Book Review: EMPTY HEARTS, sourcing suicide bombers

E7720DEE-B3BF-4F0B-BBA9-60224924D222Empty Hearts
Juli Zeh
Translated by John Cullen

In 2025, the United States and Russia have formed an alliance making most terrorist groups impotent. France, along with Britain, has left the European Union. Nationalist, anti-immigration political parties have control of countries across the globe as many citizens have moved from despair to apathy.

Britta comforts herself by knowing she’s doing her part—providing a necessary service. She and her colleague Babak run The Bridge, a non-traditional anti-suicide service that uses Lassie, a sophisticated computer algorithm, to identify men with a high risk of suicide for intervention. However, though they have helped many disentangle themselves from suicidal thoughts, this practice actual conceals their true business: providing suicide bombers for terrorist groups.

If one of the clients goes through their twelve-step program and still wishes to die, Britta pairs him with an organization that wants to remind the world they still exist, perhaps ISIS or the Green Party. Since these organizations no longer have the cache they once did, they have trouble recruiting suicide bombers, and The Bridge has a monopoly on supply. When an organization works with The Bridge, they observe rules that benefit all, including a limit to collateral damage.

When a terrorist attack at the Leipzig airport is thwarted by authorities, Britta panics—the bombers, one of whom was killed, one captured—did not come from The Bridge. She divines that this indicates another provider is in operation and that she, Babak, and Julietta, their latest recruit, and only female, are in danger and go into hiding.

Empty Hearts had less action than I expected. However, there was interesting commentary on politics and the danger of apathy. As such, the focus remains on the philosophical themes. I wish there had been a shade more characterization. Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives.

Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives (Efficiency Packages) that promote discrimination. I was also disturbed when Richard, Britta’s husband, started pressuring her to be more “wifely.” I suppose I wanted her to object more vehemently.

The ending of the novel surprised me, and it wasn’t the ending I wanted, but I do think it was the right ending which made me think about the book long after I put it away. Empty Hearts starts a little slowly and picks up steam, but its strength is found the philosophical questions it raises about the current state of politics and the implications for the future.

Book Review: PLAGUE LAND – NO ESCAPE, conclusion to a trilogy

Scarrow, Alex - Plague Land No Escape (3)Plague Land: No Escape
Alex Scarrow

The third novel in the Plague Land series finds Leon left in the UK, Freya on her way to what’s left of the United States, now hosted by Cuba, and Grace on a Chinese aircraft carrier. In the first novel, a malevolent virus wiped out most of humankind within a week. Only those taking drugs seemed to be spared. The second novel showed the virus’s development and introduced Tom, Leon and Grace’s father, who was desperate to find his children. Partnering with the Pacific Nations Alliance, he led a disastrous attempt to rescue English survivors. With too many refugees in a small camp, it became overrun with the virus that was now able to copy humans and hide in plain sight. As chaos spread among the survivors, the three teenagers became separated.

Plague Land: No Escape concludes the trilogy, with the virus attempting to reach out to humans to communicate and explain its mission. However, the virus is willing to forgo negotiations and complete the mission by any means necessary. It seems inevitable that the ever decreasing number of survivors will be annihilated by the virus which can now flawlessly duplicate any living form and withstand any attack. Those left now must decide to fight or acquiesce to the virus’s demands.

This series is marketed as young adult which surprises me a little bit, partly because of the language but mainly because of the gore. It is so disgusting, and each volume was more graphic and gross! These weren’t descriptions of violence but of the effect of the virus. Furthermore, it didn’t make much biological sense so felt gratuitous. No Escape introduced a few new characters, but the characterization was light, and I didn’t like the separation of the three main characters. To me, the action wasn’t as compelling as the previous entry, and many conversations between the virus and the humans were repetitive. I suppose when it came down to it, I didn’t much like the mission of the virus or how it played out. I’d hoped that the ending would wrap it up in a compelling way, but I was underwhelmed.

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.