Tag Archives: science fiction

Art and Pandemic in Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Choosing an angle of approach for Emily St. John Mandel’s novels is like saying, “I want to learn to dance.”

What kind of dance? Ballet? Ballroom? Jazz? Hip-hop?

Folk, you say.

Fine. Irish clogging? Korean fan dance? Indian kathakali? American square dance?

One could examine Mandel’s novels with regard to pandemic, apocalypse, motherhood, biblical invocations, ethics, the nature of existence, regret and culpability, not to mention genre. Her three most well-known works, Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel, and Sea of Tranquility, are not sufficiently interrelated to constitute a series. But familiar characters turn up in each, and knowing their back story augments recurring themes.

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A Wealth of Wit in a Straw House

Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue enthralled me when, early in 2021, I happened upon his meandering boyhood memoir of faith and family history. (Click here for that review.) Personal connections with the Persian speaking world heightened my interest in his account of his mother’s conversion to Christianity and their subsequent flight to the West. But more than regional interest engaged me.

Nayeri’s prose disclosed hope and humor in the grimmest of circumstances. My husband had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the pandemic was still in full force. Upon reading the final page of Everything Sad—the same day I started it—I went searching for more of Nayer’s work.

But aside from a few early reader chapter books, I found only the 2011 edition of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow. Alas for me, I dismissed the collection of four novellas as unpromising, based on the spurious statistic of Amazon reviews (a mere twenty-five). But when Candlewick re-released the title in 2022 I decided it might merit further investigation. It did—and does.

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Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Part II

Like Remains of the Day, Klara rolls along at a steady pace, without extremes of suspense or drama. Nevertheless, the looming potential for tragedy and an emotional investment in the complex characters sustains reader interest.

My husband found the ending disappointingly anticlimactic and open-ended. I concede the point, although I appreciated the artful exploration of themes and questions—human relationships, the nature of belief, what constitutes identity. Certainly no fiction writer worth the paper her book is printed on would admit to smuggling a message into its pages. But if Ishiguro puts forth any discernable proposition it is this: that the love other people bear us is what constitutes the immortal essence of our being. Such a notion inevitably raises—and certainly intends to raise—further questions.

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Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Part I

When I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day a few years ago I found it profoundly thought provoking. I was not surprised to run across an interview recently that highlighted purpose as a theme in Ishiguro’s novels. In Remains of the Day, an aging butler grapples with his changing role—as well as his lifelong loyalties—in the wake of WWII.

Not only the butler but the overall ethos of the book harks back to nineteenth-century conventions. I was therefore intrigued to learn that Ishiguro’s most recent release features an AI (artificial intelligence) protagonist in a futuristic setting. The story opens—and carries on for some time—with Klara in a shop awaiting purchase as an artificial friend (AF) for a child. At length she is bought by the mother of a teen, Josie, who has set her heart on Klara, even though Klara is not the latest model of AF.

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The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years is one of the few books by Central Asian authors translated into English. The original text was published in 1980 and the English version in 1988. Appropriate to the Soviet ideal of the “brotherhood of nations,” this volume by a Kazakh author was originally published in Russian and is set in Kirghizstan.

The principal setting of The Day is a railroad junction in the middle of the desert. The central conflict involves the quest of railroad worker Yedigei to give his deceased comrade Kazangap a traditional religious burial in an ancestral cemetery some distance from the junction. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Russian and American negotiators are dealing with the discovery that cosmonauts on the Soviet-American space station have been contacted by extraterrestrials and have departed the station for an interplanetary visit. Continue reading

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