Survival of the Fittest

Reading dystopian novels during a pandemic? Maybe that’s the last thing you’d want to do right now, or maybe you find courage and inspiration in reading about how people survive harrowing situations. Dystopian is defined in the Oxford Dictionary:

relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice

Personally, I love survival stories of all kinds, and a favorite book of 2020 renewed my interest in the genre.

“I love building worlds – I think it’s one of my favorite parts of writing.” So says author Diane Cook, author of The New Wilderness. Cook certainly succeeded in building a fascinating world and a gripping story about survival, sacrifice, and relationships challenged by this tough world. I was thrilled to find out the book was a finalist for The Booker Prize. (The prize was awarded to another book, Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart.) I agree completely with what Roxana Gay says about Cook’s debut novel “I was entirely engrossed in this novel. I didn’t want to leave it…” Learn more about the book by watching this video.

What is it about The New Wilderness that really stuck with me? I checked Novelist (featured in this blog post) to see how they describe it:

Genre: Dystopian fiction; Literary fiction; Multiple perspectives
Character: Complex
Storyline: issue-oriented
Tone: Darkly humorous; Suspenseful; Thought-provoking
Writing style: Compelling; Descriptive

If these descriptors sound good to you, take a look at these dystopian/survival favorites of mine from over the years. All of these titles, like The New Wilderness, left a lasting memory in my mind of their worlds.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood must be at the top of the list because it sparked my fascination with this genre (plus Atwood is just amazing overall). In the Republic of Gilead, male dominance has returned with a vengeance and women are relegated to a handful of truly horrible roles from Commanders’ wives to colony slaves. Don’t miss the Hulu series, which you can check out from the library!

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The world has been devastated by a pandemic, and outdoorsman Hig is surviving in an abandoned airport. He loves his dog, misses his wife, and has conversations with his weapons hoarding neighbor, while fighting off marauding bands of desperate savages. He also occasionally takes his small plane out to search for more survivors, and one day hears a voice on the radio. Library Journal describes the book: “In spare, poetic prose, [Heller] portrays a soaring spirit of hope that triumphs over heartbreak, trauma, and insurmountable struggles.”

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag is another climate change related book in which the ice caps have melted, raising the sea level so high that only mountains are left above water. Most of life is spent traveling by boat, trying to find enough to eat, and hoping to find some place on land not under the control of ruthless gangs of pirate types. Myra and her 7 year old daughter, barely making a living by fishing, hear a rumor that Myra’s oldest daughter, stolen by her ex and presumed dead, may be living in an encampment in the far north. The two embark on a perilous journey. Booklist describes it thus: “Anchored by a complicated, compelling heroine, this gripping, speculative, high-seas adventure is impossible to put down.”

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the first in a four part young adult series which, despite being published 14 years ago, stays with me to this day. The moon has been knocked off course by a meteor and an extreme winter sets in. As the situation gets more and more dire, 16 year old Miranda and her family tries everything they can think of to stay alive. Publisher’s Weekly wrote in 2006: “…readers will find it absorbing from first page to last. This survival tale…celebrates the fortitude and resourcefulness of human beings during critical times.”

Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
The California drought turns the landscape into mountains of sand, and a mass exodus ensues, with only a few hearty, pioneering types left behind. Former model Luz and AWOL Ray are squatting in an abandoned mansion when they encounter a strange little orphan girl. They take to the hills in search of a safer place to raise her. BookList describes their trek: “Their journey across the vast, ever-changing dunes is cosmic and terrifying as Watkins conjures eerily beautiful and deadly sandscapes and a cult leader’s renegade colony.”

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, does not fit perfectly into this genre, but definitely involves survival. Eight year old Peggy has been taken to the woods by her survivalist dad who claims the world has ended and they are the only two people left. Library Journal, in its Starred Review of the book concludes, “Though not always easy reading, Fuller’s emotionally intense novel comes to an unexpected but rewarding conclusion. Don’t let this gripping story pass you by.”

But this is just a beginning – there are so many other good dystopian and survival books out there. Our librarians have created a few collections you may enjoy: If You Liked The Handmaid’s Tale, and Pandemic Apocalypse Fiction. If you prefer nonfiction, check out this list of true survival stories.

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.