I’m beginning to think – actually, I’ve been thinking this for a while – that the dystopian genre has written itself out. Stories keep coming out and even when they introduce new thematic points, they still kind of feel like a rehashing of things go bad blah blah blah. This is going to be a dual review. I’ve read two books recently that I feel like I should have liked but wasn’t completely sold on – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and California by Edan Lepucki. To talk about what bothered me, I have to talk about the content – spoilers.
I had heard really great things about Station Eleven, so I was very much looking forward to reading it. And, to be totally honest, I actually enjoyed it. It was a pretty good story. I’ve recommended it, because it’s entertaining. It was just missing something. I’m not sure what exactly, but something. It brought something new to the table that should have made it a real stand out. It reminded us that the mere act of survival is not enough to make a life. Through references back to old world sci-fi, specifically Star Trek (thanks for choosing Voyager, Mandel), the characters remind us that as people, we need more than to just be alive. We need culture.
Does this idea have a place in dystopian fiction? Some reviewers say no. They suggest that worrying about art and culture at such a time is a ridiculous premise. I find this very strange coming from people who like to read enough that they choose to be reviewers. Someone who puts enough value in culture to take time to critically think about what another person has crafted. Regardless, I don’t think that applies to Mandel’s world. Her people have figured out how to survive. This isn’t directly after the fall. This is years later. Towns have been set up. Life, in whatever form it’s taken, is trucking along. It’s stable enough that the travelers in the symphony notice that towns are changing.
I read this a while ago, so I can’t remember the exact names of people and places. Sorry, it’s going to be a shoddy review. I wasn’t 100% sure I was ever going to write this. But, having time away from the novel has allowed certain parts to stick with me instead of being mired in the moments that didn’t work. I loved the travelling symphony and troupe of actors performing Shakespearean plays as the world attempts to rebuild itself. Travelling bands of actors existed (whoever’s plays they were performing). They were ways for people to escape the mundane/awful realities in which they lived. A few hours every few months/years when they could forget about plowing the fields, or their sick children, or the tyrannical village leader, or whatever, and focus on entirely fictional characters and settings. A repose from life. How can this no be considered important? Take your own life for a moment and then remove every escapist tool you have – you can never watch a movie or tv, read a book, go to the theatre or sporting event, because there are more important things. You can only ever live in your problems because those need to be fixed before you can have any culture. Sounds awful, right? That’s because it would be. We need those moments of escape to reposition. Moments of clarity come when you can step away from the problem for a little while. Culture makes us more than survivors. It makes us societies.
I think this was the message Mandel was trying to get across in Station Eleven, but there were too many things going on and her message got lost. There was the whole story with the comics and mysterious leader and the airport museum. It all worked to dilute what could have been an important message about the things that save us when we’re struggling.
California by Eden Lepucki looked at a very different aspect of post-apocalyptic survival. Something not really explained has happened and gated communities have been set up to keep out undesirables. Those people who can’t get into these communities are living in forests and surviving off the land and such. Although our two main characters seem to be quite bad at it – which is problematic since Cal went to a university seeming designed to teach men, and only men, to work the land and be really, really good at farming and philosophical thinking. Cal cannot find mushrooms or something. Frita finds it offputting I guess. I don’t know. I tuned out some of the book.
Eventually, things happen and Frita and Cal make their way to a different kind of closed off community. Where they find their way through the treacherous “forms” made of pop cans and dolls or something, and are welcomed with unexpected reverence – because The Land, as it’s called, is run by Frita’s supposedly dead brother, Micah. Micah is a dick, but least he’s consistent about it. The community is set up to exist outside the communities, but they do this by trading their children to set communities for resources. Okay, this is actually an idea I could have gotten behind. Horrible, but if written correctly, could have been compelling. But again, there was too many shifting ideas for the novel to find its point.
It felt like Lepucki was maybe trying to make a strong feminist message, through Frita and Toni and many of The Land’s women, but did everything possible to counter this message. Cal is constantly keeping things from Frita for her own protection. Because he doesn’t want to hurt her delicate female sensibilities. He puts no faith in her ability to process and react. Better that he lies to her all the time in their super awesome marriage. Frita’s no better. She disregards Cal’s needs for her brothers all the time. And when she does take a second to decide what she wants, she continually submits to will of the men around her. She says all these things, but has zero follow through. And the one time she does stand up and do something, it almost gets her killed and she has to be rescued by not one but two men.
And what the hell was up with that school Cal and Micah went to? I can’t remember its name right now, but please, someone tell me its purpose in the story other than diminishing women? A school that only accepts men. Actively teaches them to dismiss women. And basically makes women into nothing more than sexual objects to be wooed on the weekend. A school that produces a generation of men that put women below them. What the hell? This book was written by a woman. Maybe if at some point the women in the novel had actually exerted some power other than trying to murder each other… there are several women that should have been strong characters, but they always turned to the men. The men dominated this book and caused it to lose focus.
I wasn’t looking for a feminist book. That’s not what I was expecting. But I certainly wasn’t looking for an MRA book and I feel like California accidentally turned into one. In the end, our main characters become a traditional family – working husband, stay at home mom, kid – with absolutely no irony. What did I miss? Please tell me. Cause what I got out of the book, was – the way it used to be is the better way. Women stop what you’re doing get in the kitchen and bake and then have babies… Man, I did not know this was how I felt about this book until I wrote it down. Hmmm.
So, this brings us to two stories that were, even with their problems, entertaining enough to read if you didn’t pay too much attention. I listened to both as audiobooks and they were great for background while commuting and putzing around the house doing all the crappy stuff that needs to get done.