Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic fiction

Book Review: The Twelve

1 For it came to pass that the world was grown wicked, and men had taken war into their hearts, and committed great defilements upon every living thing, so that the world was as a dream of death;

2 And God looked upon His creation with great sadness, for His spirit no longer abided with mankind.  

3 And the Lord said: As in the days of Noah, a great deluge shall sweep over the earth; and this shall be a deluge of blood. The monsters of men’s hearts shall be made flesh, devouring all in their path. And they shall be called Virals.

So begins The Twelve, the second book in Justin Cronin’s trilogy of the apocolypse. Book one, The Passage, plunged us headlong into the fiendish aftermath of a government experiment gone terribly wrong. “It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.” Now Cronin continues the story: because the end of the world was really just the beginning.

The first part of the book takes us back to Year Zero, when all hell breaks loose. New characters are introduced, old ones are developed, and more light is shed upon the circumstances surrounding the first Viral outbreak. Meanwhile, Cronin gradually brings us back to the current time, 97 AV – five years after the end of The Passage. Mankind’s fight for survival goes on, but the rules have changed. The enemy is evolving… and the future may hold something far worse than the extinction of the human race.

You could say the stakes are high, and you’d be right. In more ways than one. This is, after all, a novel about vampires. Get it? Stakes… vampires… oh, never mind.

The first question we must ask of The Twelve is this: did it live up to its predecessor? And to that I answer, yea and nay. The Passage is still the stronger of the two, by my reckoning – grander in scope, more tightly plotted, and with greater emotional heft. That being said, this sequel is no slacker. Even with its shortcomings, it towers high above the majority of modern fiction, and is, on the whole, a worthy addition to Cronin’s saga.

And speaking of Cronin, the guy is still at the top of his game as a storyteller. His writing is terrific, and he once again exhibits a tremendous (indeed, Clancy-esque) talent for handling large casts of characters. The story itself is a bona fide epic – a sprawling and majestically gritty tale of blood, survival, sacrifice, and adventure. Some have said it can be read as a stand alone novel, but I couldn’t disagree more. This is a sequel, in the truest sense of the word, and the core of its power lies in its connection to the first book. Reading The Twelve without reading The Passage is like reading The Two Towers without reading The Fellowship. In a word: pointless.

I said this was a novel about vampires, but that’s only half true. Vampires (or Virals) do play a significant role, but Cronin’s story is ultimately about the human race and those who fight for its survival. Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, The Twelve is less about the dead than it is about the living, and its pages are scattered with thought-provoking questions and ideas. You’ll find thrills, and more than a few chills, but you’ll also find quite a bit to think about.

As far as objectionable content goes, The Twelve isn’t much different its predecessor. There’s plenty of violence, a fair amount of strong language, and some mature sexual material. Be sure to take that into account when deciding if you want this book on your shelf (or your child’s shelf). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The City of Mirrors is the final book of the trilogy, and from what I hear, it’s scheduled for release in 2014. I look forward to seeing what Cronin has in store for us. In the meantime…

“All eyes.”

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”

Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured.

Combining old-fashioned adventure, an eye for puzzles, and a taste for the bizarre, author David Mitchell has written a delightfully original piece of fiction. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it before. It is a novel of novellas, one big story comprised of several smaller ones (six, to be exact). Each of these stories is set in a different time and place. Each is written in a different style of prose. And each is broken off midway and concluded in the second half of the book.

The Pacific Journel of Adam Ewing takes place circa 1850, and chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked American notary from San Francisco. You may want to keep a dictionary close by as you read this one, as Mitchell draws on a formidable vocabulary. I, for one, had fun with it, but if you’re allergic to words like “scrimshandered” and “tatterdemalion”, you may find yourself giving up before you’ve even started. Don’t. The reward is well-worth the effort.

Letters From Zedelghem follows the young Robert Frobisher, a scoundrelly English musician who finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer in Belgium, 1931. The story takes several dark and sordid turns, dealing with themes of adultery, betrayal, greed, and arrogance. A tragedy, in many ways, but Mitchell’s knack for textured characters is nowhere more evident.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery jumps to Buenas Yerbas, CA in 1975. Miss Rey is an investigative journalist determined to uncover the shady events surrounding a new nuclear power plant. I’d love to see Mitchell do more noir – if this story is any indication, he’d be darn good at it.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is far and away my favorite part of the book, recounting the misadventures of a vanity press publisher in the early 21st century UK. It’s clever and frequently hilarious, and the flavor is distinctly Wodehousian at times. Dashed good stuff, what?

An Orison of Sonmi~451 is dystopian science fiction set in Korea. The story takes place in flashback, during the interrogation of a genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone. It’s a bizarre and thought-provoking story, and reminded me of something Asimov (or possibly P.K. Dick) might have come up with. Part of me wishes some of the science had been explained further; the other part can understand why it wasn’t.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the tribesman Zachry is visited by “Meronym”, one of the last surviving members of technologically-advanced civilization. Inventive though it is, this story is my least favorite, primarily because of its strange and slangy prose. Appropriate within the context, no doubt, but a chore to decipher.

I won’t tell you how all these tales come together – that would spoil one of the chief joys of reading this book – but they do come together. Every piece has a place in the grand, kaleidoscopic tapestry of Mitchell’s world. Watching him dance from genre to genre, and then tie everything up in the end, makes for one of the most entertaining head-trips I’ve had in awhile.

While I’m sure expounding all the symbolism and thematic material would be a fascinating task, I’ve decided not to bother with that here. I would, however, like to point out that the overarching theme is, in many ways, a Christian one: we all have a part to play in a story bigger than we could ever imagine. No one lives in a vacuum. The choices we make, the lives we touch, are not without meaning or consequence. We may not be able to understand the part we play in the God’s cosmic epic, but rest assured, we do play a part.

As N.D. Wilson says,

Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag. 

This isn’t meant to imply that Mitchell, or his novel, embrace a distinctly Christian worldview, but we can value this reminder all the same. It is an important one.

At the end of Ewing’s journal, he resolves to work at shaping his world for the better. He also imagines his father-in-law’s scorn upon hearing such a resolution:

He who would do battle with the multi-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & and his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

Ewing’s response: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Book Review: I Am Legend

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. But he’s not alone.

An unstoppable plague has devastated the world’s population, killing millions and transforming the survivors into ravenous night-walkers, thirsty for blood. No one is left unscathed. No man, no woman, no child.

Except for Robert Neville.

Miraculously immune to the plague, Neville is a hunter-gatherer by day – stalking the undead as they sleep, and collecting any useful supplies he can get his hands on. By night, he barricades himself in his house, hoping for dawn. His chances of surviving this murderous new world grow smaller by the hour, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before they catch him. Or drive him insane. Whichever happens first.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is another book I became acquainted with via film. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version (starring Will Smith) impressed me a great deal with its tautly-crafted story, complex themes, and profound biblical imagery. It also got a fair amount of flack from fans of the novel, who dismissed it as “yet another Hollywood adaption run amuck.”

I’ve experienced both now – the movie and the book. And though they differ from one another quite a bit, I can honestly say I have a deep appreciation for both. I appreciate the movie for its sophisticated rumination on grace, faith, and redemption. I appreciate the book for its intriguing scientific-backdrop, gripping psychological study, and for the clever (and grimly ironic) nature of its conclusion.

Matheson drops us straight into the heart of the story with one of the best opening lines I’ve had the pleasure of reading:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

The uncertainty of survival – and hints to the dreadful consequences of a single misstep on Neville’s part – are both ominously present in that sentence. And as we read on, we feel a perversely compelling certainty that this story can’t have a “happily ever after” sort of ending.

It doesn’t. I won’t spoil the finale for you; suffice it to say, it’s pretty bleak. Not hopeless per se, but not exactly hopeful, either. It does, however, prove fitting within the story’s (already bleak) context – and you’ll never look at the title the same way again.

As the tale progresses, Matheson – through the character of Neville – establishes a fairly plausible scientific explanation for the vampires’ existence. I thoroughly enjoyed that part, and if that sort of stuff interests you, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.

Most interesting (for me, at least) was “watching” Neville cope with his aloneness. For years, his thoughts have been his only company. No contact with another living being whatsoever. That, combined with the constant threat of violence and death, has begun to take its toll.

To further complicate matters, the vampires that hunt him aren’t just any vampires – they were once his friends and neighbors. And they still recognize him, even in their crazed, plague-ridden state. When darkness falls, they surround his house and call to him: “Come out, Neville! Come out!” Night after night after bloody night. That’ll mess with your head…

Neville’s cynicism and outright despair are not surprising, but I couldn’t help but wonder how a man with faith in God might respond differently under the same circumstances. Neville has nothing outside of himself to turn to, because he believes there isn’t any such thing. There’s just him. And the vampires. And the certainty of a dark and lonely end.

Yet what might a Christian say to this? Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Do I recommend I Am Legend? Yes. It’s not particularly fun reading, but it is engaging and thought-provoking, and will give rise to plenty of interesting discussion. I should add that it’s not a book for younger readers: aside from the disturbing premise, it also has several scenes of violence, a smattering of language, and some sexual themes.

Book Review: The Passage

It’s the end of the world… again. And Harold Camping has nothing to do with it.

Apocolyptic fiction of any kind greatly interests me. Done well, it can be a superb tool for exploring strong emotional, moral, and philisophical themes. McCarthy’s The Road is a magnificent example of this, showcasing the relationship of a father and son against the backdrop of a ravaged world.

Enter Justin Cronin’s The Passage. It caught my eye last year, and I added it to my list of potential reads for 2011. I eventually discarded it in favor of other books and had all but forgotten it when, out of the blue, a friend recommended it to me. I took his advice, picked up a copy at the library, and bingo! I was hooked. It’s equal parts science-fiction epic, end-of-the-world nightmare, and touching human drama all rolled into a single, 800 page volume of ambitious apocalyptic literature.

When a vampiric bat virus is discovered by expeditionaries in South America, it’s transported to a clandestine government facility in the Colorado mountains. There, a team of scientists soon discover that the virus’ potential benefits are incredible: it has the power to make human beings immortal and virtually indestructible. Thrilled by their findings, they attempt to engineer the virus in hopes of creating the ultimate super-soldier. Meet Project NOAH.

Unfortunately, these profound advances come at a cost no one could have anticipated; and when the virus is injected into the human blood stream, it becomes clear that something is very wrong. The test subjects of the experiment – twelve men who were convicts on death row – transform into a superhuman race of vampire-like creatures called Virals. And when a security breach at the facility where they are held unleashes them on the outside world, all hell breaks loose. A night of chaos and death marks the beginning of a nation, and ultimately of a world, forever changed.

As civilization swiftly crumbles, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a troubled man, haunted by the death of daughter and by his involvement in certain morally-questionable activites. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is refugee from Project NOAH – one of the few to survive. Wolgast determines to protect her from the bloody fallout, but for Amy, escape is only the beginning of a much longer journey – over many miles and many years – towards the time and place where she must finish what never should have begun.

I used the word “literature” intentionally when describing this book. The Passage isn’t some cheap apocalyptic horror novel like those that often litter the bargain section of the bookstore. Rather, it is fascinating, intelligent, and thoughtful piece of fiction with impeccable prose, finely-drawn characters, and a relentless pace. It is, in my opinion, a work of art.

Though the premise of his story sounds similar to others of the same genre, Cronin spins it in an entirely new and interesting way. His writing style is polished, smart, and easy to engage with. I’m not exactly a fan of Stephen King, but I think he summed up the quality of the story well when he said, “Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated; read thirty and you will find yourself taken prisoner and reading late into the night. It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”

One major theme of the book is that of retaining humanity in an inhumane world. The characters – even the ones that don’t play particularly crucial roles – are crafted with care and skill, and the reader feels their struggles, joys, and pains. Amy, in particular, is one of most lifelike little heroines I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and her relationship with the troubled Wolgast is heartfelt without a hint of saccharine sentimentality.

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the author’s gritty take on vampires. These are not sparkly, angst-ridden, misunderstood bloodsuckers a la Stephanie Meyer; nor do they resemble Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The vampires in The Passage are hairless, insect-like killers: super-fast, super-strong, and extraordinarily difficult to destroy. Elements of vampire lore are present, to be sure – the creatures are immortal, drink blood, and mostly hunt at night – but on the whole, Cronin’s interpretation is quite unique.

Surprisingly enough, faith is neither mocked nor ignored in the story. In fact, one of the key characters is a devout Christian, firmly believing (as it turns out, rightly so) that Amy is God’s answer to the terrible catastrophe. Not only that, but Cronin’s narrative closely resembles that of the Fall in Genesis 3: man brazenly pursues his quest for godlike-ness, and consequently unleashes unimaginable evil on the surrounding world – evil that touches everything and everyone, even the generations to come.

This is not say The Passage is entirely or even explicitly Christian, and readers should still exercise caution and biblical discernment. That said, there’s much to think about, and the book is all the richer for it.

The post-apocalyptic world of The Passage is a dark, threatening, and horrific place; it’s not surprising, therefore, that Cronin’s narrative is punctuated by violence. Humans and virals alike are shot, stabbed, maimed, dismembered, and blown apart in a number of vicious encounters; these sequences are never excessively graphic, but jarring nonetheless, and easily unsettled readers should know what they’re getting into.

Sexual content is surprisingly limited, and when it does pop up, it’s brief and easy to skip. More objectionable is the foul language. It’s not as pervasive as, say, Robopocalypse; and thankfully, after the first couple hundred pages or so, the swearing lightens up considerably. Even so, there’s still quite a bit of it and, when it does pop up, it’s generally strong R-rated fare.

All in all, I recommend The Passage, bearing in mind the cautions given and the fact that it’s only for the most mature of readers. Apparently, it’s only the first installment of a proposed trilogy, the second of which will be released next year. Am I looking forward to it? Definitely.

Book Review: The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

It’s the perfect opening line for this book – ominous, cryptic, even slightly humorous (in a dark sort of way). Just the thing to draw the reader in. Because once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Your fate is sealed.  You will be hooked from start to finish as you explore a strange and unsettling new world.

Published in 1951, John Wyndham’s classic (but oft overlooked) sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids begins in London, detailing the events following a strange “comet shower” which leaves the majority of humanity stricken blind. Those few with sight must come to grips with this new way of life, as they struggle to survive and rebuild their shattered society.

But there’s more.

Enter the Triffids, a species of genetically altered plant. Their exact origin is a mystery, but people suspected they were the result of biological experi-
mentation in the USSR. They can walk around on their three “legs”. They seem to be able communicate with one another. And they eat flesh. Each one is armed with a poisonous whip-like sting that allows it to kill and
feed on the decomposing carcass of its prey.

Before the cataclysm, the Triffids were a nuisance. Now – with most of mankind rendered helpless – they pose a serious threat; not only to the sightless, but to the sighted as well.

The premise is a tad unorthodox, and to some it may even be laughable. But trust me, once you start reading, the story is anything but laughable. Wyndham infuses his work with well-crafted sense of tension and down-to-earth realism. He makes the implausible sound completely and utterly possible. And that is good sci-fi is all about.

The characters of the story come across as genuine human beings rather than cardboard cutouts, and they’re easy to sympathize with. The protagonist, William Masen, deftly summarizes their shock and dismay at this sudden calamity when he remarks,

Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Still I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modem city seemed to me…

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”- that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.

Confronted with the need to begin rebuilding society, London-based survivors band together for that very purpose. But when considering the question of how to go about it, there is sharp disagreement and a split develops. Interestingly enough, the reason is a purely ideological one.

One faction argues that “morality” is subject to the times; that “right and wrong” are relative to the sort of world in which one lives. They believe the survivors must adapt their sense of morality in the interest of self-preservation. For instance, if this means that the sacred institution of marriage must be laid aside, and fornication permitted in order to increase the number of pregnancies, so be it. Life must go on.

The other group rejects this humanistic approach, and counters it with an appeal to God’s law. They believe that right and wrong are not mere societal inventions to be altered as man sees fit, but rather objective, God-given values. Tampering with them will only lead to ruin.

None of this is to say that Wyndham is writing from a Christian worldview. Unable to reconcile their differences, the two opposing parties separate, and the author is largely silent on the issue of which worldview he considers correct. (It is interesting to note, however, that the protagonist adheres more to the latter stance than he does to the former, even if he is not a distinctly Christian character.)

The book draws to a close on a hopeful – if rather unsatisfactory – note. Apparently, Wyndham intended to write a follow-up but died before he could do so. Eager readers are left with a cliff-hanger finale. It nearly drove me crazy with frustration. Come to think of it, I may just have to write the sequel myself someday, so I can see how things turn out in the end.

As far as objectionable content goes, Triffids is fairly clean, though I would still only recommend for older readers. The themes dealt with are dark and mature. Mild language is scattered throughout, and there’s some violence, though nothing very graphic. One character is the author of a book with a somewhat questionable title. (Much to her chagrin and the reader’s amusement, she has a bit of trouble living down her subsequent reputation.)

All in all, I highly recommend Wyndham’s book as an intense, thoughtful, superbly written piece of science fiction. It’s worth reading, and if you’re an avid sci-fi buff like I am, you’ll probably wish to visit it more than once.