Friday, October 7, 2011

Sci-Fi: Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Date: September 2010
Format: paperback
Acquired: from publisher
Read: for review (I received my copy of this book in return for an honest review)
Pages: 280
Reading time: three days

Thirteen-year-old Cole lives at some point in the near future. The United States, not to mention the rest of the world, has recently been ravaged by a flu pandemic of epic scope that left Cole an orphan shortly after his family moved from Chicago. Adopted by an evangelical minister and his wife from Salvation City, a town populated almost entirely by other fundamentalist Christians, Cole adjusts to his new life and new faith while trying to figure out his place in the post-flu world.

The apocalypse: Only recent events could make Nunez's vision of an apocalyptic event scary. Unlike most post-apocalyptic novels, the author doesn't try to make the flu pandemic some awfully thrilling, incredibly dramatic event. The pandemic is scary because it's relatively commonplace. I was reminded of the combined swine flu/regular flu epidemic that swept through my marching band last year. Over a period of two weeks, close to half the band got sick. Fortunately, no one even came close to being hospitalized, much less died, but imagine if this flu had been super-contagious, resilient to drugs, and carrying a low recovery rate - the death toll would have mounted up, fast, as the sickness spread not only around the group, but to others as well. Such is the case with the pandemic Nunez describes, and it's not too hard to imagine after all the recent flu scares.

The post-apocalypse: Cole's life with the evangelical Pastor Wyatt and his wife, Tracy, was not like how I expected it to be. Life after the pandemic, at least in Salvation City, isn't that much different from how it was before, so Cole's position is much the same as any other orphan kid who's lost his or her parents in some awful event. And unlike post-apocalyptic books such as Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower that portray their future's fundamentalist Christians as dystopian extremists, Nunez is more sympathetic to her characters. I expected Salvation City to become a dystopia, but it's not. By the end, it's become more of a bildungsroman than anything else.

Overall: Salvation City isn't exciting (in fact, not much really happens for the last 2/3 or so of the book), but it's well-written, interesting, and different from most other science fiction books you'll read (besides the whole flu pandemic thing, it's not really even sci-fi). The ending meanders a bit before reaching its final purpose as a coming-of-age tale, but it's not an unpleasant journey. It's just best to know what to not expect from this book before you read it, so you don't get stuck with a novel you find boring because you're more of a Hunger Games-type book fan.

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