The Last was a bit of a guilty pleasure. Set in a hotel in Switzerland, a mixed bag of staff and guests find themselves survivors of a nuclear holocaust that seems to have wiped out the rest of the world. When the initial tweets and news stories started to circulate, many of the guests fled for the airport. Those left behind were the ones who had nothing to flee for.
Jon Keller is an American academic who was at the hotel for a history conference. His fellow delegates left but Jon, an uber-rationalist, saw no point in fleeing. The roads would be jammed, the planes would be grounded. Why run?
So we have a fairly standard post-apocalyptic story where people consume their way through a dwindling supply of food and clean water in the hope that a better plan might come to mind. Instead of a better plan, they find a dead body. Despite the entire planet now consisting of dead bodies, Jon decides to pass the time by playing Miss Marple, interviewing everyone and searching their rooms. Armageddon affects people in different ways: some become leaders, some become whingers. Jon becomes a securocrat.
There's a standard fare of journeys out into the wilderness, raiding ransacked supermarkets, fighting off predators and such. There are unlikely friendships, amusing animosities. The supporting cast conveniently includes a doctor, a head of security, a desk clerk who understands the record keeping. There's a rapist and a feminist, a Japanese family with young children... It's all a bit like a 1970s disaster movie but without the nuns. Oh, and with occasional use of mobile phones.
At points, the plot becomes impenetrable. The pacing seems wonky, there are moments when people seem to behave with great irrationality. There are enough loose ends to run at least six sequels. It should be corny, but somehow it manages to be fun. I suspect the thing that holds it all together is the pomposity of Jon, recording everything in a self-serving tone of spurious even-handedness - for posterity - and imagining what the fellow survivors really think of him busy bodying around and playing detective while they focus on the future of humanity.
All The Galaxies is a strange and hypnotic blend of four stories that cross and merge and unmerge again.
First, there is Scotland in the near future. Following a second independence referendum (which we presume Scotland lost), law and order has broken down in The Horrors, but strong city state governments have emerged from the remnants of local councils. Within Greater Glasgow, control is being reasserted, the internet has been restored and the leader of the sinister Wardens movement, Wee Lawrence, is in Barlinnie. Oh, and Rangers FC (or should that be Sevco) is no more – so it’s not all doom and gloom.
Second, there is the story of John Fallon, a news editor in the fictional Mercury newspaper. Originally from England, he has landed up in Glasgow, his wife long gone and contact with his adult son Roland about to evaporate. He and his crew try to provide objectivity and sense from the chaos, all the while lurching from bar to bar, extending one night stands for as long as they will go, living in debauched squalor.
Thirdly, there is the story of Fallon’s son Roland, remembering life in Tyrdale as a child, holidays to the Scottish islands and drunken student parties.
And finally, there is a boy, Tarka, travelling the heavens with his spirit-guide dog Kim.
The novel is really well constructed, balancing the elements carefully – no mean feat considering the multiple points of view and the strangeness of some of the subject matter. And the fourth narrative in the heavens is very strange indeed – no longer bound by the laws of physics, time, location or society. No dog lover could read this section without falling for Kim, the wise, kind, loyal and talkative border terrier (though whoever thought a cover picture of a dead dog would sell a book needs professional help).
My favourite story, though, is the Scottish dystopia. Knowing Glasgow helps – particularly the immediate environs of George Square and Kelvingrove. But knowing Scottish politics – and Northern Ireland’s recent history from which so many of the novel’s scenes have been borrowed – probably helps even more. And the great thing is that unlike typical fictional dystopias, we are not on the verge of the end of the world; we haven’t seen the collapse of the system; we haven’t descended into savage people roaming through smouldering embers in search of canned food. It is a plausible situation where commerce continues, communications remain in place, people travel and work and socialise, and Glasgow City Council officials seize the power they have spent their entire careers envying. And goodness me, Philip Miller must have spent some time in the “cube” of City Chambers to have been able to evoke it so accurately.
If there is a criticism, it is that the plot does not always live up to the stellar settings and descriptions. Only Tarka is allowed a personality that develops; the other characters have to be taken as found. Fallon’s life, in particular, is not always fascinating and the intrigue involving the journalists and the council was perhaps a little too murky and ended up a little too unresolved. In fact, the ending as a whole felt a bit of a let-down after much promise.
But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise excellent novel that will make the reader think about the ephemerality of life, the importance of love and friendship, the machinery of government, and astral dogs.
By Ting Mikyunyu
MADDADDAM is the last in the Oryx and Crake trilogy.
It is set during the year following the “waterless flood”, the disease engineered by Crake to wipe out humanity. The flood left behind isolated human groups and individuals that begin to find each other. Not all of them are as ‘good’ as the few surviving God’s Gardeners. The ‘ungood’ are a trio of ‘Painballers’ - killer criminals who survived the ultimate penalty of the justice system.
The most important group of survivors are the Crakers, the humanlike beings engineered by Crake to replace the human race. Unfortunately, the Crakers are ill-equipped to handle evil, having been created without any understanding of wrongness and without fear. They are - at least for now - naked, vegetarian, having an unusual mating habit, a natural insect repellent, and a unique vocal structure that allows them to purr (for healing purposes) and to sing. They can also speak.
This novel gathers together all the separate threads from ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’. The technique for this is storytelling, as in the stories told by Toby, a God’s Gardener, to the Crakers, after an incident that draws the two groups together for mutual support. As they learn to cooperate in a rapidly disintegrating environment, they soon realise that they cannot continue much longer without assistance. The Painballers are an approaching threat. With the telepathic, interpretive skills of the Crakers, Pigoons (a species created by splicing human intelligence into pigs brains) become a cooperating partner.
The storytelling of Toby (a middle-aged woman) becomes less prominent as the action intervenes. As a technique it could have been boring but Atwood writes it in a unique way, so effective that from it we learn a great deal about the Crakers without them having to utter a word. An example of the beginning of a Toby story:
MaddAddam is a fitting finale to this trilogy. Atwood’s imagination remains at peak level to the conclusion. Her similes continue to astound. Her sense of colour continues to enhance our imagination. Her humour and wit remain unabated. Her predictions of what is to come - what is almost upon us - are as horrifyingly plausible as ever.
Welcome to Orphancorp is a novella set in a dystopian Australia where orphanages have been commodified, the young people in their care being little more than child labourers working for the enrichment of persons unseen. The staff are mostly unthinking automata, but at worst they are sadistic jailers.
We meet Mirii, a sassy 17 year old who is due to be released into the open in just a week. She has to keep her nose clean to avoid missing her release and being packed off to Prisoncorp – which in any case seems to be the fate of former orphans who don’t quickly find employment and accommodation on the outside. Mirii has just been transferred to the Sydney Orphancorp having spent her entire life in a series of identical institutions dotted across Australia.
The novella works in parts. Mirii’s voice is mostly engaging, speaking in the kind of argot that typifies petty rebellion against a much more powerful force. Hence, oaths are minced, common concepts are given new names, and common words are loaded with horrific meaning. “Consequences” in particular.
What doesn’t work quite so well is that the story is just not plausible. That a whole industry could have grown up so neglectful of its assets; that despite the severe Consequences of transgression, the orphans would transgress as soon as the staff’s backs were turned; that there were no whistleblowers, snitches, saintly do-gooders; awkward relatives… There was no depth of characterisation – people who had barely met were willing to trust their lives to one another. It felt too much like some set scenes loosely stitched together with, being honest, a fair bit of passing in the middle. The pacing also didn’t quite seem right with way too much scene setting and then the crucial plot stuff being breezed through.
Overall this just felt too underdeveloped – a couple of good ideas but not set in context and not carried through effectively.
Charmaine and Stan are living in the near future, a time when the economy has collapsed across the American Midwest, people are jobless, broke and picking over the leftovers of a bygone age. Those who fled in time to the west coast were lucky; those who didn’t face a bleak future.
So, when Charmaine and Stan are offered a chance to live in a gated, self-sufficient community that still enjoys plentiful food, security and employment, what’s not to like? Somewhat oddly, at any given time half the population of the commune lives in prison whilst the other half have houses, scooters and jobs – but at the end of each month everyone switches round. And since the prisoners are just regular people, it’s not much of a hardship…
The Heart Goes Last is not an exercise in realism. The plot has so many holes it could double as a fishing net. But the novel has a style and panache that carries it through the various improbabilities and impossibilities. The narrative style is simple, clear and intriguing; the reader wants to know what’s going on, how Stan and Charmaine are going to get out of the various inevitable tight spots, how this alternative world works. It’s become a bit of a pejorative term, but this is a page turner.
As the story moves forward, it gets quite adult in its themes. We have passion, adultery, blackmail and… er… robots. Despite the broken world economy, it seems there is an insatiable demand for comfort robots. There are also some decidedly dodgy surgical procedures. And there are rules, surveillance, punishments, spies and snitches.
Like so many of these dystopian novels, we get a whistle stop tour of the community with an access-all-areas pass, we get the reveal of the awful truth, and we get the escape and rescue scene. In terms of recent novels, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Flowertown (SG Redling), The Circle (Dave Eggers) and The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist) – but going further back and into the world of cinema, it could almost be Logan’s Run. Plus dodgy economics. We’re not finding radical new insights into our society, we’re not talking some kind of giant allegory although there are themes, perhaps, of power and control. It is a bit of fun, though.