BooksOfTheMoon

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not really a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, nor do I think it’s a good idea to be reading a book about the end of civilisation caused by a global flu pandemic, just when we may be seeing the start of a global flu pandemic. And yet. I very much enjoyed this book: it’s beautifully written, compelling and, above all, perhaps, hopeful. I was talking with a friend when I was mulling over the book in a bookshop and the phrase that tipped me into buying it was that many (most?) post-apocalyptic stories focus on the worst of humanity; this one focuses on the best.

And it mostly does. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that awful things will happen during the collapse of civilisation and that people will use it for their own purposes, whether that’s just their own selfish desires, or a twisted ideology that rationalises their own position at the top. But our PoV character after the collapse is Kirsten, an actress in a travelling company whose motto is “Survival is insufficient” (incidentally nicked from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager), making clear to both their fellow survivors and to the audience that civilisation is about more than just warm bodies. It’s our art, our stories, our history, our desire to come together and form things greater than the sum of their parts.

The portions of the story pre-apocalypse were interesting for a different reason: they mostly followed the actor Arthur Leander, and it’s striking how everyday they are. Arthur falls in and out of love; deals with his work; and tries to manage friendships (some more successfully than others). All while unaware that his death and the end of the world are coming.

There is a conversation near the end of the book about whether it is unkind to teach children born into the new world about the old one, about all the things that there used to be, but which they will never see. I think it is extremely necessary; as a reminder of what we can be and to never stop striving. One of the characters maintains a “museum of civilisation” for, I feel, much the same sort of reason. And with the note of hope at the end, remembering the past in order to make a better future is more important than ever.

Definitely recommended (but do wash your hands first, and remember to sneeze into a tissue).

Book details

ISBN: 9781447268970
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2015

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities, #1)

By Robert Jackson Bennett

Rating: 5 stars

The Holy Lands of the Continent were protected by their Divinities; invincible, world-conquering, until one man rises up in the land of Saypur and kills the gods, ending the rule of the Continentals. Generations later, the consequences of this are still being played out, and when there’s a murder in Bulikov, the former city of the Divinities, it sets off a chain of events that threaten the fragile equilibrium.

I loved this book. It’s complex, with no black and white tale of oppressed and oppressors. The history of the Continent’s long and bloody rule of Saypur is remembered as fiercely as the current Continentals see their own poverty and desolation. There’s a spiral of hatred that feeds on itself, something that feels very real and is deftly portrayed by Bennett.

I got to thoroughly like Shara, our protagonist (not to mention Sigrud, her, er, secretary, who doesn’t say much, but his actions speak volumes). Shara is quiet, small, very intelligent, with a passion for history. Something that comes in useful in a city that is practically nothing but history.

The worldbuilding is neatly done as well, with a drip-feed of information early on filling us in on the fact that the Continentals aren’t allowed to talk about their dead gods and aren’t allowed to know much about their own history. There’s a chapter later on that fills in a lot of history about the gods and how they were killed, which on the one hand feels like an infodump, but it’s filling in information for the other characters too, rather than an “As you know, Bob…” sort of thing, so I’ll let the author away with it.

The Divinities loom large in this book, despite being (mostly) absent from it. The god of Order, Kolkan is particularly interesting, with his many edicts and hatred of any kind of pleasure. I’m not sure if it’s intended as a criticism of the sterner sects of real-world religions, but that’s certainly my reading of it.

A nice idea in the book is that now that the Divinities are dead, real world physics can assert itself. The world is moving out of a period where everyone (on the Continent, at least) lived through the miraculous intervention of the gods, and now they’re developing motor cars, the telegraph and photography. It’s not quite steampunk, but is definitely a society that’s moving towards industrialisation.

A very interesting, complex book with a lot of ideas. And one that can be pretty much read standalone as well (although I certainly intend to look out the sequels). Definitely recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848667983
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2015

City

By Clifford D. Simak

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of eight short stories in the same setting, connected with a framing story that describes the stories themselves as legends that Dogs have passed down throughout the years about the decline and fall of the mythical species known as Man.

Simak sees a future where first humanity abandons the cities in favour of small, rural communities and later flees Earth for new forms on Jupiter, leaving only a small remnant behind, that is too intimidated by their forebears to create anything new, content to pass on their legacy to the Dogs.

There is continuity in the stories through the Webster family that recurs at pivotal moments, and of the robot Jenkins who serves the Websters. It’s a melancholic sort of book, dealing as it does with the end of humanity, but one with hope that our successors, the Dogs that a Webster uplifted, will be better than us.

The idea of the rugged individual or small community rather than the close living of cities feel decidedly American to me, especially the America of the middle of the 20th century. Having read other of Simak’s works, this love of country life above that of the city is a hallmark of his work. Personally, I really enjoy city life, which made the premise of the first story (which sees the end of the cities) difficult to accept, but once I got past that, the decline of humanity was easier to accept.

The stories are very Golden Age SF, with hardly a woman in sight and, apart from one that was set on Jupiter, all very much rooted on Earth. Simak contrasts Man’s desire to look outward and reliance on technology with Dog’s more introspective intelligence and finds us wanting.

A quietly retrospective book, tinged with melancholy, whose ideas will linger in mind after you put the book down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575105232
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2011

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