In this second reflection on books I read in 2016, I continue, Noah-like, to lead books in two by two. My two top books I lauded first; now I commend two favorite works of fiction. They have much in common: both by women, both post-apocalyptic, both quietly hopeful, and both gripped me start to end. I foolishly failed to take notes or quotes from either, so I’ll shabbily attempt to conjure something of the magic of each.
First, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. For an appetizer of its prose, see Nick Roark’s excerpt (#13). The premise of the book is that 99.99% of humanity is wiped out by a virus. Among the few survivors, we meet a traveling Shakespeare company, who wander dusty roads between the shells of cities. While the book is about more than this company, their existence distills the book’s premise: even in near-total ruin, beauty persists.
I started listening to the book via a very capable narration on Audible, but the prose was so achingly gorgeous that I had to take it in by eye. The story flashes back and forth from pre- to post-catastrophe; eventually each plot line satisfyingly converges. Through the loss of everything we now take for granted, the book renders modern life as the miracle of shared ingenuity that it is. I defy you to read the book and not at least once look up stunned and blinking.
Second, the Osiris Project trilogy by E. J. Swift. I saw this warmly commended on twitter by Adam Roberts. The series focuses on Osiris, a city pile-driven above the middle of the ocean, which is, as far as its inhabitants know, the only civilization to survive a nightmarish global warming scenario of droughts, storms, and pandemics. Set four-hundred or so years in the future, the book evinces an anthropologist’s precision in imagining realignments of culture and customs, of ways people might find to live. I could understand if some readers would find the pace slow in the second and third volumes, but I devoured the series whole and could’ve gladly read several more.
Imagine you live in a city with no land, no trees, no animals. No real summer, only a slight ease in cold. No survivors anywhere else. And your city is, like an intensified Berlin, split in two, between a cosseted, lavish East and a starving, shanty-town West. In this city, what hope would you have for life itself, what power of spirit to transcend the merciless ocean and the clawing cold?