Empty Hearts

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 03 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

Empty Hearts: A Novel by [Zeh, Juli]

I'm not clear why everyone is raving about this--I thought it was quite dull.

Review copy provided by publisher.
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Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen) and To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

What would you do if you could push a little red button to erase all the crazies from civilization? Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen) is set several years in the future in a Germany where the political shocks of Trump and Brexit, exacerbated by a second financial crisis and the growth of an ultrapopulist movement, have undermined the will toward democracy. Given a choice between owning a washing machine or having the right to vote, the majority of the population would choose the washing machine.
	Disillusioned but sheltered from the fallout of these crises, the novel’s anti-hero Britta has found a way to profit from the nihilistic milieu. She has cornered the market on domestic terrorism. Along with the brilliant programmer Babak, she runs The Bridge, a legal organisation which identifies the suicidally inclined and, should they prove to be untreatable, pairs them with extremist factions ranging from Greenpeace to ISIS. But now a rival organisation called the Empty Hearts, led by one of Britta’s rejected clients, threatens her control of the market 
2019 has seen a string of novelists exploring the destabilised Western political psyche, but Empty Hearts strikes me as one of the strongest so far. It asks, what if the current political climate led not to catastrophe, but to stagnation? Its answer comes in the form of both a riveting thriller and a nuanced piece of social science fiction—predictive and precautionary. Britta embodies a series of internal contradictions: a deep distrust of political control coupled with a willingness to support non-state violence, defensive cynicism and a profound commitment to democracy. The novel’s only weakness is that its tight focus on social developments assumes stability in other areas including technological advancement and, perhaps most strikingly, climate change, which is relegated to one more ideological battleground. On the whole, though, Zeh’s novel is nuanced and brilliantly executed—one of the stand-outs of the year.  
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers seems to be spawned from a similar set of concerns: overexposure to a frantic news cycle, loss of political efficacy, a feeling of rootlessness. But this novella—set in the world of her bestselling Wayfarers trilogy—emerges with very different take. 
Set at the turn of the twenty-second century, it follows Ariadne O’Neill and her three crewmates on an interstellar mission to survey several habitable exoplanets. Their journey takes them fifteen light-years from Sol, a distance which requires them to maintain intermittent contact through a series of news packages and updated mission briefings. Caught up in the joys and trials of their expedition, they begin to disconnect from the increasingly volatile political situation at home—up until they lose contact altogether. With fuel enough for either a return to the planet that launched them or a further foray into the unknown, O’Neill and her crewmates must decide on what they owe to those left behind.
Whereas Empty Hearts risks turning its news-weary readers into trolls unmoored from their compassionate instincts, Chambers seems to suggest going offline, tuning out the noise, and refocusing on what you value most. In this love letter to science, she shows surprising virtuosity in weaving together descriptions of new technology with entertaining characters and a fast moving, emotional plot. Her vision of the future is fraught with difficulties but its focus on warmth, comradery and teamwork is welcome. 
At times the book wears its heart too openly on its sleeve. Chambers named the exoplanets Miribilis, Opera, and Votum. The English translations of the Latin (miraculous, work and prayer) struck me as a touch on the nose and risked giving the novella something of the structure and flavour of a space-faring Eat, Pray, Love. 
But maybe this is unfair. The effect is magnified, I suspect, by the dearth of similarly optimistic novels being published right now. As bleakness increasingly becomes a stand-in for realism, To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a breath of fresh air.


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Great psychological thriller! Juli Zeh paints a great dystopia vision with Empty Hearts! Worth the read
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I've made a goal of reading more books in translation, so I was glad to be able to check our Juli Zeh's much-lauded Empty Hearts. The book is political satire with bite. It's certain to hit home for many readers, as well as terrify some with it's razor edge between dystopian world and prescient vision of reality. Readers will keep thinking: "But, this could happen..." The novel functions on the macro-level and the micro-level. At large, it looks at global politics - economics, hyper-populism, terrorism, etc. On the more intimate level, it is a story of a family. Britta and her family live a double life - preventing suicide and enabling it. It works until a rival group comes for them. This paradoxical way of being is a hyperbolic mirror for society at large, and it is a fascinating character study.   

Zeh won the Literaturpreis der Stahlstiftung Eisenhüttenstadt for this novel, and was also awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in May 2018, the government’s highest distinction bestowed to citizens who have made an outstanding contribution to and shown exceptional commitment in fields including science, politics, and culture.

Many thanks to NetGalley, the author, and Nan A. Talese for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.
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What is most striking about this book is how utterly darkly absurd the world is portrayed in the near-future....and how said future seems not only feels 100% realistic, but all too possible. This is a fun (and also at times sobering) read whose relentless satiric bite is perfect for the present-day..
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