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vivianVivian Versus the Apocalypse (2012) by Katie Coyle:

In my apocalypse fiction travels, I haven’t done a lot of slow crumbles. This YA novel written by a MFA-gettin’ author whom my one friend knew is about a declining America thanks to environmental  shenanigans, violence, and an aggressive new cult called the Church of America. Our heroine is Vivian Apple, whose parents have converted to the Church and vanished on what was supposed to be Rapture Day.

There are YA novel and coming of age tale tropes: Apple is a goody-goody with a wilder friend and a dreamy boy with dreamy eyes who also has a — dun dun dun — secret. There’s a whisper of over liberalism, based mostly on the fact that the Church of America is hardcore mocking American Christian conservatism (not that that’s not frequently deserved). Even the existence of decent religious people doesn’t fully wash away the suggestion that this is all a metaphor for fleeing flyover country. But hell, that’s okay. Vivian the character herself seems to be a 16-year-old liberal. Sometimes you have to get to the promised land of California. Everything is okay except for the Walking Dead-esque “no, I won’t use a gun!” moment of stupid. (Nothing in the world is as stupid as a woman objecting to her sheriff husband teaching their 11-year-old son to use a gun in the middle of zombie apocalypse, because it’s not safe. Nothing. I haven’t watched that show in a while.)

Fundamentally, all of these pieces work together much better than they should because Coyle is a solid, serious writer. And Vivian Apple is a sophisticated, but not overly adult character who has to deal with learning that her parents were real, perhaps not good people and that the world is not chock full of answers. That world which may also end in a few months. See, this new Church of Frick (Pittsburgh Homestead Strike shoutout? Probably! The books begins in Pittsburgh!) has a holy book. That book mentions two raptures. This is a great detail, because it sends those Believers left behind into a pious frenzy. They don’t want to be left behind again. That makes some of them very mean, and very against fornicating and homosexuality and such.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the revelations with the would-be villain at the end of the book. Plus, every YA novel and comic book movie now has to end not in an awesome open-ended way, but in a “YEP, A SEQUEL’S A-COMIN'” way.  This bugs me, but I’ll be reading the sequel without question.

This is the kind of book that gives YA fiction a good name. There’s nothing unserious about it, even if it’s not perfect.

Long_Loud_Silence_The_-_Tucker_Wilson_-_1952-_Dell_-SF_-_G_-10_1024x1024The Long, Loud Silence (1952) by Wilson A. Tucker:

My copy of this early nuclear doom novel has the most gorgeous pulp cover. It’s a cheap paperback from the mid ’50s, but it looks amazing. I had meant to read it months before, but I would have bought it just for the cover (as I did a few other books I may or may not read).

Unfortunately, the cover is the best thing about this book. It’s not all bad. It has a stoic vibe that works well enough to hold interest for the 180-some pages. Basically, the US was attacked by nukes, regular bombs, and disease bombs. Unfortunately this happened right as our hero Russell Gary is on a major bender. He wakes up to a bad hangover of a dead hotel, a dead city, and oops, soldiers are preventing him from going back across the Mississippi river. This we have our class system. (I guess the West IS better. No, it is.)

Gary is a mildly interesting sort. He is a practical, unpleasant, manly man who smacks a girl, and keeps denying that she’s 19, because she looks young (spoiler alert: seducing him convinces him of her age). Wilson manages to write the first female character we meet as a ditz who clings to Gary, and who is wasting post-apocalyptic time collecting jewels.

There’s other awkwardness: Some years after the event, Gary implies at one point that he’s going to go back to a farmhouse of people in order to groom their child to be into him later. Unless I read that way wrong, and I rather hope I did.

For all the dramatic setting, this is kind of a character study of a man who was never very pleasant or kind, who becomes colder and crueler over the years, but never actually becomes a full monster. There’s some nuance in this picture. He saves a child from cannibals, then uses that fact to get a farmhouse and a place to stay and work for the winter. He never murders or steals without cause. But he’s a bit of an asshole (maybe he always was. There’s interesting hints about what war did to him that aren’t really mentioned after the beginning). And the part where he finally succeeds at his years-long goal of getting across the river is…odd. It’s the only part that doesn’t feel quite real in the book. I suppose it had to happen.

The ending is supposed to be cute, I think. I suppose it is a fair capper to all that has happened. Maybe ditzes have good survival skills after all.

mad maxMad Max: Fury Road (2015), directed by George Miller, starring myriad hotties and/or people in awkward masks

Somehow — somehow I accidentally saw the Fast and the Furious Seven (I forget its actual title, therefore I don’t know what to italicize!) in theaters, not having seen a single one of the previous six movies. (It’s because I was supposed to see American Sniper, and then I didn’t get to see that either, and everything was stupid.) I regret that all the more when I realize I saw “sure, cars can fly, and let’s film this action sequel in the dark because Paul Walker is unfortunately dead” in theaters instead of Fury Road. I watched this on the biggest available TV, but I curse myself for not seeing it theaters, the way I curse the six-year-old me who saw Free Willy while my brother and cousin trembled in exhilaration and fear at the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

This is an action movie with strong characterization and world building, that doesn’t spoonfeed context to you. This is a manly action movie that is chock full of bad-ass women. This is a post-apocalyptic movie whose world defies logic and has way too much pageantry and nobody cares, because it’s awesome. This is a movie in which gorgeous women at one point spray each other with a hose, and the camera never leers. (Seriously, seriously picture that scene as shot by Michael Bay or a thousand other assholes).

It’s an ugly, bizarre world in Fury Road, but once you accept that this is is a freaky, car-based cult in control of almost all the resources around — yes, even resources for flaming guitar trucks —  it’s difficult not to be hooked. And for me, that’s saying something. The aesthetic in this film is is exactly the type I dislike because it feels bullshit and embarrassingly cheesy. It feels like people playing dress-up in fake gladiator garb. It feels awkward and inherently low budget. Somehow this movie completely kills that awkwardness through the power of serious, quality acting, and strange amounts of heart.

And with really scary, unexplained shit like those hunched over stilt people. I never want to know what that was about. I never want to know exactly “who killed the world” or how and why Immortan Joe’s cult came to be so quickly and effectively. I know this is mostly action movie that is about a million serious things, the way Attack the Block! is about a lot more than neon aliens. Yet it’s also just a good action movie.

I know a libertarian who hated this film. But once you see “we are not property” (libertarian tears) written on the walls of the wives’ cell, you should be getting hopeful. And once Max and Furiosa fight for the first time, you should be fully absorbed into George Miller’s brain. Do not resist. This movie is so gorgeous that occasional action movie cliches like Furiosa dropping to her knees in the sand in anguish, or the slightly intrusive non-diegetic music feel more frustrating than they would be in an inferior movie.

signsSigns (2002), directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Mel Gibson’s sanity, Joaquin Phoenix, a Culkin, wee Abigail Breslin

Honestly, this film, plus Fury Road, plus Miracle Mile are on my short list of “I do not give a shit if it doesn’t make sense.” And they all involve at least the threat of world ending. Fury Road works becomes of pure audacity and seriousness in the face of absurdity. Miracle Mile is a nightmare, in logic and in pacing, and in ever-growing surrealism. But to me, Signs has always been too scary to mock. It may not be your nightmare, but it is one of mine.

I was 15 when I saw it in the theater with a group of friends. It was quite simply one of those great theater-going moments, where the place buzzes with energy but without distraction or loud noises getting in the way of the enjoyment of the movie (or enhancing the enjoyment, like when the most Canadian man in the world yelled “GET ‘ER PHOONE NUMBER!” at the screen when Mark Wahlberg kissed Helena Bonham Apewoman in Planet of the Apes). Well, quiet except for that moment when Joaquin Phoenix’s character is watching the footage from the children’s birthday party in which something very scary happens. Phoenix’s character shrieks, I shrieked out loud in the crowded theater. Now, I couldn’t sleep for three days after seeing this movie (shut up, my parents live near a cornfield in Pennsylvania), but it was worth it in the end.

It’s a claustrophobic alien movie that’s funny, terrifying, and slow-building. The acting is fantastic from every single person (remember when Mel Gibson was awesome? I do). Maybe there was fluoride in the water, or some weird mineral. Maybe it’s the pipes! Maybe it’s all a metaphor. Maybe the aliens are demons. It doesn’t matter. The movie justifies its own logical evasions by being awesome and scary. If two or three things came together to save the day, it would be Hollywood bullshit. But in the narrative, the obviousness of the puzzle piece is on purpose. This is a world in which everything came together so that Mel Gibson’s character could save his son. Maybe that’s not our world. That’s okay.

(Honestly, the least credible thing to me is the happy ending. Those children would need MASSIVE therapy. Massive. The adults, too.)

img005I’m trying to write something about what he meant to me, but here’s what he wrote to me. With all the thousands of letters he received, he took a week to respond — and that included a delay because he wrote down the wrong street address! Hell of a man.

tumblr_n4vjuhP4qn1rtynt1o1_1280“I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.”

–Bertie Wooster, Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

One of the best books ever. I suggest the audiobook — and I never suggest the audiobook — read by Jonathan Cecil. Once you hear that a few times, you’ll be able to summon all the voices in your head at will. Then move on to the rest of P.G. Wodehouse.

 

downloadSpoilers ahead.

Oh my God, Raymond Briggs, The Snowman was traumatic enough.

The chipper, addled senior citizens of Briggs’ short 1982 comic are aggressively out of touch. Jim Bloggs is cheerful and convinced that the government will save them from impending war, even if he has enough sense to take the prospect seriously. His worrywart wife Hilda thinks there’s time to reprimand her husband for swearing, and for messing up the house. There isn’t.

The preparation is careful and deliberate. Jim follows civil defense instructions to the letter. Except that he carefully builds an inner, fallout-proof sanctum in their house, but then fails to remember that they were supposed to stay inside it for 14 days.

What first appears to be goofy, can-do, learned it from the blitz spirit becomes sort of hamfisted and impossibly oblivious in time. Nobody could actually be this stupid, right?

However, after long, overly detailed build-up, the moment the bomb drops is amazing and nauseating, which is no small feat for a comic. The art is flawless. Pastoral home lived in by two round-faced seniors turns into grim and grimmer. Any aesthetic echos of The Snowman makes both comics much worse.

wtwb1
Yet, they’re both so dumb. Impossibly dumb, unless they are really simple folk. Yet, one can more easily imagine simple folk not trying as hard as Jim and Hilda do to survive. It’s like they almost would have made it, but no, they never had a chance.

The reader knows. We know Jim and Hilda are sick long before they do. We know that the smell of roasted meat in the air isn’t barbecue. The chipper cluelessness of both of them is too much to believe or stand. And that’s the genius of it. The condemnation of doing your bit, the sympathy towards and gentle mocking of people who trust the government to not leave them in the post-apocalyptic lurch. Who assume that if you have the right checklist, nuclear war will be nothing but a bit of a bump in the road. We’ll tighten our belts and ration food for a time, but then we’ll be fine. Not so. Not so.

The end is so on the nose, it’s practically WarGames. You know, “strange game…the only way to win is not to play” as it applies to global thermonuclear war. It’s not hard to figure out the meaning of Hilda and Jim passing away from radiation sickness, while Jim quietly recites “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He doesn’t know why that bit of stirring, stern, sincere poetry comes to mind. But we do.

adam-1I wrote a review of econ professor Russell Roberts’ newest book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. Check it out over at the Post-Gazette’s website:

A few years back, Russ Roberts, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, co-produced a viral video which portrayed a rap battle between economists John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek.

It’s an amazingly well-crafted seven and a half minutes. Getting your economic knowledge from it is rather like getting advice on moral philosophy from the man who understood how nations get rich more than anyone else — that is, surprisingly effective.

Poor Adam Smith is known mostly for “The Wealth of Nations.” It’s a classic, albeit one that today is mostly written about, rather than read. Smith’s other work published in his lifetime was “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It has been ignored. Even Mr. Roberts notes that he took years and years to tackle it, due to its 18th-century style and its seemingly irrelevant subject matter. What would Mr. Invisible Hand have to say about how human beings should live anyway? Shouldn’t he stick with detailing the specialization of the butcher and the baker? No.

While we’re here, you might as well watch this again:

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

endisnighThe End is Nigh, edited by John Joseph Adams, Broad Breach Publishing, 350 pages

Poor short stories. That near-dead art form which is represented at its very worst in The New Yorker, yet is a factory-regular writer like Stephen King’s best, most literary work should get more love. It doesn’t, no matter how much people who bemoan this keep right on bemoaning it.

As previously noted on Tuesday Apocalypse, while reviewing a piece by io9’s Charlie Jane Anders, the apocalypse goes rather well in a short format. I haven’t read enough sci-fi in my life, partially because of the genre propensity to give us novels 600 or 800 pages long. (I keep looking at Lucifer’s Hammer on Amazon, then thinking, “but it’s just so long.”) Not to mention, my lack of patience for sci-fi voice, which is all I can think of when I try to read David Brin.

Here, the vaguely artful, plotless quality of New Yorker short fiction (they’re all poor man’s Raymond Carver, except Carver had things happen, I swear) is replaced by ruminations on humanity, and the end; all that good, forever praying-it’s-not-topical stuff. And sci-fi voice appears in this June, 2014 compilation, but it does not take over.

This is only round one in the so-called Apocalypse Triptych, and it it deals with the cusp of things. It’s, as Adams writes in the introduction, the grizzled prophet with the familiar sign. Several authors’ stories apparently tie together across the trio, making me immediately prepared to fork over another $4.99 after digging the first story, and then wishing it were longer.

Like any good novel with different point of view characters, or even nonfiction that switches locale, a short story collection is always about wanting more. You resent each switch to each new place, person, and thing, and then you resent the fact when that in turn ends. Nearly every story in the collection provokes this reaction, to greater and lesser degrees. The only one that truly didn’t is the penultimate story, which brought only nausea. Each story is big, but small, and sympathetic, even in the face of everything coming down upon our point of view character’s ears. Here they are, in order:

“The Balm and the Wound” by Robin Wasserman: Charlatan gets his. A sympathetic enough portrait of a cult leader who pretends to be able to predict the end of the world, and what happens when he is left with a long-lost son who becomes all too true a believer.

“Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Deserina Boskovich: Fun combination of alien invasion, oppressive government, and potential for it’s all a fraud anyway. (Because, oh God, the things our characters do, when they are told to. Terrible things.)

“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders: As much as I dig Anders, I was vaguely disappointed at the ratio of unknown to known about the end here. On the other hand, she may have actually followed the guidelines most of all. “The match” that lights the end only happens after a character-heavy story of a boy obsessed with being a stuntman, and it’s in a great big mob that is about to turn into a massacre. The political situation, and the cult or militia that seems to be spreading is intriguing, but it is not enough.

The Gods Will Not be Chained” by Ken Liu: Girl loses dad, dad is turned into emoji-using AI, who still loves her, but often chats with other conscious computers who are losing patience with humanity. Good, touching look at death and losing someone, with a satisfactory level of open-ended “uh oh” at the end.

Wedding Day” by Jake Kerr: A sweet, sentimental, but still stomach-clenchingly anxious look at a lesbian couple trying to save themselves in the face of an asteroid headed squarely for the United States. (Gay marriage, y’all. In case of just such an event.)

“Removal Order” by Tananarive Rue: I always say I get bored by mechanism of survival stories, unless they’re survival in the wilderness stories, and I am nine (or they are true). Apocalypse-wise, I want my money shot of misery and dread when It hits. I want my waiting for the end and the incomprehensible horror that brings (Lovecraft ain’t got nothing…). And yet, this story of a girl staying in her ruined neighborhood her with cancer-ridden grandma as a plague draws ever closer, and fires burn, worked. Some people would read it and assume Nayima should have left her dying grandma ages before, and some won’t. And neither of them is wrong. I also like the cop character, who is both a human being, and believably menacing.

“System Reset” by Tobias S. Bucknell: Future hunters go after a cyber-libertarian-terrorist, who once tried to hack a senator’s car into crashing. But turns out he’s worse than that, and has a plan to set off nukes and EMP the whole damn world. His villain’s explanation is that governments leech off of the tech know-how of those who know, while trying to control them and their skills. Solution? Send the world back into the stone age, then flee to Nerd’s Gulch. Our hero’s partner scorns this Randian vision, noting that trade and exchange makes things possible, not hunkering down and hugging your server tight, while feeing superior. Villain sets off the nukes anyway, but hero’s partner manages to magically have the previously-hidden skills to hastily change the ICMBs to not spare Nerd’s Gulch. Misery must be equal. This bothered me, because dammit, even if it’s unfair and the creeps broke the world, you might want there to be working tech in the world somewhere. The entire story seemed to shift between condemning and then endorsing cyber-libertarianism multiple times. For a second, I really thought it was a libertarian response to Objectivism. Probably not. But the shift mostly works, and does the detective vibe, and the ending which really is properly “nigh.”

“This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces” by Jamie Ford: Half-Chinese Hotel worker in San Francisco waits for Hale-Bop to kill everyone, or not, and pines for hotel maid. Nice mostly-historical setting, nice picture of idle/in denial rich waiting for the comet.

“BRING HER TO ME” by Jamie Winters: Oh man, this one is great, and this one KILLED ME with its ending. How dare it end there, and bless it for ending there, and all the other emotions one feels when something ends there. A collapsing cult city (the lack of clarity about the size of the outside world, or whether it is there at all is frustrating and intriguing) has almost reached the day it has been waiting for. A woman goes door to door to remind people. A mother is terrified that a secret about her daughter will be revealed, and she argues about it with her husband. The daughter can’t come on the journey that has something alarming to do with the careful preparation of poisoned meat. Is the daughter deaf, as seems to be suggested? No, she’s just deaf to the voice of God that has been booming in every single other person’s head for the past 30 years. The parents are hearing “BRING HER TO ME” but does that mean the daughter can complete the act, or that God has (somehow) even worse plans for her? She can’t hear, so she can’t believe. The night before the God-commanded ritual suicide that will help them all cross over, the deaf girl meets a boy who has a crush on her, who has his own unshareable secret. It’s human, and hopeful, and alarming, and sweet, and I punched the couch several times while reading. I love the lack of obfuscation: that yep, it’s just God in everyone’s heads. It just is. But run anyway.

“In the Air” by Hugh Howey: Michael Crichton-y, and not in a bad way, and not just because it’s a terrifying countdown to nanobot-induced armageddon. A stressful portrait of a dad trying to hide the truth from his family while saving them, and of a quiet war fought with nanobots, that feels more tangible than all that gray goo talk.

“Goodnight Moon” by Annie Bellet: A sad, carefully-paced story of residents of a moon base. This is the only story that ends not on earth (though earth is about to have a rough, albeit not-apocalyptic time). It has the boldness to involve heroic self-sacrifice for the sake of a pregnant woman, a drunk Russian, and colleagues facing death holding hands, without apologizing for how badly done that could have been. It therefore isn’t.

“Dancing With Death in the Land of Nod” by Will McIntosh: A loser with an Alzheimer’s-ridden dad who bought a drive-in on a whim faces what is basically a plague of advanced Parkinsonian paralysis. A neighbor girl helps him realize that helping people who are probably dead anyway is better than falling apart. Nice story; kind of “Testament”-like in its doomed optimism.

“Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg: Finally, a real disappointment, though one with promising elements. As the earth dies of slow asphyxiation, thanks in part to the Yellowstone Caldera, a scientist working on perfect virtual reality and a woman whose job it is to build memorials for tragedies room together in DC, and try to pay tribute to the earth. There’s something trying to come out here with the woman’s polar opposite jobs, and the emptiness of the virtual reality that was supposed to include the five senses, but has no other people in it. It’s not there, though. The whole thing is ephemeral. I’d be pleasantly satisfied by this story in The New Yorker, but not in a collection this strong.

“The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” by Scott Sigler: Old Michigan men! Snow! Aliens! A stalwart older man who won’t let them panic, and then it ends! There had better be more in the next volume.

“Enjoy the Moment” by Jack Sigler: A well-crafted story of an astrophysicist trying to find a legacy, and who unfortunately discovers the rogue star that is going to smush us all out — albeit, in 20 years. The tone, and the weight of the characters, and the events feel like a novel, without feeling like you’ve missed the rest of the book. There’s a bit of the small things in life hope, hence the title. The only wrong note is the last paragraph, which is too much of a punchline.

“Pretty Soon the Four Horseman Are Going to Come Through” by Nancy Kress: A poor trash kind of mother wonders why one of her daughters is so passive, and why some of her schoolmates are the same. It has something to do with a volcano. And maybe aliens. Not a bad story, it just doesn’t quite work as credible.

Spores” by Seanan McGuire: An OCD-ridden lab tech and her wife and daughter, plus some deadly mold that resulted from the lab tech’s colleagues playing God, all for a crisper apple and more succulent peach. The love and the snotty teen daughter the couple shares, and the horror of the mold are all equally well-described.

“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” by Jonathan Macberry: Hard-boiled snatcher of youths who end up in drug houses or cults has to go after a serene 19-year-old who is right about the end of the world after all.

“Agent Unknown” by Dave Wellington: Is it zombies? Plague? No, just virulent prions. And the only way to potentially save humanity is such a horrifying bummer — especially to a libertarian — that it’s harder to leave the story than some. It also opens the possibility of a novel-length story about what happens after. Even if it’s not feasible. Decent story, with only so-so, thriller-type writing.

“Enlightenment” by Matthew Mather: Fuck you, Matthew Mather. Is this story about eating disorders, sustainability, collapse of society? Is it an indictment of sacrificial religions, self-harm, or meat-eating? I don’t know, but fuck you, the only thing I have had close to meat since reading it is tuna salad. Autocannibalism cults: officially the worst way for us all to go out. The writing is okay, then excessive. Because come on. Come on, dude.

Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi: Decent story of a photojournalist roaming the Southwest, in a world where all of dehydrating Texas is desperate to cross the border back into the United States. Journalists in the bad future thing could be fun, but this feels like a chunk of a novel in the more unfinished way. I wouldn’t mind more of it, though.

“Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan: An asteroid is coming to hit earth, and a very messed up teen is trying to save himself and his equally messed up friend — or, more to the point, save his baby sister from his creep, abandoning parents who have left their blue collar horror town with her in tow. Ugly, but well-written, it might be my post-“Enlightenment” uneasiness that made me not appreciate the story as much. The final lines are fitting to end the compilation, but I almost wish it had ended on “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride.”

Conclusion: Not enough aliens, but more than worth the $4.99 I paid. No story was a complete waste of time (just dinner), and each had impressive world-building, and a palpable, lingering feeling of the decay, exhaustion, and ruin of those worlds.