Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic

Not a Drop to Drink

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnisI haven’t read a good straight up post-apocalyptic story in a while, and Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis fit the bill.

Focused on water scarcity (something I haven’t seen a lot of in the genre, but will surely become more common), we get a strong teen character in Lynn who knows the dangers of the outside world but has to learn to recognize the potential joys.

How well does she know the dangers? Her mother raised her to shoot strangers on sight—no warnings, no questions asked.

The story is quick, sparse and avoids the temptation to draw things out or go for the cliche. Especially at the end [SPOILER ALERT] there were a number of overdone scenarios I thought I saw coming, but McGinnis steered away from what you’d expect. It could have turned into a series with the main bad guy getting away (though there is a companion novel, set 10 years later, coming out in the fall). The big battle at the end could have had the emotional pain of losing Stebbs, but instead McGinnis went for the bigger hurt. We even could have seen revenge on the coyote that killed Lynn’s mother. So big points for keeping things original.

In the realm of post-apocalyptic stories I think it falls short of some of the genre favorites. Things are a little too easy and clean cut. It also felt like there were some missed opportunities with a pretty great setup and characters. Rather than following the wanderers like most post-apocalyptic stories, we stay with the home base. Lynn is the danger the wanderers face. While much of the story is her learning to interact with others, it happens pretty quickly and I think there was an opportunity to play with that in interesting ways.

It’s still a great story, but it could have been more. Which is high praise, especially for a debut book.


The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn JohnsonIn a futuristic, post-apocalypse city state the political system is ruled by women and a summer king is elected every five years—only to be killed when the winter ends. Yes, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson has a complicated, dystopian setup. In a nutshell, men couldn’t be trusted after ruining the world, so women held most of the power.

But this year’s summer king is pushing the rules and he inspires teenage artist June as she struggles to figure out her place. Like everyone else, she’s intrigued by the new summer king and begins to push the boundaries of her art, the technology the ruling class allows and the very rules of society.

This one is bizarre and intriguing. Set in what used to be Brazil, we’re constantly catching up with the future world and the South American setting. Not everything is explained immediately, which is OK. It also moves along at a good pace, frequently skipping ahead weeks or months and not getting derailed in daily detail.

But it also gets into strange technology and bizarre cultural situations where it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening. That kills any page-turner tendency the story was developing.

It’s been considered among the best—at least by Rolling Stone— but I’m not so convinced. It’s definitely different and breaks some new ground (a future not dominated by white Americans—gasp!), but it’s not the must-read I yearn for.

Killer of Enemies Is a Fun Read

Killer of Enemies by Joseph BruchacWhen I carried Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac  around while reading it people kept asking me about it and I struggled to summarize it: “Um, post-apocalyptic YA thriller starring a Native American female warrior?”

And maybe that’s the best way to describe it. It features genetically modified monsters and weird bits of telepathy, but it’s otherwise realistic, fast-paced and quite the page-turner.

Lozen is a bad ass. She’s got the survival skills of a good Western hero, but she’s living in the post apocalyptic Southwest where an interstellar electromagnetic pulse of sorts has put an end to modern technology. Much of the ruling class were killed when their enhancements fritzed out and their DNA-spliced pet monsters got loose (giant snake, anyone?).

It’s a great setting, a great hero and great fun watching her overcome all these crazy challenges trying to keep her family safe. The only downside is that the characters are a bit flat. There’s not a lot of growth or depth. I don’t think it hinders the story, but it probably keeps it from being a truly top-notch book. But it’s definitely fun reading.

More Than This: Weird & Amazing

More Than This by Patrick NessDesperate and depressed, Seth commits suicide and wakes up in an abandoned world. He finds himself inexplicably in his childhood home in England, across the world from where he drowned, and the world is dusty, overgrown and empty. Is he in some kind of hell? This one is weird and deep, but really good as you start diving down the rabbit hole.

And you can hardly say much about More Than This by Patrick Ness without dipping into SPOILER territory. So be warned, cuz that’s where I’m going.

I think the beginning starts off a bit weird. It’s really unclear what’s happening. We get this drowning scene and then quickly learn it was suicide. Then he wakes up in this weird space and it’s familiar but not real. It’s very Twilight Zone. We get flashbacks to his life in dream form, telling us how he got to suicide, including how he blames himself for his brother’s abduction and resulting trauma. Then there’s his secret gay romance that is revealed to the world.

Just when this weird empty world is starting to feel like some kind of metaphysical hell, he runs into other people (it’s about 150 pages in, so it takes a while). Now it really starts getting weird. Ultimately it has a Matrix-like quality where his previous life was a simulation and the empty, abandoned world is reality. It’s a trippy post-apocalyptic story, disguised as a guilt-ridden trip to hell.

How it all plays out is just gripping—I had to start covering up the right side page so I wouldn’t skip ahead. The characters he runs into are also fascinating, well-fleshed and very real.

More Than This is really weird, but it’s pretty amazing. It’s early to call it, but I’d expect to see this one in my top 5 for the year.

The Last Wild: All Imagination, All Rise

The Last Wild by Piers TordayThe Last Wild by Piers Torday gives us a post-apocalyptic world where the red-eye virus has killed nearly all the animals. Save for a few holdouts, humanity has been pushed into cities and subsists on a synthetic formula.

It’s a bleak setup for a children’s novel. But it gets worse.

Kester Jaynes is trapped in a home for troubled children because he stopped talking six years ago. There’s your rejected outcast hero.

But then some of the remaining animals start talking to him, including a flock of pigeons and a fighting cockroach. They break him out and the adventure begins, a journey to cure the virus and save the last remaining animals.

It’s very British.

Kind of a post-apocalyptic Narnian adventure. I give it kudos for imagination (and a killer cover). The middle-grade post-apocalyptic story is quite a challenge.

But I felt like the pacing was off. Quest stories have a difficult task: the author needs to keep the adventure moving but maintain the right balance of hope and despair. We have to keep the goal in mind and feel like we’re getting there, but there also needs to be the drama of the adventure—all the challenges that keep our hero from his goal and jeopardize the entire mission.

There has to be a rising and falling action, moments of intense danger when it’s all on the line, but then moments of rest and recovery when our heroes can gather their wits and prepare for the next challenge. I felt like The Last Wild never had any rest. It was all rise. That might work in a mix CD, but not in an adventure story.

Plus, it’s the first in a series, so we don’t get complete closure on everything.

Grasshopper Jungle: Funny/Honest Teen Novel Meets Mutant Insects!

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew SmithGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is the greatest novel you’ll ever read about six-foot-tall praying mantis soldiers devouring a small town in Iowa.

It might also be the best book you read all year. It’s funny, weird, rambling, and full of the profanity and sex you’d expect from a 16-year-old narrator.

It starts off as another story of an outcast teenager, struggling with life and his attraction to his girlfriend and gay best friend. But it turns into apocalypse by experimental mutant insects. It gets there (and holds together) thanks to the wonderful narration of 16-year-old Austin, a wannabe historian who lays it all out and explores the weird connections and fascinating underbelly of an economically depressed community in rural Iowa.

While the premise is incredibly weird/awesome, I think it’s the voice of this searching, yearning, experimenting teen that makes it so good. Here’s the perfect example sentence:

“History provides a compelling argument that every scientist who tinkers with unstoppable shit needs a reliable flamethrower.”

It’s as if my two favorite genres—funny yet painfully honest teen novel and post-apocalyptic sci-fi—got together to create a genetically modified hybrid super-genre that kicks every other book’s ass.

World War Z: Book vs. Movie

World War ZYesterday I went to see the new Brad Pitt movie World War Z, the adaptation of the novel by Max Brooks, where ‘adaptation’ means they share the same title. Seriously, the only similarities the book and movie share is that they’re both about zombies.

And I’m OK with that. Books are not movies. Movies are not books. Get over it, people.

The Book
I liked World War Z the book. It took an over-done concept (zombies) and looked at it from a world-wide, what happens after zombies take over your town? How does humanity come back? Max Brooks came up with really interesting ideas about how useless modern military technology would be (incapacitating weapons that shred limbs and flesh are useless when only a headshot will stop a zombie). There are all the struggles of post-apocalyptic survival that I love, along with this practical, military approach to zombies.

The only complaint I had about World War Z the book is that it’s presented as a historical retelling of the zombie war. As such, there are no central characters. You get snippets from all over the globe and are introduced to different characters each time, compelling characters, that the book never comes back to. That makes it harder to connect with. It’s a testament to the writing that it’s still so good even without main characters, but it does make the book a little bit harder to love.

The Movie
I went into the movie knowing it was nothing like the book and basically expecting a stupid summer blockbuster. I mean, c’mon: Brad Pitt, adaptation that’s nothing like the book, summer movie, explosions, zombies, reshoots, way over budget? But it turned out to be pretty good.

I think part of the reason why is that it’s fairly simple. Brad Pitt is some hotshot United Nations investigator. After saving his family from the initial uprising, he hops around the world trying to track down the source of the zombies and find a cure. That’s it. There’s no crazy twist, no excessive actions sequences, no complicated plot that doesn’t make sense when you sit back and think about it (Avengers, I love you, but I’m looking at you). It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty straight forward and enjoyable.

It sounds like there was quite a bit of drama creating this movie, including plenty of scrapped scenes and a rewritten ending. But I think for once Hollywood made the right decisions. They moved away from the over-the-top action scene and Rambo-like hero and focused on a simple man working to get back to his family. I think it worked.

It’s certainly not World War Z the book, but it’s a good story.

The Author’s Take
Here’s an interesting video of author Max Brooks talking about the whole books vs. movie deal. I like his realism about the whole process:

Lessons from a Reader: Faith is Tricky

Another lesson I learned from Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is that tackling faith is tricky. And this comes from someone who writes for religious audiences for a living and has read quite a lot of Christian fiction.

One of the secondary characters in Life As We Knew It is a Christian. She’s preachy, self-righteous and irritating. Now we can argue about whether or not that’s a stereotype. But I can live with it—Christians often come across that way. But you have to make it believable. It doesn’t help that you’re already going off on politics, now religion too?

What sunk this sub-plot for me was the stilted dialogue when the main character and this preachy Christian interacted. They were supposed to be long time friends, but every time they talked the dialogue suddenly became stiff and memorized and the Christian character preached to her friend and urged her to come to Jesus. Now maybe those conversations are stiff and memorized. But they’re also awkward and difficult and have a very realistic quality to them. Even a Lifetime special has more realistic conversations about serious, weighty topics. People get flustered. They don’t know what to say. They’re passionate, but never perfect. It should move in fits and starts. And if you’re going to use cliches (people use them when they talk, so that’s fine in dialogue), you have to poke holes in them (because that’s what people do in real life).

The worst mistake in handling faith came later in the story when [SPOILER ALERT] the Christian character had died and the main character was confronting the reverend who inspired the Christian character’s stiff faith. While everyone else is starving to death (including the now-dead Christian character), the reverend was plump and healthy. Here we go: The age old bad preacher bit. This is such a tired stereotype. Once again, I get it. It happens in real life. But give it a purpose in your story. In Life As We Know It it didn’t seem to have a greater purpose. It was just a swipe at religion.

As a writer, you should be better than that. If you don’t like religion, that’s fine. But write a real diatribe against it. Don’t set up straw men you can knock down.

Lessons from a Reader: Resolve Relational Tension

What I’m going to call ‘relational tension’ is at the center of just about every story. It’s the conflict between two characters where you can’t tell if they’re going to be friends or enemies, lovers or acquaintances. It’s usually romantic tension, but not always.

If you’re using that kind of tension in a story, you need to resolve it by the end. You can’t just leave us hanging.

This isn’t a TV series where that tension is the heart of the show and you can let it stretch on forever. And in most cases, when that tension is resolved the show loses it’s heart and flounders for something new (see: Buffy and Angel, Lorelia and Luke, Jim and Pam, Castle and Beckett [they haven’t resolved it yet, but you can tell that’s their struggle], Mal and Inara, Angel and Cordelia [Joss Whedon is good at relational tension]).

If it’s a love story they get together at the end. If it’s a tragedy they split at the end. If it’s horror one of them gets killed. That’s simplistic, but the point is something happens by the end.

I was reading Enclave by Ann Aguirre and [SPOILER ALERT], they never resolved this tension. Now it wasn’t central to the story. But two characters were forced together. They were navigating a post-apocalyptic world and facing death side by side. Their relationship was developing, but it was undefined. Then a third character was introduced and suddenly this relational tension developed. The dreaded triangle.

But the story ended before it was resolved. The girl didn’t pick one guy over the other. She didn’t choose to be alone. She didn’t even decide not to choose. It just ended with her clearly attracted to both guys, having developed connections with both of them, but nothing happening.

It was a good story. Unique and compelling with interesting twists and turns. The writer was even brave enough to abandon one world and introduce a new one halfway through, which is no easy feat. But the unresolved tension left a bad taste in my mouth. The central question of survival for any post-apocalyptic story was answered, but the remaining tension didn’t make for a satisfying ending.

Give us a satisfying ending. I don’t care if we cry or cheer, but give us closure.

Lessons from a Reader: Make Science Believable

The greatest sin in science fiction is when your science isn’t believable. Yes, it’s science fiction, so it doesn’t have to be true, but you should at least make it believable. It doesn’t have to be possible, but your job is to make me think it’s possible.

My current example for this is Ashfall by Mike Mullen. A super volcano has erupted, covering Iowa in a foot or two of ash. It’s also been raining, turning the ash into a wet slurry. But suddenly that wet ash is causing buildings to collapse. Not one or two, but almost every building collapsing under the weight of a few feet of ash.

Huh? Is ash really that heavy? We easily had two feet of accumulated snow last year and roofs weren’t collapsing. I have a hard time believing that ash is that much heavier than snow.

Now I’m just a dumb reader, what do I know? I didn’t do the research: Apparently ash is heavier than snow. But you have to make it convincing. Give me reasons to believe the science (especially if your science is indeed fiction). In this case it could have been a simple comment comparing ash and snow. Or a little more variation on which buildings collapsed (my take on the research suggests that in an area with heavy snowfall like Iowa, more of the buildings would have survived).

In the end you want your reader thinking about your characters, in this case worrying how he’s going to make it and if he’ll be reunited with his family. You don’t want your reader focusing on something silly, like whether or not ash could collapse roofs.