Category Archives: Post-Apocalypse

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelReview: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Knopf, 2014)

“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

There’s been something of a blog hiatus for the past few weeks due to my repeatedly attempting to cough up my entire respiratory system. I love this island but sweet mother of smog-induced asphyxiation is the pollution ever terrible. Anyway, it seems fitting that in the middle of my annual month-long malady I should start reading Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic bestseller from Emily St John Mandel. There’s nothing quite like hacking up glob after glob of revoltingly-coloured phlegm while the cast of the book you’re reading is doing exactly the same and dying by their billions.

Station Eleven is another of the recently feted literary genre releases which have seen the grimy, bleak portrayal of life after the fall elevated to the review sections of highbrow magazines and the bookshelves of those who would normally sneer at anything resembling sci-fi. It kicks off in an open-air theatre in Toronto with a production of King Lear under way. The aging star suddenly begins acting strangely. Within minutes he’s on the deck with a doctor emerging from the audience, trying in vain to revive him. A phone call to a colleague reveals that the stricken thespian is not the only one. And with that, civilisation is gone.

Almost frustratingly the action jumps ahead to a couple of decades in the future. Emily St John Mandel isn’t too concerned with portraying the collapse itself. She forgoes the gory details – smartly it turns out – and examines the aftermath as seen through a series of flashbacks from a small selection of survivors. The flu variant which swept the globe at an alarming speed left almost nothing in its wake and the world has become a hostile place. The majority of the action unfolds from the viewpoint of Kirsten Raymonde, proud member of the Travelling Symphony. Even at the twilight of mankind there is still a need for the arts and she braves the roads and settlements of the Great lakes area with her troupe, bringing Shakespeare to the dishevelled remnants. Little by little we learn more about how the world she inhabits came into being through the stories of those whose lives became intertwined with her own.

Station Eleven elicited in me almost entirely the opposite reaction from California which I reviewed previously.  From start to finish it was utterly gripping. The dystopia which Mandel crafted was horrific yet entirely believable, and fully fleshed out without delving too much into the kind of gruesome minutiae which may please hardcore post-apoc fans but could alienate a wider readership. The story of the collapse of the system of the world as we know it is beautifully mirrored in the more personal tale of a man slowly losing his soul as he almost inadvertently betrays and disappoints those around him.

In conjunction with the flashbacks is a tense plot thread set in the grim future as the Travelling Symphony, a work of beautiful creative genius in itself, comes face to face with the harsh reality of mankind minus the civilisation. I’ll admit I had a couple of issues with the plausibility of the story behind our villain, known simply as The Prophet, but he was a wonderfully menacing creation. Despite being described as a young-ish man, his character and the sense of brooding evil behind him bizarrely had my mind conjuring up images of the demonic preacher Kane from Poltergeist 2 & 3 whenever he was mentioned.

Station Eleven is a most welcome addition to the recent canon of, shall we say, socially acceptable sci-fi. It’s a book I would not hesitate to recommend to friends who have never picked up a post-apocalyptic novel before, much as I would A Canticle For Leibowitz or The Dog Stars. It’s at the same time a thoughtful, engaging read which you want to savour as long as possible and a tense page-turner which will be over before you know it. We need more books like this.


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California by Edan LepuckiReview: California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

The year is, well, sometime in the middle of the 21st century. The forces of nature have, as per the warnings of damn near every scientist on the planet, wreaked untold damage across our world. Temperatures are soaring, rendering enormous swathes of land uninhabitable. What’s left is wracked by storms on a biblical scale and starved of the resources we once took for granted. That’s right folks, we’re back in post-apocalypse territory.

Suddenly it seems that the end of the world is the new zombie outbreak, which was in its own turn the new vampire drama. Everyone wants in on the act and from out of nowhere authors like Peter Heller, Colson Whitehead and now Edan Lepucki are bridging the gap between genre fiction and something which may appeal to the more literary types out there. Book snobs for want of a better epithet. This merging of worlds is certainly possible; indeed Heller’s The Dog Stars is hands-down one of the best post-apoc novels ever penned – insightful, thoughtful, moving and respectful to the genre from which it was birthed. Can the same be said for Lepucki’s debut, California? Well, nope. But read on, because just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it might not be worth your time.

Frida and Cal (the titular ‘California’, a university in-joke) are among the survivors of our planet’s steady and alarmingly rapid descent into unlivable chaos. The best chances for making a stand are either own one’s own wits or as part of one of the almost mythical Communities. Reservations for the super-rich, these gated islands of civilisation are self-contained biospheres, housing their paying inhabitants in the manner to which they have grown accustomed without a care for the steady degradation of the world around them. Cal and Frida are not rich. Packing all they can carry into a couple of bags, they head for the wilderness where they can use Cal’s agricultural know-how to build something resembling a life for themselves.

You just know a set-up like this is not going to last. Before long Frida is becoming bored of the isolation and going stir-crazy in their makeshift cabin. Forever brooding on the death of her brother Micah, a suicide bomber railing against the exclusionary actions of the Communities – not to mention the fact that she may be pregnant – it’s clear that something is going to snap. And before you know it there’s the triple whammy of a tragedy striking nearby, Frida revealing more than she planned to the mysterious travelling salesman August, and the revelation that their neck of the (literal) woods isn’t quite as deserted as they had once believed. Their lives are turned upside down in a matter of days and they are forced to come to terms with their respective pasts and figure out what their true desires for the future are.

Now that I write it down it seems like a truly promising set-up for an exploration of the post-apocalyptic world and the strains which it puts on relationships, communities and mental health. And okay, I’ll be fair, it actually does just that. California is a very accomplished piece of work, especially for a debut novel, and Edan Lepucki proves herself an adept at constructing both rich, substantial worlds and strong, believable characters. I found myself sucked in very quickly and by the time I was 100 pages in I was devouring the book at an unexpected rate. But then the last act happened.

I can’t pinpoint the precise chapter when it turned but suddenly I realised that I wasn’t reading a sci-fi dystopia any more. No, instead I was plodding through an old-fashioned mystery/drama with a ruined world lurking in the background as a McGuffin. The devastation was suddenly bereft of all purpose beyond that of window dressing. Instead of contemplating the wider issues of the politics, sociology and environment in the aftermath of the collapse I was getting mired down in a bout of finger-pointing, questions no grander than which specific character did what to whom and why.

Like I said at the start, your mileage may vary. I honestly don’t mind the human drama. It’s a driving force behind all the greatest works of fiction and a novel would be truly barren without them. However I do feel kind of cheated when a book spends its bulk hinting towards grander issues (the Group versus the Communities! An epic battle of ideologies!), only to abandon them by the wayside in favour of what boils down to a murder mystery and some family bickering. That said, if you’re not a die-hard genre fan and would like to get into the doomsday buzz then something like California could be the ideal introduction. Give it a blast, just be wary of what you’re getting into before you get your hopes up.

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The Girl With All The Gifts

The Girl With All The Gifts by MR CareyReview: The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey (Orbit, 2014)

Warning – not for the mycophobic…

Seems not so long ago I was bemoaning the lack of decent zombie fiction and now the genre has exploded like a decaying bladder full of decompolicious gasses. Unfortunately in this post-World War Z literary graveyard there is a new problem. We’re suddenly knee-deep in fetid tales of undead carnage but Sturgeon’s Law dictates that 90% of everything is crud. In a blooming genre that’s a lot of entrails to sort through before you get to the brains. Thankfully for us all, people like M.R. Carey exist. People who, like Max Brooks, dare to take a baseball bat to the chewed-off face of the genre and start re-arranging things. When they do it right, the results can be glorious.

Melanie is a young schoolgirl who spends her days struggling to maintain her spot at the top of the class and idolising her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau. She daydreams about ancient myths and legends and her precocious mind is filled information on a truly esoteric range of subjects. She’s not normal though. At the end of the day she’s strapped into her chair and wheeled back into her cell by armed men, shackled for the safety of all those around her. Melanie is, you see, what we could best describe as a highly-functioning zombie.

Unknown to Melanie and her classmates, the world outside their cell walls is devastated, reeling from an epidemic which has turned much of mankind into mindless killers. The rest is split into those fighting to regain a hold on civilisation and those who have gone feral. In the former camp are scientists like the chilling Dr. Caldwell who have been forced to ditch any sentimental attachment to individual humans (or humanlike beings) in order to save the masses from further suffering. In the latter are those disaffected who have shirked off any notion of society and wish merely to destroy. Unfortunately for Melanie and Miss Justineau the local balance of power has invisibly shifted and they are about to be thrust into the harsh reality of the new world.

There are many reasons why The Girl With All The Gifts stands out above its peers but I’m going to focus on two to save this review going on for pages. First up is the origins story. Get any slavering pack of die-hard zombie fans together and you can expect a lengthy, detailed discussion of their favourite cause or transmission vector., be it radiation, illness or alien possession. MR Carey manages to pull off something truly original here, something not only rooted in actual science but also so stomach-churning that it gave me genuine shivers to read about, no mean feat. If you’re not familiar with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis then you’re lucky. I first encountered it in Carl Zimmer’s utterly wonderful Parasite Rex and now it’s back to haunt me. Long story short, it’s a fungus whose spores infects the body of an ant, seize control of its nervous system and force it to climb to the highest point of a tree where it will remain frozen until the parasite bursts from its head and releases more spores onto the forest floor, allowing Cordy (yes, I give cutesy pet names to icky fungi) to carry on its life cycle. Now imagine that in a human. And imagine it trying to spread by biting other humans instead of climbing trees. Sweet dreams. I can’t stress enough how much this concept simultaneously thrills and repulses me but I can only hope it does the same to you.

Helping The Girl With All The Gifts really strike home is the very human touch which Carey brings to his characters, even the technically non-human Melanie and the token-bad-guy doctor. It makes you truly invest in the key players which makes it hurt all the more when the darker side of the story inevitably rears its head time and again. The play-off between Melanie’s innocence and the unremitting harshness of the world around her forms a major thread of the book and builds the atmosphere for many a gut-punch to come. Oh, and talking of gut-punches – best ending ever. In my opinion anyway. My hat’s off to you Mr Carey, I didn’t see it coming at all and it, well, I can’t say any more for fear of spoilage.

Anyway, that’s all I’m saying for now. I could ramble on for pages but you shouldn’t be reading this, you should be running out and buying the book itself. Go discover some fungal zombie mayhem. Get squeamish. Watch a world fall apart in the most tragic way. Just go easy on the mushroom soup next time…

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Sequel City Part 4 – The End Is Now

The End Is Now by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Now by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey (ed.) (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

First off, apologies for the brief hiatus. I was first interrupted from my reading reverie by the fact that my countrymen, in a dazzling display of cowardice, naivety and gullibility, rejected the chance to decide their own future and decided instead to be ruled from another country by a party which the entire country has outright rejected for the past three decades. It was kinda like being in a sci-fi movie actually, a whole week of “Did that actually just happen…?” before I even began to come to terms with the enormity of it. And then there was the diving. I’m now officially a Rescue Diver which means if any of you happen to find yourself in trouble on the high seas you just have to holler, I’ll drag you out and CPR you back to life. Two week where my only reading companion was the PADI Rescue Diver manual. Anyways, back to business as usual so on with the show…

Rounding off the current spate of wonderful and eagerly awaited sequels in my reading pile has been The End Is Now, follow up to the stellar The End Is Nigh and midway point of the Apocalypse Triptych. Ably curated by anthology maestro John Joseph Adams and current post-apoc-fic darling Hugh Howey, the series shifts from impending armageddons to works in progress. Almost every story in the book is a continuation from the first installment but worry not, there’s just enough exposition and background to fill in new readers without annoying those already up to speed.

My review of the previous book was glowing to say the least so did the authors manage to keep up the pace for round two? The answer is a mighty hell yes. The majority of the stories pick up exactly where their predecessors left off, meaning with some you’re pushed straight into the action without a pause for breath. For example, reading Scott ‘Infected‘ Sigler’s The Sixth Day Of Deer Camp feels as though you just put the preceding chapter down yesterday. You’re right back in the same freezing North American cabin, with the same group of semi-drunk hunters and the same crashed alien vessel in the woods outside. The invasion is in progress and this gaggle of everyday Joes have to figure out whether to brave the snowbound road to the nearest town (if it’s still there), bunker down and hope it all blows over or go on the offensive. They’re Americans. They have guns. Guess which one they choose…

That tale in particular exemplifies one of the overarching themes which seems to have manifested in many of these, a focus on the humanity, loss and sadness rather than the gratuitous carnage which reduces much of the rest of the genre to Schumacher-esque pastiche. What starts out as a rather insane push for mankind’s survival turns into a deeply upsetting realisation that the fearsome, inhuman invaders are not all that different from us. I really didn’t expect the turn this one took and it’s all the better for it. Another winner in this field was Annie Bellet’s touching Goodnight Stars, one of the more down-to-earth tales (kinda literally) which opts for a heart-breaking family angle and absolutely nails it.

The rest of the book is a wonderful mixture of destruction, disease and death in all its splendour. Special mention for insanity goes to Charlie Jane ‘io9’ Anders’s Rock Manning Can’t Hear You. I have no idea where this idea came from or where it’s going but there sure isn’t another apocalypse like it out there. However, cream of the crop must surely Fruiting Bodies by Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant. I’d like to state here and now that fungal fiction is definitely the ickiest, most flesh-creeping idea ever to crawl out of anyone’s warped mind. Between Seanan’s series and The Girl With All The Gifts (to be reviewed in a few days) I’d be happy never to eat a mushroom again. Or touch anything. Or even breathe. Seriously. Fruiting Bodies manages to combine an utterly revolting concept of a genetically engineered fungi gone wrong with a tragic tale of a mother and daughter fighting to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. I didn’t know whether to puke or cry.

While you may want to check out the first book before jumping in – and you really, really should – The End Is Now is a fun ride for anyone who just wants to see the whole word burn. Adams and Howey gave a shitload of matches and gasoline to some of the finest genre authors of today. Boy, do they know how to use them.

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Filed under Anthology, Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction, Short Stories

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh BrackettReview: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (Phoenix Pick, 2011)

‘Fear makes stupid people do wicked things.’

Sci-fi blog par excellence io9 recently ran an article entitled ‘10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend To Have Read (And Why You Should Actually Read Them)’. To me this read as a somewhat comical challenge and I clicked the link, all primed to scoff at how I’d devoured the lot before I was out of high school. Oops. My showing was shameful, having scored a mere 4.5/10 – I’m totally counting the halfway through Infinite Jest I managed before leaving it behind in Thailand. My only salvation was having ticked off the first two on the list so I resolved to remedy the situation. First stop, an apparently famous post-apocalyptic book which I had bizarrely never heard of.

Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow was originally published in 1955, making it not only one of the oldest books on the list but also perfectly placed to capture the mood of the times. Judging by the story’s chronology, taking place a somewhat vague two generations after God rained his fiery wrath down upon the planet in the form of nuclear war, we’re pretty much in the present day albeit one which is totally unrecognisable. Following the destruction of the major cities society predictably fell apart. People came to realise that cities simply could not sustain themselves in the absence of infrastructure and depended so much on each other for support that once a few fell the others followed in domino style.

More importantly, the people of the cities realised that outside of their pampered habitat they were next to useless. A new society quickly arose using as its foundations those who had eschewed reliance on modern technology and stuck to the old ways – the Amish and their ilk. In this brave new world the USA is run by the New Mennonites, adhering strictly to their interpretation of biblical instructions and forbidding the construction of any new cities. Transgressions are punishable by suitably biblical punishment involving large rocks.

Len and Esau Colter are cousins growing up in River’s Run, both unfortunately cursed by what in our age would be a blessing – an innate and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The lure of truth and discovery leads them to run afoul of their laws and they soon find themselves on the run, exiled and in search of the mythical Bartorstown. Little more than a whispered folk tale it is rumoured to be a new city in the making, a place where curiosity is a virtue rather than a vice. To hot-blooded Esau and the tale’s brooding narrator Len it’s nothing short of nirvana.

Despite its age, going on 60 years now, The Long Tomorrow manages to avoid seeming dated in the slightest. Any anachronisms present in the telling manage to merge seamlessly with its depiction of a near-future world thrown a little into its own past. Throughout the course of the novel Brackett manages to deal admirably with a number of big-money topics, weaving a coming of age story into discussions of the merits and drawbacks of simple faith, the nature of mankind and the intrinsic neutrality of scientific discovery.

Reading this book was something of a revelation for me. Over the past six months or so I’ve read countless novels and non-fiction titles addressing the same issues with the benefit of modern hindsight. To find that someone as prescient as Leigh Brackett had been lurking behind the curtains has jerked me out of my torpor and led me into all kinds of classic sci-fi back alleys, hopefully for the better. And on another note, as a teacher this is one of those books which I would dearly love to teach a class some day. Wonder if the rights holders will let me attempt an abridged version for ESL purposes? Either way, whether you’re a teacher, a post-apocalypse/sci-fi fan or just a general reader this is one forgotten gem which should be shunted to the top of your reading list immediately.

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Silo Series by Hugh Howey

Silo Series by Hugh HoweyReview: The Silo series (Wool, Shift and Dust) by Hugh Howey (self-published, 2011-2013)

God-damn it, I hate it when I’m late to the party. By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Hugh Howey and his self-published, post-apocalyptic series. If so it’s for one of two reasons. Firstly, Howey garnered quite a bit of attention for achieving 7-figure sales before publishers wanted a piece of the action. His subsequent acceptance of a mere 6-figure print deal and his retention of ebook rights is a glorious sign of things to come for the industry. Secondly, it’s fucking awesome. Sorry for the language but not since A Song Of Ice And Fire have I plowed through a book series with such fervour. It’s as good as the reviews say and then some, having me devour all 1,500 or so pages in a mere 8 or 9 days – and that’s while holding down a full-time job and finding a new place to live. So what’s the big deal?

Silo, originally published as 9 installments and recently released as three omnibus editions, kicks off a few hundred years into the future. The situation is dire. Mankind is reduced to a subterranean existence in a silo beneath the ground. Over a hundred stories deep, the gargantuan dwelling is subdivided into farms, mechanical areas, living quarters, even an entire mysterious IT section. The only evidence of an outside existence comes via cameras atop the silo, capturing images which are displayed on giant screens in the top-floor canteen. The images portray an ugly truth – an utterly desolate outside world, devoid of any life and totally hostile.

Life in the silo is strictly regimented. The floor-plan echoes the stratification of society, with the more affluent citizens up top looking down on the progressively grimier, less refined occupants ending in the mechanical department in the very lowest recesses. The rules are strict . Occupations, and therefore one’s place on the ladder, are chosen early on and rarely altered. Relationships must be officially approved and recognised and childbirth proceeds according to rare lotteries to ensure population control. The laws of the land are written in a book called The Pact, drafted by those who came before and enforced by the mayor, the sheriff and the head of IT. First and foremost among the laws is that you do not talk about the outside world or about any desire to leave the silo. The punishment for wanting to leave is simple – your wish is granted.

It’s difficult to say any more without giving away major plot elements so I’ll stick with the earlier parts of the series. It all opens with the silo’s sheriff breaking the ultimate taboo and preparing himself for his final journey outside. He knows what happens next, the cleaning. Offenders are sentenced to don a protective suit and proceed through an airlock, armed only with some rags and fluid intended to clean the topside cameras. After the task is carried out the cleaner is free to walk as far as they can before the suit breaks down under the strain of the toxic atmosphere and they breathe their last. So why did he do it, essentially committing suicide for no gain? It transpires that his wife took the exact same action years previously, leaving him to imprison and sentence her, but not without leaving some clues behind. It seems that The Pact might not be all there is to the world, that there may yet be hope beyond the silo walls.

From this launchpad, Silo proceeds to spin an epic tale covering all manner of topics. There are politics thrown in, from the state of the world at large to the way society functions in the microcosm of the silo. References are thrown about to such things as the Stanford Prison Experiment and other forays into the darker side of human nature. There’s the inevitable look at technology and how best to proceed with it, both the dangers and the benefits. It’s also a rather beautiful study of the characters themselves. Howey has some impressive insights into the nature of human resilience, our potential in the face of adversity and also the ease with which we can be drawn to the dark side and made complicit in the most awful of actions.

However the star of the show is surely the silo itself. It’s an amazing construction both in terms of engineering and of literary achievement. By the end of the first chapter you’ll already feel the walls closing in around you and be itching to escape. You can hear the water dripping down in the depths, sense the darkness approaching all around you, even feel your legs ache as the protagonists embark on days-long journeys from bottom to top. The bustle of life in the stairwells is almost palpable, faces of the citizens peering out from every corner. You can even feel the atmosphere change as you’re dragged from section to section – the sterile, pristine canteen of the top floor in sharp contrast to the sweaty, noisy, grease-covered generator room down in the depths. It’s a tiny, confined world but one which is as well-formed and perfectly realised as any planet in the epic sci-fi and fantasy canon.

I’m trying to be objective here but I honestly can’t pick fault with the series right now. I’ve read criticism regarding the flow of the books stemming from the periodic nature of their publication and the fact that much of it was being made up on the fly. I have to disagree strongly there. Everything hangs together well, the story arcs all make sense and the characters develop in very believable ways. The writing itself is never going to win any literary awards but Howey has a true knack for descriptive story-telling and is clearly well-read on the may themes present throughout the books. It’s hard not to like something written in such a deservedly confident style.

Long story short – go get started on these books right now. They’re going to creep into your subconscious like nothing else and your life will be the better for it.

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This Is The Way The World Ends by James Morrow

This Is The Way The World Ends by James MorrowReview: This Is The Way The World Ends by James Morrow (Gateway, 2013)

“‘There’s a logic to what you’re saying,’ said Theophilus, ‘but, being insane, I cannot grasp it.'”

If you’ve read this blog before you may be aware that post-apocalyptic fiction is my genre of choice. The reason for the catastrophe is largely irrelevant: zombies; aliens; disease, even nanobots gone wild. Something about the notion of mankind reduced to a bare minimum and forced to adapt and survive just gets my gears going. How I’ve managed to miss this book so far is a mystery to me, it deserves to be a classic in the canon of post-apocalyptica. Why so special?

It’s 1995 and the threat of nuclear conflict looms large over the world. George Paxton, everyday man and tombstone engraver, dreams of buying SCOPA suits for his family, supposedly guaranteeing their safety in any such war, but they remain forever out of reach for a man of his means. Until, that is, an eccentric gentleman in the hat trade approaches him with an offer of a golden suit, specially made, better than any SCOPA. He just needs to sign the contract and his precious daughter will be assured protection. No sooner is the paper signed than the inevitable happens and humanity is reduced to ashes.

George, miraculously unharmed in the conflagration, wanders through the remnants of his quiet little town, passing through hordes of shambling casualties, their precious SCOPAs hanging in tatters. Searching for his family through the ashes of former homes, he is about to give up hope when a helicopter descends from nowhere, transporting to the safety of a US submarine bound for Antarctica and the last bastion of mankind. What seems like a rescue soon turns sour however, as George and five fellow survivors soon find themselves trapped in a nightmare. Their rescuers are no less than the manifestations of all the potential future humans whose existence has been denied by his generation’s folly. He and his acquaintances are to be put on trial for nothing less than the murder of the future and the squandering of all of human history.

Such is the set-up for This Is The Way The World Ends, both a powerful work of science fiction and a viciously sharp satire mocking the skewed logic which peppered the Cold War era. The book could easily have been written by Joseph Heller, being reminiscent of his classic Catch-22 both in the style of language and in the explorations of the ludicrous ends to which bureaucracy and government thought inevitably lead. James Morrow is a master at exposing the absurdities at the heart of the nuclear arms race and the justifications provided by the masters of war who push for its continuation.

In a truly novel twist, This Is The Way The World Ends borrows its form and main characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, paying tribute to the paradoxes and logical puzzles found within. You’ll find the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, even Tweedledum and Tweedledee all making appearances and lending to the surreal, dreamlike appearance of the post-apocalyptic section of the novel.

Morrow has a wicked way with words and the entirety of This Is The Way The World Ends is endlessly quotable, as with the Mad Hatter’s line at the beginning of the review. In reference to his protagonist’s liberal religious leanings – Paxton is a Unitarian – he has him exclaim, “‘Find my family, God!'”, only to note immediately that “There are no Unitarians in thermonuclear holocausts”. This knack for turning a phrase goes into overdrive during the trial, with the Defense Secretary noting that in case of a first strike by enemy forces “‘We owe it to all those millions of dead people to make more millions of dead people.'” As amusing as it sounds at first, mirth soon turns to chills as you realise that those words could as easily have come from Reagan or Thatcher at the peak of their respective reigns. It’s the kind of warped worldview which Stanley Kubrick nailed in Dr. Strangelove.

This is The Way The World Ends is a wonderfully original, well-rounded and magical treatment of a horrible and plausible scenario. Unlike much of the genre it eschews the gore and grit of the aftermath to ask the question of how we got there in the first place. Morrow doesn’t shy away from any of the more unpleasant avenues down which his story leads, the discomfort being more intellectual than visceral and as such often even more unsettling. Perhaps it loses its way a little towards the ending, the post-trial segment seeming a little rushed and disjointed, but this is more than made up for by the remainder of the book.

One for fans of Heller, Carroll, Kubrick, post-apocalyptica and interesting political musings.

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Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City by Ben H WintersReview: Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2013)

The Last Policeman (reviewed here)was a refreshingly original take on the noir genre. Hank Palace, a newly promoted detective, follows up a dead body found in the restrooms of a diner. The official verdict is suicide but Hank feels there is something more at work here and follows his gut. Soon he uncovers something sinister and is on the trail of what now seems to be a murder case. So what set it apart from the rest of the genre? Well, that would be the massive asteroid on a 100% certain collision course with earth, set to obliterate all life. While society crumbles around him, Hank stays true to his profession, intent on bringing those responsible to justice despite the fact that, in the long run, it will all be for nothing.

Countdown City takes off a few months later and things are looking grim. The police force has all but been disbanded and Hank is now a mere civilian. This doesn’t stop him from following his calling though and he still pounds the streets and looking after his own. Soon he is contacted by Martha, a desperate wife whose husband has disappeared. The remaining law enforcement units don’t have time for this – runaways are the norm given the circumstances – so Hank takes up the case. What initially seems to be an open and shut case of desertion soon turns out to be something altogether stranger and more dangerous.

The remainder of Countdown City unfolds more or less conventionally as our former detective finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into a world of conspiracies and freedom fighters. This aspect of the novel is handled with the same aplomb as in The Last Policeman, reading much like an updated Chandler tale. The rhythm of the prose and attention to detail alone are enough to place it in the higher echelons of crime fiction. However, as with its predecessor, it’s the extraordinary circumstances which elevate it above the norm.

Where the first installment introduced us to a world slowly becoming aware of its own impending doom, people slowly giving up hope and abandoning their responsibilities to the pursuit of hedonism, things here have deteriorated considerably. Lawlessness has now taken hold and dangers are everywhere. With the collapse of most industries there is a rise in black market trafficking of all kind of goods, from food to medicines to baseball memorabilia. While these are largely peaceful, community efforts there is a darker side where morality and trust have been thrown out of the window.

Running counter to this some citizens still retain a glimmer of hope and dignity. We see one group of people fighting against the government blockades which prevent refugees from the asteroid’s likely strike zone from reaching America’s shores. At the same time a mass of students and like-minded thinkers have occupied a university’s grounds, forming their own experimental society in which to see out the end of the world. Naturally a non-heirarchical utopia formed by a bunch of people who are barely adults is riddled with flaws but the very fact of their trying is the point, not their success or otherwise.

For me the draw of The Last Policeman and Countdown City is the thinking they inspire. We’re all used to the post-apocalyptic visions of descent into savagery and the collapse of society but could it be different? Could people hold it together enough to salvage something worthwhile. While I try to imagine myself as a noble hero like Detective Palace I know that it’s far more likely I’d join the bucket-list crowd, spending my remaining months exploring the world and all it has to offer before it’s gone. And would that even be a bad thing? When faced with certain annihilation do we retain all of our responsibilities to ourselves and others? Or are we somewhat freed from the social contract? Well, not to the point of murder, but to throw caution to the wind and simply pursue happiness. Can we do that now, in the absence of an impending apocalypse? And if not, why not? Then I realise that while I admire Hank’s steadfastness in his duty I still think he’s a little unhinged.

If you haven’t already read The Last Policeman then I highly recommend grabbing it and Countdown City while waiting for the conclusion to this brilliant and thoughtful trilogy. Come for the noir but stay for the extended detours which your train of thought will doubtless take along the way.

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Filed under Detective, Noir, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction

Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz

Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee NewitzReview: Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz (Doubleday, 2013)

The subtitle to this book – How Humanity Will Survive A Mass Extinction – should tell you all you need to know about the content. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, in part because of the utter inevitability of its subject matter. No matter what we do, disaster looms on the horizon and the only decision left in our hands is how we handle the aftermath. The hands of the clock keep ticking, sweeping ever closer to midnight and we need to get our collective thinking caps on. Newitz illustrates the urgency of the situation by taking us on a guided tour of mass extinctions, analysing the events and survivors to piece together some kind of contingency plan for our entire race.

Scatter, Adapt and Remember starts off in the deep past, looking at what we can learn from previous mass extinction events in our planet’s history. It’s somewhat ironic, given our current dire climatic straits, that the first great extinction was caused by a relatively new lifeform poisoning the atmosphere and causing massive temperature changes. Yes, the humble cyanobacteria – ocean-going algae – is one of earth’s greatest mass-murderers. Some billions of years ago our atmosphere was extremely unfriendly towards modern life. Baking temperatures and masses of CO2 were the order of the day, until cyanobacteria arose and began absorbing the carbon dioxide and releasing unprecedented levels of oxygen in its stead.

Good news for us, right? Well, we are a little biased. The falling CO2 ratio freed Earth from its greenhouse state and temperatures plummeted. The overwhelming majority of organisms alive at the time were simply not equipped to deal with the cold or the newly poisoned atmosphere and simply vanished, the slate wiped clean. In their place sprang up the predecessors of the rich biosphere we currently inhabit. From these humble beginnings we go through the Great Dying, the asteroid which killed of the dinosaurs (or did it?) and other similarly catastrophic events. Newitz does a sterling job of picking through the minutiae of each incident and throwing the spotlight on the salient features which provide the clues vital to our own survival.

Now that we’re up and running we get to the ‘scatter’ part of Scatter, Adapt and Remember. Starting with a recounting of the Jewish diaspora – which the author thankfully points out is merely an allegory, with no historical evidence for the Biblical version – we’re given a guide to the importance of spreading out. Eggs in many baskets and all that. Taking in both historical and genetic sources, Newitz describes just how humanity and other species have successfully colonised large and diverse environments, and why failure to do likewise has spelled doom for many others, including our cousins the Neanderthals.

Of course, in the case of a global disaster we’re not talking about seeking out new nooks and crannies on Earth. No, we must look further afield for our eventual survival, to our neighbouring planets and even star systems. That’s where ‘adapt’ comes in. We’ve done well for ourselves in the varying terrestrial niches we inhabit but space is a hostile environment. Massive distances and cosmic rays are but two of the dangers we will face, and beyond that there is the issue of the planets we’ll eventually encounter. The human frame is incredibly fragile and would need massive modification in order to pull through. Or would we even take the ultimate step and say farewell to the flesh altogether? These are among the very real possibilities discussed in the book’s closing chapters.

During the course of reading Scatter, Adapt and Remember I was forced to field the same question several times: “Why are you reading something so depressing?” Well the answer is this – Scatter, Adapt and Remember is among the most positive books I have ever read. It’s not about how we might survive, it’s about how we will survive. At it’s heart is a call for humanity to fearlessly tackle the most daunting of problems and create our own future. There’s nothing grim between these pages, no shambling survivors turning to cannibalism in the wreckage of society. This is a vision of our species  moving ever onwards.

On a closing note, I’d say that one of the marks of a great non-fiction book is that on finishing your reading list has not decreased by one but increased by several. This is certainly the case here. Newtiz provides copious notes and references, opening up avenues into all aspects of her study for interested readers. For that I am eternally grateful, even if my new list of must-read titles will now keep me busy right up to our eventual cataclysm.

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The Rising/City Of The Dead by Brian Keene

The Rising by Brian KeeneReview: The Rising and City Of The Dead by Brian Keene (Delirium, 2003/2005)

For the longest time I had been of the opinion that zombie fiction was an entirely dead genre (sorry) only occasionally revived (really sorry) by the likes of World War Z, rare titles indeed. The majority of the titles found on the shelves are thoroughly braindead (forgive me) and do nothing but elicit moans (I know, I know) as I read. Thank Romero then that I stumbled upon Brian Keene via his Jack’s Magic Beans short story collection. The originality, visceral thrills and creeping menace he managed to bring to the tales within (read them, seriously) tempted me to pick up his award-winning The Rising, paving the way for four or five nights of intense night reading.

The Rising begins in a setting more familiar to zombies than the survivors of their apocalypses (Apocaloids? Apocalii?). Jim Thurmond is trapped within the shelter constructed in his backyard in the wake of millennial fever. Above his tomb roam the undead remnants of his neighbours, not to mention his wife, peering down his periscope and taunting him incessantly. Suddenly his cellphone rings after days of silence, a missed call and message from his son Danny at his ex-wife’s home halfway across the country in New Jersey. By the time he listens to the recording his battery dies, power stations having failed around the world, but the sound of his voice galvanises him to strike out and reach his son, saving him if it costs him his life.

As you can imagine, the country lies in ruins. With no warning the dead began rising, armed with an insatiable hunger for human flesh and more besides – see later… Infrastructure collapsed, humanity shattered into tiny pockets of survivors, varying massively in their levels of sanity and civilisation – you know the drill. Jim has to pick his way through this wasteland, avoiding the dead and the more dangerous elements of the living, making alliances where he can and inching ever closer to Danny.

By the second installment, City Of The Dead, Jim has reached his destination but finds himself drawn to the centre of Manhattan. Ramsey Tower, a supposedly impregnable and self-sufficient built in the wake of certain terrorist attacks, is putting on a lightshow every night, broadcasting to survivors in the locale. Following a hair-raising journey to the tower, Jim and his collection of stragglers (no spoilers as to who makes it!) join the tower’s community.

Still shell-shocked from the devastation outside, the fortress is as close to paradise as they can imagine. Plentiful food and water, a functioning school, hospital cinema and broadcast system, enough armed guards to see off the interminable zombie assaults, it’s an island of plenty amid the hordes of the undead. But things are never so simple – with a zombie army en route to the tower and a leader slowly losing his grip on reality (in truly hilarious fashion) it’s only a matter of time before they are once more fighting for their lives.

Now while the above synopsis may sound like a mish-mash of several well-worn zombie tropes, The Rising and City Of The Dead have an ace in the hole with the mechanics of the undead themselves. Remember I mentioned the taunting? That’s not figurative, that’s literally talking to Jim, looking down his periscope at him, feeding him his dead wife’s recollections of extra-marital affairs to drive him insane. The zombie army? Not merely your average shambling horde of corpses but a legion of the undead toting rifles and driving tanks. Where most other zombie novels either leave the origins of the scourge a mystery or go for the usual disease option, Brian Keene takes a novel approach which allows him far more flexibility.

His dead bodies are possessed by demons, malevolent creatures shunned by God from the dawn of time and out for revenge against his pet creatures. As soon as a soul leaves a body (yeah, I know) the demons can take up residence, absorbing their memories and using what’s left of the flesh for their own means. Conscious zombies, actively working together to bring about the fall of mankind so that their cousins can finish the job and torch the planet entirely before moving on to the rest of God’s creation. It’s certainly an original conceit and while it takes time to find its feet, Keene soon has fun with the possibilities opened up to him.

The Rising and City Of The Dead manage to weave the standard plotline together with the demonic zombies and come up with a pretty gripping tale, albeit a rather lightweight and pulpy one. The one thing which grated for me was the religiosity – souls, gods, etc – although to be fair it was not handled in a ham-fisted way. For every mention “God will get us through this” another innocent would die a gruesome, painful death only to return and attack his comrades. That aside, for any zombie fan looking to kill a few hours it’s well worth a read. Go into it expecting an enjoyable romp with some well-developed characters, originality and extreme violence and you won’t be disappointed.

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Filed under Horror, Post-Apocalypse