Don’t Judge a Book by its Zombies

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. At this point it feels cliché, even if the words hold value. But more to the point, sometimes it can be good to judge a book by its cover! Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is a kick-ass book with a kick-ass cover. Judge away! But please, please do not judge this book by its zombies.

I’d never describe myself as a lover of the zombie genre, though I’ve read more than a few books featuring the undead. I understand why some readers are skeptical of these stories and I realize that it doesn’t really help my case to say “but this book isn’t really about the zombies.” I mean, that’s what everyone says, right? But listen…this book?  It isn’t really about the zombies!

283ca973-6947-478d-abe1-e941ef671538-dreadnation_hc-for-webDread Nation takes place in the years following the Civil War. In this version of history the dead began to rise during the war, forcing the North and South into an uneasy truce. The South was ravaged by dead soldiers who have risen from battlefields and agreed to end slavery in exchange for Northern support. However, like during the actual Reconstruction Era, many Northerners and Southerners in this version of history remain determined to punish people of color and pursue the interests of white (and only white) Americans. One way that white supremacy manifests in Dread Nation is through a reeducation act that forces native and black children into schools. They are taught how to fight the zombie hordes – called shamblers in this book – sacrificing their own well-being to ensure the safety and comfort of wealthy and white society.

Jane McKeene, Dread Nation’s narrator, is a student at one of these schools. She is training to be a lady’s attendant, expected to cater to the whims and needs of a member of high society while also lopping off the heads of any shamblers who come-a-shambling. Though Jane takes readily to combat training and has a brilliant mind, she struggles to follow rules, is disinterested in etiquette, and bristles at the expectation that she ‘know her place.’  When Jane and two of her friends wind up on the wrong side of some very powerful (and very racist) politicians, they are banished to Summerland, Kansas.

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Justina Ireland

Summerland is supposed to be the vision of the future: technologically advanced, morally pure, well defended, and structured to provide comfort to white society through the toil and suffering of people of color. But Jane quickly discovers that not everything in Summerland is as it seems and that the poisonous ills woven through the fabric of this ‘utopia’ threaten not just the people of Summerland, but the survival of the human race in the battle against the dead. It will take all of Jane’s courage, scrappiness, and intellect to find a way to escape from this flimsy house of cards before irreversible disaster strikes.

It is worth noting that Ireland uses upsetting language to describe some groups of people. To my knowledge, these words are used in a historically accurate way even if they are far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today. It can make parts of this book uncomfortable, jarring, and difficult to read, as it should be.

Dread Nation holds its own as a dystopian zombie novel with a fast paced and thrilling story filled with dark mysteries and some gruesome deaths. But this book also serves as an excellent work of speculative fiction: reimagining the Civil War, many of its famous people and events, and the societal forces that both led to this conflict and impeded any legitimate notion of equality long after the war’s end. Ireland uses this book to take a frank look at the ways bigotry and hate thrive, even as humanity struggles to survive. And, finally, Jane is a phenomenal narrator: witty, charming, plucky, and perhaps just a bit deceptive as she pulls the reader into her story. Like I said – it’s not about the zombies!

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.

New Speculative Fiction

Not everyone likes science fiction, and sometimes even I don’t. So as not to cause alarm, let’s call the two books I’m going to write about speculative fiction. Both are novels concerning a future that could be ours. Neither requires tremendous leaps in technology or journeys to other planets or even aliens invading, they just take a few more steps down paths that we may already have started upon.

At first, When She Woke by Hillary Jordan seemed very reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Jordan has created a world similar to Atwood’s where individual rights have been rescinded, including the right to reproductive freedom. I was afraid it would end up just being a rewrite, but I found it to be more of a homage.

In Jordan’s future world prisons have been eliminated as too cruel and expensive. Instead skin dyes are used to designate people as criminals. The process is called melachroming and the color that is used depends on the severity of the crime. The most serious crimes result in the skin being dyed red and the person becomes known as a Red Chrome. Of course, being a Red Chrome means being treated differently. The rest of society is  free to discriminate and sometimes even abuse or hunt them. People do this with relative impunity and little guilt.

The protagonist, Hannah, has had an abortion which is considered a crime. She is convicted and becomes a Red Chrome. When she is returned to society, she realizes that there is nowhere safe for her. She enters a sort of halfway house for a time, but it is a harsh place that offers its own punishments. She has to move out of her comfort zone and trust people she would never have considered friends to try to find some peace.

Albert Brooks’ 2030 is timely. America in the year 2030 is dealing with a large elderly population and the social programs that support them in their (ever-longer) retirements. Young people find they can’t get jobs because so much money is being sucked up by the elderly. A sort of class war has begun, with the elderly living in gated communities, if they can afford them, and fearing harassment or even attacks by young people.

Government deficits are rising and most of the debt has been purchased by the Chinese. A huge natural disaster occurs in LA and the government is unable to send any help. China won’t loan any more money because they’ve realized that they may never get paid back (talk about a ratings downgrade). The solutions that are found are sometimes comical, even laugh-out-loud, but some will leave you thinking, “Hey, maybe that’s not such a bad idea”.

Kathy

Steampunk

I got a kick out of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection when I read it last fall, but months went by before I realized it belongs to a niche category of fiction called steampunk.

In Berry’s book, Charles Unwin is reluctantly promoted to detective when his renowned gumshoe boss goes missing. But Unwin is determined to find his boss only so he can return to his comfortable clerkship on one of the lower floors of the massive Agency where they both work. The story is set in a perpetually rain-slicked city that is home to broken-down carnivals, manipulative dreamers (literally), and whole communities of sleepwalkers: a fantastic place for Berry to stage his large-scale crimes. In addition to this atmospheric dreamscape (and despite the modern-day language that makes it seem contemporary) the book is full of things that would tip off a seasoned steampunk reader – anachronisms such as typewriters, phonographs, wind-up alarm clocks, and even a flatbed steam truck. Readers are in for a wild ride in this twisty genre-bender that mixes mystery, the how-to manual, speculative fantasy and alternative history.

At the time of reading it, I noted that The Manual of Detection reminded me in some ways of the film Dark City and the retro-futuristic Mr. X comic books I’d enjoyed in the 80s, but I didn’t yet understand that a whole genre had coalesced around these characteristics. Since then, I have come to learn that steampunk novels are often built off the settings and technology found in the works of writers such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Victorian fashions and architecture are common, as are clockworks and other mechanical age devices including zeppelins, coal-fired trains, and steam-driven vehicles that billow their mist into these richly imagined worlds.

One of the earliest steampunk novels is The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers from 1983. For a classic in the genre, the cognoscenti might point you toward The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling from 1991. Coming some years later are Neverwhere by the ever-popular Neil Gaiman, along with Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville. More recent titles include the clockwork-inspired trilogy by Jay Lake — Mainspring, Escapement, and Pinion; Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker; The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer; The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming; and 2010 Hugo Award finalist, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

So wind the stem on your pocket watch and strap on your brass aviator goggles — the steampunk airships are here to take you away!

Scott