Archive for the ‘Post-Apocalyptic’ Category

Nod

Posted: November 2, 2016 in Book reviews, Post-Apocalyptic
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By Adrian Barnes

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One night, out of the blue, the majority of the population lose the ability to sleep. As the days without sleep pass people begin to undergo mental and physical breakdown that will see most dead within a few weeks, but long before then any semblance of civilisation will have been eroded as insanity becomes mankind’s default setting.

In Vancouver Paul is one of the few people left who can sleep. As his girlfriend Tanya becomes increasingly unhinged by permanent insomnia Paul sleeps soundly and dreams golden dreams. As the days pass Paul, a somewhat misanthropic etymologist, struggles to survive and documents the end of the world.

 

This book lured me in on two levels. Firstly as anyone who knows me will attest, I love a good post-apocalyptic story, but secondly as someone who at times has trouble sleeping, the notion of apocalypse by insomnia was especially intriguing.

And the first thing to do is to give Barnes props for originality. Sleep is something we all take for granted, but as anyone who’s ever experienced just a couple of night’s interrupted sleep in a row will tell you, the lack of sleep is not pleasant. In a world full of apocalyptic fiction it’s always nice to see something other than zombies/nuclear war/pandemics/alien invasion as the reason behind the fall of humanity.

The trouble is that Barnes’ apocalypse quickly comes to resemble all those others. The cause might be different but the symptoms are all the same. So we get roving bands of crazed psychos, people fighting over food, charismatic individuals creating their own cults, unscrupulous soldiers and scientists and…well you get the picture.  What sets Nod apart from other similar books is something that might be a breath of fresh air, or which you might find infuriating, because it’s a more literary take on the end of the world. It’s told in the first person from Paul’s perspective, and as he is an intelligent man prone to philosophising (plus an etymologist who knows all manner of old words) it might come across as pretentious and rambling, and I have to say I lean more towards this camp.

It might have helped if Paul was more sympathetic, but as already stated he’s something of a misanthrope. The notion of someone who doesn’t like people yearning for company at the end of the world could have been intriguing, but instead Paul just seems so dispassionate about the whole thing. Other characters don’t fare much better. We don’t get to know much about Tanya before she falls apart, so whilst her mental disintegration is quite horrific, it doesn’t quite hit home as much as it might have done if we knew the person she was better, as it is what we’re left with is something of a clichéd female character which is a shame. The only other major character is Charles, who isn’t remotely sympathetic, but is at least interesting, initially at least. As a vagrant already living outside of society, he adapts better than most to the new, sleepless world, even if pretty soon he’s just A.N. Other cult/gang leader.

Plot wise the book starts strong but gets weaker and weaker as it goes a long until it limps to a conclusion. Perhaps this was intentional to provide a mirror to the collapse of society, but if this was the case it doesn’t make for a great read. I don’t think a story has to be explained, but Nod takes vagueness to a whole new level, to the point where people don’t even seem to hypothesise about why the majority stopped sleeping, let alone why there are still Sleepers, why they have golden dreams, and who so many children continue to sleep but have become mute. Paul encounters a group he refers to as Cat Sleepers, people who feign sleep, pretending they’re ok. There’s vague allusions to them experimenting on the child sleepers, but this plot point is quickly jettisoned, and there’s a meander against time to prevent nuclear meltdown that makes most damp squibs seem exciting.

I wouldn’t say I hated it, and in fact it would feel kind of mean to say that given the novel is bookended by an essay from the author detailing his likely terminal brain cancer, but I can’t in good conscience say I loved it. It has the feel of a book written by someone eager to let you know how clever he is, which is of course quite annoying.  If you find the premise intriguing then by all means take a punt, just be prepared for the latter half of the novel not to live up to that premise, which is a shame as it really is a knockout premise, it’s just saddled with a mundane execution. It won’t exactly send you to sleep, but it won’t keep you awake at night with excitement either.

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My childhood took place during the 1970s and 1980s, which gives you a rough idea how old I am. As a child I had no smartphone, no laptop. There was no internet, or at least no internet as we understand it and certainly not one an ordinary person could access, and I can still recall such milestones as us getting our first telephone, our first colour TV and our first VCR.

But it wasn’t all bad, I had something the kids of today can only dream of, because I lived under the shadow of global nuclear war.

Result!

The Cold War had been chilling for decades, and the West and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons pointed at each other to destroy the planet multiple times over. Growing up in such an environment is it any wonder I became a little obsessed with the end of the world?

At the time there was a plethora of apocalyptic fiction; books, comics, TV shows, films…and whilst some of these were harsh, utterly realistic portrayals of the potential for atomic Armageddon (see the BBC’s Threads and America’s The Day After for further detail) many of them were, shall we say, slightly more action packed.

They shared many elements however, the hero would be a rugged type, usually an ex-soldier, and he’d know how to handle himself in a fight; with his bare hands, with a knife or, most usually, with a large arrange of firearms. There’d be bad guys aplenty, and they usually rode motorcycles, as if a huge army of evil Hell’s Angels had just been waiting for the end of the world so they could take over.

There’d be women, and they’d be tough too, but also sexy of course. And, despite huge amounts of radiation in the atmosphere, the hero would suffer no major health problems.

Of course it wasn’t all about nuclear war. On the BBC John Duttine unwrapped the bandages from his eyes to discovered a comet had made most people blind, and man eating planets ruled in an adaptation of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Luckily Duttine’s Bill could still see, despite the blinding yellow jumpsuit worn by co-star Emma Relph. A comet was similarly to blame for wiping out most of humanity (and turning large numbers of the survivors into zombies) in the superbly schlocky Night of the Comet.

Meanwhile Charlton Heston had to fight albino psychos as the result of biological warfare in The Omega Man, a film that had a huge impact on me, and a favourite film of me and my dad while I was growing up (and I still love it today.)

I still recall borrowing the Waste World novels from the library, and over the years I’ve acquired three of them (still missing number 2 which is a shame as I remember that one being quite good). These novels featured Matt Chance (these guys are never called Nigel or Tarquin) who was tagged as ‘the ultimate survivor’ although he had nothing on John Rourke, the titular hero of The Survivalist novels that I religiously collected during my teens and early twenties. He really was the ultimate survivor, hell he even had his own secret bunker hidden inside a mountain! I still own my collection of Survivalist novels, though I only got up to the mid-twenties, I believe they carried on but the later ones never showed up in the UK. It’s probably just as well, by book 10 Rourke and his family had been catapulted centuries into the future and by the later books he was battling the denizens of an underwater city, as well as future Nazis and Commies!

Sure they were a touch on the NRA side of things, but they were somewhat less right wing than a lot of similar books out there, and a touch more character driven, even going so far as to feature a post-apocalyptic love triangle between Rourke, his estranged wife and a Russian spy who probably should have been in a Bond film. In fact book 9 is effectively a Bond film, and as I recall an action packed cracker—plus it featured a Doctor Who joke which was somewhat surreal!

Of course I eventually graduated onto more substantial literary fare, and another book that had a big impact on me was James Herbert’s Domain, the third book in his Rats trilogy (technically I suppose there’s a fourth but it’s a graphic novel) which saw WW3 take place, London get levelled, and a group of survivors playing tag with man-eating rats inside underground bunkers. It’s Herbert at his grim and gory best.

It’s perhaps not surprising that some of my first forays into writing involved similar fare. One of the first things I recall getting down on paper was a story that bore so many similarities to The Omega Man that it was essentially just a rip off! I only wrote a couple of pages of that one, but my next effort was much longer, and probably a tad more original, but it was just a British take on Waste World/The Survivalist, featuring a rugged teenage hero with a penchant for automatic weapons and a pretty girlfriend and, yeah, I know: Can you say Mary Sue?

So of course it was logical that my first novel, City of Caves, would be a post-apocalyptic story, and my latest, Darker Times, also deals with the end of the world.

But what is it that I, and so many others, find so fascinating about the apocalypse? Well as with any genre I think there are myriad reasons. Firstly there’s a certain cantharis to dealing with the end of the world in fiction. In the 70s and 80s nuclear war was a real possibility, and nowadays there’s still the fear of terrorism, pandemics, asteroid collision, climate change etc. etc. Post-apocalyptic fiction allows us to face these terrors, knowing they won’t really happen (we hope) but that if they did the indomitable human spirit would survive. Stories like The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, ITV miniseries The Last Train and a plethora of others don’t feature rugged action heroes, they feature everyday people in extraordinary circumstances, and just as in horror, seeing people survive, or at least go down valiantly fighting, against extranormal odds makes our own trials seem less onerous.

There’s also a very clear libertarian angle at play, the end of civilisation doesn’t have to mean the end of civilisation, it can be more clearly seen as a wiping of the slate, ready for a new kind of world to emerge. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that you’ve got a dead end job, that your relationship are, to quote The Rembrandts, “DOA”, that you’ve never followed your dreams…in the aftermath of Armageddon anyone can be a hero (or a villain), all you need is a fast car and a big gun (though frankly in the event of the end of days, tempting though it will be to nab a Porsche, I’ll probably go for something that gets more miles to the gallon) and you can ride around like it’s the Wild West and you’re some kind of bastard love child of Mad Max and Wyatt Earp.

And after Doomsday there’ll be no taxes, no debts, no worries (apart from, you know, starvation, thirst, infectious diseases, rapists, cannibals, rapist cannibals and the ever present worry about what happens if your appendix bursts when there’s no longer an A&E—in your face suckers I had mine out decades ago) and whether your idea of a new world is a grungy motorcycle gang, a medieval fortress, or something much more middle class and John Wyndham’esqe that involves rational conversations about how many babies we’ll need to have, your dreams can come true.

Of course these days nobody’s scared of nuclear war anymore, it’s all about the zombie apocalypse, but at least you no longer need to worry about the guy who looks like a Hell’s Angel ‘cos he’s probably one of the good guys!

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