Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s work is weird and wonderful. The Bone Clocks and Black Swan Green are two more of his unique novels. All of his writing features strong attention to language and first person narrators with engrossing, unforgettable voices. I was fascinated by the unpredictability of The Bone Clocks, but Cloud Atlas took that to an entirely new level. It has six different novella-length narratives, arranged in a pattern that is likened in the text to Russian nesting dolls. Finding the connections between the stories, and the scattered metaphors for the title and the novel’s form is like finding Easter eggs. Each narrative is a different genre in a different setting, ranging from the epistles of an English notary exploring the Pacific islands in the 1800s, to a hard-boiled detective novel, to a “corpocratic” future dystopia where “fabricants” are enslaved clones. One main theme connecting the narratives is escape from oppression and slavery. The beautiful humanist vision at the conclusion is one I’ll remember a long time.

The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey


This zombie story is unusual for its genre for a few reasons. Its child heroine is a zombie herself, but a thinking, feeling one–the full explanation would be a spoiler. A main character is a single-minded scientist studying the zombie pathogen and hoping to cure it. In this case the pathogen is a fungus similar to one that afflicts ants in the Amazon, driving them to climb trees and hurl themselves from them. The particular details of how this fungus works make the story unique among zombie stories. After the research facility where they live is overrun by zombies, the girl, her teacher, the scientist, an army captain and a private escape together and try to make it to another settlement. It’s an engrossing read, with lots of action, an eerie setting, and a scientific mystery that creates moral questions. The ending was very unexpected for me, bleak and twisted. I wonder if the movie adaptation will change it or not.


Fragments by Dan Wells


This YA dystopia is a sequel to Partials, which I remember liking when I read it a long time ago. However, it seems to be a pattern I’m noticing lately that I don’t like the second book in a series as much as the first. Maybe my tastes are changing, maybe series are harder to continue than to begin.

This book has a lot of action. Kira is trying to uncover the conspiracy that created the Partials (genetically engineered soldiers) and the disease RM that wiped out most of the population. She teams up with two Partials and travels mostly on foot from Long Island to Colorado, through a toxic wasteland. The challenge before our heroes is so huge as to seem impossible, but somehow they make it through, of course. It strains credulity. The emphasis on action and the lack of depth makes me wonder if this series would have been better as a movie or maybe a TV series. The descriptions of ruined cities and poisoned landscapes would certainly be visually striking on a screen. The book is really long, and probably didn’t have to be. Several of the obstacles encountered by Kira and her friends could have been removed, shortening the book without losing much gravitas.


Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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This post-apocalyptic dystopia is terrifying, ghostly, and fascinating. 99% of the world population dies in a rapid, unstoppable flu pandemic, and survivors are left in the ruins of a civilization without electricity or law. It’s like The Walking Dead without the zombies: brutal armed conflicts between untrusting groups of survivors who scavenge necessities from houses guarded by skeletons. I found the descriptions of the rapid deterioration of life as we know it utterly realistic. If there’s a villain, it’s a religious fanatic who calls himself the Prophet, who takes child brides and preaches that those who died of the flu deserved it. The narrative is not chronological, but told in flashes between several characters’ loosely connected lives before, during, and after the pandemic.

This is the kind of book I can’t stop thinking about. The haunted world twenty years after the death of everyone continues to spook me. And yet, the story is not bleak or without hope. The efforts of the survivors to not only cooperate and live, but to find meaning in their altered lives through curating a museum, presenting Shakespeare, making music, writing a newspaper, were inspiring.

The Word Exchange

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon


This technological dystopia is about a near-future world in which viruses pass from computers to humans, and in which dependence on devices causes language to degenerate. The protagonist is a woman searching for her missing father amid the chaos of this new epidemic. Her father edits a dictionary that is bought out by the Word Exchange, an online service that supplies words to users who can’t remember them. She follows clues and uncovers a conspiracy. Each chapter is introduced with a word and definition, and alternate chapters are narrated by the missing editor’s protegee, who has a crush on his daughter. One cool stylistic effect was the way Graedon portrayed one of the “word flu’s” main symptoms as aphasia. Watching characters’ language fall apart as they sickened was fascinating and full of pathos.

This story was fun, but while the “word flu” worked fine on the level of plot, I didn’t think it worked on a second level of metaphor as well. The danger of contagion and the suggested treatment of isolation seemed wrong on that level: increased engagement seems the way to solve a problem of language and learning. If the point of a dystopia novel is to caution us about problems in our own society, the warning here seems simply to be about the need to unplug periodically. So the book wasn’t very deep, but it was enjoyable.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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In this YA dystopia, set about a generation into the future, environmental and economic catastrophes have devastated the world, and people have retreated into immersive virtual reality video games. Within the game, there is a famous, but mysterious contest set up by its founder in his will. It’s a quest that builds on his extensive knowledge of 80’s trivia. The villain is a massive company spending all its resources to try to win the contest and win control of the virtual reality game, even going so far as to murder players and their families. It’s a very engrossing story, full of action and suspense, the kind you don’t want to put down.

I do have some experience with MMORPGs, and without that I might have been a little lost at a few points in the story. But at its core, the story is more about a quest and a conspiracy than about video games in themselves. I thought the environmental and economic aspects of this dystopia were depressingly realistic. The ending, with the triumph of the nerdy underdog heroes and a hint of romance, was very satisfying. I really had fun reading it. I’d especially recommend it to anyone who likes video games and this YA genre.

Alone Together

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle


This book is a fascinating piece of research on the sociology and psychology of technology use. I recommend it to anyone perplexed by how quickly things have changed and wondering where we go from here. It did a great job of explaining how social norms of communication have changed since I was in high school. Back then, long phone calls on parents’ land lines were the way to communicate with friends outside of school. No one texted, and only a few people got cell phones, around when we started to drive, but they were usually pay-by-the-minute, so we only used them for quick calls to make plans. Now, a phone call is seen as intrusive, but there is some intimacy lost in the fact that we no longer expect people to drop everything and talk to us. Turkle does a great job of explaining how social norms have changed so quickly, and articulating what we have lost, or are in danger of losing. For example, talking on the phone seems to be a skill that is rapidly disappearing.

The first section of the book focused on what Turkle calls “sociable robots,” and the ways that people project feelings onto them and are ready to accept them as members of the family. I found this part of the book less compelling and more science-fiction-esque, mostly because I was less interested in this topic than in cell phones, email, and social media. Some of Turkle’s arguments struck me as Romantic, and that surprised me because I feel like those kinds of arguments are rare nowadays. But in the end Turkle did connect her argument about robots to the one she makes about iphones and facebook. She also emphasizes that we shouldn’t resign ourselves to the inevitability of technology’s ascendance, but instead think outside the box for solutions that allow us to preserve human connection. An example might be that instead of just accepting that we will need robots to care for the elderly, we could design robotic prosthetic arms to help human nurses care for and lift patients.

The book isn’t entirely negative about technology, and does spend considerable time celebrating the positive things that the internet allows us to do. However, I would certainly characterize Turkle as skeptical of the overly optimistic narrative that technology will solve everything. She points out the negative flip side to several positive tech developments, the unforeseen consequences when changes in the way we communicate damage relationships and make them less intimate and sustaining. It’s a conversation that I don’t think we have often enough, especially with young people, who know of no world without the internet or smartphones.

For individuals, Turkle didn’t seem to offer many specific solutions to the problem she describes so thoroughly, which is frustrating but understandable. She recommends periodic unplugging and being intentional about technology use, rather than expecting devices and applications to solve all our problems.  At the end, she waxes nostalgic about the letters she and her mother sent when she was in college, and writes a letter to her own daughter.