Confessions of an occasional science fiction fan

Herve Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” Photo: Other Press / Other Press

Why did it take so long for Hervé You Tellier’s “The Anomaly,” a novel published in France in the summer of 2020, to get to the US? Maybe it took time to get a translator. The book is a publishing sensation in France, selling more copies there than any book since Marguerite Duras’ 1984 “The Lover.”

It’s no wonder it’s all the rage. In a way, “The Anomaly” is the perfect pandemic book, questioning our very existence, albeit in a highly entertaining way. But there’s also a philosophical gravity to the questions it poses. It’s by no means a book I felt guilty about enjoying.

The premise, without spoilers, involves a Paris-to-New York Air France flight that appears out of nowhere. That’s all I’ll say, except to tell you that Le Tellier grabs our interest by introducing us to the passengers on the plane, each of whom has a compelling backstory.

I was surprised to like this book so much, as I’m not a big science fiction fan. I find our real world with all its flawed characters to be interesting enough without introducing time travel or life on other planets. And because I have such a fraught relationship with technology, I’m not turned on by speculation about just how far it can go. I also understand that many top science fiction writers are, indeed, fine writers; that genre, in this case, is not a reductive term.

I generally try not to reveal my lack of attraction to sci-fi, however, fearing I’ll be subjected to another lecture about the marvels of Ursula K. Le Guin. (I know she’s all that, OK? Just not for me.)

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of “All the Birds in the Sky.” Photo: Sarah Deragon

But there have been a few speculative fiction books I have enjoyed, among them Charlie Jane Anders’ “All the Birds in the Sky.” the 2016 book tells the story of childhood friends, reunited after years of estrangement. One of them has magical powers; the other’s a tech genius who has invented a time machine that can send him two seconds into the future. Recipe for disaster, I thought.

Yet Anders has written a funny, moving novel that, despite the background of climate change and raging epidemics, has an element of hope. Add to that the protagonists, who, when they meet again, are living in near-future tech-crazy San Francisco, a background with which San Francisco native Anders has great fun.

Author Emily St. John Mandel wrote “Station Eleven,” about a deadly flu pandemic, before the coronavirus struck. Photo: Sarah Shatz

“Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 dystopian novel, opens with a production of “King Lear” in which the lead actor promptly succumbs to a heart attack. We quickly learn about a virulent new strain of flu that will wipe out 99% of humanity. Note that this book was written well before COVID-19.

The book then focuses on the Traveling Symphony, an itinerant group of actors and performers who move around the primitive settlements built among the ruins of Canada and the northern US, bringing Shakespeare to the survivors. Art is the panacea that helps what remains of civilization survive, bringing beauty and compassion to the blighted landscape.

This is an enormously appealing message, especially in light of how our cultural life has suffered since the pandemic hit. On the few occasions I have seen live theater or gone to a museum in the recent pastmy spirits have been lifted immeasurably.

British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” is set in England. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Finally, there’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” which takes place in late 20th century England, where human beings are cloned and bred for the purpose of harvesting their organs once they reach adulthood.

While undeniably brutal, the novel manages to raise the big theme of what makes one human, while also taking on the power of love and personal sacrifice. As with much of Ishiguro’s work, there always seems something slightly amiss in this book; reading him keeps us on our toes.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Photo: George Kraychyk / Hulu

While I admired “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, set in a strongly patriarchal state where a group of “handmaids” is forced to produce children for the ruling class of men, I just didn’t have the stomach for it.

The same was true when I watched the faithful and extremely well-done television series. The theme of subjugated women with no agency in a society ruled by men felt so close to home as to be unbearable.



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