Wednesday, June 15, 2011

World War Z, Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, is a startlingly clever read, using a series of oral-history interviews with a range of World War Z survivors from around the world to illustrate a whole lot that is wrong with our current society: the attitudes and actions of the conservatives in the West; class and racial divisions; terrorism; environmental degradation; the inherent selfishness of our surburban lives; the weaknesses of capitalism; our attachment to objects and technology; and...but wait there's more [steak knives!].

You can read this book as a macabre adventure tale of the zombie rise and epic human resistance, told in riveting vignettes.  And as a powerful critique of how humanity is facing our current crises and divisions, and how that might work out for us...or not.

There is some classic post-apocalyptic insights into the human soul here, some detailed and fascinating characterisation, as well as sweeping political summary and critique.  The chilling "last stand" at Yonkers (complete with press pandering and the futility of mass armament in the face of terror[ism]) is pretty masterful stuff, as is its counterpoint, the heroic and mechanically awful battle at Hero as America reclaims itself. Another of my favourites was the close telling of one air-woman's story, trapped behind the lines and increasingly desperate; and the tale of a blind warrior in Japan and his faith in the core of his country. 

There are women warriors, child warriors, blind warriors, armies in the "third" world, struggles in China, the novel takes us around the globe, big and small, working through the "history" of WWZ, from the first gory rise of the Zombie virus (cleverly mirroring the supposed development and reaction/lack thereof to HIV) and its spread, to the collapse of civilisation, to the rallying and defence, to the "victory" stages where the threat is largely defeated and humanity is cautiously peeking out from under the covers. 

I really liked this book, in it's simplicities and it's complexities.  I'll be reading it again soon to pick up more of that juicy social and political critique layer.  Be warned before reading: there is some full on zombie slaughter, it's not for the faint of stomach.


Another read on Kindle for iPad.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Far North, Marcel Theroux

Far North is another post-apocalyptic novel that focussed on life after *it* happens, *it* in this case is some kind of environmental/economic/social collapse.  Our narrator, Makepeace, is the last "constable" of a dead city in the wastes of Siberia, a city/town that had been settled as an escape from society by (apparently) mostly Westerners. Makepeace is alone, other than random travellers passing through.  The book tells of Makepeace's life and travels, searching for others (or the dream of what others would be like).

I really enjoyed the first part of this book, it was gripping, sensitively told, harsh, but intriguing.  Unfortunately, after this first section, it seemed like a different book.  Makepeace decides to leave the city, and journey in search of others.  The strange things that happen, and the pretty much utter hopelessness of the few humans who remain sat oddly against the basic humanity/goodness of the narrator.  It was as if everyone else became souless, cruel, and capable of anything.  Sure, I'm sure some people would be like this, and telling these stories is part of what makes post-apocalyptic and dystopia literature fascinating.  But, everyone?  The book becomes an unremitting tale of horribleness and tragedy.

And [spoilers] some of it was just unbelievable.  I simply didn't get the whole "prisoner" (really, slaves) camp deal.  The narrator was so matter-of-fact about it, it was almost literally "and then I lived in the prison camp for 5 years."  Oh, okay then.  I also don't believe that a woman could live for five years with the dire scum of humanity as described and not get raped.  Sorry.  Even if she had a knife. 

The whole issue of slavery, including that some people had apparently "volunteered" for slavery was not dealt with sufficiently.  It's a big deal, one that wasn't extended or explored.  Elements of the characters were unbelievable.  One of the slaves was (supposedly) a surgeon before the collapse.  Really?  Why didn't he just tell someone and bargain his way out?  Why were none of those essential skills not regarded as relevant or worthy of trade? I can't imagine a post-collapse society that wouldn't highly value a doctor (!!).  The book was littered with this kind of incongruity.  Like, what happened to everyone?  Why did everyone just disappear?  Didn't the narrator have any friends?  Where did they go?  How did they die? 

The treatment of the indigenous peoples in the novel was also problematic.  It was made clear that the settlers in the narrator's city weren't Russian (the city is in Siberia), or native to the region.  It seemed they mostly came from America.  The local indigenous people, all of whom seem to be living quite alright thanks very much, despite the collapse of "civilisation", are portrayed as drunk, violent, and don't even figure on the narrator's radar, other than a very occasional source of trade.  Even given that poor portrayal, the narrator's lack of interest in them is just odd.  If you were the only person alive in a city, and there was a perfectly functional community near you, wouldn't you be interested in them?  In making ties to them, trading, learning things?  Joining them??

Gender was the other main issue with the book.  Sure, for the first few chapters Theroux is playing with gender and identity, and we're supposed to be suitably surprised when Makepeace turns out to be a woman.  I guess we're supposed to feel that way because women aren't competent at surviving...or something...and the narrator is.  So *gasp* a woman!!  Wow, that's super special because she can hunt and chop wood and live alone and shot someone!  Who would-a thunk it!  I get what the author was going for, but didn't like it.  I'm generally not suprised when women are competent human beings. 

The other main gendered issue was that the novel turned out to be a kind of rape revenge book, and there was just something, some essential quality of experience, that I felt was missing in the book. The twists at the end seemed too contrived and worked out too simply.  The narrator just didn't seem as bothered by the sudden appearance of her rapist as you might expect.  It all sat a little oddly.

Look, I liked some of the book, some of the writing was compelling, and the first part was just great.  I wish it had continued in that vein. It just didn't work for me as a whole.  Some great ideas, but too much not explained or fully realised in the text. Worth a read if you're interested in the genre, otherwise give it a miss.


This was a Kindle for iPad read.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Passage, Justin Cronin

I like The New Dork Review of Books, and just before the rapture was scheduled, read his post on the best of the post-apocalyptic books.  Now, I love me a good end of the world story!  The Stand (Stephen King) is one of my go-to books, and I've read fairly widely in the field over the years.  But not lately, which is why there were several grand suggestions in the NDR list and comments I thought I'd try out.  So I'm blaming him for the reading jag I've been on since. 

The Passage was the first of my post-apocalypse reads, I finished it off in short order on our recent holiday.  I figured it would be a good last read in case of rapture ;)

The Passage is the first in a series (three, I think) of books by Justin Cronin about the fate of humankind after a virus gets loose and kills nearly turning them into vampires (not a spoiler, this is made pretty clear in the very first pages of the book).  Don't let the immediate eye-roll of "vampires" put you off.  These are not sparkly, well-dressed debonairs.  Think more 28 Days Later over Twilight.  The Passage is a tale of surviving in the face of a weird virus that meant the end of the world story, not a teen romance. 

The book starts with some of the story of how it all happened, then, kind of disappointingly, skips ahead 100 years to focus on a small settlement eking out a living under lights.  I say disappointing because one of the bits I love in this kind of book is the slow descent into madness of civilisation, and the unravelling of our illusions of behaviour, which I felt was pretty much skipped in this novel. Those are still key themes, of course, isn't that the point of a rollicking post-apocalyptic novel?  Telling us how many of our dearly held beliefs about ourselves and our limits are (or might be) illusions?  But the close telling of the decline was skipped in this one.  *sad face*  Instead, after the initial outbreak, our story skips to a small, fractured community living behind walls and thinking they are the only ones left in all the world (read: America). 

The Passage focusses on the fate of one girl, Amy, infected with a "pure" strain of the virus (also not really a spoiler, her fate and role is foreshadowed very early in the book), and destined to play some central role in the climax of the virus-infected vs normals.  The bulk of the book is a crossing the wilderness story, some of the survivors set out to travel back to where the virus all began, and tells what they encounter on the way.

The swap between the immediate-aftermath novel and the 100-years-later novel was more than a little jarring, despite the journal entry that was meant to transition us gently.  I had become very involved in the central story of Amy and her companion, this was rapidly wound up (too rapidly I think) and replaced with a whole new world and cast to acclimatise to.  It felt like two separate books, and only started to tie back together in the final chapters.  While I enjoyed both parts of the book, it suffered from the lack of a transition phase, and the first part of the book was brought to too quick a finish.  This missing phase could have taken us through more of the collapse of civilisation, some of the efforts of survivors, maybe some vignettes to get us through to the next phase of the action. 

The Passage is well worth a read.  It's a gripping page-turner, a medical emergency and survival story, followed by a journey across the wilderness in the face of overwhelming odds, with a dash of light at the end of the tunnel.  It's bleak, but not hopeless.  If you like a tale about the end of the world as we know it, or enjoy a virus/vampire book, or liked The Stand, or just want a good story that's well written about the darknesses (and lightnesses) of the human soul, pick up a copy!  I'm looking forward to the release of the next installment...


This was a Kindle for iPad read.