The Books of 2016, #6: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

station_elevenI read this book in one night.

Something about this one just grabbed me. It hit all of the right notes with me on a cold, wintry weeknight in Chicago, and I stayed up in bed ’til like 2am to finish it even though my alarm goes off at 5. Been a LONG time since a book got those kind of hooks into me.

I stumbled across this book entirely by accident, too. Somebody raved about it on their Facebook feed, and their lavish recommendation was sprinkled with just enough of the words and phrases that will always grab my attention when talking about new fiction. You know, shit like: “superflu”, “civilization collapses”, “everybody dies”.

That said, this is NOT strictly an apocalypse novel. It’s got some things in common with classics of that genre like, say, Stephen King’s “The Stand”, but it has MORE in common, if you ask me, with the giants of the “family story” archetype, like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”.

Yes, the book kicks off with a flu. A bad one. The kind authors love, because it’s 99% contagious, 99% fatal and basically scrubs the Earth raw to provide a clean slate upon which to tell the story they actually want to tell. Which is NOT the story of everyone dying.

Rather, Station Eleven is effectively about one family, that of Hollywood Superstar Actor Currently on the Downside of His Career, Arthur Leander (who I immediately, for reasons I’m not entirely certain of, pictured as current-day Harrison Ford) . We’re using “family” loosely here, since Arthur is the typical Hollywood guy in that he’s got a passel of ex-wives he doesn’t have particularly great relationships with, a son he adores but who has been whisked away to Israel by one of those ex-wives so he hardly sees him, etc…

As the novel opens, Arthur is leading a stage performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Toronto, doing the typical end-career thing of trying to add some gravitas back into his resume by performing one of the classic roles of all time. At the same time as the performance is going on, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow lands in Toronto with some passengers already dead and most of the rest of them, and the crew, getting increasingly ill. These folks are immediately whisked to local area hospitals, where they come into contact with exponentially more people. Who then go home and come into contact with…

…you can probably guess where things go with the superflu from there.

The contrast between life pre-flu and post-flu is one of the things I most enjoy about this book; most The End Of the World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) novels spend a few intro chapters about life before The End, and then the rest of the book is just what happens after The End. Station Eleven deftly flits back and forth chapter by chapter between:

  • The End, by which I mean the timeframe in which the flu develops, expands, and wipes out humanity. The book makes it clear that the reader is to picture this flu breaking out in basically our current time, 2016.
  • The Past, which is examined via flashbacks to various points in the life of Arthur that show how he develops as a person and forms these relationships with the folks we’re going to be following through the superflu and into the terrible times beyond.
  • The Future, when the book flashes about twenty or so years past the flu’s rages, to show us how things have shaken out for the people introduced into the other two time periods.

The contrast between Life Before and Life After is stark, as it must be. And Mandel writes about both sides with authority. One is immediately struck by the ease of our world when compared to what its collapsed version would inevitably be like; the chapters covering Arthur’s rise as a Hollywood superstar is full of people traveling across the globe at the drop of a hat, an absolute lack of material want, and the vicious focus of too many people on Shit That Does Not Fucking Matter. In the Present Day chapters, she shows us how easily this would all fall apart. In the After Chapters, she provides a great sense of a world circumscribed, where the average person never travels more than a few miles from their homes in their entire life, where death comes often, randomly, for the young and old alike, in ways that just do NOT happen in our sanitized, softened, kinda ridiculous existence of today.

Indeed, the main characters of these chapters are notable for the fact that they belong to a theater troupe that travels around the Great Lakes performing Shakespeare (if you can’t see the tie here to what Arthur was doing himself when the flu hit, this book is not for you). They travel farther and wider than almost anyone alive at that point, and even they haven’t gone a distance in their entire lives that a current American would consider more than a middling weekend road trip, at best.

I don’t want to get too much into the detail of things here, because what I enjoyed most about this book was the slow and constant reveal of connections between all three eras and all of the characters that, at the start, seem to have absolutely no relation to each other, as well as what happens to everyone.

While the actual process of the flu expanding across the globe and society collapsing is covered well, Mandel doesn’t REVEL in it like too many authors do. We find out how it’s progressing via its localized impact on the key characters of the novel, or in background info THEY absorb via the Internet or news (well… while those two avenues of information are still functioning. SPOILER ALERT: CNN and Facebook don’t last too long). She’s VERY good at dropping the perfect one sentence of detail that almost catches your breath with the depth of horror it manages to convey about what’s happening to the world.

The biggest difference between Station Eleven and most novels of the dystopian genre is that the violence that can safely be assumed to be unavoidable in such scenarios is present, but not lavishly glorified and slavered over, descriptively. Most of the violence is assumed and/or hinted at; the few action set-pieces are absolutely necessary instead of gratuitous. The single most-affecting act of violence that obviously shaped one of the key character’s entire life is never even described; you don’t need the gory details of what happened, you just need to know THAT it happened. I like Mandel’s unwillingness to glorify and linger over the violence, to indulge the genre’s usual trope of good guy vs. bad guy and capable ultra-violent hero vs. total bad dude… I find all of that just so goddamned tired at this point. MOST people are bad or good situationally; I don’t know how I’m going to respond if society collapses and all of a sudden, say, a medication my wife needs to live is only available if I use force to take it from someone who has done me absolutely no wrong. I like to think I’m a good, moral person who wouldn’t cause pain unduly, but how you define “unduly” is gonna shift when the chips are down.

In the end, Mandel weaves not just one, but a number of gripping plots that, in lesser hands, either would’ve each been its own book or, more likely, have been turned into one big unreadable, unfollowable mess. I could not put this damned book down, because there were so many things I needed to know the resolution to, and her writing just pulls you through page after page, compulsively.

For all of the negativity that this kind of setting and genre must involve, there is a surprising amount of lightness and hope in this novel, too. While acknowledging that a lot or even most people are going to be revealed as willing to do terrible things in the extremis of our entire comfy modern civilization collapsing, I think she’s correct in also surmising that a lot of people will be able to realize that working together is going to be the only way for _anyone_ to survive; that raw, brittlely-defended individuality may buy you a brief period of kinghood over the wasteland, but, if you want a world worth living in instead of merely surviving, you’ll need to find ways to work with, care about and, eventually, love other people.

That’s the sort of message I need to read more often, and I can’t recommend this book enough because of it. It’s just a great read.

The Books of 2016, #5: Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie

ancillary_mercySee my previous thoughts on this series to date here.

This goddamned series… I am trying, and failing, to think of a series I’ve read in my life that started out so promising and then disappointed me so greatly. I’ll be honest: I straight-up didn’t finish this fucker.

To briefly recap: first book, YAY! Grand in scope, a galactic emperor at war with herself! The concept of gender does not exist for the main race wowzers, that’s got some weird and interesting implications! Ships are people! Action takes place across multiple worlds and many decades!

Phew! THAT’S how you start a goddamned space opera!

Book Two! You’ve got… um… well, a LOT of talk about the class implications of tea pottery? Ship person is sad and distant. 90% of the action takes place on a space station that might as well be any current modern city on Earth, for all of how alien and space-y it is (isn’t). The rest of the action takes place on what might as well be a 19th Century Indian tea plantation. There’s literally not a single thing that happens on that fucking plantation or station that implies “SPAAAACE OPERA!!!!”.

The brilliant removal of gender as a language concept that helped make everybody in the first book actually seem _alien_? Now just an annoyance, one that is literally tossed aside at the one point in the plot where gender actually would matter. So why fucking have bothered in the first place?

That crazy mad space-empress at war with her own self? I dunno, she was absent almost entirely in book two and hadn’t shown up in the first 120 pages of book three and I punted at that point.

So, then Ancillary Mercy picks up right where Ancillary Sword left off, with Breq, our putative protagonist, recovering from “her” boring injuries incurred in the boring conclusion to the boring second book. The Mad Emperor Mianaai may or may not have shown back up in the system, I dunno, they mention her ships possibly coming through a gate but they’re a few weeks out from actually being able to interact with anyone and I didn’t read the book long enough to find out if she ever actually shows the fuck up.

While we’re waiting for the Space Lord to arrive and theoretically start some semblance of action, we must first read through another hundred pages of Thinly-Veiled Future Space Analogy To Current Day Racism and Classism That a Goddamned First-Year English Major Would Have the Decency To Be Embarrassed About.

That’s where I gave up.

To be clear: I’m not opposed to Sci-Fi As Social Analogy for Current Events AT ALL; that’s one of the strengths of the genre, its ability to cast current events into an interesting alien future in a way that possibly seeds some thoughts on how to deal with said problems now. And Lord knows there have been many very interesting takes on oppression, classism, racism, etc., done by many, many authors in the genre.

I just don’t find Leckie’s take on this interesting at ALL. She was going someplace wonderful in that first novel, but then scoped it down to something that hardly needs to be sci-fi in the next two, and then fails to do anything with the interesting premises setup in that first novel.

And that REALLY bums me out.

Leckie is still a pretty “new” author, this series started with her actual debut novel, and I wonder if she just ran out of steam on it. I can see having added a bigger conflict between Breq and Mianaai to the end of the first novel and just having ended the whole story _there_. Shifting to a whole new location for books two and three that, as of ~120 pages into the third, served NO purpose to highlight or advance the conflict between the various sides of the Lord of the Radch’s personal meltdown war, just makes no sense. Particularly since that conflict was setup in Book One as the Primary Plot, the pivotal event around which all other events should be viewed in relation to.

I dunno. Maybe I’ll finish the book someday, I can’t have more than an hour or two left in it. But I am just so disappointed in where this series has gone; it’s quite obvious that Leckie has got some stellar ideas in her head, she can do some solid if, so far, monochromatic world-building, but seems to struggle with fleshing out good base ideas into an entire series of books worth reading. I’ll keep an eye out for what she does in the future, but for right now, I’m setting this aside.

 

Books of 2016, #4: The German War: A Nation Under Arms, by Nicholas Stargardt

the_german_war

For most of the Cold War, the popular consensus regarding “blame” for World War II and the Holocaust ran something along the lines of “well, there were good Germans and bad Germans, and most just wanted to get by, but Hitler and the Gestapo were very bad and willing to hurt people who didn’t do what they wanted, ergo, thus, six million Jews somehow WHOOPS died and an entire continent went up in flames”.

This was obviously a very simplistic look at things, but when you combined a West German willingness to toss a LOT of money Israel’s way to make up (in some small, unsatisfactory manner) for things along with the United States and NATO’s need to have “good” Germans that they could rearm and park on the front line against the Soviet menace backed by their own “bad” Germans, well… everybody basically went along with this view.

Even though it was bullshit.

The first big revision to this viewpoint came after Germany reunified, the Cold War ended, and, instead of there being a binary “good vs. bad” German theme, there just being, well… _Germans_ again. And a Harvard PhD candidate named Daniel Jonah Goldhagen didn’t care for the traditional narrative and therefore dropped a bomb on it called “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” in 1996. Disagree or not with his premise that a majority of ALL Germans very much wanted all of the Jews dead (as he doesn’t prove this to my own or a lot of other people’s satisfactions), what he DID manage to do here was prove that there was really no way the common belief that most Germans had no idea what was going on with the Jews held any water. The gist, and it’s hard to believe that this was ever controversial, is simply this:

You cannot kill six million people (and change) without a very large number of people knowing about it and helping to make it happen.

What “The German War” attempts to do, then, is show what average Germans felt about both the Holocaust and the war in general as it happened, via private letters, diaries, the public opinion polls taken by the SD regularly throughout the war almost to the very end, etc…

It is a much better _book_ than Goldhagen’s, which read like what it was: a PhD thesis barely edited into narrative book form, and therefore dry, dense, and repetitive.

Stargardt’s book, however, is a fantastic read, though, admittedly, that feels like an odd adjective to use for a book on such a grim topic.

Overwhelmingly sourced (it often feels like every paragraph has a footnote), Stargardt tells the story of a number of Germans, mostly regular people, soldiers, wives, doctors, mothers, but specifically tried to seek out those who a) lasted at least into the war’s middle years if not through to the end b) left a record of multiple entries along the way. Basically, he wanted to track changes in how regular Germans felt about the war and the Jews as the Germans went from winning and conquering all before them, from arresting to then deporting to then killing the Jews, and then to being on the defensive, bombed, invaded and, finally, conquered.

There’s a brutal melancholy in watching a young wife go from a loving new wife scared of what the war will do to her husband but convinced that Germany needs to defend itself from the assaults of Global Jewry to bombing victim convinced that the bombing is the revenge of the murdered Jews (and thus, somehow unfair) to widow.

The soldiery, as is often the case, figures out faster that what they’re doing is indefensible but generally rationalizes their actions as being what must be done if the nation is to survive. It’s possibly even sadder to read their stories than the housewives, particularly the more sensitive ones who quickly realize that they’re doing unconscionable things that only future generations _might_ benefit from. And, regardless of the terrible things they’re doing, it just gets depressing at how many of these stories end with a hard stop when the soldier in question dies.

The details of the individual lives traced here gives this book its narrative thrust, and its emotional impact. To reinforce the author’s main point, though, these stories are reinforced with a lot of weight from the popular opinion surveys and mood studies the German SD did throughout the war, almost up to its very end. Goebbels wanted his propaganda to be effective and, to do that, he needed to know what the people actually thought in order to shape it to his ends. Thanks to this urge, we have a lot of data on what the people actually believed as well as what the German State wanted them to believe.

In the final analysis, I believe Stargardt makes his point well. While the reasonings and self-justification changes depending on which person’s words are being reviewed at any given point in the book, the inescapable larger conclusion reached is simply that a) most Germans were very well aware of what was happening to the Jews (and Poles, and Russians, and Ukrainians, etc….). Furthermore, most (but by no means all) Germans were pretty much okay with what was going on, particularly when the German star was in the ascendant. Once fortune turned, many Germans believed that what was happening to them was either retribution for what they had done to the Jews; the main difference seems to be whether a given person thought that this was fair or unfair.

What this book shows is this point: regardless of how a given German felt about what was happening to the Jews and the other victim races, they _knew_ it was happening. And this is a very important point as it goes against what we were led to believe for the many decades of the Cold War era here in the West.

I believe this book has become and will remain the standard regarding contemporary German knowledge of and feelings towards the Holocaust and Germany’s part in World War II for years to come.