Best Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic Novels

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Welcome to the Apocalypse!

What's wrong with us? Why our fascination with the end of the world? Why is it that every year we hear about some new delusional group holed up somewhere waiting for the predicted end-of-everything-as-we-know-it? And why, for crying out loud, do such groups continue to emerge after several thousand failed predictions of the end?

Go ahead and laugh! But before you answer, please consider your personal fascination with the-end-of-all-things. If you are reading this, its likely that you enjoy apocalyptic literature, and maybe have apocalyptic beliefs of your own. For whatever reason, humans (that's you and me) are drawn to the idea of world-shattering events like moths to a fl ... sorry - bad metaphor. You don't believe me? Consider our history.

Clay tablets from nearly 5000 years ago speak about the imminent end of the world. The early Romans were fearful that the world would end soon. Nearly every major religion has an "end times" prophecy. Hardly a year has gone by over the past 1000 years without someone, somewhere, declaring an impending end of the world, and gathering followers to prepare for said doomsday. Some of these were very strange. Many came to tragic ends. Some proved quite amusing. My favorite is the Englishman Richard Brothers who in 1790 called himself "God's Almighty Nephew", declared that the end-of-all-things was nigh, and that he would lead the lost tribes of Israel and be named king of England. He ended up in an insane asylum instead. However, anyone willing to take the moniker "God's Almighty Nephew" gets a vote from me for creativity alone.

Anyway - we are fascinated by The End. Admit it. I am. That's why I love post-apocalyptic literature so much. But notice, please, the "post" aspect of post-apocalypse. My interest lies not in the apocalyptic part, but more in the "what comes after." How do people behave when it all falls apart? How do they soldier on when all hope is lost? How do they begin that long journey to reclaim what once was? That's what I love - the story of the iron will of humanity to survive and flourish against impossible odds. That is why I shed tears every time I watch the movie Rudy. Every. Time.

That's my interest in the genre. So - what's yours?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

(Disclaimer: This is nether dystopian nor post-apocalyptic. However, I just love it. So here is the review, darn it!)

No author possesses a more finely developed sense of dark and silky humor than does Neil Gaiman. In the telling of this story he is at his finest. The novel examines a simple but shivering pretext: what if an orphaned toddler were to be raised by the ghostly residents of a graveyard?

The child wanders into the graveyard after the murder of his parents, where the kindly but long deceased Owens family raises him. Under the protection of the graveyard and the watchful eye of Silas, who might be a member of the undead, the boy thrives. His unique circumstances expose him to a macabre world of death, ghouls, witches, and monsters, all of which he takes in stride. When his blissful, if unorthodox, existence is threatened by the return of his parents' murderers, the boy must use his unique accumulated knowledge to survive.

Mr. Gaiman tells the story with a pitch perfect mixture of dark humor, suspenseful mystery, and genuine emotion. This novel will leave you pondering the meaning of life and the nature of love as seen through the eyes of the dead.

Book Review: All These Broken Stars

All These Broken Stars by Aime Kaufman

(Disclaimer: This is neither a dystopian nor post-apocalyptic novel in the classic sense. However, it is one of the better sci-fi/love/survival stories I've read in a while. Hence the review here.)

This novel was very nearly the perfect combination of turbulent romance, mystery, sci-fi, and survival. The relationship between the higher-than-royalty Lilac and the down-home boy Tarver progresses at a perfectly metered pace. Initial attraction between the two is obliterated by class distinction after the space ship carrying them crashes and leaves the pair as sole survivors. The friction between the pair fades as they journey across a strange wilderness for help, as each are broken down to a basic version of themselves - a version that might find a way to love the other. The mystery of the voices, the abandonment of the planet, and their fate all culminate in an utterly shocking twist - that leads to a yet more shocking twist.

Book Review: The Shore of Women

The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent

This novel left me very contemplative for some time after reading the final words. In a bold undertaking as a storyteller, Ms. Sargent tells of a distant future where war-weary women have exiled men to live as savages outside the walls of women-only futuristic cities, taking reproductive material only as needed to keep the species alive. The story follows an exiled woman, Birana, who forms what is considered an impossible and disgusting bond with a man named Arvil - one of love.

The story is slow in places, but those moments reflect the monotony of life in the wild. *Spoiler* When sexual relations develop between Birana and Arvil, the author does not hold back. Her descriptions are graphic, although not gratuitous. In the end, though, the story gave me what I crave in every novel that I read: an abiding concern for the characters, and a truth to ponder that is larger than my limited world. Kudos to Pamela Sargent for such a bold story with such a profound message.

Book Review: The Windup Girl

The  Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I usually reserve five stars for stories that I greatly enjoy, or those that evoke strong emotion. By those criteria, The Windup Girl is somewhere between a three and a four on my scale. So why a five? Good question. Here goes.

This novel is absolutely jam-packed with incredible concepts - enough to make my head spin. In that respect it reminded me of William Gibson's Neuromancer, opening a new world of thought about a very plausible and well-constructed future. Calorie plagues, calorie corporations, kink spring power supplies, imperfect androids, biological manufacturing agents - the list goes on and on of novel ideas fleshed out with amazing realism by the author. All of that is set against a future Malaysian metropolis that seems so bizarre yet achingly familiar that I feel as if it is a real place, here and now. The author expertly executes the telling through multiple points of view but in a present tense that gives immediacy to the action.

So, yes, I did not absolutely love this story, nor did I shed tears over the darkness of it. But this novel stretched my brain, and for that I will never forget it.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

(Disclaimer: This is neither a dystopian nor post-apocalyptic novel. In fact, it is not even science fiction. However, the novel is so good that I felt compelled to review it here. By the way, it just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so I'm not alone in my opinion!)

The title of All the Light We Cannot See is much like the novel itself: it is a simple picture with layers of meaning. The story unfolds in a series of short snapshots of the lives of various characters, primarily involving the protagonists Werner and Marie Laure, in the years leading up to the invasion of Saint-Malo, France during August of 1944. The genius of the vignettes and the title are the tight connection the author creates between the pair before they ever meet, many of the connections coming as a surprise to the reader. The writing is dense with metaphor, but not in a pretentious way. Mr. Doerr wrote the story over a ten year period and the writing reflects it, aged like a fine wine to a perfect blend of metaphor and flow. The ending may seem a bit anti-climactic when compared to the typical story arc of a novel, but it is necessary in order to send a meaningful message: that we are the sum of our experiences, and that every life leaves a mark on every other life, regardless of the brevity of the contact.

Highly recommended!

Book Review: The Martian

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir

My reading of The Martian was one long-running reaction of, "How did Andy Weir research this much material?" The answer in a moment. The reason for the question is this: the story follows the desperate struggle of astronaut Mark Watney to survive alone on Mars, and the main character applies countless implementations of chemistry, biology, physics, and math to ensure survival. Sounds boring, right? Wrong! The story moves so swiftly from one edge-of-death experience to the next that I found myself rooting for principles of science and Watney's brain to pull him out of the fire again and again. And despite the grim circumstances, the story is told with an abundance of gallows humor, both from Watney's perspective and the perspective of those on Earth trying to rescue him.

So what about the question? How did the author research this much material? Easy. His entire life has been devoted to a fascination with science, space, and planning a Mars expedition. In other words, Mr. Weir has prepared for decades to write this novel. The result is a miracle that makes Robinson Crusoe and Hatchet look like child's play. This novel is destined to be a classic!