Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

VOX by Christina Dalcher

We’re living in troubling times, and that’s reflected as much in current fiction as in the news we read every day. Novelists are just as concerned as the rest of us. Vox, Christina Dalcher’s new dystopian novel that takes on the precariousness of women’s rights in America, is grim and alarming, but ultimately unsuccessful.

It’s the near future, during the presidential administration of an unnamed man whose term succeeds that of America’s first black president. In an incredibly short period of time, religious fervor has taken hold and women have lost almost all of their rights. They can no longer work; all decisions are made by husbands; girls go to school only to learn home ec; and worst of all, women must wear bracelets that restrict them to speaking 100 words a day. If they go over 100, they suffer electric shocks. Premarital sex is a crime, as is homosexuality; those in same-sex relationships are sentenced to hard labor and imprisonment until their sexual preference is “corrected”.

Ugh.

Dr. Jean McLellan, a formerly renowned linguist and scientist, lives with her husband Patrick and four children in Washington DC. Patrick works in the president’s administration, and Jean is silent at home. Their youngest, Sonia, is a girl, and Jean is dismayed at Sonia’s future as well as her oldest son’s dangerous support of the values-based policies of the administration. She’s also pining away after her secret lover – an Italian scientist she hasn’t seen in months.

The possibility of change comes when the president’s brother is in a skiing accident and has suffered speech aphasia – Jean’s area of expertise. The president makes her a deal – if she’ll come back to the lab and develop a cure, she can take off her – and her daughter’s – word counter. This brings Jean back in contact with her former colleagues – and her Italian boyfriend.

Vox is thought-provoking – and terrifying – to be sure. Dalcher started out with a great premise. But as a book, it kind of falls apart as it goes along. It turns into a thriller rather than a serious novel, with a rather preposterous conclusion that also ends a bit too cleanly. I can’t say I enjoyed reading Vox, and not just because it’s incredibly depressing. I wish Dalcher has stuck to dystopia rather than veering into action thriller territory. The writing also really repetitive.

If you’re a guy, be warned: men don’t come across too well in this book.

I listened to Vox on audio. It was narrated by Julia Whelan, who infused Jean with the fury and stridency the character required. It’s not a relaxing listen. But my issues are with the plot, not the narration – Whelan did what she could with it.

Vox was a buzzy book at the end of the summer. I am sorry to say that I can’t recommend it.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

It must be really fun to write dystopian fiction. You can create worlds that are limited only by your imagination and what the human body can realistically endure. I tend to read realistic fiction, but the few times I’ve ventured into dystopian territory, I have been impressed by the creativity and originality in those works. (The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker comes to mind.)

Station Eleven falls into this category. Emily St. John Mandel’s deeply moving novel takes place fifteen years after a pandemic, the Georgia Flu, has claimed over 99% of the world’s population. All of the technology that defined the modern age – electricity, transportation by car and plane, the Internet, computers, medicine, etc. – is gone. Geographic borders have become meaningless, as people now live in very small communities, often congregating in formerly public spaces like Walmarts, airports, and restaurants. Other than traveling by foot from place to place, there is no way of knowing who else – if anyone – is still around.

Station Eleven follows a few different characters, relating their pre- and post-flu lives. The pre-flu plot centers around Arthur, an aging actor performing King Lear in a Toronto theater just as the flu is racing through America. He dies of a heart attack while on the stage. Among those who are affected by his death are Jeevan, a paramedic who tries to revive him; Kristen, a child actress performing with him; Clark, his best friend; Miranda, his ex-wife; and Elizabeth, another ex-wife with whom he had a son, Tyler. Station Eleven jumps around among these characters’ lives, ultimately following where they were when the flu hit, how they managed to survive it (or not), and where they are now, fifteen years later. Ultimately, most of them cross paths again in the new world.

Kristen ends up in a traveling theater troupe who roams from town to town through what was once the Midwest, bringing a bit of beauty to the desolation in the form of Shakespeare and classical music. Mandel does not spend time talking about how the citizens of the new world survive day to day (how did they get water? what did they do all day? how did they get new clothes? how did they survive winters living in airports with no heat?). Instead, she focuses more on the psychological impact of the flu and its destruction of culture and connection. That’s why the troupe is so important; it’s a symbol of how desperate both the performers and the audience were for lovely, fragile humanity  which they had lost in a weekend. There is a pervasive feeling of dread and danger throughout the book too, thanks to the vigilante, wild West atmosphere that replaced our ordered, law-enforcing society.

I found Station Eleven to be a thought-provoking, moving book. It took me forever to read – like 4 weeks – because I just couldn’t process too much of it at one time. I absorbed it in small chunks because it kind of exhausted me. But I know people who read it in a weekend, so don’t let that deter you.

There is one incredibly powerful image that comes to mind whenever I think about Station Eleven. When the world had finally grasped the potency of the flu, people started quarantining buildings and shutting people out in an attempt to keep the flu away. Three hundred stranded passengers in a Michigan airport, surrounded by empty planes, watched a final plane land on the runway… and just sit there, silently. No one ever emerged from the sealed plane. Ever. Who decided that those people needed to stay on the plane to protect the uninfected? Who was on the plane? How swift were their deaths? That plane just haunted me.

Station Eleven isn’t a perfect book – there are a lot of loose ends and much that goes unexplained – but I think it was incredibly impressive nonetheless. It has made me look differently at how we live our modern lives and question what’s really important and what would survive if we all disappeared.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.


I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.