A Quiet Apocalypse

Books and movies depicting the apocalypse have a tendency to go big. I understand that the end of civilization would be a pretty big deal, but does it always have to be so dramatic? Be it zombies, plague, natural disaster or aliens, ‘the end’ comes storming onto the scene and everyone runs screaming. Because of this, I’ve always appreciated works that depict the world’s upcoming doom as just one event among many in a character’s everyday life. It just seems more realistic to me. Admittedly, wanting realism when it comes to the apocalypse might seem a bit odd. But hey, I am what I am.

In Severance by Ling Ma, the apocalypse is a quiet one. It takes the form of Shen Fever, which is a highly contagious disease, turning people into zombies but not the bloodthirsty brain eating kind. Instead, Shen Fever is a ‘disease of remembering’ that renders its victims harmless, but doomed to repeat the routines they performed in life, until they slowly waste away. But even this catastrophic event is not the center of the book. Instead, it is the life of the protagonist Candace that is of most importance.

Alternating between Candace’s life before and after the pandemic, you come to know her as a quirky twenty-something coming to terms with a world that is drastically altered, yet strangely the same. Before the pandemic, she works for a Manhattan book publisher in the ‘specialty Bibles division’ and lives with her on again off again boyfriend Jonathan in Brooklyn. Both have vague artistic ambitions, but Candace has resigned herself to a more mundane job to pay the bills. Once Shen Fever hits the city, and the number of people in her office slowly starts to decline, she actually has a chance to indulge her creative side. She founds the blog NY Ghost and captures haunting images of an empty New York City for those who have fled.

Once things really start to fall apart, with food and the internet in short supply, she is forced to leave and try to find a new way of living. She eventually comes across a group of survivors led by Bob, a former IT specialist with some rather odd ideas about the new world and his role in it. The group continues in search of a safe place, that only Bob knows about. On the way, they scavenge homes for supplies, filled with victims of the fever who are continually performing the same routine tasks they did when healthy.

Severance is an odd but rewarding read. By focusing on character rather than catastrophe, it produces a convincing portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of a possibly dying world and her place in it.

Some Light Reading for the End of the World

I get a kick out of a story that can combine world-changing, terrifying, and sometimes supernatural events with a fairly traditional, mundane coming of age story. This is one of the many things I love about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Shaun David Hutchinson also showed his skill with this kind of work in We are the Ants and he doubled down in his latest novel, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza.

At first glance, Elena Mendoza is similar to lots of teenage protagonists. School can be rough – she isn’t exactly popular, but she has made her own community. She loves her mom and younger siblings but hates her loser stepdad. I can keep going: her job sucks, Freddie, the girl she pines for, seems to have no clue she exists, inanimate objects often speak to her and she is the product of a virgin birth. Like I said, pretty typical.

81G6+tEFWqLSo about that virgin birth thing. Despite being shouldered with a “miracle child” moniker, there is a scientific explanation for Elena’s situation. She is the first proven human case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction involving an unfertilized egg. Other than some cruel classmates who nicknamed her Mary, Elena has largely been able to shed any spotlight that might come from the unique circumstances of her birth. Time heals all wounds and brings enough sensational news stories each day to allow hers to fade away.  

The voices Elena hears are a little harder to explain, but truth be told they give her advice that usually proves helpful so she has learned to live with them and hide them from the surrounding world, even from her mother and her best friend, Fadil. Then one day while at work she witnesses a classmate shoot Freddie and is told by the logo on a Starbucks cup to save Freddie’s life. Though it defies explanation, Elena is able to heal Freddie and her reputation as a miracle girl comes storming back, bringing Elena a mess of unwanted attention.

To make matters worse, the boy who shot Freddie disappeared in a ray of light right after Elena performed her “miracle.” The voices tell Elena that she must heal more people to save the world. Fadil, a devout Muslim, tells her to trust in God and plenty of others tell her she is either crazy or a fraud. For her part, Elena is sure there must be some sort of scientific explanation and she is reluctant to use her powers. But with so many people suffering around her, how can she resist? Unfortunately, every time she heals someone, people disappear in strange beams of light. And as her profile grows, more people seem to want to use her, from her selfish stepdad to shadowy government agents. So Elena is left with quite the needle to thread: save the world, avoid manipulation, solve this rapture mystery and figure out if Freddie likes her or resents her for saving her life. No sweat?

Hutchinson packs a lot into this book and in less capable hands this story could have gone off the rails or veered into religious speculation that just isn’t my taste. Yet Elena is a sensible, compassionate, and delightfully wry narrator who manages to keep this wild novel somewhat grounded. I loved her mix of optimism and pragmatism and her quick banter with Fadil, Freddie, and her ex-boyfriend Javi.  

More than anything else, however, I appreciate the way this book handles identity. I read a lot of YA fiction that features queer characters and I appreciate the thought and care with which so many authors today write about questioning or discovering sexuality, coming out, facing bigotry, and finding acceptance. I also believe, however, that we need stories like this one. Elena has lots of insecurities but is perfectly open and comfortable with her bisexuality. And that is also how she is treated by Hutchinson. Her identity is only addressed as it pertains to the story. It’s a fact of life, not a plot point. The same could be said for the treatment of Fadil’s religion and Elena’s Cuban-American heritage. Hutchinson’s matter-of-fact approach to diverse representation not only makes for great writing but creates a world that I want to live in. Even if it is on the brink of apocalypse.

America Undone

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel….a little itchy and anxious to be honest.

It is possible that I enjoyed myself an inappropriate amount while reading Omar El Akkad’s American War. The title probably betrays this fact, but this is not exactly a delightful romp. Set in the late 21st Century during the second Civil War, this novel 32283423presents an upsetting and eerily plausible portrayal of our near future. Ostensibly this war is fought over a national ban on fossil fuels, but the roots of the conflict creep far deeper into the national psyche, playing on centuries old resentments and cultural differences (but good news – “proud, pacifist Cascadia” is far from the front lines).

American War follows the life of a young woman named Sarat, born into a chaotic South devastated by flooding, famine, war, and the worst elements of humanity. Sarat spends her formative years in a refugee camp, witnessing both the fanatical partisanship of the Southern rebels and the cruel indifference of the Northern war machine. As Sarat grows older, she finds herself drawn into the war that has defined her existence, becoming an agent of death that will help shape history and bring about grave and devastating consequences.

So, yeah, I realize that doesn’t sound terribly cheery, but El Akkad’s deft narrative style sucked me deep into this novel. By mixing Sarat’s story with government dispatches, oral reports, written records and other “source material,” American War had the feel of an upsetting historical account. At the same time I found myself without context, unsure of how events would unfold and where bias existed in the presentation, but still burdened by the full knowledge of these events terrible impact.

Station_Eleven_CoverPerhaps I have a morbid streak as I have always enjoyed dark and disastrous accounts of imagined futures. For me, the immediate comparison for American War is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Like American War, Station Eleven presents our future in stark and frightening terms – it follows a travelling Shakespearean troupe in the years after a viral pandemic devastates humanity, leaving only scattered pockets of survivors in its wake. It also shares American War’s storytelling technique, incorporating various source materials from before, during, and after the height of the catastrophe.

World_War_Z_book_coverI feel compelled to also mention World War Z, by Max Brooks. Please don’t judge this book because of the movie based on it. Designed to be read as an oral history, each section is narrated by a different survivor of a zombie apocalypse, describing responses and containment attempts by different groups across the globe. With this narrative Brooks crafts a book that is as much a consideration of international relations as it is a zombie novel. Rather than a work of horror, this is a novel of logistics and strategy in the face of terrible catastrophe. If you enjoy audiobooks, this title makes a particularly great listen as many talented and diverse voices were cast to portray the book’s narrators.

unwindNow, I’m a Youth Services Librarian and I just talked about three ADULT novels, so I have to plug some YA. The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman takes place after a second American civil war fought over reproductive rights. When partisan militias fight to a stalemate, a compromise is reached. Though abortion is outlawed, unwanted children between ages 13 and 18 can be “unwound,” a process through which they are physically dismantled and recycled for transplants. The justification for this macabre policy is that every part of the unwound teenagers is reused, and therefore the body lives on. I realize that this premise sounds as absurd as it is disgusting, but Shusterman is a masterful writer and takes the time to illustrate how this policy slowly developed at the hands of well-meaning policy makers. By the end of the series it feels a little too plausible for my comfort.

ashfallpb_hiresMike Mullin’s Ashfall also does a superb job portraying societal collapse. Ashfall follows a teen after the (very real) supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupts. Spoiler alert: things don’t go well unless you’re a fan of sunless days, endless winter, famine, and roving gangs of cannibals. Despite a whole lot of death and destruction, this is an enjoyable and ultimately hopeful series. Scientists confidently assert that this supervolcano won’t erupt anytime soon. Probably.

136471._SX1280_QL80_TTD_Finally, before I leave to ponder our impending ruin, I just want to mention one graphic novel. Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra follows a twenty something slacker named Yorick and his pet monkey after a mysterious virus leaves them the only two living males of any species. Chaos quickly ensues and it is awesome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short walk from “great book” to “WE’RE ALL DOOMED.” If you need me, I’ll be taking deep breaths and either hiding under a desk or stockpiling canned goods.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Who needs a good apocalyptic, end-of-the-world story during the holidays? You’re welcome. It’s better than fruitcake.

unamedmidwifeMeg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife gives us a somewhat dismal glimpse of the far future and then throws us into the near future, after all the bad stuff has gone down. Apparently some sort of plague has massively thinned out humanity, taking virtually all the females and most of the males. Another problem seems to be that remaining pregnant women are dying when they give birth, and the babies are dying too. So that’s the state of the world: a minuscule number of females remaining and no children being born. And people are reduced to living like cavemen/scavengers in what remains of civilization.

Our narrator was a midwife pre-disaster, which turns out to be a useful skill even with so few women remaining. We never learn her name, hence the title. Like anyone, she is looking for community even in what seems to be the fall of humanity. This takes her on the road where she meets other survivors, some of them dangerous and some of them also seeking a safe place.

But can anywhere be safe when someone may take everything from you if they find you? However, this book doesn’t turn into a “wander thru the inhospitable landscape and try to avoid crazy people” tale or a story about zombies. Characters in this book are varied and realistic. There is none of that ‘nobody is that stupid’ or ‘they would never do that in real life’ kind of thing here. At one point, Unnamed seems to have found a satisfactory home for herself, but is compelled to begin her journey again. Her trek forces us to examine society in general and gender expectations and roles.

I can’t tell you too much about this book because you need to be surprised as well. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, and Meg Elison seems to be carrying her mantle. If anything, this book is more contemporary in its treatment of women. And there’s a sequel being released in February! Yay!

It’s the Final Countdown

The Order of DaysSo we’re finally there – the week of the alleged Maya apocalypse. For those of you who have managed to avoid the hype, the world is supposed to end on December 21, 2012. At this point the coverage has become as corny, dramatic, and oddly-addictive as that Europe song – you know the one. Yet like the Europe song, while people may joke about the Maya apocalypse in public, many privately hold some pretty serious views about it. In an excellent interview with NASA astrobiologist David Morrison, listeners of the APM radio show The Story recently heard about the distraught emails that Morrison was receiving by the dozens seeking advice about when the cataclysm would start (not if), and what actions should be taken to minimize the suffering of family and friends.

I take the position that nothing of note will happen on the 21st of December, and I base this on my background in anthropology and Maya studies. Unfortunately there is currently a lot of fear and misinformation being spread about an event that is largely misunderstood, and the consequences are potentially serious. In order to combat this misinformation, it’s important to understand some basic things about Maya calendrics.

Look Close See FarThe ancient Maya were very accomplished astronomers who saw the movement of celestial bodies as supernatural patterns that gave insights into destiny (kind of like modern horoscopes, but much more specific). Through careful study of the movements in the sky, the Maya developed several different kinds of calendars, ranging from a 260-day tzolk’in that was used to name newborns and helped predict the paths their lives would take, to a ‘Long Count’ or b’ak’tun calendar that recorded a time span of about 394 years, to something called a piktun, which measured over 7,800 years (the current piktun doesn’t end until the year 4772).

It’s the Long Count calendar that is causing all the ruckus this month; we are reaching the end of the current cycle, counting down to (dates actually get smaller as a cycle progresses), after which the 14th b’ak’tun begins. Cycle is the important word in that sentence. Just as we have days, weeks, months, decades, centuries, and millennia, the Maya  had (have, really – the Maya are still alive and well) k’in, uinal, tun, k’atun, b’ak’tun, piktunand beyond. The ancient Maya placed no special emphasis on the end of the current b’ak’tun, and even created other calendars with dates that go centuries beyond 12/21/12. Amazingly, there is even a unit of time that stretches into the millions of years called the alautun, which lasts roughly 63,081,429 years!

code of kingsSo, if you must plan for anything on the 21st of December, plan on a big ol’ New Years Eve party of the 1999-2000 variety, because we’re just rolling over to the beginning of a new unit of time: 14th b’ak’tun of the Long Count calendar.  Once you’ve recovered sufficiently from your New B’ak’tun Eve (NBE) revelries, you might want to consider coming down to the library to check out some books about the Maya – they were and are a truly fascinating people who contributed much to the world.

Some titles of note:

The Order of the Days by David Stuart is a good place to start if you want to do some pre-NBE reading. Stuart has done a great job of explaining the different theories about December 2012, and then debunking them. Even better, Stuart goes on to talk about why the Maya, stripped of all their new-agey and other-worldly mystique, should be respected as an ancient culture that accomplished much in creative and enduring ways. I also like that Stuart takes the time to talk about all the positive things that the Maya contributed to the world, especially in the areas of agriculture. Did you know that without the Maya we wouldn’t have chocolate? No chocolate – now THAT is my idea of an apocalyptic scenario.

Daily Life in Maya CivilizationIf you happen to be interested in learning how the Maya developed and used their system of calendars (my explanation is extremely simplified) Daily Life in Maya Civilization by Robert J. Sharer is a great place to start. This very readable book has a great chapter on Maya calendrics and writing that is packed with interesting facts, one being that the Maya developed a system similar to our leap year in order to correct for flaws in the calendar caused by the manner in which the Earth travels around the sun.

The Code of Kings by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews tells the story of seven sacred Maya sites using translations of inscriptions found on temples and tombs. The Code of Kings includes some wonderful photographs of Maya sites, as well as a collection of highly-detailed illustrations of inscriptions. This fascinating account of Maya civilization and culture is written in a very accessible way that doesn’t cater only to those who study the Maya in-depth.

Chronicle of Maya Kings and QueensChronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube is just what it sounds like! Collected here are the stories of the 152 kings and 4 ruling queens in recorded Maya history. I love books like these because they take what is often a dry discussion of inanimate objects (sites, artifacts,  etc.) and introduces a human element. I think many of us tend to unconsciously imagine tombs, carvings, and statues when we think of ancient cultures, so it’s great to be reminded that there were real people behind those images of the past.  Sprinkled throughout this book are helpful discussions about basic aspects of Maya civilization (geography, historic timelines, cultural practices, deciphering the glyphs, etc.) that make the stories of the royals more understandable.

Look Close See Far by Bruce T. Martin is a beautiful collection of photographs that depict modern Maya, as well as significant ancient sites. These images are accompanied by explanations written by eminent scholars of Maya culture.

Four Creations: an Epic Story of the Chiapas Mayas edited and translated by Gary H. Gossen is by far my favorite book that I discovered while writing this post. IFour Creationsn order to truly understand Maya culture, it is important to learn more about how they believe the universe works. The best insights into these views usually come from storytelling and mythology. In Four Creations, the author gathered stories from modern Maya storytellers and historic texts, covering pre-contact origin myths all the way to newer mythologized accounts of modern events. This is a fascinating read, accompanied by the artwork of modern Maya. I love that each translation is printed next to the stories in their original Tzotzil-language form. A final plus is that this book treats the Maya as a living, breathing, very much in-the-present people, rather than a culture known for past glories and an early demise.