“Life As We Knew It”
"Life As We Knew It" is perhaps the most "horrible" book I've ever read on two levels. It's harsh, raw and often bitter with a few sweet moments to barely keep your faith in humanity. "Life As We Knew It" is a difficult read, but is well worth the effort as a preview of what might happen if we're ever truly in a "worst case scenario" ...if you're a "young adult reader."
This novel isn't with out it's flaws, it's almost ruined by it's blatant political agenda and anti-religion/anti-Christian message. It's barely passable as "Science Fiction," and should be tossed into the "Science Fantasy" category... it also has enough pap to keep it out of some school libraries. Were this book to show up on your child's reading list from school, I might suggest that you petition to get that teacher fired or reprimanded. If "Literary Malpractice" was a chargeable offense, Susan Beth Pheffer should be sued.
The Premise Of The Book... Science Fiction or Science Fantasy?
There's an aspect of this book that's almost impossible to over-look: The moon being struck hard enough to knock it into a new orbit. Since it's the basis of the story - what happens to the world when the moon is suddenly closer to the earth and the effect it would have on the tides - it's hard to just let that go. The book is a narrative told through journal entries written by the book's main characters, Miranda. She's obviously in her early teens dealing with some issues at home such as her parent's divorce, her dad getting remarried and the news of being a "big sister and God-Mother" to her dad's new wife's baby. I can't imagine that she's as well versed in astronomy as I was at that age... since I was trying to be to Astronomy as another fedora clad character was to Archeology. But I figure that since she's "college bound" and taking high-end courses in High School, she would know a little about physics.
The notion that an asteroid would hit the moon and knock it into a new orbit that's closer to Earth instantly is by itself a bit absurd. The notion that the moon could be struck by something moving so fast and being large enough to do that, and the only other effect we see other then it's new proximity is that it's tilted on a new axis with no ejection of material, no cracking of the moon itself... none of the material ejected off the moon raining down on the Earth... even for someone who isn't as passionate about Astronomy like myself, it's pretty hard to over-look and move past that. It is, after all... what the book is about. With out this huge event, there is no story.
... It's obvious that since the moon controls the tides and is partly responsible for churning the lava beneath the earth's crust, the new orbit of the moon would cause sever tides and even enormous tidal waves. The moon in a closer orbit would also cause more Earth Quakes, Volcanoes and other systemic activity, and would be responsible for other problems such as ash being sent into the atmosphere constantly and consistently which would result in a thick layer in the atmosphere blocking the sun and causing the global temperature to drop, something the book addresses at length.... But the global crisis of such an event is not something the world could easily adjust to. It's not something you can just live with and cope. Even if the world's population suddenly dropped to only 5% to what it is now (which eventually happens, apparently) we would still need sun light for crops to grow and stay reasonably warm, eventually the canned, jarred and prepackaged food is going to run out. If the entire world is covered with a volcanic haze, moving "down south" is not going to solve any problems.
The ash in the air that people would inhale and get into your lungs is also something you can't "get used to." Once the ash is in your lungs, it's there forever. You can't just acclimate to it any more then you could adjust to ingesting mercury or arsenic every day. It has an accumulative effect, something people eventually die from.
"Life As We Knew It" falls apart on another practical level. I wrote a rant called "Science Fiction Age," where I write about the future isn't what it used to be and how our addiction to modern convince may lead to our own down-fall. During a severe ice storm two years ago, our region of the state lost power. With out electricity, neither the furnace or pump for the water well worked. We're addicted to electricity, everything runs on it - with out it we feel the effects of the withdrawals immediately. In "Life As We Knew It," all of The United States loses power constantly, sometimes running only for a few hours, then just a few minutes each day, then none at all, But the water still runs from the wells, but the furnace is shut off to conserve heating fuel. [Sure, there's a throw-away line about how her dad rigged up a battery. Do you know how long a cold batter holds it charge? Not very long.]
... These are just a few of the severe problems with this book. Granted, it's written from the perspective of a 16 year old girl. But at some point reality has to set in. Not knowing the facts isn't going to save you from these realities. You're going to die from the elements, whether you understand science or not.
A Deeply Flawed, If Not Atrocious Example Of Political Propaganda targeted towards minors.
Susan Beth Pfeffer wants everyone to know that she thinks George W. Bush is an idiot. Personally, I would like to know about Ms. Pfeffer's Masters of Business Administration from Harvard Business School. The main character of this book, Miranda, hears constantly how much her mother hates George W. Bush by referring to him an idiot is a reoccurring theme through out this book. Ms. Pfeffer takes a poke at Fox News, conservatives and religious people to the point where at times 'the end of the world' is just a means or a vessel for her to espouse her political views on her young readers. The fact that Miranda keeps mentioning this in her journal would indicate to me that this is her mothers greatest character trait. Or, most dominate.
Miranda's mom becomes everything she believes is true about Conservatives and Republicans and forgets many of her liberal creeds - she becomes greedy and goes to the Grocery store with a wad of cash and buys everything she can get her hands on with no thought or concern about her community. When given the opportunity to help others, her mother refuses. There's an drive to donate blankets and clothes to others closer to the hardest hit disaster areas, Miranda's mom becomes belligerent - 'we need that stuff, that stuff is OURS! We need to focus more on OUR own survival, screw everyone else.' To a reader like me, this is irony. But via Miranda's narration, there's no commentary. There's no addressing this blight of her mothers character change. There's a great opportunity for social commentary, but it's missed. It's as if Ms. Pfeffer is tying to say: No matter how much Dubya tries to help, no matter what the government does to get aid where it's needed, no matter how bad our behavior becomes, Bush is still the most evil man in the world. And the biggest idiot.
Perhaps worse is the sub-plot revolving Miranda's friend Megan, a follower of a local church that's portrayed as a mere cult. Megan talks at length about her pastor and the bible endlessly and how the crisis with the moon is God's punishment. Miranda's only reaction to this is denounce God and respond harshly to Megan's pleas to pray. Ms. Pfeffer's anti-religion agenda is made more clear when we're introduced to "Reverend Marshall" - who is fat, happy and warm in his own church thanks to the sacrifice of his followers.
... Granted, that's just one church and one so-called Pastor. But there are no other churches mentioned. What are the OTHER churches in the area doing to help people? There's no other mention that I remember. If that's the only portrayal of the religion and faith in this book, then you can make the conclusion that this is really what Ms. Pfeffer really believes... all bet through circumstantial evidence.
Ms. Pfeffer writes a book meant for young adults, and uses her book to indoctrinate her young audience. At several points of the book it stops being a story about survival after a cataclysm and becomes political propaganda - its a liberal "Turner Diaries." To sophisticated adults, you could look past that, but for young students who are impressionable - the politicking to minors is shocking and shameful.
The Best Part About Sacrifice Is...
This book is saved by the level of detail this 14 year old girl Miranda puts into her journal. Miranda writes about everything to the point that the people become real, the level of fear is palpable, and the sacrifices made by those around her have an extra sting of pain. She chronicles the acts of selfless people who made survival possible, keeping this book from a final destination of the trash can.
There are three secondary characters in Miranda's journal that stand out. Most notably is Mrs. Nesbit, the elderly woman who has known Miranda and her mom all of her life. Mrs. Nesbit is the defacto-grandmother, since Miranda's grandparents died decades ago. She's essentially a member of the family, living next door and insisting on not becoming a burden. While she enjoys some of Miranda's family's good fortune (and nobody else does) she also serves as the near-silent voice of reason, telling the other people about The Depression and World War II and how the world over-came those crisis's and the world will over come again.
Mrs. Nesbit sacrifices her own life eventually to make sure Miranda's family has enough to eat and other resources, giving Miranda instructions on what do after she dies. It's not clear exactly how she died, whether by starving or the cold, but it's clear that she intentionally laid down one night with the intent of not waking up again. Miranda and her brother take everything that she needs before the neighbors ransack the house for themselves. It's a bitter example of how people become savages in times of hardship and survival hangs by a thread. There's melancholy and madness to Mrs. Nesbit's death, with out her dying Miranda's family might not have enough food to last through the harsh winter.
The second most memorable character who saves this book his Peter, a local doctor who was dating Miranda's mom before the moon crisis. Through him we get most of the news from beyond their local surroundings and learn about the health hazards and real dangers of a society's collapse and a end of technology and modern convenience. He fights to keep everyone healthy and alive, working non-stop at the hospital and going with out food, eventually dies of exhaustion and malnourishment when the flu epidemic destroys much - if not most - of the world's population. His sacrifice makes humanity a little less darker, despite the casual attitude of the two remaining nurses who give Miranda the news about his death.
The third of the most substantial secondary characters is Sammi - one of Miranda's closest friends who leaves town with her new "boy friend," a 40-year-old who takes Sammi down south. There's an edge of realism, accepting the inevitable and almost whoring herself out to an older man just to survive. Pfeffer spares us the details of her relationship with this older man, but it's obvious that there's some sexual exploitation going on here...
It's these three characters who make this book more real, who provide the hooks needed to make this book relevant to our readers and redeem this book for the critics. They make Miranda's whining a little more palatable.
Miranda is plagued by dreams of her friend that died before the lunar crisis, with heaven represented by everyday things and places that were common before the end of the world. She also dwells on her life as it was before the asteroid striking the moon, and how her youth and the chance to have a normal time growing up was stolen from her. No boyfriends, no real first love in terms that most people remember - her swim-teammate Dan is one of the few people who remain after the town's exodus to parts unknown... after some kissing and hand-holding and some justifiable accusations and concerns from her mother, Dan finally disappears forever, too.
Then she encounters at the frozen lake the local celebrity and local skating champ who returned home after the crisis began. It's not clear if this is real, or if this is a fantasy. Is there a chance that this young woman is slipping into madness, or this is just the result of a young girl living a life with dysfunction and skewed priorities?
Miranda has to deal with the specter of death on almost every page, and it's hard to imagine how anyone could remain sane through out. She has to deal with the emotions associated with her dad and her pregnant step-mom on the road to unknown destinations, black-markets and profiteering, looters and gangs loitering. Heap on top of that her mother's hypocrisy favoritism towards Miranda's younger brother Jonny and her useless older brother Matt who returned home from studying "philosophy" at college.
Can you imagine anything more useless then a philosophy student who's good not much then cutting and stacking wood when the end of the world finally comes - Nietzsche's observations that "God Is Dead" really doesn't offer much hope when the extinction of humanity is a real possibility. "Will To Power" and other Nietzsche's philosophical observations might be interesting to explore when the desire to survive and the adaptation to the new environment is a necessity after the collapse of civilization. What about the Nietzsche concept of "The Overman" and reality of people revert back to human predators and scavengers? What's the point those semesters devoted to "deep thought" when you can't use what you've learned to improve your chances of living. There's no sense of futility, no sense of 'what was I spending my life on' or frustration and self doubt. But Matt being a philosophy student is just a character description, like the color of his hair or eyes.
... these issues are just heaped on Miranda with little relief in site. She's thrust into the roll of the adult, becoming more of the parent then her own mother who becomes crippled after a fall and illness. The fact that every member of her family (including the cat who has more to eat then some of Miranda's neighbors) would die with out her should be empowering to young readers, and perhaps a wake up to parents who need to challenge their kids to be more self sufficient and responsible.
What do you do when you're staving, freezing and the rest of your family is still recovering from the effects of a super-flu bug? What do you do when your realize that for your mothers favorite child to survive, you have to turn yourself out into the cold? When you think about eating the dead people you might find in the streets, what does that do to your humanity? And the only aid comes from the government you loath? Do you accept the food and other things the government hands out? Is there no end to this hypocrisy? Is there no shame or regret?
The Question remains, is this book any good and is it worthy of your time? When I started writing this review, I had really enjoyed it and it was a good time, it's "Book Noir," the only thing missing for me was another fedora clad hero (not a impossibility, since I new a girl in High School who sported one, too) and some references to classic movies. For a short while, I thought it was a good book, something I wanted to recommend to our readers, such as you who's reading this now.
Getting to the end of this review, and exploring it's massive problems and holes in the plot I've come to the realization that this book made me sick and depressed. Hammering out the last few paragraphs of this review is causing the same kind of nausea that's similar to heartbreak or food poisoning.
When Miranda starts to be "home schooled" in History and takes as many history books home that she can find, I started to cheer - she could get it, she can learn what those of us on The Fedora Chronicles have always known - the importance of knowing what happened before and not making the same mistakes - learn from history. I was thrilled at the notion that Miranda might find the keys to her survival in those pages.
She's creating history, writing everything down... why? A record of what happened for readers 200 years in the future? But that concept is also sadly not explored with much dept. There's the opportunity to say something about the importance of history, which is sadly mocked and cast side with cynicism. The question is answered with a "what's the point?" If you don't think people care about what you're writing, then what's the point of writing?
Then came the moment when she might have burned those books in a moment of desperation and my heart sank. History dies if she throws those books into the fire, I thought.
There's something so wrong, simplistic and naive about Susan Beth Pfeffer, not only in this book, but her blog - that she really is petty 60-Something year old version of Miranda or her mother. The notion that this is an award winning author is a sad commentary on our society. If you trash the right people, politicians, values and faith, not only will book publishers write you a check, but people will bestow upon you rewards and accolades.
So, in the end... is this a book I can recommend to you? The answer... would you like a copy for free? Because I can't stand to keep the one I have in my house for much longer.