Book review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I woke up this morning in something of a panic.
Say, a sizeable majority of the human race (say, 96%) was wiped out by an airborne flu virus. Say that in the weeks that followed, civilisation collapsed: no industry, no infrastructure, no technology, no governments. The end of pretty much everything.

Say, that in the months that followed, the very few that are left, are forced to leave their homes to escape the lawlessness, the disease caused by bodies piling up in homes and in the streets.

Say, I had to leave to find food, to find water, to survive . . . 

I lay there, wondering what I’d do with the cats.

I couldn’t take them with me. I could just leave them; let them fend for themselves. Cats are good at that. Well, one is; the other one is a little bit dim.
What would I need on trek that would cover hundreds of miles? No need for a phone, or a computer, or money for that matter. I’d need clothes, weapons, tinned food, paper and pens to write with . . . 

The genius of Emily St. John Mandel’s apocalyptic epic Station Eleven is that she’s skipped the global view almost entirely. There’s no omnipotent eye watching governments collapse, infrastructure failing, people dying by the millions. Station Eleven focusses on a group of travelling actors and musicians who are trying to keep culture alive, two decades after the pandemic that wiped out the population. We’re led through the world as it is now, and, through the memories of the characters, what it was in the weeks before the virus struck.

Ordinary lives before, and the ordinary lives after. It’s extraordinarily powerful writing: deep, literary, poetic, and very much character-driven. If your expecting an all-out Mad Max-like race for survival across the United States, then this isn’t it. What you get is a thoughtful slow-burner that draws you into this collapse into the dark ages through the eyes of the people living it. When a book moves you to think what you’d do when the end of the world finally arrives, then you’ve found something very special.

Excellent. Nine out of ten, and the cats are on their own.

Book review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Whether he intended to or not, Hugh Howey has become something of a mascot for the self-published author, and given the quality of his work then it’s not hard to see why.

Wool is the first in a dystopian trilogy following a colony of thousands living in an underground silo for hundreds of years. Why? Not sure. I assumed that it was some kind of global catastrophe, but having finished the book, I’m wondering if it’s something a little less straightforward . . .

As you can imagine, such an environment has to be rigidly controlled in terms of resource distribution and population growth, all of which is handled by the wonderfully sinister IT department, whose remit seems to extend much further than keeping the servers running. Their main function, as it turns out, is to deal with any dissent that threatens the order maintained in the silo.
Howey does a fantastic job of building a detailed, realistic environment which appears as vast as it does claustrophobic, and he does this without sacrificing the humanity of his characters. He moves from person to person, going into a great deal of internal dialogue that builds the characters, but also slows down the plot somewhat; it’s a tricky balance, and I’m not sure he’s got it right — for me at least.
Still, what you do get is very believable characters who you can empathise with; this includes the antagonists who dispatch citizens of the silo in ever-increasing numbers in order to maintain the status quo.

Even with some fairly lengthy exposition, the book cracks on at a blistering pace, and I have to say that it was genuinely difficult to put down. It doesn’t pack a lot of surprises, but it does leave a lot of questions unanswered which, I assume, will be picked up in later novels.

There are many similar books to this (City of Ember to name one), but Wool has more of a thriller feel to it; a real whodunnit and whydidtheydoit wrapped inside a large dark space.

Nine out of ten.



Book review: Forever Free by Joe Haldeman

I was looking forward to reading Forever Free, but having finished it, I was left feeling a little disappointed and slightly confused. It wasn’t that there was some element of the story I didn’t understand; it was just a general feeling of ‘Huh?’ when I finished the book.

Forever Free is the third and final book in the Forever War series, and follows the lives of the war’s veterans as they struggle to cope with, and ultimately escape from, a universe that has simply evolved past them. They hatch a plan to travel faster than light for a decade and then return some forty thousand years in the future where…well, here’s the thing: forty millennia from now, the universe would have evolved even further. Wouldn’t the escapees feel even more isolated and displaced?

forever_freeAnyway, not a huge problem; the book is still very enjoyable thanks to Haldeman’s writing style which is stark and yet still manages to flow beautifully. The book is much more sedate than the first two, lacking much of the action of the Forever War and the drama of Forever Peace. Again, not a huge problem for me, though I did find it a little pedestrian in places.

Unfortunately, the book does wither away towards the end. There’s a mad dash towards an awkward and unconvincing conclusion (and the resolution is where the ‘Huh?’ comes in) and then sort of just stops and the universe returns to normal.

So, yes, a little disappointing. I was expecting something a bit more profound from such a talented writer.