Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read in a long time. Unlike most novels in this genre, the villain of the story are human beings. Much like they are today in a pre-apocalyptic world. It’s not us vs them. It’s us vs us. And humans can be really fucking scary.
The novel also explores what living in a post-apocalyptic world will be like. Not just one year after, but 20-years later. Mandel skips right over the first year+ of the breakdown of civilization. This could be interpreted as lazy writing, but I didn’t mind it. Most other apocalypse stories solely focus on these years. We don’t need another rehash of the lootings, killings, escapes, and deaths. We can assume that this will happen. Instead, we get to learn how civilization tries to restore some semblance of sanity.
Also different in this story is the cause of the end of the civilized world. Much like Stephen King’s The Stand, there is a highly contagious fast-acting flu. You can catch it by just being near someone with it. And it will kill you within 24-hours. Just a flu. Something that starts with a little coughing no big deal. This feels more realistic to me than some other plot devices. I also prefer to have something simple like a flu end the world to nothing at all. Many novels just skip right over that part.
The Stand can be a bit of a trudge to get through. Especially the second half. But the beginning is one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had reading. The killer flu, Captain Trips, starts with an innocuous cough. Then the coughing gets more fierce. And by then it’s likely you already have it. And your chances are slim to none. It is set in New York City. And that is where I was living when I read it. Do you know how many people cough on a subway train? In stores? While walking on the sidewalk? Every time someone coughed, I thought about Captain Trips and twitched a little. That is why using a realistic apocalypse device is so important.
Instead of focusing on survival, Station Eleven focuses on living. You know, what we do every day. Because there comes a point where you are surviving. All your needs are being met. But now what? There is no electricity. Little communication. No fast transportation. No running water. The flu has ran it’s course so you are no longer afraid of it. But now what? What about entertainment? The novel focuses on a traveling theater that performs for various small towns around Lake Michigan in the Mid-West.
You learn about many of the character’s though there are some main ones. And the narrative thread used to connect everyone is brilliant. This is an emotional story, not one about fighting. Much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The story also spans decades so you get to watch character’s grow up. This helps the reader to feel a closeness to the main characters. Even if we never find out about certain parts of their life.
Station Eleven is a welcomed change in the post-apocalyptic genre. Reading about the human condition in a broken society is just as interesting as reading about humans surviving.
Read This If You Like: Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Christopher Priest wrote The Prestige in 1995 and it became a movie starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in 2006. Both formats of the movie are great. But back in 1974, Priest wrote the classic sci-fi novel Inverted World. This is frequently found on Best-Of lists and is well deserved. It is one of my favorite books of all time. I hadn’t read anything like it.
The first sentence of the novel is, “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” This sets the tone for the new world you will be entering. And Priest’s writing style. The dystopian society he creates is openly strange. Yet many nuances are subtle to the point of going unnoticed until later on in the story.
The main character lives in a city named Earth that is on rails and needs to be continuously moved. It reminded me of A Handmaid’s Tale because the society is broken into classes. There are many rules. Many secrets. Men and women are separated. It feels very rigid. In this way, it is also similar to Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. One group of people gets more information than others. This bothers some, but not everyone.
Priest builds a world that will engulf you. Learning more and more about this strange society only makes you ask more questions. And the build-up absolutely pays off. This is one of the best endings I’ve read. Remember, it was written in 1974. So you may predict it now (I didn’t) but that doesn’t mean it was predictable in it’s time of publishing. Inverted World keeps a perfect pace, never letting the reader get too confused or frustrated. After all, dystopian secret societies are what post-apocalyptic civilization is all about.
Read This If You Like: Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.
World War Z
Max Brook’s “oral history of the Zombie war”, World War Z, is a non-narrative fiction novel of various people’s experiences. This is also the first book I’ve ‘read’ as an audio-book. And I couldn’t recommend a better one. The novel is set-up in a fictional world where a Zombie war happened. And the author interviews numerous different people, in different countries, to get their understanding of it. We talk to civilians and soldiers. Some interviewees multiple times.
For the audio-book version, this was just like listening to an interview. The voice-acting was top notch featuring some big name celebrities. I will listen to anything narrated by Henry Rollins. It was easy to become absorbed in the descriptions of the war. Even though the apocalyptic event is being described in the past-tense, Brooks does a great job at making the reader feel like they’re still in it.
In an over-saturated genre, World War Z really stands out. It takes a wide range of stories from so many different people. This allows you to hear about a soldier describing “all-out war.” Thinking about facing an enemy who doesn’t need to eat or sleep. Doesn’t need any comfort. Doesn’t even need shelter. Framing a zombie battle in that way was interesting. There was a hopelessness involved; despite knowing that this person survived.
Unlike the other two novels mentioned, this one spans many regions. It’s interesting to hear how the war affected people in different parts of the world. How the first few days were interpreted differently. And how varied people’s responses were. Even though there is not one main character, other than the interviewer, I still felt emotionally close to many of the speakers.
I am not one to typically read a book on zombies. But if you’re going to read (or listen to) one, this is the one.
Read This If You Like: Non-narrative fiction. And zombies.