Somehow, in the midst of my own chaos I found myself reading three dystopian novels that painted a bleak picture for humans. You’d think I would have chosen soothing books about rainbows and unicorns, but in their own way each of these books worked to take my mind out of my life and into realities I’d never considered. Which is always fun, even when it’s creepy.
After the Flood envisions a world lost to water. Most of Earth’s landmasses are gone and survivors live on boats, sailing to ports that were once mountaintops. Pirates abound as do breeding ships where women of the right age are held to mass produce a new generation. Myra and her 8-year-old daughter Pearl have managed to eke out a life, surviving on the fish Myra catches and the supplies she can trade them for. Everything changes when Myra learns that her older daughter, stolen by her husband before the great flood hit their home. Now, she wants to go far north to find the colony where she lives.
There’s a lot of plot in After the Flood, but I listened to it on audio and if asked would say I thought the book must be 700 pages long. Parts were fascinating—things none of us consider about a complete world change—like how to walk on land when you’ve grown up on a boat. I also really appreciated the way Mustaugh gave Myra so many colors. She is a victim, perpetrator, truth teller, liar. There’s no sugarcoating her motivations and what she’ll do to get what she wants. That aside, I reached a point where I almost didn’t finish listening because I didn’t care anymore. It dragged. My recommendation? Proceed with caution.
I absolutely loved Jesse Ball’s depiction of a bright, but disaffected teenage girl in his novel How to Set a Fire and Why, so was curious to read how he’d handle a dystopian future in an unnamed country. In The Divers’ Game the refugee crisis has been handled by accepting refugees into the country but tattooing them to ensure they can’t mingle with the native population. When this doesn’t work, the government becomes ever more ingenious and barbaric—all in the name of ‘fairness’ to everyone.
The Divers’ Game is a novella, snapshots of a society and reads like four very short stories until it comes back around at the end. There’s no sense of finality for any of the main characters—they appear and are then left in mid-action. What happened is not made clear, but it works to further the sense of a society where nothing is safe, even in the midst of supposed safety.
If nothing else, Ball evokes a frighteningly cold and unsettling world. Life may be easier for the privileged, but it’s restricted to the point it doesn’t even feel like life. The Divers’ Game left me feeling dislocated, bifurcated, and unsettled. A quick, uneasy read as the grey weather rolls in.
I’ve read enough dystopian fiction to have heard a myriad of ways the apocalypse arrives, but Ling Ma’s choice in her novel Severance filled me with horror. A flu decimates the world population, but it doesn’t kill. Called the Shen Fever it leaves people alive, but stuck repeating what they were doing when they succumbed. Not dead, but not living. There are survivors, one of whom, Candace, describes it:
You could lose yourself this way, watching the most banal activities cycle through on an infinite loop. It is a fever of repetition, of routine.
Candace is millennial who lived in NYC and worked in a publishing office. Her adult life is small and mundane, in contrast to her childhood and she likes it that way. When the epidemic starts spreading she takes no notice, but continues to report to the office, even as the city shuts down around her. It isn’t until she is absolutely forced to abandon her routine that she finds a group of survivors led by a man who promises to get them out and to a place where they can create their own colony. Ma flashes between the present day as Candace moves with the group, scavenging in houses of the fevered and tries to decide if this is the life she wants.
Severance is a sly piece of work. On the surface it’s a dystopian tale, but underneath is the message that even in the midst of ‘normalcy’ we’re all already half-dead; living lives of complacent routine. Candace fights so hard to hold onto her routine, seemingly never looking up at the world around her until it’s gone. Ma writes the entire novel in a disaffected, detached tone that seems to come straight from Candace’s mouth. It makes the terrible things feel banal—which is a fascinating sleight of hand. It all came together to make for a novel that felt the most plausible—and most unnerving—of the three I read.