word puzzles and weird inventions. The premise reminded me of The Giver, with a little Brave New World thrown in, but with Fforde’s distinct absurdist style all the way through.

This book made me want to learn more about: Color, obviously! I thought I was pretty good with color words, but Fforde’s vocabulary of colors far exceeds my own. Have you ever seen Lincoln? It’s a green. Brunswick (also green)? Gamboge (a yellow)? Fandango is not just a place where paper bag puppets sell movie tickets; it’s  also a purple! (more…)

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In which I worry about my lack of post-apocalyptic survival skills and seriously consider becoming a vegan

Title: The Year of the Flood

Author: Margaret Atwood

What it’s about: The Year of the Flood is the story of two different women who have survived a catastrophic plague that has wiped out much of humanity. Both were members of the God’s Gardeners, a group somewhere between religion, cult, and underground resistance movement that has anticipated an apocalypse-like disaster they call The Waterless Flood. Toby barricades herself into the high-end spa where she once gave rich women herbal wraps and chemical peels. Ren, an exotic dancer, ends up locked in the nightclub’s safe room merely by chance. The two wonder about the fate of those they knew and loved, and try to survive as food runs short and other survivors become violent.

The book is the second in a series, following Oryx and Crake, which described how the plague came to pass. Atwood’s writing is extremely smart and she makes you feel as though this hypothetical world could easily exist. It’s almost frightening how convincing her vision of the future is. (more…)

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