Clones and starship captains: New books for sci fi lovers

If you had a chance to have a new body, would you take it? To have your memories transferred to a body cloned from your cells and given growth hormones to age the new body from infancy to your current age? A healthy body, free from disease, injury, scars, or wrinkles?

If you’re one of the characters in Jessica Chiarella’s debut novel, “And Again,” you would do it. The four main characters are suffering from injury or disease, and are among the first to undergo the new procedure.

It is a fascinating concept, and inspires questions like, How much of our memories are in our brain, and how much is in our bodies? Is it muscle memory that enables my fingers to type these words?

One of the characters, Hannah, is an artist, and she finds her gift is lost when she receives her new body. She also finds she misses her scars and tattoos. We may not realize how much of our body’s history is a part of our personal identity.

So much of others’ behavior toward us is a response to our physical appearance, which was evident in Connie’s story. As a former actress suffering from AIDS, she was treated like a pariah, but when she gets her beautiful, new body, the attention she receives is a double-edged sword. It is rather telling that her only friend – before and after the procedure – is a blind man.

The other clones, a woman paralyzed in a car accident, and a corrupt Congressman, also struggle. David seems to think he can wipe the slate clean with his new body, and be a better man, but old habits die hard. Linda, on the other hand, may as well be a complete stranger, as far as her children are concerned. She had lain in a hospital bed for eight years, while her husband and children have gone on with their lives without her.

The patients meet regularly in a support group to discuss their experiences, as no one else understands what they are going through, but when two of the clones have an affair, and David’s shady dealings threaten the future of the SUBlife program, all hell breaks loose. I won’t say any more than that; you will have to read it yourself.

‘Born with Teeth’

EPSON scanner image

For me – a lover of juicy memoirs AND Star Trek – Kate Mulgrew’s book, “Born with Teeth,” was a special treat.

I have only seen Mulgrew as the indomitable Capt. Janeway of “Star Trek: Voyager,” so I didn’t know much about her life or her career before that, but I was hooked from the first page, when Mulgrew was, literally, born with teeth. Her mother decides Shakespeare would have a field day with that, and thus is planted the seed of Kate’s career.

Mulgrew, from a big, free-spirited Irish Catholic family in Iowa, participated in a poetry contest in fifth grade. Her mother, invited to hear Kate recite her poetry at the contest, instructed her daughter to also read “The White Cliffs,” by Alice Duer Miller. Her own poetry elicits only polite applause, but when Kate finishes her dramatic reading of “The White Cliffs,” the audience is moved to tears.

On the way home after the contest, her mother tells her, “You know, Kitten, I watched you today, and it dawned on me that you can either be a mediocre poet or a great actress. Now, which do you think you’d rather be?”

Kate throws herself into acting, and through the many hardships life throws at her, she clings to her work, and not only survives, but thrives, through determination and grit. It’s no wonder she won the part of the fearless leader of the “Voyager” crew.

Mulgrew has led an amazing life, but I won’t give it all away and ruin it for you. Suffice it to say, I knew she was a wonderful actress, but I was pleasantly surprised to find she is also a great writer, and as I read her exciting, and sometimes heartbreaking, life story, I discovered that Kate is not only talented, but courageous and passionate as well.

 

25110965 (1)

“And Again”
By Jessica Chiarella
Touchstone; January 2016

 

51H2ypUp9XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

“Born with Teeth”
By Kate Mulgrew
Trade paper
Back Bay Books; Reprint edition; January 2016

 

Award winner ‘Station Eleven’ is a haunting, addictive novel

I read “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, in just a couple of days. It’s one of those books you can’t put down. I have a thing for post-apocalyptic tales, and I love novels like this one, in which the narrative takes the reader back and forth through time. This one connects the events from the pre-collapse past with those in the desolate place the world has become 20 years after the “Georgia Flu” pandemic wipes out most of the planet’s population.

I hear you saying “Another disease-wipes-out-most-of-humanity story?” You think you have heard this story before, but you haven’t.

A traveling symphony/Shakespearean troupe caravans through what is left of the Midwest – tiny communities that have formed in the wake of the pandemic. (Replace bands of marauding Indians with religious cults, and covered wagons with old pickup trucks, and it’s almost the Wild West.)

The lead caravan has written on it the words “Survival is insufficient” (taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager). And indeed, survival is not enough, which is why the troupe brings music and Shakespeare to the survivors of the apocalypse.

The Star Trek quote is also tattooed on one of the actor’s arms. Kirsten, who was a child when the flu hit, is mocked for having among her few belongings a glass paperweight. But she treasures it for its beauty. Also among her prized possessions are two issues of a rare graphic novel called “Station Eleven,” about a scientist living aboard a space station.

The story of Station Eleven parallels the main narrative, reminiscent of Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic within the comic book “Watchmen.” It’s interesting to see the comic book tale unfold, and how it relates to the plot.

Kirsten is my favorite character, sort of a tough, Katniss-like heroine, but Kirsten is only one of five  main characters. My one complaint is that I wish the book were longer, so that there would be more time to get to know the interesting characters whose stories are woven together in this carefully crafted, plot-driven story.

Mandel is a gifted writer. This is one of those books that I love but also hate because I will never be able to write something as beautiful as this haunting story about what it means to be part of the human race: “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie … it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.”

It’s true we don’t realize how much we take for granted until it’s gone – things like running water, electricity, antibiotics, but also family, familiarity, the simple pleasures of art, music, and good food.

“What would you miss?” the inside cover of the paperback asks. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was reading this novel late into the night, grateful for my sleeping family, for the electricity that made it possible for me to read in the darkness, and for every little thing that is part of our daily lives that we often don’t give a second thought.

“Station Eleven” was a finalist for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015. A film adaptation is being developed.

51-qQ2TbIPL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

“Station Eleven”
By Emily St. John Mandel
Trade paper
Vintage, June 2015

Atwood’s dystopian satire is far-fetched but entertaining

Atwood’s new novel starts out believably enough – the economy has taken a dive. Stan and his wife Charmaine have lost their home and are forced to live in their car. When vandals harass them, they have to scram and find another place to park. It’s not a good time.

They apply for the Positron Project, an economic experiment in which residents are given jobs and a nice house to live in six months out of the year. The other six months they live in the community’s prison.

The desperate couple is approved, and they move in. A shower! Clean towels! A bed to sleep in! A dishwasher! They don’t seem to mind sharing the house with their alternates, and they don’t even seem to mind spending half the year in prison. They are kept busy with their prison jobs, which mostly involve knitting and tending chickens.

Already, I’m confused. Why do they have to live in the prison half the time? They aren’t criminals. If it doesn’t make sense to me, why is this not questioned by the residents? But for the sake of the story, I accept it and move on with the story.

And it’s a compelling story. We can see that there is something sinister going on behind the scenes of the glossy Stepford-ish community because we are told as much: The somewhat spineless Stan is warned that there’s no going back, that no one ever gets out alive, but he signs the contract anyway, since his naïve wife has her heart set on it.

The residents of the twin towns of Consilience/Positron have no contact with the outside world. They are allowed to watch TV, but mostly 1950’s TV shows and movies. The music they are offered is Doris Day and Bing Crosby.

Charmaine herself is somewhat of a Doris Day type, always trying to look on the bright side. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when she is late getting out of the house on switchover day, and runs into the man who lives in the house when she and Stan are in the prison. They begin a torrid affair, right then and there, and before long, Stan and Charmaine are wrapped up in a plot from which they can’t escape.

The book poses a lot of interesting questions: How much control over our own lives are we willing to give up? Would we be willing to sacrifice our morality and our dignity? And how much autonomy do we even want?

It is a throwback to “1984” and “Stepford Wives,” but the fact that I stayed up too late reading this crazy page-turner is a testament to its originality. It was unpredictable, and I wanted to know what would happen next, despite each plot twist being more far-fetched than the last.

Perhaps the real question Atwood is asking is “Is this really so unbelievable?” If the science were possible, would someone do the things they do in this book? We all know power corrupts, and if there’s a market for something, however immoral, there is always going to be an evil someone who will try to profit from it, and herds of idiots who will follow him.

I realize this is sci-fi, but even within that genre, I want to believe. I want to be convinced. But I could have forgiven the silliness of some of the plot devices, if the characters didn’t behave so out of character.

One character, in particular, is such a wild card that I wonder why Atwood didn’t write her as two separate characters. It would have made more sense. Maybe it was supposed to reinforce the suspense and the feeling that you don’t know who you can trust. But it was distracting.

Stan’s brother’s name is Conor – Con for short – and he’s a con man. It’s little things like this that foreshadow the eventual obviousness that the novel is meant to be a farce, but if it’s a comedy, it’s a disturbing one.

It’s an interesting read, as long as you’re willing to suspend disbelief for 320 pages. It’s a quick 320 pages because there’s never a dull moment. (There’s also crazy sex stuff; you’ve been warned.) I would feel better about recommending it, if the place where dystopian tale meets satire had been written a bit more seamlessly.

Fall_Books-06dd9-1169

“The Heart Goes Last”
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese; September 2015