11/22/63 by Stephen King

The short summary of 11/22/63 is probably self-evident upon sight of the cover and the title; the front of the U.S. edition is a faux newspaper article about JFK’s assassination, and the back an equally invented article about his surviving Oswald’s attempted assassination…and yes, that is basically the point: our protagonist travels back through time in order to prevent JFK’s death that day in Dealy Plaza.

But should he? Well, fans of various time travel and alternate history genres have been debating that since not so very long after the death that’s pivotal to this novel.

Jake, an English teacher at the local high school, is drifting through life after his divorce from his first wife, a recovering alcoholic; he doesn’t mind his job but has been doing it long enough that he’s beginning to find it a bit repetitive. The central story arc begins when Al, owner of the local diner, asks Jake to help him with a project. Appalled at Al’s apparently sudden ageing of some ten years (and concomitant fatal lung cancer), Jake agrees if only to get Al to sit down. Here’s where it gets interesting: there’s a “rabbit hole” into the past, a time tunnel leading from the supply closet of Al’s diner to the parking lot of a weaving mill in 1958. Take the tunnel as often as you want, and spend as long as you like (allowing for the natural aging process while there!); upon your return, you’ve only been gone two minutes, and when you go through the hole again, pop! you’re returned to the exact same moment in 1958.

Al, dying, begs Jake to go back to 1958 and track down Lee Harvey Oswald in order to kill him before he offs Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas. Jake agrees, but tests the waters first with a test “historical alteration”: he goes through in order to prevent the father of the disabled high school janitor from attacking his family forty years before, during which attack, all but the janitor himself died. This is successful, more or less, and Jake goes back through the rabbit hole, armed with several thousand dollars of period-appropriate money, a false identity and a notebook full of information about the period and Oswald’s movements. He settles in and creates a life for himself, there in 1958, to wait the five years until the events for which he is there actually take place.

Before I get into the analysis part, let me just point out that, as with Dan Simmons’ two books, The Terror and Drood, I finished this book in a thoroughly rapt 24 hours….and yes, this is fast reading, even for me. I mean the kind of rapt that has me wandering, Magoo-like, with the book crammed up to my face, bumping into light posts and telephone poles with no more than an absent apology. I do have a couple of criticisms, but keep this paragraph in perspective, when I say that 11/22/63 kind of fails in terms of the alternative history and the time travel standpoints…but I don’t think that’s really the point. Or at least that’s not why I enjoyed it.

The alternative history is weak, in comparison to, say Kingley Amis’ The Alteration or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, because we don’t find out much, relative to the length of the book, about this dystopia resulting from Kennedy’s not only surviving his first term but being reelected for a second. To compound the problem, I don’t quite buy that so many of the societal shifts and legal innovations in the sixties rested on the shoulders of one man, or rather the absence of same. Just as an example, Johnson was influential in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to say the least, in his role as President…but it was Kennedy’s idea to begin with.

The time travel wasn’t much explained either; all we get is a glimpse of it through the “green card man” who replaces the “yellow card” man. There are a few touches I like: how do you support yourself if your credentials are forty years in the future? never mind all your technical skills. “Bet on sporting events to which you already know the outcome” seems plausible enough, at least until our protagonist runs afoul of the local mob, which quite rightly guesses that he has advance knowledge of an event which has not yet occurred, though they’re wrong about the source. I do, however, appreciate the difficulty with which Al and Jake encounter in their attempts to change even minor events in the past. Flat tires, dead batteries, traffic jams. Stomach flu, migraines, beatings. The pre-existing timeline throws all manner of delays in the way.

This skimming over the underlying explanations does allow King get on to the meat of the book: is it possible to change history, and would we want to even if we could? Even when they are successful, the ‘butterfly effect’ ensures that the result isn’t necessarily what they’d hoped for. Jake’s first attempt at altering history on a small scale shows that clearly: when he returns, he finds out that Harry was killed in Vietnam…forty years prior to his death in the baseline time stream. I’ll avoid giving away the real ending for those who haven’t read the book, but it’s similar. Think “The Monkey’s Paw”.

What is the book about? I’ve always thought that one of King’s strengths as a writer is his ability to create such thoroughly ordinary settings. This highlights the horror and/or supernatural elements in his other novels; getting trapped in a supermarket by giant mutant spiders? Gah! Still gives me nightmares. Here the ordinariness is the growing relationship between Jake/George and Sadie, and it’s a real and loving one. If this were the book, leaving out the attempt to prevent Kennedy’s assassination, I would have adored it wholeheartedly. What would you do to save your loved one? Bring them somewhere from which they could not return? Sacrifice your own life? What?

Might this have been improved by shortening it? Yes; I found Jake’s first attempt at changing history much more touching than the central one, because it was more personal to the protagonist; he knows Harry, and has a much more intimate knowledge of the janitor’s past. It meant more to Jake, and therefore to me, and so therefore therefore might have worked as the pivotal plot point. (It’s a nice touch, though, that King refers to the antagonist as “Lee”. Think about it.) The ending seemed rushed, and overly simplistic; it’s all too obvious that Jake must go back through the rabbit hole and reset events—the changes wrought in the timeline as a result of Kennedy’s surviving Dealy Plaza do not counterbalance the loss of his own personal lady love.

If you liked Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time, you might like this; Finney’s novels touch on the very ordinariness of life as well. If you like compare-and-contrast time travel and alternate history stories, this might be fun too.

New York Times
Washington Post
Los Angeles Times
1almost a necessity, if you don’t want to meet yourself

Go-go girls of the apocalypse by Victor Gischler

When the end comes, chances are it’s going to be a series of events; no one thing is quite enough to destroy the structure of society completely. The collapse of the world as we know it today will bring about a great many changes, and here the possibilities are wide enough to boggle even the wildest of science fiction authors. Go-go Girls of the Apocalypse doesn’t stint in either category.

Mortimer Tate has spent the last nine years holed up on his own in a cabin/cave well hidden in a state park. He didn’t intend to stay quite that long—just long enough for his almost but not quite ex-wife to give up hunting for him in order to get his signature on the divorce papers. Instead, the Earth-destroying apocalypse came, a combination of natural and man-made disasters. “The Big One” hit the West Coast of the United States, producing the expected destruction to the land and tsunamis to the sea; the combined effects of the earthquake cut off the seaports on the West Coast, and with them much of the supplies shipped through these ports: food, gasoline, machine parts, you name it. The resulting panic caused Wall Street to crash, taking down much of the world economic activity with it. To cap things off, a Saudi terrorist detonated a powerful bomb on the steps of the Federal Capitol Building in Washington, taking out the President, his cabinet and most of the House and Senate. The Secretary of the Interior, as the highest ranking official left, is sworn in…which doesn’t sit too well with a four-star general. Civil war ensues in the U.S. and unrest spreads to the rest of the world…

Fortunately, Tate had recognized the seeds of the world society’s destruction for what they were, and maxes out three credit cards in the course of supplying his hideout. He does run out of a few things, not realizing he’s going to be spending nine years in the place—the coffee and batteries run out in the first year—but he is left with a goodly supply of first aid equipment and that best of trading goods in a lawless world: liquor. And lots of it.

He realizes the time has come for him to rejoin what remains of the rest of the world when, in his ninth winter in the hidey hole, three men stumble across his cabin. He kills them in self-defense but realizes where some have come, more may follow, and he packs up a sled load of supplies he thinks likely to have trade value or be in short supply in the outside world and heads down the mountain before the snow melts enough to make sledging difficult. He emerges into a world not only not quite what he was expecting but not entirely like that the readers of more conventional post-apocalypse literature may be expecting.

The standard things have happened, resulting from the collapse of what most readers would consider ‘society’, not to mention law-abiding behavior. With no gasoline, cars are useless, as are any other transport vehicles which similarly use petroleum products. With mass starvation rampant in the first years, post-collapse, the majority of edible animals have been eaten, meaning there are no longer any horses, mules, oxen, donkeys, llamas or any of the other animals used for draft purposes, pre-apocalypse. With the death or flight of many technicians from this crumbled culture, not to mention the physical damage resulting from the earthquake, power generating facilities and the grid to ‘transport’ electricity’ have vanished too. It’s people power or nothing. With the collapse of the world banking system, printed paper money is useless. When the factories closed, many consumer goods, from clothes to liquor, washing machines to train couplings, have long been used up or disintegrated from lack of maintenance.

People being what they are, some things have been reinstated. Liquor, for starters; there’s a mysterious “Freddie” who produces several lines of whimsically named alcohols, from wine to vodka, though distribution is something of an issue. Or rather, ensuring that enough of it gets to its final destination after the decimations of brigands en route. Perhaps most importantly, there is a chain of “Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go” franchises, which combine strip club, bar, restaurant and hotel rooms after a fashion; Motel 6 has nothing to fear from these, but in a world devoid of any of the comforts available today, even Freddie’s Panther Piss and hot running water begins to look pretty good. Not to mention the fact that the guards are armed more heavily than your average Marine: these venues are an oasis of safety compared to the outside world.

Tate’s stockpile brings him 7,000 “Armageddon dollars” and a lifetime platinum membership in the Joey Armageddon chain. With this money and membership, and two companions, Buffalo Bill who is at heart a cowboy and Sheila who was only a child when the apocalypse came and thus knows no other world than the present one, Tate sets off to find his wife, purported to be at a branch of Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go in Atlanta. They find, not a wife who needs the protection of her Man, but rather a woman who’s quite happy on her own after nine years and doesn’t even want divorce papers any more. Who needs them now?

…and they find a battle with the mysterious Czar. The book has a happy ending of sorts, in that the three main characters survive, and as the book ends, they’re planning a trip down to the coffee-producing regions of South America to see what they can bring back. Coffee’s at $300 a pound with the collapse of international commerce, and Hawaii quite out of reach with the collapse of mechanized transport as we know it today, so travelling hundreds of miles through war torn countries isn’t quite as implausible as one might think.

No soothing post-apocalypse book, this. Perhaps the fact that Mort spends a fair bit of time vomiting in reaction to the horrors he’s seen may serve as a warning for the queasier readers out there. The collapse of a society as a result of a multi-part apocalypse will bring about a great many unpleasant things. Substantial increases in violence, and that often of the sick-making variety, is a more than plausible result of the removal of law and order as we regard it here and now. Using human power to generate electricity is not unreasonable. Definitely an adult post-apocalypse tale, given the nature of the pre-eminent businesses; somehow it doesn’t surprise me that the two most successful enterprises, post-apocalypse, would be strip clubs and liquor distilleries; Jack Daniels is one of the few businesses that survives the apocalypse intact.

What to read next? Oddly, I’d suggest Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide ‘trilogy’, if you liked the irreverent nature of this one, though the humor is a bit different. If you didn’t like that lampooning tone, try one of the more serious Post-Apocalypse Works, such as Margaret Atwood’s books Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.W. Kornbluth

Mitchell Courtenay is the best copysmith the advertising company of Fowler Schocken has…so when they get the advertising campaign to sell Venus as a colonizable world to the people of an extremely overcrowded future Earth, they give it to Courtenay. He consults with the astronaut who landed on Venus and returned to tell about it, a midget named Jack O’Shea, and the ad campaign seems to be off to a good start, at least from Fowler Schocken’s perspective. Things go wrong, badly and early. Courtenay’s lady love, a surgeon named Kathy, refuses to marry him. Courtenay falls victim to a well-planned bit of industrial espionage, which results in his abduction by Fowler Schocken’s chief competitor, and subsequent sale to the Chlorella Plantations in Costa Rica. Here, he falls in with a local chapter of the Consies (short for Conservationists) a wingnut terrorist group who are fruitlessly attempting to bring some measure of sanity, order and greenery to a world spiralling out of control. He does make it home, and to safety (not quite the same thing), but along the way learns no one is what they seem and the world he believes is real…isn’t.

This is an overcrowded world of deep economic divisions; the rich get 12′ by 12′ suites of rooms and plenty of artificial food created in the chemical agribusinesses, while the ordinary middle class ‘civilians’ can afford only a stair (two for a married couple) in the stairwell of one of the multi-story office buildings and barely enough food to keep them alive. Businesses have not only come to control what passes for governments in this future, but have themselves become the overt power in control of the countries. I suspect, however, that many people who read it but forgot the plot will remember one thing: Chicken Little. For those who haven’t read the book, Chicken Little is a chicken heart kept alive in vitro and grown large enough to provide protein for much of the Earth’s population. How big was it exactly? Big enough to conceal secret meetings of the local chapter of the Consies without showing a bulge.

It’s a science fiction satire about a dystopic “future”1. Don’t let the comparative light-heartedness of the novel fool you; Frederik Pohl’s and C.W. Kornbluth’s works are individually humorous, sardonic, satiric and so on. Together, I’m not sure they could have been anything else. This future may not be as high-tech or as literary as, say, Brave New World, or as fascist an example of faux socialism as 1984, but all three are satires and all three are dystopias. The government of Brave New World controls its population through genetic manipulation and drugs. The government of 1984 controls its population through terrorization and manipulation. The powers that be in The Space Merchants use…advertising?

Couldn’t happen? What’s the best fast food hamburger out there? If the thought of McDonalds or Burger King crossed your mind, even briefly, think again about whether the future of The Space Merchants is so very impossible as all that2.

It’s not the subtlest thing going, but then not much science fiction is for people capable of reading between the lines of the modern newspaper. If you liked the general writing style, Pohl’s got a few books going–Kornbluth died sadly young. The latter’s short story, “The Marching Morons”, most closely resembles The Space Merchants, but he wrote a good many other short stories, many of which are collected in His Share of Glory. If you liked a dubious take on advertising, written by someone who worked in the field, try Murder Must Advertise. Bertie WoosterPeter Wimsey is a bit hard to take at times, but keep in mind he’s supposed to be an irritatingly effete upper class twit in the earlier books.

1in the past now as of the writing of this blog post, but it was in the future, though only by a few decades, when it was written
2I’m not suggesting that those two ARE in competition for the best chain hamburger out there, though if there’s anyone out there (short of the supertasters) who can really tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi, I’d appreciate an explanation…

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

Marvelous! Another post-apocalyptic desert world with a female protagonist who embarks on a quest, in the course of which she discovers hitherto unknown skill in survival and fighting. (No, really. I like stories with strong female protagonists.)

First in a trilogy, and one of the latest addition to the post-apocalyptic YA fiction sub-genre, Blood Red Road is an interesting book, though perhaps a somewhat difficult read for some readers, given Young’s use of non-standard spelling and punctuation, reflecting how spoken English sounds. Overall, I’d say it’s NOT reminiscent of Hunger Games, though they both have strong female protagonists–something of which I approve! The worlds are too different: Hunger Games has a strong centralized government, a climate similar to that of the United States today, a unified society and a fairly high level of technology while Blood Red Road has a desert climate and a splintered society. Rather the text reminds me of a combination of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy with just a hint of Hoban’s Riddley Walker in writing style and orthography transliterated from speech. The landscape (literal and figurative) is in many ways closer to Beyond Thunderdome; the cohesive society original to the area has long fallen by the wayside, with only mysterious artifacts which are obviously remnants of that vanished society–rusted out airplanes, binoculars, metal towers in lines across the countryside. The main community is ruled by, no–not Tina Turner, alas, but rather a creepy “king” with more than a passing resemblance to Louis XIV, who has arranged gladiatorial hand to hand combats to the death.

As the book begins, we are in the single homestead of Silverlake: the family consists only of Saba, her twin brother Lugh, their younger sister Emmi and their father, who hasn’t been the same since his wife died giving birth to Emmi. A massive sandstorm brings four horsemen who abduct Lugh; Saba, unable to live without her twin, gives chase. She attempts to leave Emmi with their nearest neighbor, but Emmi steals the neighbor’s horse and follows her only remaining family member and the only thing she knows in this Wasteland. The sisters make their way across the Wasteland, passing the weather beaten fragments of the long gone Wrecker civilization, but are captured by the “Pinches” for the cage games in Hopetown. Saba hooks up with the Free Hawks, a group of female bandits–and very tough in hand to hand combat–

…and I’ll stop there. The knowledge that this is the first in the trilogy is enough of a hint about who lives and who dies. You’ll just have to read the book.

There were a few holes. Why does Saba go haring off so determinedly after her twin? and no: twin bond in an isolated environment won’t wash. I believe it exists, but Young hasn’t explained that attachment very well. As the book stands, Lugh stands almost as the story’s McGuffin; the father or sister would have stood in as well for the twin. What happened to the society? We get not a hint, though that’s not a deal breaker. Why does Saba fall for Jack so quickly? The heartstone predicts it, true, but that strikes me as the author telling us this is her heartmate rather than showing us, and there’s very little other magic in the book; it’s a pretty pragmatic trek across a wrecked desert otherwise. How did the King’s city develop? The abrupt transition from desert wasteland to corrupt city made me feel like the author had fallen asleep while watching “Beyond Thunderdome” and woken up with a brilliant idea for some girl-on-girl gladiatorial action. Why did the Free Hawks pick up Saba so readily? Recruiting a new warrior? Plausible, but I wold have liked a bit more detail on their background. The fact that Saba dissolves into a little puddle of moosh when she rescues her brother and when she, er, comes to like Jack isn’t necessarily a plot hole, though I found it a trifle anoying: maybe Saba was tough only when she had no one of the boy persuasion to help?

Hopefully, these will be addressed in the subsequent books. As the first in an as yet unwritten trilogy, and the author’s first novel, this isn’t half bad; it ends at a plausible stopping point while leaving the readers in no doubt that it IS the first in a series. And in fairness to a lot of new authors, if the readers are already familiar with the science fiction that’s come before, chances are the readers will spot similarities to these and tropes from those predecessors, no matter how scrupulous the author is in zir plotting.

Wither, by Lauren DeStefano

Science fiction fans, beware: this isn’t so much a dystopia as a romance with a dystopian backdrop. A bland romance, once one’s removed the titillating details of child brides and forced polygamy.

Seventy years prior to the start of the book, medical science developed techniques in genetic engineering which allowed them to create perfect healthy babies, free from all disease. Unfortunately, this resulted in an endemic virus which killed subsequent generations at the unconscionably young age(s) of 20 for girls and 25 for boys. Needless to say, this change in lifespan combined with the World War that destroyed all continents but North America, transformed society. Rhine Ellery and her twin brother, Rowan, are orphans, as are so many of the other inhabitants of what remains of New York City. They’re scratching a living with Rowan’s work as a freight driver and squatting in a dilapidated building, taking turns on watch at night to defend themselves against the rats and feral orphans when Rhine is captured by Gatherers and sold to Vaughn Ashby as one of three “sister wives” for his son, Linden. Vaughn is the true master of the household, conducting mysterious experiments, never fully explained, in the basement in order to discover the antidote to the virus which kills off the younger generations.

It is a velvet prison, with all the luxuries that money can buy and technology can provide: servants (including a ladies’ maid for each of the wives), silks and satins, breakfast in bed, a pool, landscaped grounds, limousines…and yet (surprise surprise) Rhine longs only to escape this unwanted captivity and flee back to Rowan and her beloved though slumlike Manhattan neighborhood. The bulk of the story revolves around Rhine alternating between planning to escape her prison and girlish delights, such as taking bubble baths, getting massages, putting on fingernail polish and dressing pretty. Oh, and falling in love with one of the servants, Gabriel. The youngest of the sister-wives, thirteen-year-old Cecily, gets pregnant immediately, and falls in love with her husband and the pampered lifestyle matrimony promises her. The oldest of the three, nineteen year old Jess, sees through Vaughn, but does not have enough gumption to herself flee; instead she encourages Rhine to do so. Unfortunately, Jess dies while still a year short of her twentieth birthday, and Rhine suspects that this is Vaughn’s doing, a punishment for her aid during Rhine’s first escape attempt1.

The fact that I’ve been reading science fiction for thirty years longer than the intended audience can’t really be held against DeStefano. The fact that I’ve been reading science fiction since before DeStefano was born can’t really be held against her either, although I would point out here that I think Veronica Roth managed to do better with Divergent, and at a younger age. Being able to spot plot devices reminiscent of Logan’s Run and The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t allow me to enjoy the book, though I’m guessing by its popularity that this doesn’t slow down fans of this type of book.

The science fiction component of Wither struck me as being marginally better than that of Beth Revis’ Across the Universe. I couldn’t find any glaring errors, such as “How is it possible to expand your population if women are only capable of bearing children once every twenty years?” though that’s as much because DeStefano didn’t explain as much…which leads me to my real complaint about these two books: lack of backstory.

There are a few plot holes resulting from the central device of perfect health through medical technology and genetic engineering, but only for the first generation subsequent to the change. I can forgive Rhine’s regarding the “first generations” as old; at sixteen, I thought seventy was ancient. It is, however, far too young an age to declare the “first generations” immortal, given that it’s not implausible for Americans today to reach that age while retaining some considerable vigor2. Were all these perfect babies in the first generation a product of in vitro fertilization? If so, that strikes me as awfully fast work on the part of the technicians, even if the majority of the population died in the war; it sounds like all children born subsequently to the scientific breakthroughs permitting such perfection were superbabies. Why do girls die at 20 and boys at 25? Doesn’t the shorter lifespan of girls mean there are fewer of them floating around? Why, therefore, is polyandry not the norm? How did American society change so drastically as to accept polygamy within the fifty year span since the “first generations” realized their children had only 20/25 years to live? From what I can tell, it gives rather a lot of current residents the heebie jeebies. I can’t imagine that it would become the norm so quickly, despite social pressures.

Now for some of the questions I have relating to the societal and geographic changes wrought by the war(s). Wouldn’t North America’s status as the most technologically advanced continent would make it MORE of a target, not less? How did the loss of the majority of the world’s population, cultures, industries, agriculture and oil reserves affect North America? Losing 90% of the world’s population alone would probably cause just a teensy bit of disruption, even if one only considers the social disruption. Losing the corresponding manufacturing capacity, and the corresponding import and export capacity, would cause more. Frankly, I’d find it more convincing if, say, places like Nepal and Somalia3 are the only remaining bits of real estate left.

Those who enjoyed Across the Universe and Matched might enjoy Wither and its sequels. For everyone else, may I recommend Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?

1no, I don’t know why Vaughn didn’t kill Rhine, other than the precept laid down so long ago in The Princess Bride: you don’t make shark kibble out of your leading lady less than a third of the way through the story. Unless you’re Alfred Hitchcock.
2my father’s in his early 70s and does things like lay flagstones for his garden
3with my profoundest apologies to Nepal and Somalia; they’re lovely places with dignified peoples worthy of respect…I’m just using them as examples of unlikely military targets.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel

The year is 2195, and the world is a very different place from what we know today. 150 years earlier, there were a string of catastrophes which quite literally changed the face of the earth, the United States in particular: a minor ice age, an influenza pandemic, the Second Civil War and concomitant nuclear decimation, and to cap everything off, the supervolcano under Yellowstone erupts. The combination of these events drives what remains of the inhabitants of the U.S. and Canada far south into South America. Along the way they recoil from the modern society which they perceived to have caused all these catastrophes, preferring to revert, at least partially, to a Victorian lifestyle complete with corsets, long skirts and finishing schools for young girls. As the book begins, Miss Nora Dearly is returning to her aunt’s house for the Christmas holidays; her father has died some months before and she and her guardian have just emerged from the prescribed year of mourning. Nora is something of an unusual girl, having a great love for war movies and a skill with firearms learned from her dear papa; she takes an interest in the insurgent Punks, outcast from her society and living on the fringes of what she regards as the inhabited world. However, her life is disrupted when she is captured by zombies…and finds romance among the undead.

In this world, zombies are created when someone infected with the “Laz” virus bites one of the still-living. Those thus infected die, but revive a moment later either as something approximating the classic George Romero mindless staggerer or as yourself, except…well…dead. And correspondingly disintegrating, with a “life”span of about five years after infection, even with the best medical care available.

On the plus side, the author’s love of Victoriana, steampunk and zombies shows through on every page, for which I commend her! She’s clearly thought through some of the issues facing career zombies. Although a soldier who can’t die due to being dead already might be regarded as a positive, the tendency to lose body parts entirely is dreadfully inconvenient, not to mention the simple mechanics of maintaining a body in the face of complete shutdown of bodily functions, such as digestion and circulation. Additionally, there’s the conflict between emotional desires and disintegrating bodies, particularly when one has a communicable disease. I did find Bram to be rather endearing, although as with many of the YA books I’ve read recently, Nora seemed to fall in love with him awfully quickly; they’re together, what, a few days?

On what I can only describe as the ‘mixed’ side, the chapters switching from viewpoint to viewpoint was simultaneously positive and negative; we do learn more about each character’s background, and the concurrent events taking place with Company Z and with the world from which Nora has been abducted. I found Nora a bit tiresome and Pamela intriguing; hopefully, we’ll see more of the latter in later books. Nora and Pamela’s society doesn’t seem to have completely retrogressed to a Victorian one, although it’s hard to completely do so when one is using modern telecommunications, complete with handheld smartphones and microdevices tracking one’s identity.

Overall, it reads like a first novel derived from a scrap of fanfic on a whim. Habel might have done better to limit her genres–this strikes me a mashup of several different genres–zombies, steampunk, post-apocalypse and future speculation. To compound the problem of combining these different subsets of speculative fiction, Habel hasn’t quite mastered the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique that demarcates good literature from merely pleasant distraction. In fairness this is a very real problem for fantasy and science fiction authors, as they must cram a plausible amount of world building into their novels amongst the plot development and characterization.

I have a question for fans of this book: how seriously am I to take this book? I can’t quite tell if Habel’s in earnest or if there’s truly a tongue in cheek element. If it’s the latter, and I’m inclined to think so, I can see enjoying this book as a diverting afternoon’s amusement written by an avid fanfic writer, and encouraging her to refine her literary creative skills in order to improve subsequent books. If it’s the former…well, gee, I’d have to revert to my copout comment about a good many of the other YA science fiction I’ve read recently: I’m not part of the target demographic.

Flee! the zombie apocalypse is here! Ilsa J. Bick’s Ashes

Gotta love a well plotted zombie apocalypse novel…and overall, this is it.

As the story begins, our heroine Alex is heading north into Michigan with the intention of hiking through one of the state parks there1 to sort out what she wants to do with the rest of her own life, and scatter her parents’ ashes in the wilderness they loved when alive. Her aunt, with whom she’s been living after her parents’ death, is concerned; not only is it late September—a time of year which can bring unpleasant weather in northern Michigan—but Alex has an incurable brain tumor. The fact that Alex has taken her father’s gun only serves to convince Hannah that Alex is planning to commit suicide.

Four days into the hike, Alex has just met a grandfather out hiking with his bratty granddaughter when a catastrophe occurs: an electromagnetic pulse sweeps through the area, causing the usual effects—disruption of telecommunications, electronics and electrical just about anything—but also killing (most) people over the age of sixty or so, and transforming younger people into ravenous bloodthirsty zombies. Not surprisingly, the grandfather dies as a result of the EMP disrupting his pacemaker, and Alex heads out, dragging the granddaughter with her. Along the way, they meet Tom, on leave from Afghanistan and the three make it to the nearby ranger station, only to discover the station empty and a generator mysteriously still running.

They remain here long enough to regroup and then head out of the wilderness area. Tom is injured in an attack from desperate not so terribly nice people and Alex makes him as comfortable as she can in a derelict shop and heads out to find help from a rumored community nearby. Unfortunately, the town is not as altruistic as she’d hoped…and I’ll end the description here.

Warning: spoilers below.

On the plus side, this is the best post-apocalypse teen/YA romance dystopia I’ve read so far for my blog which I hadn’t read before (yes, that works out to be a compliment. I read a lot.) The physical horror aspects of the zombie plague as presented by Bick are horrifying indeed–don’t read this if you can’t stand gore and corruption as there’s quite a lot of both, as might be expected in a book involving flesh eating cannibalistic zombies with no table manners whatsoever. The mental horror of trying to figure out what’s happened, what the long term implications of the disruption of society and who one may trust in this transformed world are also well done; kudos to Bick for decent characterization and depiction of inner turmoil.

Another plus for me: the book has a strong heroine. Alex was a strong determined heroine coping with what would ordinarily be life shattering problems–death of her parents and an incurable brain tumor on the verge of killing her. She is understandably upset and traumatized by what’s happened previously but doesn’t wallow in self-pity. When the apocalypse comes, she doesn’t panic but rather assesses what to do (find the ranger station) and whether she’s got the resources to get there. She’s reasonably well equipped in terms of skills to survive on her own in the wilderness, at least in the short term: she’s got map-reading skills, she can use a gun, she knows to add disinfectant to water she finds before drinking, and so on. I can appreciate someone who, when planning escape from a cult surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, makes a list of what she’ll need to survive in the wilderness rather than fleeing blindly into the woods. She’s a beacon of feminine strength on a par with Katniss from The Hunger Games; good role models for girls are a bit thin on the ground in recent YA science fiction generally, so this is a huge plus for me.

The cause of the apocalypse is at least partially plausible. Somehow, I doubt zombification and killing off humans of reproductive age are aftereffects of an EMP; as a plot device, this is rather on a par with reversing the polarity of the neutron flow or applied phlebotinum. EMPs do disrupt electrical equipment (specifically telecommunications) and electronic circuitry…of which there is a great deal more in our modern society than we may realize. However, picking a plausible cause for world destruction is hard enough based on current science if you are both a qualified scientist and a gifted writer. Picking one that’s going to be plausible to all fans of post-apocalypse dystopia now and in future decades is virtually impossible2. I’m willing to cut Bick some slack here; she’s writing a post-apocalyptic dystopic romance here, not a political thriller, and EMPs are no less plausible than a “Rage” virus. Sometimes you just have to shrug and say “O-kay, the zombie apocalypse is upon us. How is the book otherwise?” and yes: I think that people’s reactions in Ashes ARE plausible enough to carry the plot.

I know people will react in different ways to a situation like this; some will retreat into isolation but I suspect that most people will band together for safety, whether we’re talking a comparatively understandable event, such as earthquake or invasion, or something mysterious or supernatural…such as an EMP causing zombification. Given the conservative religious nature of a great deal of the United States’ population, it doesn’t surprise me that at least one of these survivalist groups would be a cult. Given the politically conservative nature of a great deal of the United States’ population, it doesn’t surprise me that at least one of these survivalist groups would resemble the Bills from Chris Offut’s The Good Brother.

I’m not too crazy about specific aspects of the book. I’m in the camp that holds Ashes reads like two books combined a bit awkwardly–I don’t much care for how Bick handled the transition between the two, but then far more skilled authors seem to have the same problem3. However, taken individually, I do appreciate those two halves, as the author switched from “isolated friends traveling through wilderness” to “running afoul of a society attempting to deal with world-shattering catastrophe”. The fact that I’m not crazy about cliff hanger first books in a trilogy isn’t Bick’s fault.

I’m not crazy about the introduction of Love interest #2. Love interest #1 is the more interesting of the two, but then Alex transfers her affection to Love Interest #2, who strikes me as implausibly Good. He manages to cross trackless wastes while holding off mindless zombies with a bow and arrow, he’s equally interested in scavenging books for the community as food and medical supplies4 and is the potential Leader of His Community whereas Love Interest #1 is just a soldier with PTSD. In real life, absent any apocalyptic events, I’d have taken #2 hands down, but I can’t see Alex being that much of a bookworm. Indeed, I suspect that we’ll find out in the sequels that #1 has a better chance of surviving the figurative fallout from the EMPs that destroyed the world as we know it.

Who’d want to read this book? I’m going to go out on a limb and say pretty much any reasonably non-squeamish teenagers who like science fiction. I’d have loved this when I was the target demographic, and while I love the classic dystopias and post-apocalypse fiction, I can see that Ashes‘ modern elements appealing to teenagers today. Despite the protagonist being a person of the female persuasion, I can see boys liking Ashes. There are some chicklit elements–a passionate kiss or two when Alex gets going with Love Interest #2–but these strike me as secondary to issues Alex is trying to solve, and to the plot of the book as a whole: survival in a world which lacks all the gentleness and amenities of civilization. But then I’m one of those people who think it’s neither masculine or feminine but rather human to reach out and form trusting bonds with people around us when facing insurmountable barriers.

Just for those who like external links for double checking facts and finding out more about the book:
1) there’s an interview with the author here
2) Review of book here
3) another review of the book here
4) yet another review

1so far as I know, while Michigan is quite real, the locations named in Ashes are fictitious; I think they’re based on northern Michigan or the U.P.?
2looks sternly at Dreamsnake
3looks sternly at Angela Carter and Robert Heinlein
4not that I mind an author plugging books, but books probably wouldn’t be MY first concern under the circumstances and I’m a librarian