The Power and Exit West

The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been rough, y’all. Not good at all. And since comfort reading is one of my big coping strategies, I have spent the past few months reading mostly romance novels, Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (still working my way through all those, Murder Must Advertise was loads of fun), and the occasional true crime story. But recently two well-reviewed literary books snuck in that both tell stories about a world much like our with just the slightest fantastical shift. They were also both beautifully written and slightly terrifying, which might be a good fit for all our feelings in this deepest, darkest winter?

The Power is also a good fit for our current #MeToo culture, since it is based on the idea that one day, women all over the world suddenly begin to manifest the ability to shock/attack people with electricity. If women have no reason to fear men physically, what could happen? In this story, piece by piece, place by place, this shift begins to upend society. The narration moves between characters, including women who are able to exercise this power in their lives, and men who begin to understand what it is like to live in fear. The premise is excellent, but what makes this book so genius is the subtlety with which the author approaches all the possible different ways that this change in the power balance affects politics, sex, school kids, the workplace, and every other bit of society.  The Power has gotten all sorts of accolades in the U.K., where it originally came out, which was honestly surprising to me because it feels so subversive I can’t believe it’s had such mainstream popularity. Also, the framing conceit of the book–letters between scholars talking about a draft manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book–is just absolutely genius and may raise some painful memories for any women who have spent much time with men in the workplace.

Exit West has also received rapturous press and was on a number of Best of 2017 lists, and it was all deserved. This story revolves around a couple in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who are falling in love and starting a tentative relationship right as their country is beginning to destabilize and eventually descend into war. (The parallels with Syria feel unavoidable.) At the same time, all around the world, an unexplained phenomenon is occurring where suddenly a normal door can begin to open to some random location in another part of the world. Now that people can move around the world without crossing borders, countries have lost control over immigration and the world is in upheaval. The book is clearly making statements about refugees and political states in the modern world, but for me the more haunting part of the story was the descriptions of the small, incremental changes in a society that can lead to one day waking up in a war zone. While the plot is heavy, the writing here is very light and poetic and the book is not overly long, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read.

Neither of these is what I would call a comfort book, and neither of them made me feel particularly more hopeful about the future. But if you’re looking to be captivated by a story and slightly horrified about what the world could come to, one of these might be for you.

On The Beach

By Nevil Shute

Book Cover: On the BeachOn The Beach, published in 1957, is by far the most relaxed post-apocalyptic book I’ve ever read. The basic premise is that large-scale nuclear warfare broke out in the northern hemisphere, apparently destroying all civilization. Because of something about wind patterns that I have no frame of reference for, the blasts and radiation have not hit the southern hemisphere, though they are expected to slowly come over with the changing of the seasons.

Our two main protagonists are an Australian naval officer and an American submarine commander who was undersea during the war. The two of them, and about a dozen other military personnel and neighbors and such, all get along very well, hosting small dinner parties and beach outings, while the Australian navy sort of desultorily sets up an exploratory mission to search for survivors or intact land or such.

One of my (many) pet peeves with police and military dramas is how angry and confrontational all of these supposed professionals get with each other. On The Beach continually shocked me with how each introduced character — the Australian naval officer, the American commander, the civilian engineer, and even the Australian Prime Minister — seemed to enjoy meeting the others and working with them in what should have been an extremely emotionally fraught situation.

The first submarine expedition lasted a week and only one page; I actually had to go back and reread it since I thought maybe I’d missed a part. Truly, the only suspense come from me as a reader not quite believing that there wasn’t going to turn out to be some horribly twisted character or other manufactured drama-for-the-sake-of-drama. I think some readers might struggle with this because nothing much seems to happen, but I somehow found it so reflective of the little things one would fill one’s life with at the end, that is was soothing to read. (To add a caveat to this, after I finished the book, I read some other reviews, in which people did not find it quite so soothing, and described the calmness as frustrating and terrifying, so take that into consideration, I guess.)

I highly recommend it, even if just for the extremely novel experience of reading about a bunch of adults dealing with an unpleasant situation in as mature a way as possible. Seriously, when is the last time you’ve read a book where you liked and understood the motivations of every single one of the characters? Where there isn’t a single ‘villain’ in the piece? One of the women is a little thinly written, but compared to other female characters in 50s and 60s scifi novels, she is still quite a strong character. The other central woman was particularly well done, starting from pretty much a spoiled brat to becoming sort of the heroine of the story, though, again, ‘heroine’ is perhaps too active a word for it.

The book starts with the line from T. S. Elliot, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” and I can’t think of a better overall description for this book than that, quite frankly.

—Anna

The Last Policeman

By Ben Winters

Book Cover: The Last PolicemanThe Last Policeman is a murder mystery set in a pre-apocalypse Earth – an asteroid has been discovered that will hit Earth and most likely destroy all of humanity in six months. Lots of people commit suicide (which I don’t understand; maybe this is my laziness speaking, but why bother if the Earth is going to shortly do it for you?) and lots of people have abandoned their homes and jobs in order to fulfill their bucket lists. Our protagonist, Henry Palace, however, was a beat cop who was promoted to detective after enough of the detectives quit or died. He has always wanted to be a detective, and so is very dedicated, driving everyone else crazy with his scrupulous attention to detail and his eagerness to actually investigate a death that he claims is suspicious and everyone else says is yet another suicide.

There are spots of humor (all the McDonald’s and Duncan Donuts have closed, but Panera is still running strong, albeit as a religious organization), but the overall tone of the novel is definitely dark. The world is completely topsy-turvy with internet and cell service collapsing, most major corporations shutting down, and just about every other job, including the government, depending on a skeleton crew of dedicated employees. Inflation is through the roof, of course, though I was confused that there was any monetary economy at all, actually. The people, too, are all different levels of crazy, with depression and drug use way up, naturally, making tracking down motives and following rational clues particularly difficult.

One of my favorite things about the book is that, through showing instead of telling, I am fairly sure that both the detective and the victim are on the milder side of the Autism spectrum. It is cool to see that (possible) representation laid out so matter-of-factly. Separate from that aspect, however, there were the occasional times when I wondered about an unreliable narrator. He isn’t unaffected by the coming doom, either, and there are definitely times when I wondered whether he purposefully twisting the truth to make his case better match the cases he’d hoped he’d be working on as a detective.

This is the first in a trilogy, and I definitely plan to read the next two, so I’ll report on those when I get to them. Rebecca asked me how there can be three if the world only has six months to go, but this book only spanned a month. I wondered, though, if something unforeseen happens and the asteroid does not hit, how do you rebuild after all of Earth’s societies have been living as though it is the end of times?

—Anna