Category Archives: Dystopian

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I made my book club read this book and none of them were mad at me for it. Therefore, it must be worthy of review.

I can’t really give a description of this book that won’t make it sound like another Hunger Games, or Divergent, or any other post-apocalyptic YA novel about a girl in a desperate future trying to survive, but you’ll have to trust me that it is so, so much more than that. Wasp’s future is so bleak it really isn’t worth living in at all, and there isn’t the romantic element that runs through those other YA books, and Wasp doesn’t need to spend several books changing the world, she does it in one. Seriously, Wasp could kick Katniss’ and Tris’ asses at the same time and still get something else done that day.

The premise: Wasp lives in a society where there is barely enough food to go around, people live hand-to-mouth, and all modern technology has been lost, but no one knows exactly what happened to make it this way. The future is full of ghosts, who outnumber and threaten the living. For years, “chosen” girls (known by the scars on their faces, purportedly left by the goddess Catchkeep’s claws) have been collected by the Catchkeep Priest, who raises them and supervises the work of one girl – the Archivist. The Archivist’s job is to hunt ghosts, use them to try to find out what happened in the past if she can, and then dispatch them so that they can no longer harm the living.  Every year, one of the girls (an “Upstart”) is chosen to fight the current Archivist. If the Upstart wins, she becomes the Archivist. If she loses, the Archivist keeps her job (and her life) for another year. Wasp has been the Archivist for 3 years. Her life is miserable. She lives apart from the other girls and the villagers fear her, so she has no contact with anyone other than the sadistic Catchkeep Priest, who controls her life completely.  She cannot escape – she’s tried, and the Priest and his dogs always find her and bring her back. The work is horrible – she traps ghosts, tries to extract information from them, and then kills them day after day, and never makes much progress deciphering why her world is the way it is – until the day she finds a ghost who has retained enough of his memories to talk to her. He needs her help to find another ghost. Can she trust him? Will helping the ghost free Wasp from her life as she knows it? She is desperate enough to give it a whirl. And the story goes from there.

What is this book like? It’s kind of like Divergent or Station Eleven, in the sense that the world has changed but lots of old stuff (abandoned cities, random objects) are still lying around, many of their purposes forgotten. It’s like the Hunger Games in that children are forced to fight to the death. It’s like The Handmaid’s Tale in the sense that girls are raised for a religious purpose that they know nothing about, by sadistic men who don’t tell them the whole story. (And maybe like Brave New World where children are predestined to do what society needs them to do, regardless of whether that’s what they want.)  Another story that kept popping into my mind as I read it was Sheri Tepper’s Raising the Stones. Even though the details aren’t the same, the general idea of young people carrying on a religion that they don’t know the origin of is similar.

A member of my book club suggested that I should post the questions we used for our discussion, since we all sometimes have trouble finding discussion questions and have to Google around to see if anyone else has done it for us. So, as a gesture of goodwill to other book clubbers out there, here they are:

  1. The ghost doesn’t even remember why he must find Kit any more, but he is still compelled to try. Have you ever had a goal that you pursued even after almost forgetting why?
  2. Did you expect the ghosts of the defeated Upstarts to help Wasp? Would you have?
  3. Did you expect a romantic relationship between Wasp and the ghost as soon as you realized that he was male?
  4. One review I read said the journey through the underworld was “repetitive and boring”. do you agree or disagree?
  5. page 69 test. Go.
  6. Imagine for a moment what it would have been like for Wasp and Kit to meet and get to know each other. Would they be friends?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station11

Yes, I read another post-apocalyptic novel where civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. But in my defense, there’s Shakespeare! And comics!

The novel begins when Arthur, a fiftyish actor who is finally old enough to play King Lear, has a heart attack onstage. A young man in the audience who is training to be an EMT tries to help, and winds up comforting a small girl involved in the production after the ambulance takes Arthur away.

On his way home, the young EMT-to-be gets a call from a friend who works in a hospital, who warns him that an epidemic has broken out and that he should hole up at home and not talk to anyone. Since he knows this friend is not normally an alarmist, he stocks up on supplies and heads to his brother’s house to wait out the scare. From here, the story is taken up by several different characters – Kirsten, the young girl who was onstage with Arthur when he had his heart attack, Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife, and Clark, a friend of Arthur’s. We piece together from their stories of the present, future and past how all of these characters are connected, and what happened before, during and after the flu pandemic.

This novel is beautiful. I know it should be depressing, and yes, 99 percent of the population dies in the first few chapters, but what happens in the aftermath is not as bleak as you’d expect. Civilization as it was known disappears, communications between communities is limited to what news can be gleaned from travelers, and technology more sophisticated than hand tools is no longer of any use – but somehow, the survivors survive, the world goes on, and there’s still classical music and Shakespeare being performed, so really, how bad could it be? Plus there’s a graphic novel (loosely inspired by Spaceman Spiff from Calvin and Hobbes) which inspires two of the characters – one to make art, the other to start a cult. And did I mention the museum one of the characters starts – in an airline lounge, with cell phones and other useless devices as exhibits? And best of all, all of these things are connected, even if the people involved don’t know it. I only wish that the book had pictures, because the author’s descriptions of the graphic novel’s illustrations sound incredible. (Artists – make Station 11 the comic happen. Please.)

What reads like this? Well, the post-apocalyptic elements make it sort of like Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, or Roth’s Divergent. But the writing style for some reason reminded me of Ann Patchett – maybe because the story is vaguely similar to Bel Canto, where the world has gone to hell but art keeps the survivors going?

The Word Exchange: A Novel by Alena Graedon

WORD Jacket

Paranoid much? Do you love words, and fear that the world is full of people who use them badly? Are you convinced that ebooks and downloaded music will destroy our current model of “owning” creative works? This book is for you.

Anana (rhymes with banana but means pineapple, she explains) works for her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. Doug longs for the days when people emailed or spoke face to face, and fears that Anana’s generation is losing the ability to use the written word. He disapproves of Anana’s use of her meme, a device rather like a smartphone but which integrates itself with the user over time so that it can anticipate your needs and wants. For example, it will call a taxi for you just as you decide to go somewhere, or order you takeout if you begin to feel hungry. The more you use your meme, the better it gets at doing what you want it to do before you can even ask. The most insidious thing the memes do, in Doug’s opinion, is to link the user with the Word Exchange – a service that will automatically define a word for you if you hear or read it and cannot recall what it means. For an automatically deducted fee per word, of course.

Anana loves and respects her father, but that doesn’t stop her from using the technology he warns her against anyway – until she begins noticing the effects that it is having on her memory and on the communications she has with her friends. When Doug disappears, Anana begins hunting for him – only to discover that North American Dictionary of the English Language has been sold (to the company that owns the Word Exchange, naturally) and all printed copies are being destroyed.  It turns out that Doug wasn’t just being a paranoid Luddite – a shadowy group really is hatching a diabolical plot to infect users with “word flu” – an infection that causes them to lose the ability to remember the words they need to communicate at all, rendering them fully dependent on the Word Exchange…which now owns all of the words and can make them mean whatever they want. Conspiracies abound, everyone she loves is in danger, and she can’t count on anyone once they start to muddle their words.

All in all, it’s an engaging read. I didn’t really like Anana at first – at the start she has just broken up with her boyfriend and is depressed and whiny – but as the story progresses, she becomes stronger and more determined. I like the fact that this woman of average intelligence manages to get through a horrible ordeal despite the fact that evil geniuses all around her appear to hold all of the cards.

I discovered this book by accident when looking for Max Barry’s Lexicon, which someone told me was similar. I have since found it on a lot of “If you liked Lexicon…” lists, so maybe I’ll try Barry’s next. As for other read-alikes, it is kind of like George Orwell’s 1984 in the sense that a powerful entity can make the news the public hears mean whatever it wants.

So I finally read Divergent by Veronica Roth

divergent

I generally try to avoid reading whatever the latest YA obsession until the series is completely finished and you can get the first one without waiting 6 months on hold. This approach works well most cases – if the books are bad (Twilight series, anyone?) you don’t feel cheated, and if they are good you can get them easily enough to binge-read the whole series at once (I admit with some shame that I read Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy in a weekend, and I’d do it again, shame be damned, though I might skip the last one). So I didn’t read this one at the height of its hype, but since the movie came out and the second is forthcoming, I can’t get the 2nd or third one now. Grumble.

Anyway. I read this for my book club, and while it was an enjoyable read, I was not inclined to go on to read the second or third, though my book club peeps assure me they’re worth it. My mental jury is still out. Good premise, but a little too much teen angst. As for the movie, I’ll probably watch it because the book itself reads like an action movie, so there is plenty of material there to make it exciting. And the fact that it’s set in Chicago made me nostalgic, though I really don’t want to visit this particular future of Chicago (the fate of Lake Michigan actually made me teary). But the part where they climb the abandoned John Hancock tower is pretty entertaining, Swamp Michigan be damned.

Books in a similar vein: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood… basically any skewed future novel where the common people are being manipulated by forces they don’t understand and when they figure it out all Hell’s gonna break loose.