The NEGATIVE ZONE #006: LITERARY SCIENCE FICTION SMACKDOWN
by Andrew Neal
Okay, okay, it’s not really a smackdown, but I thought that sounded better than “Reviews of a couple of books that are sort of thematically similar but also really different.”
As far as “literary science fiction,” I’m talking as much about the marketing and presentation of books as much as I am the content. These are science fiction novels which you’re more likely to find in the Fiction & Literature section of your library or bookstore than in the section with all the rocketships and robots. I used to have a chip on my shoulder about the fact that there are folks who will read and enjoy a science fiction book as long as it’s not called science fiction. However, I’ve come to terms with that and now think that whatever taxonomy you need to use to get someone to read a book is great. How mature of me!
I just finished reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers. It won the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award and was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, so hey: SF and mainstream fiction recognition all rolled into one package! In this novel, a biological weapon has left the population of the world with a disease which kills pregnant women. The protagonist is Jessie Lamb, a sixteen-year old girl who wants desperately to help the world and the human race.
Rogers perfectly captured the confusion, intensity, and raw emotion of being a teenager. I’m a long way gone from that period of my life, but not so far gone that I can’t remember what was important to me then. Notice I didn’t say “what I thought was important.” All that awful stuff really was important! It’s just that very different things are important to me now, because I’m a grown, married man with a business, a cat, and way too many dead friends and relatives. Things change, but that doesn’t mean that what you feel or felt as an adolescent isn’t real or important.
Why am I writing about my feelings on being a teenager? Because I think your feelings on this matter will affect how you view this book. After finishing it, I logged into Goodreads to check out some reader reviews, and was startled that so many of the folks who have posted there were lukewarm about The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Reading the reviews, a lot of the complaints I read stated that the reader couldn’t understand Jessie’s choices in the book, but these were people writing from the perspective of adults who at least try to use logic to help them make their important life decisions. Most teenagers I’ve known aren’t like that. They’re bundles of energy and emotion who just don’t know what the hell is going on half the time no matter how smart they are. I think that if you can honestly recall your own adolescence without viewing it through your adult-colored glasses, you’ll recognize the truth in Jessie Lamb.
I was very impressed with the ability of Jane Rogers to express this truth, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hard for me to make it through the book sometimes. I got fed up with Jessie just like a lot of readers seem to have. Why? I’m pushing forty! Of course I’m going to get frustrated when reading the conflicted and repetitive thoughts and emotions of a sixteen year-old girl! This didn’t mean I thought the book was bad, though. I thought it was an excellent and accurate representation of what it’s like to be a teenager.
Let me tell you how un-frustrated I was reading Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, though: It’s my favorite book of 2012. The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic exploration and adventure story starring Hig, the pilot of a 1956 Cessna, and his dog Jasper.
Hig is a survivor. He survived a disease which killed off most of humanity, leaving behind an utterly ruthless but beautifully quiet world. Like Jessie Lamb, it’s a near-future fable about the potential end of the human race, but the two narrators are so different that the books feel completely different. In fact, The Dog Stars reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road more than anything else… except that I actually liked The Dog Stars.
What? That’s right. I’m the one guy who wasn’t into The Road. It’s not just that The Dog Stars is much more hopeful. I’ve been known to get down with some really miserable, nihilistic books. It’s just that both books seem to have come from a similar place but achieved very different results.
For one thing, both writers eschewed traditional English grammar and punctuation for a much more choppy narrative. In The Road, it seemed to me to be more of a “look what I can do” type of thing, but in The Dog Stars, it perfectly suits the character and the situation. Hig narrates the book in choppy sentence fragments, not just for the sake of literary cleverness, but because his thoughts are different after living in a world mostly devoid of other people for nine years, after having his brain cooked a bit by a horrific flu.
It’s probably jerky of me to bring up another book which I didn’t like that much here, but I’m assuming McCarthy can take it. Still, I’ll get back to just talking about The Dog Stars: It was beautifully written, and Hig is now one of my favorite characters in fiction. In some ways, he’s remarkably highly suited to living in his post-apocalyptic world, but not past the point of believability. This is partially because Heller really sells it; I never felt like Hig made it through a dangerous situation just for the sake of keeping the story moving. Plus, Hig’s not exactly undamaged; he’s suffered loss on a scale that none of us have: he’s not just lost his loved ones, he’s lost his world, and over the course of the book, he loses more of it. How he handles that ongoing loss is a big part of why I enjoyed the book.
I really loved The Dog Stars. I also really respected The Testament of Jessie Lamb. I highly recommend them both, though you probably need to have different mindsets as you read them. Not all near-future post-apocalyptic literary science fiction novels are cut from the same cloth, and that’s a good thing.