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.

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Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

In a future northeastern Africa two groups of people live,
waiting for the last sigh that will bring them to all-out war.  They have existed in the same space for
centuries, the lighter skinned group having dominion over the darker, with
occasional rebellions and reprisals. 
Some outlying villages of Okeke—the darker skinned group—manage to live
in relative peace and prosperity away from the rule of the Nuru.  Some have even managed to forget the
depravities and terrorism wrought against their people in the East.

But
Onyesonwu can never forget.  Being
a child of rape—a Nuru man brutally attacking her mother—Onyesonwu is marked
because she is different, both in appearance and in other ways.  While Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, the novel has the impact
that it does because it encompasses many stories, and grows in complexity the
further in the reader goes, rather than simply wrapping everything up in a
pretty bow at the end. 

Okorafor
writes in the first person—Onyesonwu telling her own story.  Onyesonwu’s voice comes through
strongly, and from her narration the reader gets even more a sense of who she
is and what she’s like.  She speaks
plainly and sincerely, with no apology for her moments of extreme emotion and
occasional violent outbursts.  One
of the refreshing points of the novel, in fact, is that there are often three
or four female characters featured who have a range of personalities and
viewpoints.  The reader doesn’t
experience the tunnel vision often created by a female narrative in an all-male
world.  Onyesonwu has a sounding
board for her opinions and experiences, and her friends are not afraid to
disagree with her.  Though Who Fears Death takes place in a fantasy
setting, it therefore feels much more real from a human perspective than a
great many “realistic” or non-fantasy novels.

Who Fears Death is evenly paced,
encompassing a relatively large amount of time by sharing events in short
bursts throughout Onyesonwu’s journey from her home to the land of her
father.  Readers who enjoy vividly
realized scenes should find Okorafor’s sorcery-filled encounters to their
liking, as she writes unselfconsciously about fantasy subjects in a way that
allows the reader to step seamlessly from page to story.  Readers looking for non-Western
(American or Western European) fantasy settings will enjoy Okorafor’s detailed
desert settings and cultures.  This
novel will appeal to readers who enjoy dystopia and ecological (climate change)
science fiction.  Readers of
Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler will find much to love in Who Fears Death, and indeed in all of
Okorafor’s canon. 

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

            Life As We Knew It is the slow and
steady narrative of one family’s ordeal when environmental cataclysm upsets
modern life as they know it. 
Fifteen-year-old Miranda is at the end of her sophomore year of high
school, just another teenager trying to navigate schoolwork, sports,
friendships, and romantic relationships. 
One night everything changes when a meteor crashes into the moon, not
destroying it, but visibly shifting it in its orbit.                 

            The
story is narrated through Miranda’s diary, which she faithfully keeps throughout
her family’s ordeal.  Miranda,
unfortunately, has no talent for storytelling, and has a habit of throwing a
lot of information at the reader without adding much in the way of description
or figurative language.  Though it
is a realistic depiction of diary-keeping, it doesn’t make for a particularly
interesting or compelling story.  Life As We Knew It unfolds more like a
trainwreck, the smoke from which you can see from a distance, which comes more
into focus the closer you get to it. 
As gruesome as the carnage gets, however, you can’t look away, but stare
at it for as long as it is in view. 
That was how I felt reading Life
As We Knew It
.  However
uninteresting the narrative was, I couldn’t stop reading it.  Mostly I just kept thinking that something must happen. 

            Little
things happen.  Miranda’s family
faces hardships, but manage to survive because of her mother’s foresight when
things begin to go badly.  Life As We Knew It is an oddly best-case
scenario story about how horrible things can turn out even if you do everything
right.  But still it’s almost
frustrating, at times, how mundane the lives of Miranda and her family remain,
despite the fact that civilization seems to be crumbling around them.  It is, I suppose, the novel’s
strength.  Life is so normal, and
yet not.  She and her family are
living through an event that was unpredictable, that is usually somewhat
glossed over in dystopia and near-future apocalypse books in order to get to
the action.  Some of the details of
the novel seem unrealistic, but then the entire idea of an environmental event
that would drive civilization to its knees is generally thought to be
unrealistic—it’s a science fiction element—which makes the novel believable
when characters stand by and do nothing while the early warning signs appear.

            Many
of the conflicts and major plot points that one might expect to come out as
death, carnage, betrayal, are instead little things. Miranda’s brother yells at
her for being in his room after they’ve been housebound for months, Miranda
sneaks food that has been carefully rationed, or Miranda’s mother overreacts to
Miranda having a boyfriend because getting pregnant would be an emergency
situation even though all they’ve ever done is kiss.  The flare-ups and conflicts are so small in comparison to
the world ending, and yet they are the life that everyone knows. 

            Readers
looking for less bombastic environmental speculative fiction will be driven to
finish this novel by its interpersonal relationships and almost morbid
fascination with the minutia of impending doom.  Young adult readers who want a post-apocalypse novel that
focuses on characters, rather than large-scale action, will enjoy this novel
and its sequels in the Last Survivors series.  Despite its sometimes-wooden delivery, Life As We Knew It is a novel that makes the reader think, and
wonder how they would react in the same circumstances.