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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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post-apocalypse

INFLUENCES: Nevil Shute’s ON THE BEACH by ALIYA WHITELEY

aliya Name: ALIYA WHITELEY

Author of: THE BEAUTY (2014)

On the web: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com

On Twitter: AliyaWhiteley

If stories are a way of finding a start point and an end point in something that has no framework, then post-apocalyptic fiction promises the big full stop more than any other genre. But I’ve always thought it rarely brings itself to deliver on that promise. There’s always hope, isn’t there? The Road gives us the boy and Blindness eventually lifts the dark. The world as we know it ends, but a new one starts to emerge through the rubble; we see it poking out its shoots in the final pages of most post-apocalyptic novels.

otbWell, you don’t get that in On The Beach. First published in 1957, it’s about the last people left alive after an exchange of nuclear weapons that irradiates the planet. Winds are carrying radiation to these final survivors, in Melbourne, Australia, and they know it. It creeps a little closer on every page.

US Submarine Captain Dwight Towers meets an Australian Commander, Peter Holmes, and is invited to weekend party. Peter has a wife, Mary, and a baby girl. His wife’s friend, Moira, attends the party too, and the plot follows the four adults living out their last months without much fuss. Quiet conversations take place, and the nature of their group relationship changes.

Why is it considered less truthful to imagine that people would cling to order in such a situation? Shute’s novel, much like the science fiction novels of other writers of the 1950s such as John Wyndham and John Christopher, imagined that in catastrophic situations people organise themselves and attempt to find structure. That doesn’t seem particularly old-fashioned to me. Rules are made and roles assigned – written, spoken, or sometimes never discussed at all – and the drawn-out goodbye at the heart of On The Beach comes with good manners, maybe because that is simply easier when the adrenaline has faded.

I think my favourite moment in the novel happens between the two women, Mary and Moira. Mary is generally sheltered from life by her husband, but he has been sent away on military business. He has tried to explain to her that she might have to accept the responsibility of killing their baby girl to spare her from radiation sickness, and she has refused to listen. But as she sits with Moira, drinking brandy late into the night, she suddenly faces the situation. She asks Moira to help her kill the baby when the time comes. Moira holds her hand, and agrees. The responsibilities shift without great fanfare. Although Shute quotes TS Eliot at the beginning of the novel, it’s Yeats that I remember in their conversation. A terrible beauty is born.

When I came to write my own post-apocalyptic novella, The Beauty, it was that element I wanted to draw on – the group with no hope, but that had not given into hopelessness. The End is a concept that fascinates us all, in stories and in life, but it does not have to come in pain and fear. It can come in quiet words, in a sudden acceptance of what needs to be done and who we need to be. In On The Beach it comes with the acknowledgement that killing the baby might be the most humane thing you ever do, even as it means the end of humanity.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

StationelevenUKHC STATION ELEVEN

Emily St. John Mandel (www.emilymandel.com)

Picador (www.picador.com)

£12.99

Within days of the first case, the Georgia Flu sweeps across the surface of the globe, infecting billions and killing them within hours. For those that are left, the world is a strange new place, and as resources dwindle or go stale, the world becomes a much larger place where new communities spring up in the unlikeliest of places: airports, shopping malls and roadside services. Twenty years after the disaster, the Travelling Symphony follow a long-established route, bringing music and Shakespeare to the communities that they encounter, in an attempt to keep some of what was good about the pre-Flu world alive. When the Symphony pass through St Deborah by the Water and run afoul of the mysterious "prophet", they find themselves travelling beyond the boundaries of their safe zone.

As Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Station Eleven opens, it is difficult not to make comparisons with countless end-of-the-world novels that have come before it – Stephen King’s The Stand or Terry Nation’s Survivors being two of the most obvious in terms of what causes the downfall of humanity. But it doesn’t take long for Mandel to make her mark and present a completely fresh and original take on the post-apocalyptic novel. While the Travelling Symphony’s flight from St Deborah by the Water is the focus of much of the novel, it is far from the only story we’ll hear on our journey.

Mandel’s novel opens on the eve of the apocalypse and we learn within the first handful of pages that the Georgia Flu – so-called because of its origin (the eastern European country, rather than the American state) – has already crossed the oceans and people are already dying in Toronto’s hospitals, and doubtless many other hospitals across the North American continent, and the world. From here, the story jumps between a number of different time periods, as we learn about the central characters in this beautifully-written and immediately-engaging story; while the bulk of the tale takes place twenty years after the Flu – Year Twenty in the new way of counting such things – we are also given glimpses of these peoples’ lives in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and also years before it happened.

The focus of Station Eleven is on the people, and how they cope with the new state of the world. In some ways, by advancing the timeline twenty years into the future, Mandel has negated the need to talk about the inevitable violence and power grabs that are often the focus of these types of post-apocalyptic stories. Here, the fuel has long since gone stale, so people have reverted to four-legged transportation options, and ammunition has long since run out. The time period also gives the author the chance to examine how the new world looks to different generations. Within the Travelling Symphony alone, there are those (the nameless conductor, for example) who are old enough to remember the time before, and those who were born into the new world and know nothing else. Then there is the generation in the middle, people like August and Kristen, who was nine years old when the Georgia Flu struck, and who remembers very little of the time before, and absolutely nothing of that first year of this brave new world.

The book takes its title from a fictional comic book that is one of the few treasured possessions that Kristen carries with her. Written and self-published by an unnamed author, the comic is one of the few constants throughout the story: we, the reader, learn of its genesis and meet its creator and watch how it affects the development of two of the novel’s central characters (it’s difficult to say more without introducing spoilers). The other constant is a beautiful paperweight whose history we also learn as the story progresses. At the centre of the story, the lynchpin around whom everything revolves, stands the actor Arthur Leander, a man who dies on the very first page of the book. Each of the central characters is in some way related (though not necessarily in the familial sense) to Leander and his influence is still very evident twenty years after his death.

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

BARRICADE by Jon Wallace

barricade-cover-jon-wallace-gollancz BARRICADE

Jon Wallace (thingaboutchickens.blogspot.co.uk)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

In the near future, humans create the Ficials, an engineered race of post-humans who are designed – optimised – for specific tasks, and who are virtually indestructible. Under the central command of Control, the Ficials rise against their human creators, and begin a country-wide cull. Following a nuclear strike, the Ficials retreat to the cities – barricades – while the humans, or Reals, take control of the countryside. Kenstibec, a Ficial, was optimised for construction. In this post-apocalyptic world, there is not much call for his skills, and so he drives a taxi, transporting fares between barricades through the dangerous Real-controlled countryside. His latest job is the transport of a celebrity, a reporter, from Edinburgh to London.

When we first meet Kenstibec, it is in the form of a flashback, as he hangs in a recovery shed, regenerating from a serious injury in pre-apocalyptic Britain. This flashback, along with a series of others scattered throughout the book serve to give us some of the history which leads to the current state of affairs, and shows a rapid decline from ideal world to complete annihilation in a very short space of time. These flashbacks also serve as brief respite from the full-on action that defines much of the post-apocalyptic section of the novel. In this section, Kenstibec is a much different creature, whose optimisation has been forgotten in favour of driving a taxi, a job that comes with a certain amount of violence, to which Kenstibec appears to have taken quite easily.

There are elements here that we have seen before, from a wide range of influences: the Ficials probably most closely resemble Blade Runner‘s replicants, or the Cylons from the recent run of Battlestar Galactica – to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from humans, except that, internally, their bodies and brains are wired slightly differently; there are elements here of 28 Days Later (the road-trip section of that film is almost certainly a forerunner for Kenstibec’s southbound dash) and of Robert McCammon’s Swan Song though, if anything, the aftereffects of nuclear and/or chemical warfare play an even more important part in Barricade than they do in that classic of the genre. But there is one vital twist to Barricade that makes it stand out, makes it something special: Kenstibec, through whose eyes we see this incredibly detailed world, is a Ficial, a man intent on the destruction – culling, as it is almost comically known to the Ficials – of the human race. It’s an unusual angle, like The Walking Dead from the point of view of the zombies, but despite the stiff and robot-like personality that lies at Kenstibec’s core, it’s an angle that works extremely well, and offers a fresh perspective on the genre.

Kenstibec has been compared to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs. It’s easy to see why the comparison is made, but it’s a little too easy – and a little too trite – to compare the two. Despite the programming that drives him, Kenstibec has a unique outlook on life, coupled with a dark sense of humour and an almost-human desire for violence. Jon Wallace has pulled off quite a feat in his debut novel: he has created a character that is at once interesting enough to carry the reader along on the story, and also "underdeveloped" (not as a character, but as a person) enough to come across as not quite human. The contrast between him and the other Ficials, and him and any Reals we encounter, is interesting to watch, and shows that Kenstibec may well be a bridge between the two races, a man not quite one nor the other.

In the midst of all this action and world-building, Wallace still manages to take time out to poke fun at our current way of life, and at the cult of celebrity. Kenstibec’s fare – Starvie – has an interesting past that Kenstibec discovers when he sees a picture of her half-naked on the cover of a mens’ magazine; and when we meet the self-styled King of Newcastle, we learn that his celebrity in his former life is one of the main reasons for his elevated position in this one. These observations, through the eyes of a man designed not to be interested in such things, holds a mirror up to modern Britain and shows a somewhat unflattering reflection. Also included is a "god moment", which becomes inevitable from the moment Wallace introduces Dr Leo Pander, the man behind the genesis of the Ficial race, but the outcome of this meeting is not at all what the reader might expect and serves only to cement the impression we already have of Kenstibec.

At less than three hundred pages in length, Barricade is a refreshingly short and sweet addition to the genre, though it does little more than whet the appetite for the world. Whether Kenstibec will – or, indeed, should – be part of any further visits to Wallace’s post-apocalyptic Britain remains to be seen, but the world itself – and the history of how humanity reached this point – deserves a lot more investigation. I, for one, would welcome more of these bite-size chunks.

Start-to-finish action in a thoughtfully-constructed and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic Britain, Barricade introduces a brilliant new voice in the genre. With characters that we are drawn to, despite the fact that they would typically be the "enemy" in any other novel of this type, and a wicked sense of humour, Jon Wallace gives us a glimpse into one possible version of hell-on-earth that, in this world of constant technological advancement, could be just around the corner. Blistering pace and attention to detail (welcome to a world trapped in the midst of nuclear winter) combine to keep the reader engrossed and entertained. If you’re a fan of the genre, Barricade needs to be on your list, and Jon Wallace needs to be on your radar.

GUEST POST: Four Methods of Travel in BARRICADE: Kenstibec’s Guide by JON WALLACE

Jon Wallace pic Name: JON WALLACE

Author of: BARRICADE (2014)

On the web: thingaboutchickens.blogspot.co.uk

On Twitter: @Jon__Wallace

Kenstibec is the main character in Barricade. He is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans optimised for soldiering, engineering and other vital roles. They fought a war against humanity and turned Britain into a wasteland. Now they live in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors.

Kenstibec earns his keep as an armoured taxi driver, driving fellow Ficials from city to city. It’s not an easy job: getting a fare to a destination is not guaranteed when you have mined roads, corrosive rain and ambushing tribes to contend with.

A number of competing taxi franchises have sprung up in this challenging transport environment, offering very different vehicles. Here Kenstibec describes the main competitors, and his taxi own firm.

1. Aircraft: Ardeb Airways:

barricadeblogtourArdeb is a frustrated Medical Model. Took up flying to take his mind off the cull, which rather conflicts with his Hippocratic optimisation. Flies nap-of-the-earth most of the way, a real skilled flyer by all accounts – but he only visits York and Leeds barricades as the others don’t have landing strips.

Vehicle specification:

Unarmed “King Air”. Maximum speed: 315 MPH. Constantly requires treatment as weather chews through hydraulics for fun, even at the altitudes he flies. Flying that low means you generally pass any SAM-toting lunatic before he sees you – but you will get a strong taste of small arms fire. Be prepared to pick bullets out your rear for days after landing.

Also, your chances of completing the trip halve with every trip – that plane is going down one day. Ardeb treats the surfaces with anti-corrosive strips, but they’re usually fried by the middle of the return journey. After a crash, the last thing you want is to search a ten-mile debris field for your luggage.

Summary:

Sure, he gets you where you’re going quick, but it’s one shaky ride and it’s damn expensive. The days of stylish air travel are dead. There’s not even an in flight meal.

2. Boat: Lennos:

Lennos is a former Rig Mechanic Model optimised for the ocean wave. Lives on his own on Lincolnshire Island. Only pops up when in need of supplies, so service is haphazard at best. Offers short jaunts to Liverpool or Portsmouth and even to Brixton along the dangerous Thames route.

Vehicle specification:

Ex UK Border Force 42m cutter, with heavy adaptations – he named it Pander. Maximum Speed: 77 MPH. Armed with two automated GPMG positions to shred any tribal skiff that ventures too close. Powerful Ficial-designed Project 1208B-VV engines give the craft serious pace and manoeuvrability.

Sounds good right? Don’t sign up just yet. The craft is poorly suited to new littoral environment. Gronts hull is poorly fixed and takes on water. Several passengers had to literally hold the ship together under fire, while Lennos made repairs. In addition corrosive fogs chew up automated gun systems, causing them to misfire at awkward moments – alerting nearby tribes and shredding fares.

Summary:

Seriously, not a good option. Lennos has a reputation for being unreliable and constantly late. Worse, his navigation skills are not what they ought to be. If you fancy taking three weeks to creep around The Great Humber Floodplain, beaching on submerged housing, sign up. If you just want to get where you’re going, find another way.

3. Tank: Optant Travel:

Optant is a Solider Model. After bomb dropped he drove tank all the way from Salisbury plain. One of a number of armoured fighting vehicle offerings at the beginning of Barricade days, but now one of the last tankists in business.

Vehicle specification:

Vickers Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank. Maximum speed: 25-30 MPH. Armed with L30A1 rifled gun, 7.62 Cuploa machine gun, Gronts armour. There’s not much the Reals have that can challenge it, apart from maybe another tank, but I don’t believe they have the expertise to keep complex machinery like that in order. Optant’s adaptations have also made it well resistant to IEDs and the like, which took out many of his fellow tankists. Still, I would never drive a tank. You can’t see out, and progress is way too leisurely.

Summary:

OK, I can see why you might think this a better option than what we offer: all that armour and weaponry can look attractive. But let me tell something about tanks: they’re slow, and they break down. They’re also hard to repair. There’s a reason Optant is the last tankist standing. Think about that when he gives you his sales pitch.

4. Landy: Shersult Taxis:

Shersult, another ex-soldier model, manages a varied fleet of augmented cars, driven by various models including me. We pride ourselves on reliability, customer service and lethality.

Vehicle specification:

My own choice is a heavily adapted Land Rover Defender, produced by Rick’s Garage, Edinburgh. Complete on-board small arms provision. Limited Gronts armor plating. Top Speed: 165MPH. Other drivers favour other set-ups, but I believe in light, nippy, all-terrain transport.

Also, I occasionally use human guides. They are very useful if you want to pick your way quietly across the countryside. I pride myself on delivering luggage intact and unharmed, unlike some other drivers who think shooting their way along a straight line is the only option. I don’t underestimate people. I only kill them.

Summary:

The sheer number of our drivers should indicate the extent to which our business model is successful. Choose Shersult taxis every time for reliable, speedy, safe travel. Also, tips are included in the final fare.

Barricade by Jon Wallace is published on the 19th June by Gollancz. You can download your e-book copy of Barricade for £1.99 until the 26th June 2014!

GUEST POST: Questions and Answers by DAVID TOWSEY

David Towsey Name: DAVID TOWSEY

Author of: YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD (2013)

On the web: davidtowsey.blogspot.co.uk

On Twitter: @D_Towsey

I’m very pleased to welcome David Towsey to Reader Dad, to celebrate the release of his debut novel, Your Brother’s Blood, the first book in his The Walkin’ series. My review of this excellent book will be live on the site soon, but for now, here’s David with some background on the series, and his writing process.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I pose a lot of questions. Questions are one tool in a writer’s arsenal when trying to draw a reader into a new world and meet new people; and once they’re there, to keep them turning the page. I can’t imagine there are any authors who don’t generate questions for a reader in their fiction – but I’d be interested to hear suggestions to the contrary. But there is tremendous variation between authors when it comes to answers.

It sounds basic, and that’s because it is. The setting up of questions followed by the gradual process of answering them is arguably the foundation of fiction. ‘How will character X defeat situation Y?’ etc, etc. There is a kind of contract between reader and author: if a reader is going to put themselves into a position of receiving the question then the author must, at some point, deliver the answer.

This is further complicated by ideas of satisfaction and individual preference, which is what makes the whole thing interesting. Some readers want all the answers and they want them now. Other readers only want some of the answers and are willing to negotiate when they get them. There is, I think, a minority of readers who only want one answer and are happy to have the other questions remain unresolved. I don’t believe any of these approaches are better than the rest, but I am definitely part of said minority.

‘I write books I would want to read.’ Heard that one before, huh? Bear with me; it’s a useful cliché for what I’m trying to say.

I like reading books that show me a world, resolve a particular narrative within it, but do not resolve that entire world. The example that leaps to my mind, and forgive me for choosing a film rather than a book, is THE MATRIX. Like many people I was blown away by the first Matrix film; I guess I was at the right age and the right demographic for it to have a major effect. Ignoring the kung-fu action and the cyber-punk aesthetic, both of which enthralled me, the ending of that film was possibly the most satisfying ending for me as a “reader” of SF texts that I can remember.

Neo is standing in a telephone box. The audience doesn’t know specifically who he is calling, but it becomes apparent he’s addressing the machine consciousness as a whole. He admits he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He hasn’t saved the world or defeated the villain – not completely. There are so many hinted at or inferred possible futures. It is a narrative that is both complete in terms of the contractual agreement the audience has made with the film makers, and incomplete in terms of the internal world of that narrative. So much so it spawned THE ANIMATRIX (which I greatly preferred to the following sequels, for reasons that are probably now obvious) and a narrative heavy MMORPG. After my first viewing of the film I came away satisfied I’d experienced a story, but also excited about other stories. I wanted to write a book like that.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I created a world but I only wrote one story. The story of a soldier, Thomas McDermott, that dies, comes back to life, and is desperate to see his family.

*** SPOILERS ***

The journey he takes with his daughter is the only question that is fully resolved by the end of the book. Neither side has won the war that killed him. The religious regime in the town of Barkley is undermined but still in place. The questions of what the world will do with Walkin’ like Thomas, or what caused them in first place, are left unanswered.

As the first book in a trilogy I sense YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD is being cut some slack. Readers that might otherwise dislike the open-ended nature of the book are reserving judgement. But with book two pretty much finished and being halfway through book three, I can say with some certainty that I’m still channelling that Matrix vibe that excited me so much as a youngster. I might be finishing the McDermott family saga in these three books, but this is not a resolved world. I still have questions, and so will my readers.

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