Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.

After Atlas, by Emma Newman

Salvation has come and gone for most of Earth’s population, barely holding on as the environment is eroded along with their aspirations of ever living in free societies again.  Unless they’re incredibly wealthy, of course. Carlos Moreno, however, is nothing of the sort, a wage slave owned by the English Ministry of Justice, just trying to get through the next murder case and hang on to the dream of one day being owned by no one but himself, and doing his best to avoid all mention of Atlas, the Pathfinder, and those who left to seek God.

When someone close to him is murdered, though, and Carlos is asked—told—to investigate the murder, he finds himself being drowned all over again in the details of his childhood and former life after Atlas left, confronted with a past he would just as well forget.  After Atlas is an excellent example of an imaginative and accomplished writer’s ability to take the same basic premise and create two entirely different stories out of it.  It is also a stark view of the future we all face, without the prospect of a convenient ship to take anyone away to a better existence.

Newman’s use of first-person present narration, juxtaposed with the conflicts between technology users and non-users in the development of the murder case lends the novel a private eye noir feel, even as Carlos watches people have dinner conversations with interlocutors who are only there via technology and does all his research via a networked personal assistant implant.  It isn’t a complicated plot, but it is a satisfyingly logical one, with twists and turns that increase the claustrophobic feeling of Carlos’ story and the hopelessly devolving situation on an increasingly distracted and intellectually depressed Earth population.

Readers who enjoy near future science fiction narratives will get pulled into Newman’s dystopic vision of Earth, whether or not they’ve read Planetfall first, however an understanding of the events of the first in this series will certainly help. Those who look for mystery elements blended into science fiction or fantasy stories will like the pace and logical twists of this character driven story.  There are more layers to this novel than at first meet the eye, giving the reader plenty to chew on while contemplating the eventual demise of modern society.

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

On a facsimile of Earth, millions of miles from home, a small group of colonists have established a manufactured happiness, living with as little footprint as they can, surviving on the advancements of neuro-computers, 3-D printers, and a hyper-developed sense of social media etiquette.  While the Earth burns slowly behind them in waves of climate change and social unrest, Renata Ghali and her co-colonists wake up every morning at the gates of God’s City, and know they are the chosen.

Until, of course, something changes to break up their utopic existence, forcing Renata and her co-conspirator Mac to go to greater and greater lengths to maintain the fragile peace of a highly connected, insular community brought together by the lure of a planet calling them across the void, shown to them by their Pathfinder, Renata’s former best friend and lover.  This is the real story of space travel, the human side of technology and discovery, the truth under the frilly bedspread sewn by space opera romances.

Newman has a deft hand and an even keener sense of plotting, scattering details and clues to the mystery that has been Renata’s life ever since landing on this new alien planet, and even before she ever left.  She writes with a confidence in her story and ability that wraps the reader up in the plot, giving glimpses into the twists to come but the human story of Renata and her neighbors remains at the heart of the mystery, compelling and heartbreaking at the same time.

Readers interested in near-future science fiction without the authorial compulsion to educate and explain will find themselves engulfed by Newman’s vision of humanity’s future.  Those who prefer a compelling mystery plot to the hero’s journey need look no further than the twists and turns Renata takes to maintain her spun-glass story of a perfectly happy space colony. Newman’s is a refreshing and adept voice in the science fiction world and well worth checking out.

Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Domingo
is a street kid in Mexico City, the last bastion of vampire-free Mexico, and
indeed most of the Americas.  But
Domingo is more worried about finding enough recyclable trash in the landfill
to sell to the rag-and-bone man, to get money for food every day.  So why does he say hi to a young woman
one day on the subway, and why does he go home with her just because she
asks?  Domingo’s life is about to
get a lot more complicated.

Revenants,
Nachzehrers, Necros, Tlahuihpochtli—all are on the move, looking to carve out
new kingdoms for themselves in countries that, if not friendly to vampires, at
least are not outright hostile. 
Sometimes, vampires and humans get caught in the middle of the
fighting.  Ana, a cop who cut her
teeth dealing with vampires in other Mexican cities, has come to Mexico City to
settle down into a more subdued life. 
Atl, part of the ancient Mexican Tlahuihpochtli, ran to Mexico City to
escape a war between her kind and the Necros.  But her headlong run stirs up old hatreds—and creatures—long
thought dead. 

Moreno-Garcia’s
narrative prose is simple, clean, using multiple character viewpoints to tell a
story about radically different world than the one we know.  Her use of world vampire myths to build
this world is subtle, yet effective; she uses one of the oldest tricks in the
book to alienate the reader and build tension that holds the
attention—providing hints of a deeper world of doubt and unknowns that is far
more disturbing than a book of openly described horrors.  It is what the reader doesn’t know, can
only imagine, that builds the horror elements in this novel. 

Lovers
of vampire stories will enjoy how the novel incorporates world vampire lore
with well-known vampire and horror tropes.  Those who like to read near-future or alternate history
science fiction and fantasy will find themselves pulled into this world full of
monsters who are so like humans and yet much more.  Anyone looking for a well-crafted story that escapes the
familiar U.S. settings and characters should check out this Central
America-centric novel about universal themes.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Everything
happens for a reason.  A motto that
many use when bad things happen to good people takes on new meaning in the
story of a disparate group of people who live through the collapse of
civilization in a breathtaking pandemic. 
Station Eleven is a painfully
self-aware novel about finding meaning in the most incomprehensible
circumstances, an extended metaphor on extended metaphor that lovers of
cerebral fiction will find irresistible.

The
novel revolves around the life of Arthur Leander, a world-famous actor who
wants nothing less than to be unknown, but who can’t help being a star—in all
its meanings.  When Arthur is
starring in his final role as Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear, he unknowingly sets off a chain of events that will
reverberate even through the post-pandemic world that Kirsten Raymonde and the
rest of the Traveling Symphony find themselves in.  Post-civilization is much as one would expect in that type
of novel, with violence, small bands of people surviving together, and the
occasional religious prophet come to profit off the disaster.  Yet Mandel adds a subtle twist in that
the story revolves not around the characters’ struggle for survival, but their
struggle for something more than survival, and the secret of a comic book story
called Station Eleven.

Mandel’s writing is understated, a satisfying contrast to the
theatricality that is the subject of the novel.  The actions of her characters speak for themselves.  The prose is simple while reveling in
the disparateness of the pre- and post- collapse chapters.  This novel is reminiscent of traditional
coming-of-age stories or the tale of the hero’s journey, however Mandel leaves
in question just who is coming of age—Kirsten, Arthur, one of the other
characters, or even the next society itself—and whose journey it truly is.  Those who are looking for action might
feel the plot unravels too slowly, but those who like to savor a story won’t
want it to end.

Those
who like near-future dystopia and “what comes after” stories will enjoy
Mandel’s depictions of a society coming to terms with what it has lost.  Lovers of language and its inextricable
intertwining with literature will certainly feel the pull of a writer who
obviously does too.  Readers who
seek character-driven, self-aware fiction will enjoy the many levels upon which
Mandel has built her world.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

If
there’s anything Margaret Atwood has shown with her MaddAddam series, it is
that nothing is off-limits to her satire. 
Now, with The Heart Goes Last,
she explores the limits—and opportunities—of subtext.  Where MaddAddam took capitalism to its logical limit and
beyond, The Heart Goes Last takes a
step back and imagines a world that looks a lot—too much—like today, with a
cast of characters who are not loner geniuses or particularly special at all,
but fallible, imperfect people.

Instead
of writing a story asking, “What would you do?”… if you lost your house, your
job, your community, she gives us a novel in which Stan and Charmaine do the only things they could logically
be expected to, in those situations, leading to their inevitable participation
in the Positron/Consilience project. 
Their lives are predictably mundane, even unto the familiar straying
husband.  And, predictably, this is
where the story starts going off the rails.  But not for the reasons you might expect.

This
novel is much more meditative than at first meets the eye.  While a character’s choices might be
predictable and not really choices at all, every character has a complicated
and often dark back story that has led up to these choices, that informs the
ways they go about life every day. 
The microcosm of Stan and Charmaine’s relationship and life as a married
couple plays out in the ways that the world around them bends and stretches,
reaching depths of despair and ugliness that at once seem outrageous and yet
perfectly natural and predictable. 
Living half your life in prison for the good of society?  Reasonable.  Living in a retro 1950’s gated community while at the same
time helping to build lifelike robots for commercial consumption?  Explainable. 

Readers
of Atwood will perhaps find a little more room for thought in this offbeat
novel than in her previous work. 
Readers of near-future dystopian fiction will enjoy contemplating just
how accurate Atwood’s vision is. 
Those who crave character-driven stories will enjoy the ways that Atwood
opens up her characters to the careful reader.  And those not afraid of a good helping of the
ridiculous—because this is Margaret Atwood, after all—should definitely pick up
this novel.