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.