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

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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

Fragments by Dan Wells

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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

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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

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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.

Shades of Earth

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis

10345937This book concludes the great Across the Universe series. At the beginning of the novel, Elder and Amy crash-land on the planet that they have traveled lightyears to colonize. While they and their people explore the planet, they’re being killed off in mysterious ways, one by one. There are conflicts between Elder and Amy’s dad, a military commander who has assumed leadership of the Earth-born passengers who were cryogenically frozen. Revis proves that she has the guts to write horrific violence and kill characters and imagine some real human evil. The love story is one of the trilogy’s strengths. I like to see teenage characters who get to have sex without horrible consequences that just turn the story into a morality play, and this qualifies.

Like the other books, the plot depended a bit too heavily on events progressing extremely quickly, and people trusting the wrong people, foolishly withholding information from the right people, and failing to demand to be told everything. I kind of expected part of the ending, but there were definitely surprises. A couple of those surprises seemed a bit far-fetched (which may or may not be fair to say about science fiction) but still, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At the very end Amy really comes into her own and becomes a true leader and a real bad ass, growing through grief and making a change that I love to see a female protagonist make. Now where is the cable series based on these books? I want it in production last year so I can watch it tomorrow.

A Million Suns

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

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This book is a sequel to Across the Universe, second in the trilogy set on a spaceship bringing colonists from Earth to a new planet. It’s told in alternating chapters from Amy and Elder’s perspectives. Amy comes from Earth and was cryogenically frozen; Elder was born on the ship and is its young leader. They have a budding romance that gets less focus than you might expect in this genre, but so much other stuff is going on that it didn’t bother me.

The structure of the story is a mystery. It begins with Elder directly addressing the crew on the question that was revealed to be crucial at the end of the first book, and he gets an answer that baffled me in all the best ways. Amy and Elder follow clues left by Orion, the first book’s villain, to find out what the ship’s real problem is. The answer was something I didn’t expect, and I love it when books surprise me. Meanwhile, Elder has to deal with increasing upheaval on the ship: people disagree with his rule and are refusing to work and to distribute food fairly. And people are getting killed by overdoses of Phydus, a Xanax-like drug that makes them calm and compliant. The plot depends on things happening very quickly; I kept wishing I could call time out and sit everyone down to talk things out. I enjoyed this book just as much as the first one, and that’s saying something. I’ve already started the last one and it’s as much fun as the first two.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

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This book is the first of a series that takes place on a planet colonized recently by humans. The protagonist, Todd, is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, one of the most distant outposts. Prentisstown has no women; Todd grew up in the knowledge that a war with the planet’s original inhabitants had killed the women and released a toxin of some kind that made all the men’s thoughts audible in a constant stream they call Noise.  The action of the story begins a month before Todd’s birthday when he becomes a man, when he meets a girl, Viola, in a swamp. They run away from Prentisstown together and begin to discover what really happened years ago to Prentisstown’s women. I enjoyed Todd’s folksy, humorous voice immensely. It reminded me of Huckleberry Finn: like Huck, Todd has a heart of gold, and is in the process of losing his innocence.

I was particularly impressed with the way the Noise worked on a deeper level as a metaphor for “othering,” as a psychological explanation for how and why we separate into “us” and “them.” Because on this planet, everyone can hear men’s thoughts, but women’s thoughts stay private, men have a sort of automatic knowledge and trust of each other, while women seem untouchable and mysterious to them in comparison. They find it hard to trust women without being able to read their thoughts as they can a man’s. Todd and Viola encounter several towns where the people dealt with this problem in different ways: in Carbonel Downs there was a kind of sexual apartheid, in Far Branch there was a matriarchy, and Prentisstown, where Todd grew up, had the worst solution of all. It was sometimes jarring to hear the words Todd applied to Viola because of growing up in this world: “it,” “void,” “empty,” “nothing.” This denigration of the other comes from fear and vulnerability, the precarious position of being totally known by someone who you cannot know equally well, whose difference makes them seem unknowable. Toward the end, when Todd realizes he cares about Viola, he says he does know her and hear her Noise, showing that love can break down the barriers created by prejudice.

Fair warning: this is a very brutal and violent book, the kind where you get attached to the characters and then watch them suffer.

Sometimes the plot was far-fetched and extreme, like the villain that wouldn’t die, the final explanation for his pursuit of Todd, and Todd’s own multiple near-death experiences. It was sometimes hard to believe that secrets could be kept at all in a world of mind-readers, and there were times when I thought Ness might have been selective about applying the rules of his world to the action for the sake of narrative effect or convenience. But overall, it was a fun, action-packed book that I’d recommend to anyone who likes this genre. It might be a particularly thought-provoking book for a boy who’s resistant to reading books about girl protagonists. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. A studio has bought film rights for it, but I haven’t heard anything about casting or filming yet.