Post apocalypse

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Title: Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 2009

A problem with reading science fiction is that, at least on the surface, many excellent books look like they contain nothing of interest, like they are ruminated versions of tales told a hundred times. Some of these books turn out to be truly excellent (I Am Legend, Oryx and Crake and The Road come to mind), but sadly, others turn out to be just that, a well-known concept or setting used again with no added spice and no added flavour. The only thing that it stirs within me is the question whether or not  I should continue reading so much in the genre.

This is what Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is to me. It’s set in a low-tech, post-apocalyptic America where political intrigues has forced Julian Comstock, the nephew of the incumbent president, to hide out in the countryside. He there encounters Adam, the narrator, and they become good friends and experience lots of adventures together; being forcefully drafted into the army is only the beginning of their travails. The events of the story are interesting, but very few compared to the number of pages (over 400). It’s a solid setting, but I require more than that.

The novel is separated into a number of parts, and after reading the first one, I felt moderately excited. The writing style was solid and the action was good. However, everything faded away after the first part, and the remaining pages (perhaps two thirds) felt like a very, very long epilogue. That’s not good. I will go as far as to say that I think this book is outright bad. There are interesting bits, but they are few and far between.

Which is a pity, because I know that Wilson can write better books (see Spin, for instance). He has a style which might be good if he only used it to write more compelling stories (he usually gets the characters right). This novel is too long by far, and it’s also the worst I’ve read so far of the Hugo-Award nominees this year. Now only Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente remains before I can tell you which book should win the award. Reading Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America has at least made sure that I have one book less to take into consideration later.

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Title: Earth Abides
Author: George R. Stewart
Year: 1949

I think that if I had read a summary of Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, I would probably never have got around to reading the actual book. In essence, it’s a classic post-apocalyptic novel with few or no original ideas (this might be partly due to its age, but that merely explains why rather than solve the problem). It’s separated into three major parts, all focused on the same character, Ish, and how he survives and in some regards also thrives after the epidemic-induced catastrophe that has befallen mankind. This allows the author to cover a wider perspective than most similar books, which is both a blessing and a curse.

The problem with Earth Abides is that it too much a description of what happens after the end of civilisation as we know it, and not much of a novel. There are interesting smaller stories and some characters, but as a complete novel it doesn’t really work at all. Stewart’s language is adequate to describe what’s going on, but is far from good enough to be enjoyable on its own.

Still, I don’t think Earth Abides is as bad as it might have sounded up to this point in the review. The final part adds some interesting themes as Ish grows old and starts thinking about and re-evaluating his role in the new society. Here I found something genuinely interesting that added perhaps one snail to the overall rating. However, the book itself is too simple, too unoriginal to deserve more than two and a half snails.

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Title: I Am Legend
Author: Richard Matheson

Some people think that there is something dark, mysterious and romantic with people who live off other people’s blood. Personally, I’ve never felt the slightest attraction to the concept of vampires (possibly with the exception of Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett); I find them boring and often bound by too many clichés, and I’m usually more scared by the fans of this genre of fiction rather than the stories themselves. So why read I Am Legend, which at least by some is viewed as one of the more important works in the genre, popularising the concept of an apocalypse brought about a vampire/zombie generating epidemic. I decided to have a look mostly because the book was quite short and I had heard some good words about Richard Matheson, the author.

Even though this books was written more than fifty years ago, it still manages to deliver something that a variety of films and other products (such as role-playing games) have been unable to produce, namely a story with vampires I think is worthwhile. The plot is straightforward, fast-paced and quite entertaining. Matheson’s use of black humour to tell the story of a lone man trying to survive in a world of vampires makes me smile often, but without making the book frivolous or comical in itself; it’s still apocalypse and it’s still a tragedy.

I like this book a lot, mostly because of the fluency with which the story is told and the spectrum of emotions and effects the author is able to induce in me as a reader. Admittedly, the plot itself is mediocre and actually not very important, but this fails to have an major impact on my perception of the book. In other words, the fight against the horde of vampires is there, but my dislike for the creatures doesn’t make the book worse (it goes without saying that it doesn’t make the book better either, but still). The fact that the novel is only 160 pages long and very few passages feel long-winded and/or further improves the overall impression. I didn’t expect this much, but I’m prepare to read more of Richard Matheson’s books. This one receives an astounding four and a half snails!

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Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

I usually say that competent authors writing outside their main genre are the ones most likely to write truly fascinating books. I’ve seen this happen a number of times with science fiction, i.e. mainstream or at least non-SF writers making a short foray into the future and hitting solid gold. As far as I know, The Road is the only science fiction novel Cormac McCarthy has written, although I only know him from one previous book, No Country for Old Men. Even though the post-apocalyptic setting of this novel is depressing, degenerate and dark, the workmanship is splendid and shining.

The Road tell the story of a little boy and his father (none of them named in the book), and how they struggle on their journey south, to the coast, away from the onset of winter. Most of humanity is gone, along with the majority of other life forms which formerly thrived in the world. Food is scarce and dangers abundant, not seldom from other humans, who desperately try to sustain themselves in this hell-bent future America.

McCarthy doesn’t spend much time on the greater picture, choosing instead to focus on the boy and his father, which means that the world is mostly glimpsed from what they experience as they walk along the road. This interaction is portrayed through concise dialogues (reminiscent of No Country for Old Men) and a narrative that never feels exaggerated or wasteful. They man is in a very difficult situation, how shall he encourage his son to fight on, even though he himself doubts that there really is any future for any of them? How shall he protect him from the horrors that follow in the wake of the catastrophe?  And, on top of all this, how shall he be able to go on himself, having the knowledge to despair that his son lacks?

The Road is touching in many ways, perhaps because it’s so down-to-earth and realistic, and at the same time, so horrifying. I really enjoy the author’s way of writing, especially since it’s concise and to the point, without feeling even remotely blunt. I wish more experienced writers could move into the realm of science fiction, using their expertise in language and portrayal of characters that some science fiction writers, although otherwise talented, lack, and thus create something as brilliant as Cormac McCarthy has done here. I can see no reason not to give five snails to this novel and recommend it to everybody, especially those who don’t think science fiction is for them.

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Title: Deus Irae
Author: Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny
Year: 1976

There are books you know you have to read, sometimes even without knowing very much about the book itself. When I heard that Philip K. Dick at one point had come up with an idea that he didn’t feel he knew enough about Christianity and religion to write himself, but was later contacted and offered help by Roger Zelazny, a science fiction writer I like quite a lot, I knew that Deus Irae had to be something special. Then again, there are books which superficially seem to be the best ever published, but when examined more closely turn out to be rather humdrum.

Unfortunately, Deus Irae (Latin for God of Wrath) is exactly the kind of book described above. I had hoped for a combination of Dick’s usual play with unreality and a deeply religious theme, something which in fact would be fairly close to what I’m trying to write myself (or what I would have liked to write if I had Zelazny in my address book). Instead, the book has a fairly straightforward story covering an post-apocalyptic world in which a gnosticism-like religion worshipping the man who destroyed the world flourishes. In this world, Tibor McMasters, a crippled being with legs or arms, but with cybernetic substitutes, is commissioned to paint a mural for the church dedicated to the Deus Irae, but since nobody really knows what he looks like, Tibor sets out on a pilgrimage to find him.

Most parts of this book are mediocre and not very interesting, to be frank. There are some sections which elevate themselve above the norm, such as an interlaced story relating to the God of Wrath himself, as well as the parts containing the old, and often crazy, machines and computers of the past. Sadly, these are exceptions and do not manage to make the whole project float. Strangely enough, I think the language in this novel is decidedly worse than most other Dick novels (I usually like his lanugage!), not to mention Zelazny’s. i don’t know if it’s my taste that is changing or if this book simlpy wasn’t very successful at all. Regardless of which, Deus Irae was a big disappointment and I can only give it two and a half snails.

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Title: Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
Year: 2003

Strangely enough, my most prominent impression of Margaret Atwood before I actually read any of her books, is that she is quite silly in trying to categorise books that are clearly science-fiction as something that is not (although I approve of the term “speculative fiction”, which is allegedly what she preferred instead for Oryx and Crake as well as The Handmaid’s Tale). Oryx and Crake consists of two story lines dispersed in time, one of them telling the story of Snowman after the fall of civilisation as we know it, and the other explaining the events leading up to that downfall, also focused on Snowman (or Jimmy, as he was called then).

Central to both threads are the main character’s relationship to the other two protagonists, Oryx and Crake, from whose names the title is derived. Oryx is a girl who Jimmy has seen on a porn site in his adolescence, who in some mysterious way manages to touch him deeply and has great impact on his way of thinking. Crake is his mate from school, and a genius, working his way up through the genetic engineering enterprises that seem to be ruling an increasing part of novel’s world. Still, it is Jimmy who is the main character and even though the others are of great importance, it is he who narrates and it is his thoughts and emotions that matter most.

Since the chronology of the novel is not straightforward (the post-apocalyptic part only gives clues to the reasons of the current state of affairs, and the other thread takes its time working up to the explanation), the reader only gets glimpses of what is happening, but still enough to create and patch up interesting speculations from the very start. In short, information is portioned out in an interesting and skillful way.

Oryx and Crake alternates between describing Snowman’s despairing situation together with the enigmatic Crakers (who seem human, but obviously are not), and Jimmy’s life before the catastrophe, focusing on the stampeding research on genetic engineering and the breakdown of civilisation. Even though I do net feel that credibility is the main target, the story is carefully thought out and feels solid.

Contrary to what my statement above might convey, credibility is still what makes this novel worthwhile, but it is not the extrapolation of today’s environmental problems or overpopulation that interest me. Instead, it is the thrilling, touching and interesting story of Jimmy himself, a story made plausible by nuances of language, as well as by small details in the narration. Seldom have I come a cross a more lively description of a character’s inner feelings that, at the same time as being touching, also are interesting.

In addition to this, the language is brilliant, almost good enough to merit a read even if the rest of the book would have been totally worthless. Atwood employs a witty, realistic and sometimes also funny language that truly enables the reader to get close to Jimmy and get under his skin. Also, the life he leads and the themes thus covered have much bearing on the word today (such as child porn, genetic engineering, environmental issues and corporate power). The difference between this novel’s and others’ approach to these themes is that, in Oryx and Crake, Atwood manages to make them relevant and touching. They are not superficial. Instead, through straightforward and often brutal language usage, they seem to reach their intended goals without being overly moralising or pretentious. By talking about these issues mediated by a hypothetical future, they are made manageable (I do not think that I would have appreciated a novel focusing on these issues if that was the superficial focus as well as the deeper one).

Conclusively, I think that Oryx and Crake is a novel most people, if not everybody, ought to read. If you are not familiar with science-fiction as a genre, books like this one serve as excellent introductions, because they show very clearly that even though the story takes place in another time than our current one, the novel has much to say about our world today. Also, the author is competent enough to merit reading regardless of genre. I will definitely read more by Margaret Atwood, and I hope that you will, too.

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Titel: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Författare: Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Utgivningsår: 1959
Recenserad: 2006-05-14
Status: N/A

A Canticle for Leibowitz är en post-apokalyptisk roman i tre delar. Genom dem får vi följa The Order of Saint Leibowitz och deras strävan att bevara kunskapen som fanns i världen före katastrofen. De är ett brödraskap som lever isolerade från världen i ett kloster som motstått såväl tidens tand som medmänniskornas förakt mot den vetenskap som kallade ned solen till jorden. Även om de inte begriper sig på de dokument de skyddar, har de bevarat ett frö av civilisationen som vi känner den.

För mig handlar den här boken väldigt mycket om mänsklighetens relation till teknik. Även om boken har ett mycket starkt religiöst tema (alla huvudpersoner är munkar eller abbotar), tycker jag snarare att detta är en synnerligen intressant vinkling och inte fokus i sig. Jag uppfattar boken som starkt kritisk till en hybrissmittad tro på att enbart vetenskap och teknik kan lösa alla problem. Jag uppfattar den också som en aningen cynisk bild över hur människan dömer sig själv till undergång. Sist men absolut inte minst, ser jag den som hoppfull; oavsett hur illa det går, finns det alltid chans till att börja om på nytt.

Jag gillar den här boken skarpt och på sätt och vis har svårt att föreställa mig hur den kunde ha varit bättre. Allting känns trovärdigt och genomtänkt. Att vi får det till oss ur flera troendes perspektiv gör det så mycket mer intressant (även om de dyrkar ett kopplingsschema som helig relik). Boken vann Hugo Award 1961 och jag har inga som helst problem med att förstå varför.

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