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.

Genesis Girl by Jennifer Bardsley

genesis girl jennifer bardsley

Blanca’s parents never posted baby photos of her on Facebook. They never taught her to ride a bike, or took her to Girl Scouts, or even walked her to school. They’ve never even taken a family photograph together. That’s because Blanca’s parents severed all lines of communication when she was very young, choosing to offer her up as a Vestal postulant.

Blanca has been raised her whole life at Tabula Rasa, a boarding school/cloistered academy of sorts that raises children to be supplicant and free of all technology. She’s been training her whole life to be a Vestal, essentially an internet virgin incapable of making decisions for herself. In a world where technology has moved away from handheld phones and literally into the user’s hands in the form of tech implants, Blanca and her classmates are extremely valuable. No one outside the school has ever seen them or a photograph of them.

When a Vestal graduates from Tabula Rasa at eighteen, corporations bid on them. They will purchase Vestals to serve as product spokespeople. A Vestal’s image has never before been released on the internet, and now the corporation owns everything about their likeness. Consumers find Vestal families depicted in advertising campaigns as trustworthy, wholesome, and believable. Even though everyone knows how a Vestal is made, the corporations still sell so many more products and services when a Vestal is involved in the ads.

I’ll let Blanca explain it:

For a Vestal, a clear Internet history is the most important
thing. Without that, I’m nothing. Our elusive privacy is what makes us valuable. I’ve watched our class shrink from two hundred eager postulants to a graduating group of ten. The infractions were usually unavoidable: their memory was spotty, their temperament was bad, or worst of all, they turned out ugly. But once in a while, somebody was thrown out because of an online transgression. Everyone left is bankable. Ten perfect human specimens who could sell you anything.

Still with me? This is a dystopian society in which technology has played a key part in the destruction of the human race. In this world, brain cancer has killed off many of the previous generation thanks to radiation in cell phones. That’s why tech implants in fingers and hands have become popular. People no longer have to hold the tech to their heads. But it also makes it easier for someone to sneakily take a photograph of someone, which is why Vestals aren’t ever allowed outside of Tabula Rasa’s lead walls.

That is, until the day our book begins, when someone manages to break into the underground parking area of Tabula Rasa as Blanca and her friend Fatima are attempting to get into a vehicle to take them to their auction. Blanca is stunned, horrified and not sure what to do. I mean, our girl immediately fights back in the form of kicking the photographer and trying to prevent him from uploading her image. But with her image potentially out there for the world to see, she fears no corporation will want her, no one will bid on her, and she’ll be let go with her whole life up til now being a big waste.

Corporations aren’t the only entities that can bid on a Vestal. There are also private bidders, and a Vestal purchased by one is considered to have “gone Geisha.” That’s because the speculation is usually that a Vestal purchased by an individual will actually be treated like a wife or husband, rather than an employee.

Genesis Girl brings a fun-house mirror up to our current society obsessed with technology and asks: what if tech was everything? What if we put some serious value on those who don’t use technology and are truly present in every conversation? The book also kept turning the tables, forcing both Blanca and the reader to repeatedly change their perception of Blanca’s identity. Will she go Geisha? If so, does that mean she will be forever stigmatized? Will she even be bid upon or thrust back into the cruel world with no notion of how to operate even the simplest computer? What will happen to her Vestal friends? And what is going to happen to that rude guy who took her photo on the first page of the book?

You guys, I usually don’t like dystopias and it’s rare that I can get into a Sci-Fi novel. But I completely loved Genesis Girl. In fact, I had a few chapters left last Sunday when I snuck it into The Paramount to finish at intermission. Genesis Girl is the start of a series, which you will be happy to hear once you read the ending and are left wanting more! More Blanca! More of the crazy world depicted! More secrets revealed!

The author of this insanely addicting book, Jennifer Bardsley, is more than just a debut author. She’s even more than just a Pacific Northwest/Snohomish County author. She’s the genius behind The Herald’s weekly parenting column, I Brake for Moms. Yes: her words break out into the world from right here in Everett! She was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book, as well as some awesome bookmarks that we’ve put out in the teen area for you. She has a huge following on Instagram, where I first connected with her. As I was writing this she posted a video trailer for Genesis Girl that you need to go watch right now! And she recently gave us a peek into the life of a debut author via this article in The Herald.

What more could you possibly want? Read Genesis Girl and I guarantee you will want the next book in the series.

Crazy Fall Publishing Part 5: September 29th

Hey there. What’s up with me? I’m drowning in new books. NBD! The things I do for you, dear reader. Yep, I’m definitely coveting and eventually reading all these books for you. No need to thank me, but if you do you can forward your good words straight to my boss. Performance appraisal time is just around the corner and a good word from you is sure to go a long way.

Anyway, I’ve been counting the days since these new books arrive, and I hope you’ll want to read them, too. Check them out–literally!

all american boysAll American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Summary: A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galuzzi, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement? But there were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.
Why I’m stoked: As previously mentioned on this blog, I’m from Alton, IL, a small town across the Mississippi from Ferguson, MO. I don’t think I have to tell you how upset I’ve been to see my neighbors, friends, and family rocked by community violence and mistrust. Books like this one are necessary and welcome. I plan to read it and The Ferguson Report back-to-back. I may be known for my preference for fluffy and frivolous reads, but this is one I know will be difficult for me–and I honestly can’t wait.

madlyMadly by Amy Alward
Summary: When the Princess of Nova accidentally poisons herself with a love potion meant for her crush, she falls crown-over-heels in love with her own reflection. Oops. A nationwide hunt is called to find the cure, with competitors travelling the world for the rarest ingredients, deep in magical forests and frozen tundras, facing death at every turn. Enter Samantha Kemi – an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent. Sam’s family were once the most respected alchemists in the kingdom, but they’ve fallen on hard times, and winning the hunt would save their reputation. But can Sam really compete with the dazzling powers of the ZoroAster megapharma company? Just how close is Sam willing to get to Zain Aster, her dashing former classmate and enemy, in the meantime? And just to add to the pressure, this quest is ALL OVER social media. And the world news. No big deal, then.
Why I’m stoked: Fantasy and humor. Romance and adventure. And a cover that launched a thousand Instagram posts (if you didn’t see this pop up in your feed in recent weeks you are following the wrong people, my friend). Oh, my goodness. And it’s also book one in a series. Be still my beating heart. I just know this is going to be a fantastic read.

sanctuarySanctuary by Jennifer McKissack
Summary: After the untimely death of her aunt Laura, Cecilia Cross is forced to return to Sanctuary, a rambling, old French-Gothic mansion that crowns a remote island off the coast of Maine. Cecilia is both drawn to and repulsed by Sanctuary. The scent of the ocean intoxicates her, but she’s also haunted by the ghosts of her past–of her father who died at Sanctuary five years ago, and of her mother who was committed soon after. The memories leave Cecilia feeling shaken, desperate to run away and forget her terrible family history. But then a mysterious guest arrives at Sanctuary: Eli Bauer, a professor sent to examine Sanctuary’s library. Cecilia is intrigued by this strange young man who seems so interested in her — even more interested in her than in the books he is meant to be studying. Who is he and what does he want? Can Cecilia possibly trust her growing feelings for him? And can he help her make peace with her haunted, tragic past?
Why I’m stoked: I know the two plots are not the same at all, but reading this synopsis reminded me so strongly of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that I felt compelled to put it on my TBR. While I love ghost stories, I confess it’s been an age since I’ve read a good Gothic. And the fact that a personal library plays a prominent role in the book kind of makes me crave reading it even more.

zeroesZeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti
Summary: Ethan, aka “Scam,” has a way with words. When he opens his mouth, whatever he wants you to hear comes out. But Ethan isn’t just a smooth talker. He has a unique ability to say things he doesn’t consciously even know. Sometimes the voice helps, but sometimes it hurts – like now, when the voice has lied and has landed Ethan in a massive mess. So now Ethan needs help. And he needs to go to the last people who would ever want to help him – his former group of friends, the self-named “Zeroes” who also all possess similarly double-edged abilities, and who are all angry at Ethan for their own respective reasons. Brought back together by Scam’s latest mischief, they find themselves entangled in an epic, whirlwind adventure packed with as much interpersonal drama as mind-bending action.
Why I’m stoked: On the plus side, I’ve never read a Scott Westerfeld book, so this makes me feel pretty adventurous. On the downside, I almost across the board loathe dystopian novels. However, the abilities the Zeroes posses make me second-guess my dystopian disgust. This one is going to be book one of at least a trilogy, so if I really love it I can look forward to delving into more stories later.

I should probably take a photograph of my TBR for dramatic effect. However, it would be so much taller than me it may topple over and land me with an injury that may prevent me from reading. Tragic!

Ready Player One

Were you born in the early nineteen-seventies? Are you a complete [expletive deleted] dork? Then this novel is a big wet sloppy kiss to you, my friend. – J. Robert Lennon

When these two questions and a statement zipped across my Facebook News Feed a few weeks back (my answers: yes and yes by the way), I couldn’t resist reading the book to which it referred. The novel in question is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and my friend’s recommendation couldn’t have been more apt.

Ready Player One is a dystopian novel set in the near future (2044 to be exact). A global energy crisis has dramatically raised the price of fuel. As a result, cars that have run out of gas are abandoned alongside the road and old trailers are stacked one on top of the other in rickety apartment-like skyscrapers which are prone to collapse. Our 18-year-old protagonist Wade Watts lives in one of these trailer stacks outside of Oklahoma City. He goes to a virtual school in a virtual world called OASIS. When not in school, he spends the majority of his time as a gunter (that’s short for “egg hunter”), a group of people who hunt for an “Easter egg” hidden somewhere inside OASIS that was left by its multi-billionaire creator, James Halliday. Whoever finds the egg will inherit Halliday’s immense wealth and gain control of OASIS.

Halliday was an avid fan of the 1980s, the decade of his youth, so those attempting to discover the hidden egg must delve into a world of 1980s trivia. This creates a future popular culture obsessed with the long ago decade. Our protagonist, whose OASIS avatar is known as Parzival, finds the key to the first of three gates leading to the egg. He rises to international superstardom and soon the novel’s bad guys, the monopolistic media conglomerate IOI, are after Wade/Parzival and his gunter friends.

So this book is not just a dystopian novel, it’s also an epic adventure story jam-packed with well-known to highly obscure 1980s cultural references. The author even owns a DeLorean and is driving it to each city of his book tour! For someone like me, who grew up in the 1980s but wasn’t deeply into Dungeons & Dragons or equipped with a deep knowledge of early computers like the TRS-80 or Commodore 64, the cultural references are still a lot of fun. Who knew that David Lightman, the main character in the movie WarGames, lived in Snohomish? Younger readers who might not get all of the ‘80s references, will most likely enjoy the sheer adventure of the book. The plot very much mirrors a complex video game.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced adventure story and ode to the 1980s. It’s not just for the über-geek though. This book has a wide enough appeal to satisfy most readers willing to give it a chance.

Brad

Post-Apo

It’s getting close to Dec. 21, 2012, so naturally everyone’s interested in the end of the world and its aftermath, the post-apocalypse. “Post-apo” has become sort of a hip shorthand for such end-of-the-world themes. Sensing this interest (or maybe sharing it), quite a few authors have set novels in some kind of post-apo world. There are dozens of such books in the library. Below is a quick survey.

I’ve purposely left out post-apo vampire novels, with the sole exception of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, written in 1954, well before the Twilight series. And zombie books are strictly eschewed, as are alternative histories.

Generally, the post-apocalpyse looks pretty depressing. Most aren’t  as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but bleak enough.

Nuclear apocalypse is a very popular end-of-the-world scenario, whether by major exchange, by tactical nukes or by suitcase bombs. In some cases, nearly everyone is killed. In other scenarios only a few million are killed, but the economy melts down and so does society, as in Whitley Strieber’s War Day. Sometimes radiation causes weird and dangerous genetic mutations, as in Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx.

Technology running amok is another common theme in post-apo literature. Malignant nanotech chews its way through the organic community in Jeff Carlson’s Plague Year. Genetically altered organisms are featured in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. But even such simple tech as a cell phone might end the world, as in Stephen King’s The Cell.

Environmental disaster is also a biggie, featuring soil-destroying  toxins, massive storms, genetic mutations, loss of human fertility, and rising oceans. In Steven Baxter’s Flood, the ocean rises until your favorite Starbucks is about five miles under water.

Since the old ways haven’t worked out so well, the end of the world offers some neat plans for reorganizing what’s left of society. Fascism figures big, of course, as in Bernard Beckett’s Genesis. Some post-apo governments are based on ecological, egalitarian principles, as in S.M. Stirling’s Change Saga series. Women-dominated societies are fairly common, as in Pamela Sargent’s Shore of Women and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. Rupert Thompson’s Divided Kingdom separates people by their attitudes, angry, hopeful, etc. and fences them in together. In Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, cloning replaces sexual reproduction. How boring is that future?

Humorists find humor even in the end of the world. See Victor Gischler’s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, in which the highest form of civilization is found in Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go strip clubs. In Will Self’s Book of Dave, society’s holy scripture turns out to be the rantings of a long-dead, psychotic London cab driver who buried his “manifesto” in his garden. Not even the late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. could resist this genre, with Galapagos.

By the way, if you’re interested in all the dates on which the world was supposed to end, check out the website A Brief History of the Apocalypse . For a user guide to the prophesied 2012 apocalypse, see the book 2012: Science or Superstition by Alexandra Bruce.

Cameron

It’s not the end of the world

There was a time when I was king of the dystopian novel, a time when I required nothing more than a destroyed civilization, a small band of people trying to survive and rebuild, a glass of wine, and thou reading in the wilderness. 

Now that I have chronologically matured and my interest in end-of-the-world stories has waned, I still find time for the occasional apocalyptic gem. However, no longer do I thrill in the earth-is-destroyed-by-a-rogue-planet-but-our-gallant-hero-rescues-a-small-town-in-Ohio plots. Rather, I favor the more subtle tale that looks at a not-so-distant future that is not-so-different from the present.

Following is a list, categorized by type of disaster, of a few dystopian books worth looking into. It is only by reading future histories that we can avoid our future mistakes.

Nuclear (and other) disasters
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller
A nuclear strike “cleans the earth,” technology is reviled and destroyed, but an order of monks preserves scientific knowledge while attempting to rebuild civilization.

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick
In the face of a nuclear accident, genetic mutations, a nuclear strike, and loss of technological knowledge, people go about their lives with varying degrees of success.

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Long after an unnamed catastrophe has occurred, a person’s social status is based on which colors he can see. In this droll chronicle, technology is gradually eradicated, with all sorts of machines and tools (even down to spoons) phased out.

Totalitarian governments
Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson  
Britain is divided into four republics, families are torn apart, and citizens (based on their personality-type) are assigned to live in one of the republics. Thomas Perry, a civil servant, begins a journey which turns into a nightmare as he illegally travels between zones.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
In a frightening future, women are valued only for their reproductive abilities.

Love in the Time of Fridges by Tim Scott
This amusing story finds the mayor of New Seattle’s zero-tolerance-of-danger policy creating a society based on fear (not to mention the occasional roving pack of intelligent refrigerators).

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
The government controls information as well as an individual’s thoughts and memories.

Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In this future, thinking is dangerous and books are forbidden.

Ecological emergencies
Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Arctic ice pack shrinks, bringing about climactic changes and disasters.

Juniper Time by Kate Wilhelm
Environmental neglect leads to a slow social apocalypse.

Technological tragedies
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
In the not-too-distant future the U.S. becomes a conglomerate of corporate-owned states with few laws, and virtual reality dominates people’s lives. When a friend is destroyed by the new drug Snow Crash, Hiro uses his hacking skills to save the day.

Idoru by William Gibson
In 21st century Tokyo technology is both alluring and dangerous, the rich and the poor are separated by walls, and pop stars marry virtual constructs.

Devilish discrimination
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
The U.S. is fragmented, in a state of virtual civil war and anarchy, and people’s souls are becoming alienated from their bodies in this humorous tale.

Population permutations
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
More than 7 billion souls swarm across the futuristic earth of 2010. Overcrowding, artificial intelligence, legalized psychedelic drugs, and science tempered with superstition create a complex terrain for the world’s nations to navigate.

The Children of Men by P.D. James
Mass infertility leads slowly towards the end of the human race. 

The Apocalypse
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Don’t make any plans for Sunday, the apocalypse is arriving Saturday unless the angels of good and evil (who have grown quite comfortable here on earth) can stop it.

Ron