Sunday, June 21, 2015

Countdown City

Ben Winters tale of a world facing extinction as an asteroid approaches might seem like a one-joke novel that does not lend itself to a sequel, let alone a series. But this second of three novels is so imaginative and inventive that it continues to surprise the reader. The narrator, Henry Palace, is a straight-laced police detective who can't think of any better way to await Armageddon than to continue doing his job. He debuted in The Last Policeman, and this sequel has him investigating another possible crime even though the Concord Police Department has closed down its detective department and kept only uniformed cops patrolling as a way to maintain some semblance of law and order in a world that is rapidly losing its tenuous connection to civilization.

As the countdown to the asteroid goes on -- it is around 75 days away in this novel -- Henry, sometimes Hank, promises his former babysitter he will look for her husband, who has disappeared. Of course, people disappear all the time in this end-of-days scenario, no longer feeling bound by any obligations. Some kill themselves, others travel to hedonistic meccas (New Orleans seems to be the main one) to spend the final days in revelry, others have their personal bucket lists. But Martha Milano is convinced that her husband, a former state trooper, is not that type of person.

It would seem like a fools' errand "in the current environment," as his friends and former colleagues tell him. Hank knows there's a million other things he could be doing. "But this is what I do," Hank reflects on what drives him to continue working as a detective. "It's what makes sense to me, what has long made sense. And surely some large proportion of the world's current danger and decline is not inevitable but rather the result of people scrambling fearfully away from the things that have long made sense."

So Hank takes on the case, enlisting the help of his sister, Nico, who has joined a rebel group that believes there is a government conspiracy to stop a feasible effort to deflect the asteroid and save the world. Hank thinks she's crazy but she has contacts in the Free Republic of New Hampshire, a utopian student community set up in the former university, and his search for the missing husband leads there.

The description of this community and one of its leaders -- who is determined to prevent the free republic from descending to the inevitable bloody authoritarianism of Jacobin revolution by quietly exercising her own version of authoritarianism -- is an ingenious portrayal of a world that is part postapocalyptic and part satire. The individual characters are vividly sketched and a wry humor underlies Hank's narrative.

His search takes him to the Maine coast -- bicycle is the main form of transportation -- where he discovers that coastal defense efforts to keep immigrants from landing are more cynical than he imagined. Again, the real-life issues we face in the Caribbean and Mediterranean are only thinly veiled in this science fiction plot.

By the time Hank makes it back to Concord, the breakdown of law and order is nearly complete. He has successfully unraveled the mystery of the missing husband but his report is disappointing to his "client," and in any case the whole world is literally going to hell in a handbasket. The CPD has made its own preparations for survival as the forces pull out of town and leave the residents to their own devices.

Winters apparently has people contribute ideas of what they would do in this situation to his website, and perhaps that is the source of some of the entertaining detail in the various reactions of people to the coming catastrophe. It will be interesting to see how he wraps it up in the third volume, if that is indeed what he does.

The writing is compelling, the protagonist sympathetic, the far-fetched plot surprisingly realistic -- a great series.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Taint of Midas

Anne Zouroudi evokes the sight, smell and sounds of Greece in a language that is clear and crisp. Her descriptions of everyday life and the pain of the corrosive effects of tourism and commercialism (this in 2008 even before the current crisis) transport the reader to the country's cafes and scenic roads.

But her feeble mystery tracing the driver of a hit-and-run death amidst a developer's scheme to build luxury villas on a protected mountainside is thin and unsatisfying. Her "detective," Hermes Diaktronos, may be less opaque to readers of her first novel, but he remains a complete cipher in this book. There is virtually no interior life for this character and the author's insistence in referring to him always as "the fat man" is awkward and distracting. The sketchy details of his appearance bring to mind the young Peter Ustinov of "Topkapi," but that is doing the author a favor.

The villain of the piece, Aris Paliakis, emerges as the better drawn character, and even the two police officers involved show more personality than the fat man. There is not much mystery in this short tale of greed and corruption, and the fat man's elliptical search for clues borders on fantasy as he all-knowingly intervenes in the lives of those he has decided are the perpetrators of his friend's death or in some other way contravene his understanding of justice. This virtuous vigilante even straightens out the police department while he is at it.

The minor characters go some way to redeeming the novel. The opening chapter depicting the aging Gabrilis Kaloyeros as he harvests his watermelons to sell at his stall in town, or another episode with the barber Sosti who closes his shop to go fishing after 12 haircuts no matter what time it is are well drawn. Some of the vignettes -- how Paliakis dupes the tourists dining in his restaurant or tries to sway town council members to approve his planned development -- are amusing.

I bought this as a remainder and it may be Zouroudi never finished what seems from the subtitle -- "A Seven Deadly Sins Mystery" -- to be a projected series. If she did, perhaps the character of Diaktronos eventually takes on some depth. Unfortunately, even though the writing really is good, this story just barely works as a standalone novel.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

On Such a Full Sea

Chang-Rae Lee's dystopian picaresque follows the fortunes of Fan, a young fish-tank diver from the factory cities of a somewhat distant future. It may or may not be a postapocalyptic world, because Lee wastes no time with back story, relying on a few allusions from the narrator to let the reader discern that the world has changed.

Fan lives in a regimented town called B-Mor, formerly known as Baltimore when the "natives" lived there. She belongs to a clan descended from the "originals," a population of Chinese immigrants forced to flee New China and now settled in these factory towns to provide food and other products to the "Charters," an upper class that is a mildly extrapolated version of today's. The rest of the population is assigned to a wild and woolly outback known as the "Counties," characterized by Appalachian-like poverty.

The unusual first-person plural narrator makes the novel read like a cross between a Homeric epic and a Greek tragedy, seeming at times to recount the accumulated myth surrounding Fan, her departure from B-Mor and her adventures journeying through the Counties to a Charter village as she seeks her boyfriend Reg, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and her long-lost brother Liwei, who qualified for the dubious honor of being promoted to life in a Charter village.

As with the Greek prototypes, this type of narration gives little insight into the interior life of Fan or any of the other characters, aside from speculation by the narrator about the staged feelings that they might be experiencing. The overall effect is to depict life as a series of random events that we have no control over, and our only response can be to go with the flow and just keep trying to move forward. Indeed, the epigraph the title is drawn from, a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which includes the line "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads onto fortune," and which counsels the reader, "On such a full sea are we now afloat,/And we must take the current when it serves/Or lose our ventures."

There are many lines in the novel itself that are epigraphical. When Fan leaves B-Mor on her adventure she realizes she does not miss the particular individuals in her clan, who live in close quarters with little interaction, but does miss them "in sum." "Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive," interjects the narrator. Referring to the way an Uncle Kellen expressed skepticism about the perfection of life in B-Mor by saying nothing, the narrator says, "You can be affected by a person because of something particular they said or did but sometimes it is how a person was, a manner of being, that gets most deeply absorbed, and prompts you to revisit certain periods of your life with an enhanced perspective, flowing forward right up to now."

It is, in fact, the actions of people, rather than their words, which further Fan along her way, as she lands first with the enigmatic Quinn, a former Charter resident consigned to the Counties when a plague led to a ban of all pets and ended his career as a veterinarian, and then with Mister Leo and Miss Cathy in a chilling Charter episode, until she is rescued by the emergency room doctor Vik and grows nearer to her goal of finding lover and brother.

Despite the artifice of Greek epic, or maybe because of it, the narration sweeps the reader along on a full sea of his or her own as the surprises and twists of Fan's journey -- not least her own unpredictable behavior -- maintains a level of suspense up until the final twist at the end. The writing has an accomplished literary quality that makes it rich and readable at the same time. If Fan remains something of a cipher, the narrator's sympathy for her innocence is infectious and most other characters eke out some sympathy from the reader as well, even when their environment makes them less than admirable.

What is dystopian is the regimentation and stratification of society, the economic apartheid that brooks little mobility between stations in life -- and which seems based in part at least on racial or ethnic origins. Whatever the upheavals that have occurred, society remains relatively intact with a recognizable level of consumer gratification. Even in factory towns like B-Mor, residents have "vids" to watch and use "handscreens" for photos. The inexplicable wave of shortages and discontent that washes over B-Mor is probably much like the impact of a recession in the interior of China, a mystery to inhabitants who have no inkling of the wider economic forces at work. The ultimate sterility of the materialistic Charter villages is outright satire that is painfully close to the reality.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel skillfully weaves a compelling narrative of pre- and post-apocalyptic drama, of story within a story, and virtually a play within a play. And she does so in a language that is understated, but elegant and sometimes lyrical. Most of all, she makes the reader care about her characters, viewing all of them, even the sinister prophet in a fragmented post-apocalyptic world, with sympathy.

Once again, there is no single protagonist. It is in large part a story of Arthur Leander, a famous film actor who dies in the opening pages as he performs in a stage production of King Lear. A child actress in the play, Kirsten Raymonde, who briefly interacts with Arthur, is the focus of the post-apocalyptic scenes, which mostly take place 20 years after Leander's death.

That ill-fated performance comes literally on the eve of a flu pandemic that kills off most of the earth's human population in a period of just weeks and brings an end to civilization as we know it. Raymonde, as a young adult, becomes part of a group of musicians and actors, The Traveling Symphony, which circulates through the sparsely populated towns around the Great Lakes, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to appreciative audiences deprived of most other forms of entertainment.

The back story of Leander, his three wives, his friend Clark and his son, Tyler, occupies a good half of the novel. These stories before and after the catastrophe are linked by characters running into each other -- the coincidences are highly improbable, but not impossible, so the author is forgiven -- and by a couple of McGuffins, especially a hand-printed graphic novel about a space station and its commander, Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven.

Kirsten is in possession of one of the few copies of the graphic novel, which was produced by Leaner's first wife, Miranda, a would-be artist who went on after her divorce to become a successful shipping executive. Station Eleven, the size of small planet, is largely covered with water, an Undersea which harbors a population of renegades who oppose Dr. Eleven and want to return to earth.

Through this fanciful, imaginative tapestry, Mandel weaves basic human emotions of love and affection, loss and regret, timidity and courage, with a force that is compelling -- I read the book in just four days -- and often moving.

J.K. Rowling once said that Harry Potter and his fellow students don't have computers and cell phones because they have magic playing the role these miraculous devices have in our lives. The magic things of civilization -- air travel, electricity, even books -- come in for their share of wonder in this novel. But the rediscovery of simple pleasures -- bread baking in the oven, catching fish in a stream, performing a play -- also become a source of happiness and fulfillment.

Ultimately, for all the devastation and deprivation in this post-apocalyptic world, the resilience of the human spirit and endurance of human emotion create an atmosphere of optimism, which survives deadly threats and unavoidable setbacks.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Windsor Faction

D.J. Taylor's novel starts with a great premise for an alternate history -- Wallis Simpson dies of appendicitis so that Edward VIII does not abdicate but stays on the throne as World War II commences -- and provides an entertaining portrait of England torn between pacifism ("defeatism") and war.

However, spoiler alert, Taylor doesn't alter history all that much. Edward is portrayed as a weak and vacillating individual whose half-hearted support for the defeatists did little in fact to change anything. Rather, the ham-handed conspiracy of the novel, involving several historical figures, ended largely as it did in real history. British intelligence monitored the conspirators closely and when Germany did invade France, abandoning all pretension of seeking peace, the conspiracy collapsed and everyone was arrested.

So as an alternate history thriller, The Windsor Faction doesn't live up to its billing. As a satire poking fun at British society and a richly detailed picture of England in 1939, however, it makes for a good read. The wit, to use a cliche, is rapier-sharp, and the dissection of motivation of the multiple narrators is surgical. From the king on down through the conspiring aristocrat, the upper-class ingenue and her more sophisticated mentor, the foppish publisher and traitorous editor of a literary journal, the laconic gadabout writer, the oily clerk in the American embassy, to the distracted intelligence agents, the middle-class proprietors of an antique shop and the thuggish prol who works there -- each character is sharply delineated, fleshed out and made more  or less sympathetic to the reader.

There is not much suspense because the characters are not a credible threat to the established order. Rather they are a marginal, quirky, misguided footnote to history, alternate or real.

The writer adopts several different points of view -- including one in first person via a diary -- so that there is no clear protagonist. Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young woman whose fiance is killed in a tragicomic manner while her family is stationed in the British colony of Ceylon, comes closest to being the character who binds the action together. She is the first we meet and plays a key part in the denouement. But other characters get their chapters as well, including Beverley Nichols (male despite the first name), an historical character who is deployed in the novel as an amanuensis for Edward to produce a very different sort of King's Speech in that fateful December 1939.

The king's pacifist tones do little to significantly sway public opinion, however, and the authorities dispatch him ("this is not a suggestion, but an order") to the distant provinces for inspection tours to keep him out of trouble. In the meantime, the emboldened conspirators try to surreptitiously negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, but time runs out before the French invasion.

I'm not a fan of multiple narrators, no more than I am of small plate restaurants. The snippets may be tasty, but not as satisfying as a full meal. Also, the details of period brands and manners and jingles and language are sometimes too rich and inserted gratuitously in a way that interrupts the flow.

That said, Taylor is a talented and supple writer and the novel remains compelling even without a thriller's suspense.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Blood Is Dirt

Despite my reservations about the first novel in the series (Instruments of Darkness), here I am already reading another Bruce Medway mystery by Robert Wilson. It is the evocation of the West African atmosphere, and perhaps the stench of corruption that Wilson has mastered that drew me back. It's an easy read, though he may have lost me on a twist or turn or two in the convoluted plot of a double scam within a scam, preceded by a fake scam and accompanied by a fair amount of mayhem.

Nonetheless, the corruption and hypocrisy oozes out of every pore of most of these characters, with the first-person narrator (Medway), his girlfriend Heike and his partner Bagado being the notable exceptions. This plot involves a British shipbroker who ships toxic waste and colludes with a British financier to cheat an Italian oil dealer (I think) -- which predictably does not end well for many of the people involved.

There are some outlandish characters -- the shipbroker's daughter, Selina, who becomes Medway's client and is a man-eating vixen; the Nigerian chief running for president of the country who needs financing for his campaign; some small-time Russian thugs who craft their own chili vodka, and others.

The portrayal of a key "queer" character betrays more than a whiff of homophobia, so I'm not sure what planet Wilson is living on or if he is deliberately being politically incorrect. There is considerable brutality but much less of the masochism that marked the earlier book. Medway doesn't get hurt too badly nor are Heike (too much of her in this book) or Bagado (too little of him) ever at risk from the bad guys.

And there's the driving along the coast between Nigeria and Benin, the ever-present heat and threat of malaria, the exotic forests and bays and beaches of the coastal setting, the cynical lifestyles of wealthy expatriates -- the stuff, in short, of a pretty good story.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Wool

Hugh Howey's science fiction epic is a satisfying post-apocalyptic thriller that keeps the reader turning pages. His vision of a remnant of civilization confined to a silo buried 140 stories into the earth is convincingly claustrophobic. The physical restrictions are stifling and require an equally stifling society where books are banned and every individual is assigned a work category (and silo level) with the appropriately colored overalls.

In a Q&A tacked on the end of my paperback edition, Howey says his time at sea and the confinement of living on a boat gave him the insight into silo life. The interminable climbs on the spiral stairway down the length of the silo are depicted so graphically that your legs are sore. Trips from top to bottom take days, with rest stops at various levels. "Porters" are the specialists who carry every pound of food and supplies on their backs from the garden and farming levels to the top and bottom. Communication is severely restricted. There are no computers for general use and paying a porter to carry a message is expensive.

All of this is effectively ruled by IT, a satirical touch that would be hilariously funny if it were not so grimly realistic. Sham elections choose a mayor, who appoints a sheriff (with the advice and consent of the head of IT). This is the world that Juliette, a mechanic housed in the lowest reaches of the "down deep" disrupts. When the mayor, Jahns, defies the head of IT, Bernard, to choose Juliette as the new sheriff, he quickly moves to frame Juliette with one of the numerous offenses that condemns a resident to "cleaning," the euphemism for being sent out into the toxic outside world in a suit designed to fail quickly. The cleaning refers to their obligation to wipe clean the monitors that are the only view the silo's inhabitants have of the outside world. Oddly, the condemned individuals invariably comply with this requirement, even though they gain nothing by it and die almost immediately afterwards. The wool of the title, by the way, appears to refer to the material they are given to clean the monitors, though of course the expression "pull the wool over your eyes" quickly comes to mind.

There are surreptitious references to an "uprising" that occurred several generations ago, when some individuals became impatient with restrictions of silo life and rebelled. It was put down violently and it is now a capital crime to discuss it. Just how many centuries people have been living in the silo and how many uprisings there have been are all vague. The novel begins, in fact, with the wife of Juliette's predecessor as sheriff, Holston, discovering some of these historical truths still preserved on IT's servers. She loses it and demands to be sent out to "cleaning." After grieving for three years, Holston follows suit. Neither makes it up the hill surrounding the silo. They curl up and die in view of the silo monitors and the residents up top who regularly enjoy.

This is the setup, and it's not too much of a spoiler to conclude that making it over that hill or fomenting a new uprising might be part of the narrative. The cynical nature of IT's control and the origins of the silo are revelations that drive the narrative as well.

Wool is often compared to The Passage by Justin Cronin, but I actually found this to be a tighter and more readable narrative. It eschews the supernatural element that makes the earlier book fantastical, and in fact revels in the low-tech expertise of Juliette and her companions in Mechanical. Her ability to survive comes to depend on that practical knowledge.