Book Review: STATION ELEVEN, an excellent dystopian novel appealing to any reader

Mandel, Emily St. John - Station ElevenStation Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

In Station Eleven, famed actor Arthur Leader suffers a fatal heart attack while performing the lead role in King Lear as eight-year-old Kirsten Raymonde and two other young girls with non-speaking parts watch with horror. The same night, a virulent flu with a near 99% mortality rate begins its insidious spread.

Twenty years after the “Collapse” caused by the flu and its aftermath, Kirsten survives as a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of twenty or so musicians and actors who travel in a general loop around Lake Huron stopping at settlements to provide entertainment in exchange for provisions.

As Mandel unspools the narrative of the Symphony, she intersperses flashbacks that trace Arthur’s life before the “Collapse.” The two accounts weave together in surprising and satisfying ways. Mandel’s prose is effortless and lovely—Station Eleven is a book in which I’ve highlighted numerous passages.

I most enjoyed the storyline dealing with the Symphony. Kirsten has a motto from Star Trek: Voyager tattooed on her arm: “survival is insufficient.” Set twenty years after the Collapse, the characters aren’t (always) struggling with immediate survival and can consider the role of art in the post-flu world.

Memory, too, is debated. Some people (and settlements) are interested in maintaining a record of pre-Collapse civilization, while others have a taboo against speaking of years before the illness.

Against the inventive setting of the post-Collapse milieu, Arthur’s story wasn’t quite as interesting to me. He seemed like a stereotypical wealthy, egotistical adulterer, although his friends and wives livened his storyline.

Station Eleven should be on the reading list of anyone who enjoys dystopian novels, but I would also recommend it to readers who enjoy strong female characters, speculative fiction, or literary fiction.

Book Review: THE HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL, a dystopia that doesn’t quite satisfy

oates, joyce carol - the hazards of time travel (3)The Hazards of Time Travel
Joyce Carol Oates

Seventeen-year-old Adriane Strohl, a senior at Pennsboro High School (New Jersey) in 2039 has distinguished herself scholastically by excelling in class and asking questions of her teachers. She’s been named valedictorian and received a Patriot Scholarship. The problem: in 2039, being smart and standing out is dangerous. Citizens are surveilled through cell phones, electronic communications, and every day appliances. Anyone might be an informant for Homeland Security. And there is every only one candidate for president, the Patriot Party candidate who has the most money. After all, in the two-party system, the person with the biggest war chest won, so why waste all that money and energy?

At her graduation rehearsal, Adriane is arrested for Treason and Questioning Authority. She is punished with four years of Exile, send back eighty years into the past, to Wainscotia Falls, Wisconsin (or Zone 9), where she becomes “Mary Ellen Enright” a senior at Wainscotia State University. As an outsider and time traveler, she has the perspective to make observations about the culture of mid-twentieth Century America, but she is first astounded at her roommate’s hot rollers and lipstick before she notices the paucity of female students and faculty. Still, 1959 Wisconsin is not too different from 2039 New Jersey, and in fact, it might be the model for the future so an ideal setting for Adriane to become reeducated.

Adriane must follow the Instructions: never reveal her status as an Exiled Individual, never reveal the future, never procreate, never move beyond a ten mile radius from her epicenter. Disobeying the Instructions results in immediate Deletion. Adriane is so desperate to follow the rules, she withdraws and hardly talks or makes eye contact with others. She imagines informants at every turn. Yet, she’s also despondent and lonely, and desperate to remember her family which she cannot do clearly because of a microchip the authorities implanted in her brain.

In her despair, she fixates on Dr. Ira Wolfman, her Introduction to Psychology discussion section instructor who she believes is another Exiled Individual. Her obsession with him is uncomfortable and verges into stalker territory, and I found the writing surrounding her love for him maudlin and overwrought. While it might have been appropriate for a love-sick teenager, it wasn’t at all pleasant to read.

In fact, much of the book, to me, was a slog, with a stilted writing style that I don’t associate with Joyce Carol Oates. There are too many parentheticals and hyphenated asides. Although the world of 2039 was built mainly through a litany of departmental names, I wish more than a few chapters of the novel had been set there. I had to force myself to continue even after a surprising zing in the narrative. And, for all that, the ending was confusing and unsatisfying.

The Hazards of Time Travel had some interesting elements, though. One fun aspect was the reverence at the university for professors doing research (e.g., disproving the theory of relativity) that would clearly be discredited. In the guise of Dr. Axel, the Intro to Psychology professor and an avowed behaviorist, Oates infuses the book with references to Skinner and people as a system of responses to stimuli versus people with selves.

Adriane, living in Wainscotia as Mary Ellen, doesn’t feel she can genuinely respond to her roommates because they know her as Mary Ellen and she is not Mary Ellen. Perhaps this is why the thought Dr. Wolfman might be a fellow Exiled Individual is so alluring.

Adriane, and other characters who survive and thrive, seem to have adopted a philosophy of living in the moment: “You can live a life even if it is not the life you would have chosen. You can live breath by breath. You can live.” Yet, this same philosophy is criticized as it has been used by the government: “America is founded upon amnesia—denial. Conscience cannot keep up with acts.” For individuals, then, the hazards of time travel are grief and despair, a sense of being displaced, so that living moment by moment is necessary. Polities, though, don’t have the luxury of such an attitude. Without being steeped in history, 2039 won’t be much different that 1959.

Book Review: SUICIDE CLUB, a great concept with problems in execution

Heng, Rachel - Suicide Club (6)Suicide Club: A Novel about Living
Rachel Heng

Lea, who has just celebrated her one hundredth birthday, has done everything right. She follows the rules, observes the advisories, attends all her Maintenance sessions, and is on track for a promotion at work. With her lifestyle, career trajectory, and body enhancements (DiamondSkin™, Repairants™, SmartBlood™ and ToughMusc™), she easily expects a lifespan of three hundred years. But, if she continues to excel, she may be one of the select chosen for the Third Wave: immortality.

Her behavior and achievements over the past eighty-eight years has virtually erased her troubled childhood and her association with her antisanc father who disappeared when she was just twelve. But, walking to work the day after her one hundredth birthday party, she sees her father for the first time since he left. Eager to reach him, she walked into the street to follow him.

Her choice to leave the regimented routine of her daily life put her under observation from the mysterious Ministry, but also offered her the chance for a world of freedom. As she delves into the ranks of the Suicide Club, she learns the true costs of immortality and has to decide if she’s willing to pay and sacrifice her father.

The concept of Suicide Club was provocative and interesting, and perhaps not entirely unhinged from reality given government intrusion on women’s health. It raises deep ethical questions about who should control decisions about health care, fitness, nutrition, and recreation as well as the inequality of services, the costs of research, and the role of social pressure. Some people are so desperate to extend their lifespan that they acquire black market technology and often become “misaligned” meaning their body parts fail at different times, leading to catastrophic consequences.

The narrative has fun details, such as jazz music being cautioned against because it raises the heart rate too much or dogs being recommended as pets because they lower it. “Lifers,” or those with the genetic profile that puts them in the category for a long life span, exhibit a narrow range of facial expressions to avoid lines and wrinkles, and they forgo sweets, even fruits. When Lea eats chocolate ice cream, it’s a revelation.

Lea herself was a problematic character. Although she was unlikable, that wasn’t the primary issue for me. I was troubled that her characterization was so inconsistent. That she transformed into the troubled child she was into the model citizen she became seemed unlikely, and even within the confines of a single scene she would have a series of multiple, conflicting reactions that didn’t always flow from the narrative. Though she was one hundred, her maturity level was inexplicably low. I was also troubled by Lea’s decisions at the end of the novel. They had no payoff, so they didn’t make sense to me.

Some of the characters that were more interesting, like Anja, a member of the Suicide Club, could have been given more attention. Other secondary characters, like Lea’s fiance Todd, were underdeveloped. Additionally, one of the very provocative questions the book raised was the divide between the Lifers and the sub-100s, those who were not expected to live beyond one hundred years and often had inferior jobs and housing. One minor character represented the sub-100s, but there was so much more potential to mine, and I would have much rather read about the intersection and potential conflict between the groups than about Lea.

I really did enjoy the writing style and the world Heng created, and thought the questions she raised in Suicide Club were important, but after finishing the novel, I felt confounded, unsure of what Heng intended to convey, and it seemed to me the villains escaped while the heroes were punished, leaving me dissatisfied.

BOOK REVIEW: The Emissary, an isolationist Japan in the aftermath of environmental catastrophe

Tawada, Yoko - The EmissaryThe Emissary
Yoko Tawada

Environmental degradation in Japan has damaged the youth of the country: they are weak, have a near constant fever, suffer from digestive issues, and are sensitive to temperature changes and extremes, though they also have indomitable spirits. At the same time, the elderly are near-immortal, blessed with energy and strong constitutions. Still, the government of Japan instituted an isolationist policy terminating all imports and exports with foreign countries, forbidding travel abroad, and prohibiting the use of foreign terms (e.g., “overalls”).

In this milieu, Yoshiro cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei’s great-grandmother runs Elsewhere Academy, an institution for “independent children” while his grandparents work on an orchard in Okinawa. His mother died in labor, and his addict father’s whereabouts are unknown.

If you are wanting a book with plot or with a clear resolution, The Emissary (also released as The Last Children of Tokyo) will disappoint you. However, the novel does present a chilling though viable view of a future Japan reacting to the devastation wrought by changes in climate, environmental toxins, and shifts in the relationship between older and younger citizens.

My favorite parts of the book related to language and how language changed in response to the culture and environmental changes. In addition to the prohibition on foreign vocabulary, other words fell out of favor or lost their meaning, with no new words replacing them. Characters gave a great deal of thought to words that didn’t sound right like “chum” and “cleaner.” The Japanese voted in a slew of new holidays and changed the names of many others. In my favorite shift, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.”

The Emissary also hinted at the tensions between regions of Japan and how an isolationist policy can foster suspicion and resentment among a country; it also was a dirge to the experience lost when travel was no longer possible and when people no longer could see diverse flora and fauna due to extinction. There are also interesting references to fluidity between sexes increasing.

Mumei is presented as a charming, precocious character who stole Yoshimo’s heart as well as those of his great-grandmother and teacher. I found him annoying at best and at worst creepy. This was only heightened for me about three-fourths of the way into the book when there is an unexpected and jarring shift from Yoshima’s point of view, which had been constant until that point, to Mumei’s. After Mumei’s voice intruded, those of his great-grandmother, Marika, and his teacher, Mr. Yonatani, followed. I certainly don’t mind having multiple points of view in a book, but I do think that each novel creates its own grammar, and changing perspectives was a shift in the book’s grammar that I found irritating when it occurred so late in the narrative.

So for me, there were delightful elements in the prose, but the individual parts did not come together to me to elevate the whole, and I can’t say that I enjoyed the book that much, thought it was definitely different and somewhat interesting. However, I do take to heart Mr. Yonati’s reflections on isolationism: “It was clearly necessary to think of the future along the curved lines of our round earth. The isolation policy that looked so invulnerable was actually nothing but a sand castle. You could destroy it, little by little, with those plastic shovels kids use at the beach.”


BOOK REVIEW: Trail of Lightening, a dystopia with a Navajo protagonist

Roanhouse, Rebecca -Trail of Lightning (1)Trail of Lightening
The Sixth World #1
Rebecca Roanhouse

After cataclysmic climate change reformed the borders of the United States, the Navajo (Diné) closed ranks and built a wall around their land. This Sixth World also changed the borders between the real and mystical realms, allowing figures like the Coyote (the Trickster) to manifest themselves.

Diné Maggie Hoskie thought her life was over when she and her grandmother were attacked. Instead, her clan powers manifested and immortal monsterslayer Naayéé’ Neizghání appeared, seemingly out of the blue. For several years, Maggie traveled with Neizghání who taught her how to fight and use her clan powers to her advantage. But after a gruesome battle, Neizghání left Maggie. She retreated to life in a remote area of Dinétah with only her rez dogs as companions. But then, a representative from the Lukachukai convinced her to help them find a young girl who was kidnapped by a monster.

Maggie successfully defeats the monster, but it’s unlike any she has ever seen before. Its arrival pulls her into a dangerous quest to find who is creating the monsters. Along the way, she partners with Kai Arviso, a medicine man-in-training, who carries secrets of his own. Together, they inexorably advance to an inevitable confrontation with Neizghání who may be more of a monster than monsterslayer.

Having a young adult dystopian novel with a female Native American protagonist makes this a book worth considering since representation is so important. And I was poised to like the book. Unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Maggie is an unlikable main character who is judgmental, defensive, isolated, distrusting, quick to judge, and with an over-exaggerated sense of her own importance. Sadly, she was not a unique character. I felt like her voice was indistinguishable from that of Mare Barrow in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, and probably several other protagonists in this genre as well. Like many of the books in this category, it’s told in present tense which isn’t my preference, but became irritating when some flashbacks were in present tense and some in past tense. In that area, consistency is important. The plot was poorly paced in my estimation, and the motivations of characters unclear, while the denouement offered me no payoff for the investment.

And, Roanhouse violated my cardinal rule regarding the treatment of animals. Maggie went off several times without any thought to her dogs. I wonder if labeling them “rez dogs” means it’s okay in her mind for them to fend for themselves. This is an irresponsible position. Today, Reservation Animal Rescue estimates that as many between 1,500 and 6,000 stray dogs roam the Navajo reservation. Spoiler alert: their lives are not good. Yes, Trail of Lightning is fiction, and yes, it’s set in a dystopian future, but still, the behavior of characters in fiction serves to normalize the attitudes of readers, especially those who are looking for a hero like Maggie. This type of dismissive, fend-for-themselves attitude towards dogs is irresponsible to perpetuate.