The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

2018 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for fiction.  The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (review copy from Headline) is a thought-provoking post-apocalyptic tale about social media, climate change and identity.  It masterfully blends themes with a lightness of touch and real emotional punch.

In Clark Windo’s near-future, we are all permanently connected to each other through brain implants and the Feed: a lightning fast social media link that connects us all at the speed of thought.  Privacy is no more as people increasingly live their lives digitally, storing their knowledge, memories and experiences on servers and backing themselves up each day.  But that safe, complex world collapses suddenly when the Feed goes down, shortly after the assassination of the President.  The shock kills many, leaving only a few left, trying to eke out life in the ruins. 

Tom, Kate and their young daughter Bea are among their number, living in a small community on a farm. Relying on the Feed has left them with little or no knowledge of how to survive.  They don’t know how to grow food, cook, build or repair things.  But with the help of a couple of older people who remember life pre-Feed, they are trying to rebuild knowledge and a life.  Until Bea is kidnapped one day, triggering Tom and Kate to search for her.  A search that inevitably takes them on a journey of understanding that reveals the real cause of the collapse.  

Clark Windo plays with some of the tropes of genre fiction, giving them a contemporary update.  This is a novel that nods towards classic horror staples with a Survivors-style post-apocalyptic vibe and a distinctly literary fiction interiority.  The immediate aftermath of the Feed collapsing creates zombies unable to function and unused to having to speak.  And pervasive throughout the novel is a body-snatchers horror of a person’s implant being used to have them taken over by an alien consciousness.  In a post-collapse world without the intimacy of directly-shared thoughts and where the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a skill that has ossified, people are forced to ask themselves how they know who a person close to them really is.

Tom is particularly well-drawn.  As a son of the family responsible for the creation of the Feed technology, he has chosen to reject his place.  He is characterised by the desire to forget the past, to find ways to live on and to be self-sufficient.  The oblivion of forgetting and being forgotten is his first response to any trauma.  Yet he cherishes his memories of his relationship with Kate, clinging on to them through adversity.  
There is a climate change undertone to all this too.  The Feed consumes huge amounts of energy.  Our social media habits are putting increasing pressures on power supplies.  (All so we can share cat videos and photos of our lunch.)  Clark Windo asks if this is really worth the eventual price.  

Goodreads rating: 5*

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Austral – Paul McAuley

There’s a trend at the moment for ‘cli-fi’ – fiction dealing with climate change, its impact on the world and its consequences.  Paul McAuley is the latest to join the trend with Austral, (review copy from Gollancz).  

The titular Austral is a husky – genetically altered to thrive in the harsh environment of a settled and terraformed Antarctic that has been made habitable by climate change.  Huskies were created by the ecopoets – a radical sect of environmentalists committed to creating a new, biologically diverse Antactica.  But their vision for ecodiversity and sustainable slow change is not one that meshes with the need for immediate profit form the corporate entities exploiting Antarctica.  The genetic modifications that huskies have undergone are viewed with suspicion by unmodified humans, and they are treated as second class citizens, subject to travel restrictions and with limited rights.  Orphaned at a young age, Austral has grown up with bigotry and exploitation, struggling to find a place for herself in a world that will not let her fill the niche her parents envisaged.

The novel opens with Austral working as a prison guard, and the lover of a human organised criminal.  He continues to run his crime gang from within prison, relying on corrupt prison guards.  Through his abusive and exploitative relationship with Austral, he persuades her to take a key role in his plan to kidnap the daughter of a prominent politician, who is a distant cousin of Austral’s.  When the plan inevitably goes wrong, Austral finds herself on the run with her cousin across the frozen wastes of Antarctica.  As they are chased, Austral’s story is shown to us through a series of flashbacks.

I confess to being underwhelmed by Austral.  The main story is little more than an extended chase sequence.  While the novel has some interesting things to say about human modification, bigotry and the choices that face us about how we use and safeguard our natural environment, these issues were underexplored, with a fairly superficial treatment.  While entertaining and competently written, Austral is not a book that delivers much to excite or engage the reader.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Ice – Laline Paull

Laline Paull spung to fame with her novel The Bees.  Her follow up, The Ice (review copy from 4th Estate) is an interesting but ultimately flawed near-future story about friendship and betrayal, set in the harsh environment of the Arctic.

Sean Cawson is a businessman who has had a life-long fascination with the Arctic and with the great explorers of the past.  Together with his oldest friend, a famous environmentalist called Tom Harding, he purchases an old whaling station in the Arctic Circle and converts it into a boutique hotel and retreat for the super-rich.  But tragedy occurs almost as soon as the project is finished and open for businss: Harding is killed in a freak accident.  Cawson is seriously injured, but survives.  Three years on, Harding’s body is recovered, and the ensuing inquest is the frame for the novel to explore Cawson and Harding’s friendship and the circumstances that led to the accident.

There is a strong thread running through the book of climate change and its impacts.  The melting of the Arctic sea ice has opened up new trade routes and opportunities for tourism, but at an ecological price.  The tensions between Cawson and Harding come from the right way to respond to that.  To Harding, the need to protect the environment and prevent further damage is paramount.  To Cawson it is an inevitability that society must change and adapt to, albeit in a sensitive way.  There was the scope here for an interesting and nuanced exploration of this dilemma in the book, but unfortunately Paull dodges this, choosing a fairly simplistic environmental message.

Paull’s novel is a story of Great Men doing Great Things.  She is trying to draw linkages between the big beasts of the corporate world and the explorers of the past (and Paull’s research into the history of Arctic exploration is one of the real strengths of the book, shining through strongly).  In both cases ambition, resolve and resilience are required in order to thrive and prosper.  To Paull, the world of business is no less harsh and unforgiving than the Arctic.  One mis-step or poor judgement can lead to ruin, and only the boldest will succeed.

But this approach makes the novel feel tired.  Ulitmately, The Ice is the story of Cawson’s mid-life crisis, as he comes to question his assumptions and path in life.  The female characters in the novel are particularly poorly served, fulfilling little more than stereotypical set dressing: the hysterical ex-wife, the rebellious teenage daughter, the femme fatale, the kooky Chinese business partner.  Much of this is down to Paull’s close narrative focus on Cawson.  We see the world and the people in it through his eyes.  While some of those judgements change as Cawson changes, Paull doesn’t (as some other writers might) clearly show us that these are his perceptions of more sophisticated and fully-formed characters.

The Ice is interesting and ambitious, but just doesn’t quite succeed for me.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Last Gasp – Trevor Hoyle

It’s pretty rare for me not to finish a book.  I normally try to give them the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it’s a review copy I’ve been given.  The best way to review something fairly is to finish it, so that it can be judged as a whole.  When I do abandon a book unfinished, it seems to be normally at about the 40% mark.  By that stage, I’ve read enough to be confident abandoning it is the right thing.

I gave up on Trevor Hoyle’s The Last Gasp (Jo Fletcher, who provided a review copy through NetGalley) at 10%.  Yes, 10%.

I’d been feeling pretty ambivalent about it from the start.  There were the slightly skeevy scientists doing research in the Antarctic.  There was the very heavy-handed plot about climate change killing off the oxygen-producing algae in the planet’s oceans, slowly rendering the atmosphere unbreathable.  There was the ensemble cast straight from a disaster movie (hero scientist! plucky scientist daughter! global elite ignoring all the evidence!).  There was even a cigar-chewing general, who reminded me of General Ross from The Incredible Hulk cartoon series.

But the moment that made me walk away?  When that general uttered the line “Weapons of Climate Degradation.”

Nope.

Goodreads rating: 1*