A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher (1965) 220 p.

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(This is a very satisfyingly bad cover – the book takes place in England and the Channel Isles and has nothing to do with America. Bizarrely, this is from a British edition.)

A series of unprecedented earthquakes wreaks havoc across the globe, laying waste to Western Europe and leaving protagonist Matthew Cotter as one of the few survivors on the island of Guernsey, having fortuitously been outside in the middle of the night when the quake collapsed most structures. The earthquake has dramatically changed the landscape and drained the English Channel, and Matthew eventually resolves to trek north across the dry seabed to try to find his daughter in England.

It’s an original conceit for an apocalyptic novel, but unfortunately suffers from being written by somebody who had perhaps at this point in his career written too many of them. Literally the first day after the disaster, Matthew has accepted that this is truly the end of civilisation and is speculating about how things will unfold for the survivors not just in the days and weeks ahead, but the years and generations; I’m sure a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction would do that, but probably not a Guernsey horticulturalist. It’s also only a few days before the other Guernsey survivors are descending into caveman rule, asserting which men “own” which women and so on, and when Matthew gets to the mainland he finds it’s collapsed into brutal anarchy with survivors killing and raping and plundering with abandon, when there’s not even any real scarcity or competition for resources yet. (The vast majority of people are dead; tinned food lies in every ruin for the taking.) This is in stark contrast to Christopher’s earlier novel The Death of Grass, which illustrates how civility and peacefulness can crumble quite quickly when there are suddenly too many mouths and not enough food, i.e. when there is a material reason for them to do so. In A Wrinkle in the Skin it just seems silly.

The Death of Grass is also the superior novel for demonstrating, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction, that most people would be quite willing to hurt others to save themselves and their children; it does so by having the main characters violently attack and kill an innocent family to take their food, flipping the usual cliche of “good people” and “bad people” that you see even in acclaimed post-apocalyptic fiction like The Road. A Wrinkle in the Skin, on the other hand, hews more closely to Christopher’s curiously English outlook I identified in The World in Winter: his conceit (laid out here explicitly, at one point) that in the event of a disaster like this, the middle class would be a steady, civilised hand on the tiller while the working class, if left to themselves, would descend into a violent, anarchic rabble, referred to here as “oiks” or “yobbos.”

It’s a fairly offensive stance, though difficult to tell how much of it is subconscious and how much Christopher would have held to it if anybody had ever challenged him on it. Maybe it was also present in his better novels like The Death of Grass, and I unwittingly passed over it; I read them when I was much younger and before I’d lived in England and realised how pervasive their class structure is even in the 21st century, let alone Christopher’s day. I don’t have any illusions about whether peaceful civilisation could endure an event like this, but I don’t believe that it would disintegrate that quickly, and I certainly don’t believe it would fragment along class lines – that’s a ridiculous English fantasy. (And this is all without touching on the book’s sexism which at times becomes outright misogyny, puzzlingly uncharacteristic of Christopher.)

It’s still a decent book for all that. I try not to judge writers too harshly for being a product of their age, and it really only stuck out here for me because it’s by far the most explicit presentation of Christopher’s class prejudice I’ve yet read. There are some great set-pieces, particularly the trek across the dried-out seabed of the English Channel, and the half-mad Greek captain living in his luxurious beached tanker. There’s an interesting dynamic that develops between Matthew and the young boy he rescues and takes under his wing, with the former feeling a constant guilt for endangering the kid by dragging him across England looking for his own daughter. A Wrinkle in the Skin is a good read; just take Christopher’s prognostications about how the post-apocalyptic chips might fall with a pinch of salt.

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian (1986) 267 p.

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We can glean from O’Brian’s foreword, which I avoided reading too closely, that this will be a book which once again cleaves close to the true-life story of Lord Thomas Cochrane by entangling Jack in a financial scandal. Jack’s poor financial sense has thus far been employed by O’Brian as a device to keep him at sea, still searching for prizes and career glory, because by all rights a captain as successful as he is should be an admiral behind a desk by now; but of course that wouldn’t be much fun to read about. It’s therefore something of a surprise (to those of us not particularly well-versed on Cochrane’s biography, or those of us who have declined to read about him to avoid Aubrey-Maturin spoilers) when this particular financial scandal turns out to very seriously threaten Jack’s career. It’s similar to a scene in the last book, The Far Side of the World, in which Stephen yet again falls into the drink but this time does so in a manner which is not mere comic relief but a genuine threat to his life, and then to Jack’s, and leads on to an unexpected and quite memorable new story thread. They’re both very successful subversions of O’Brian’s own long-running plot devices.

I always enjoy Aubrey-Maturin books which are a little more land-based and this was no exception; there’s a chase across the Atlantic in the first act, and I was reminded (since The Far Side of the World was, I think, the first novel in the series with no naval engagements whatsoever) of how much I still struggle to really understand what’s going on in these sequences. O’Brian’s prose is always pleasurable to read, and I like the way he illuminates small character moments amid the action, such as Jack only half-listening to Maturin and Martin while he judges the change in the weather from the shift in the deck and the tilting of his wine. But for me it’s a relief when HMS Surprise returns to England and the remainder of the book plays out in London and Hampshire.

It’s also one of the first books I’ve noticed O’Brian airing what seem to be rather more personal views; he clearly has no love of lawyers, he was possibly successful enough as a writer by now that he makes a lot of comments about the effects of coming into a large fortune by way of a surrogate character who does the same, and he has a level of knowledge of cricket which suggests he certainly learned how to play it at school but probably, like Stephen (and myself), has little regard for it:

“You will never play all this afternoon and all tomorrow too, for God’s love?” cried Stephen, shocked out of civility by the thought of such insufferable tedium drawn out to such unconscionable length.

“He was at the same school as I, though of an earlier generation; he often came down to watch us, and once he told me that cricket was played regularly in Heaven; and that, from a man with his attainments, is surely a recommendation.”
“I must draw what comfort I can from the doctrine of Limbo.”

Several people mentioned to me before I read this one that it also contains one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in all twenty books, and they were right. It struck me that The Reverse of the Medal is a point where, had he so chosen, O’Brian could have appropriately ended the series: a huge display of respect and loyalty for Jack from what seems like half the Navy during a moment of crisis; Jack’s departure from the service and entry into the world of privateering; Stephen’s enemies in espionage exposed and about to be dealt with; the only unsatisfactory note would be Stephen’s unresolved relationship with Diana. Anyway, he kept on writing them, and we’re all very glad he did.

After years adrift, somehow I’ve finally returned to normality and read enough good books this year to reach the magic number. I suspect this is less because of the number of books I read and more because the older I get, the more inclined I am to read books I think I will enjoy rather than the obligatory works of canonical literature that one simply Must Read, but Typically Hates. Anyway, here are the ten best books I read in 2019.

10. The Day After World War III
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“Is it better,” asked Giuffrida, “to have a realistic, long-term plan to address this kind of emergency, and then use every effort we have to preclude ever having to implement it – or to have no plan at all? I agree that the ideal alternative would be to immediately abolish nuclear weapons. Failing to do that, it seems to me that this is a morally prudent action to take.”

A fascinating book from the 1980s which alternates between telling the history of the development of nuclear weapons and an analysis of all the plans and preparations the US had in place (and presumably still has in place) to attack Russia and defend its own populace and infrastructure. Edward Zuckerman maintains a journalist’s detached perspective throughout, never judging, allowing the insanity of the situation we led ourselves into to speak for itself. It might seem like a relic of a bygone era, but in certain key ways it remains very timely, as North Korea and Russia develop greater missile capabilities, India and Pakistan spar over Kashmir, and a totalitarian China looks set to dominate the century. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only times in history when nuclear weapons were ever used against people – but as this decade has made increasingly clear, history is never over.

9. Children of Time
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“There is nothing about what we do that is natural. If we prized the natural we would still be hunting Spitters in the wilderness, or falling prey to the jaws of ants, instead of mastering our world. We have made a virtue of the unnatural.”

A team of human scientists, at the outskirts of settled space, have terraformed a planet and seeded it with the myriad species of Earth. The final step is to introduce a bioengineered virus designed to kickstart and accelerate the evolutionary process in the planet’s newly introduced primates – but just as it’s released, a galaxy-wide cataclysm destroys human civilisation. Millenia later, a refugee ship fleeing the dying Earth stumbles across this terraformed Eden only to find that the viral process went awry and an entirely different species of animal has developed intelligence and built a civilisation. Tchaikovsky’s characters are flat and his writing merely workmanlike, but Children of Time is a fascinating science fiction concept executed brilliantly. A 600+ page novel that I happily polished off in a few days deserves a place on this list.

8. Terminal World
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Up past the pastel flicker of Neon Heights, up past the hologram shimmer of Circuit City. Up past the pink plasma aura of the cybertowns. He could just see them circling around up there, leagues overhead, wheeling and gyring around Spearpoint’s tapering needle like flies around an insect zapper.

And he thought to himself: How the fuck did one of them get down here? And why did it have to happen on my watch?

Reynolds is mostly renowned for his hard science fiction, but Terminal World is more of a noirish sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, with overtones of the film Dark City. It begins in a city called Spearpoint, built on the flanks of an impossibly tall and needle-like mountain, divided into invisible “zones” which somehow prevent different levels of technology from working. The story begins as an “angel,” one of the cybernetically-enhanced humans from the highest echelons of Spearpoint, falls to its apparent death in the 1950s-era streets of Circuit City. It’s actually not quite dead and is carrying a message for the enigmatic Dr Quillion, who soon finds himself on the run, pursued down through Spearpoint’s zones – Neon Heights, Steam Town, Horse Town – and then finally out onto the vast plains of… well, of whatever world it is where this takes place. (It’s never outright stated, but there are enough clues that I guessed about halfway through.) Quillon’s world doesn’t make much sense if you think about it for too long, which is perhaps why so many of Reynolds’ fans found it disagreeable, but I thought it was a thoroughly creative and entertaining steampunk romp.

7. A Farewell to Arms
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“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”

After reading The Sun Also Rises earlier this year and finding it mostly tedious and self-indulgent, it was a pleasure to read a Hemingway novel that actually has a plot. American Frederick Henry serves on the Italian front in World War I, sees his comrades die, falls in love with a nurse while hospitalised, witnesses the terrible defeat at Caporetto, falls victim to the bickering in-fighting which manifests as summary military executions and the first hints of Fascism, and manages to flee with his lover to neutral Switzerland in the dead of night. Like most people, I enjoy Hemingway well enough for writing about precisely the sort of thing he spent his life mythologising and which he’s still renowned for – the drinking, the fighting, the general living of life to its fullest in a vanished early 20th century Europe – and A Farewell To Arms delivers that in spades. But this is also the first of his novels which, in its ending, I found genuinely moving.

6. The Talisman
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On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic.

You can tell from the atmospheric opening paragraphs of this 700+ page brick of a novel that it’s going to be the kind of great, pulpy, engrossing adventure that Stephen King can write so well. (It’s actually co-authored with Peter Straub, though I wouldn’t have guessed it from the text alone, which feels very classic King.) The Talisman opens in a bleak, deserted New Hampshire seaside resort at the ass-end of the tourist season, where 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s terminally ill mother has dragged him to live out her final days amid the ghosts of memories of better times. Jack witnesses uncannily intelligent seagulls, sees a bizarre whirlpool open in the grotty beach sand, befriends the janitor at the dilapidated local amusement park – and soon finds himself embarking on a grand cross-country voyage to California, travelling through both the United States and its strange parallel universe counterpart called The Territories, on a fantasy quest to find the Talisman to save his mother’s life. I read this in the form of a 35-year-old foxed and yellowed paperback that I picked up at a second-hand bookstore, which I think is just right for a book like this: a forgotten epic from King’s back catalogue, from his powerhouse decade of the 1980s, which perfectly captures a nostalgic sort of Americana and ranks alongside the early books of the Dark Tower series in proving that he can write urban fantasy just as well as horror.

5. Troubles
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“You don’t know what living in Ireland is like.”
“Oh, yes I do. You forget that I’ve been living here for some time now.”

At the outset of the Irish War of Independence in 1919, Major Brendan Archer comes to stay at the crumbling Majestic Hotel, owned by his fiancee’s upper-class British family in County Wexford. This may not sound like the foundation of a particularly enjoyable novel, but Troubles is underpinned by a mordant satire which manifests itself, subtly or otherwise, on nearly every page. The Majestic itself, a Gormenghast-like relic which is literally falling apart, is both a metaphor for the decaying British Empire and one of literature’s great fictional locales, painted so well it feels like a real place – one which I was eventually sorry to leave. A brilliant cast of eccentric characters bemuse the straight-man Major at every turn; most memorably Edward Spencer, the stiff-upper-lip Tory toff who is gradually driven round the bend by the infuriating successes of Sinn Fein and Ireland’s inevitable journey towards independence. As a comedy of manners, Troubles is a wonderful book, and as a skewering of the imperial fantasies of the British ruling class, it’s more relevant than ever going into 2020, as the old white men of England prepare to tear their country away from Europe in pursuit of a faded dream.

4. Pet Sematary
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He saw Jud across the road, bundled up in his big green duffel coat, his face lost in the shadow cast by the fur-fringed hood. Standing on his frozen lawn, he looked like a piece of statuary, just another dead thing in this twilit landscape where no bird sang.

Even if you’ve never read Pet Sematary you can probably hazard a guess at what it’s about, since Stephen King’s classic works have seeped into so many other parts of pop culture. Big city doctor Louis Creed moves into a rural house in Maine next to a busy highway, with a creepy, misspelled “pet sematary” in the nearby woods – and a wise neighbour who helps Louis with some old local knowledge about the power of that place after his daughter’s cat is killed. Things go horribly wrong, of course, but what impressed me was how much King takes his time: how he slowly builds up an atmosphere of dread, marinating the novel in anxiety about death and mortality long before anything supernatural occurs. Pet Sematary is a masterpiece of horror and one of King’s finest novels.

3. The Last Policeman trilogy
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After this one I have sixteen bags with ten servings per bag. Houdini eats approximately two servings a day, so we should be just about okay for the seventy-seven days remaining. But who’s counting? I stand up and stretch and fill his water bowl. That’s one of the big jokes: Who’s counting?

The answer, of course, is everyone. Everyone is counting.

We’re all going to die one day. For most of us that day is far away in the future, but even for those of us unlucky enough to receive, say, a terminal cancer diagnosis, the grief is tempered by the fact that life goes on for others. It’s a different story if the entire human species gets its collective terminal diagnosis all at once.

Ben H. Winters’ marvellous trilogy – The Last Policeman, Countdown City and World of Trouble – explores just what might happen if humanity learned that an asteroid was going to impact the earth and there was nothing we could do about it. Using mystery fiction as a template, we follow Detective Hank Palace as he solves cases in an increasingly deteriorating United States, with everything coloured by the looming disaster marked on the calendar. Reactions to it are as varied as people are – violence and charity, hedonism and despair, insanity or clear-eyed acceptance – and Winters portrays a steady tick of increasing tension with each passing day, week and month. The perspective never zooms out, never swerves from the viewpoint of our plucky, straight-edge young police officer; but we garner enough from what he sees to witness the broad strokes of a species in its final days. Particularly interesting, given that he’s a cop, are the hints we see of how the state itself adapts: from a police department that begins cutting down on non-essential work, to one which becomes a semi-authoritarian reactionary force, to the final days in which organised government is reduced to an inane repeated message on the emergency broadcast system in an otherwise anarchic America. It’s compelling, fascinating, and page-turning stuff – and by the conclusion of the series, quite touching.

2. Eifelheim
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Whatever had been approaching had arrived.

What if our first contact with an alien species already happened, and the rest of the world never realised it? Michael Flynn originally explored the idea in a 1980s novella, about a historian piecing together primary sources which seem to indicate that a German village was visited at the time of the Black Death by a species of frightening insectile creatures – and that it subsequently vanished from the map. Eifelheim is the expansion of that story into a full-length novel, now almost entirely set at the time of the contact, as 14th century villagers discover a group of stranded interdimensional aliens in their local woods. Knowing that the encounter ultimately ends in the village of Eifelheim never being mentioned in the historical archive again, the reader naturally assumes this contact will end in violence and destruction. But what begins as an uneasy stand-off eventually becomes a cross-cultural bonding of friendship, brotherhood, trust and respect. Eifelheim is not just an excellent first contact novel mixed with a meticulously researched and realised piece of historical fiction: it’s also a deeply poignant and moving tribute to the Christian virtues of charity, hospitality and kindness, and an affecting read for believers and non-believers alike.

1. More Aubrey-Maturin
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Night after night they played there in the great cabin with the stern-windows open and the ship’s wake flowing away and away in the darkness. Few things gave them more joy; and although they were as unlike in nationality, education, religion, appearance and habit of mind as two men could well be, they were wholly at one when it came to improvising, working out variations on a theme, handing them to and fro, conversing with violin and cello.

The specific books in question are The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour and The Far Side of the World, which I read on a flight to Europe, while I was in Italy, and on a flight back to Australia respectively. But the specific novels don’t really matter; they merely form chapters in the enormous 20-book meganovel that is Patrick O’Brian’s marvellous Aubrey-Maturin series. The iterations of this series will be either at the top or near the top of every one of these year-end lists I write in the foreseeable future – and while I’d be tempted to polish off the remaining ten books in 2020, they’re the kind of books you want to savour.

Patrick O’Brian was the kind of maddeningly talented renaissance man who worked as a spy in World War II, spoke multiple languages, wrote biographies of historical figures, made his own wine at his estate in the Pyrenees and, in his spare hours, penned the most tremendous historical fiction novels of all time. This breadth of life experience comes through in his writing. The Aubrey-Maturin series at first glance seems like Dad books for the more well-educated and refined kind of Dad; a bunch of Royal Navy stories set during the Napoleonic wars to entertain the sort of fellow who wears sweater vests and subscribes to National Geographic. But they’re so much more than historical adventure novels. Revolving around the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon, naturalist and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, they cover every topic under the sun: politics, art, history, music, poetry, exploration, depression, the natural world, drug use, brotherhood, love, loss and – among countless other things – the timeless question of how one should live. As Richard Snow wrote more than twenty-five years ago in The New York Times: “On every page Mr. O’Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.”

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) 198 p.

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This sort of reminded me of the Nam Le short story ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,’ set at the Iowa Writers Workshop and featuring an author surrogate whose compatriots keep encouraging him to steer into his ethnic heritage and write nothing but Vietnamese-Australian stories even though his imagination is limitless. Every single story in this collection is about either a) Bengalis, or b) Bengali-Americans at MIT.

Writing what you know is fine, but doesn’t it get tedious after a while? Anyway, these stories are all perfectly written and even memorable, but nothing contained in them stirred my heart in any way. Bonus points to ‘The Third and Final Continent,’ however, for being the rarest of things in contemporary fiction: a positive, optimistic and happy short story.

World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (2014) 307 p.

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Time’s up. The Last Policeman took place about eight months before an asteroid was scheduled to strike the earth and wipe out all life, with the veneer of civilisation still mostly holding up in Concord, New Hampshire, the hometown of our protagonist, Detective Henry Palace. Countdown City jumps forward to three months before the impact, and sees things really start to fall apart, with Palace and some of his fellow police officers eventually abandoning an increasingly lawless Concord for the safety of a rural farmhouse. World of Trouble, the third and final volume in the trilogy, brings us into the very final week as Palace strikes out for Ohio to take on his final, self-imposed detective case: tracking down his missing sister.

The first two books in the series had the fascinating allure (and accomplished execution, on Winters’ part) of seeing how society begins to crumble when everybody is faced with the knowledge of their impending extinction. World of Trouble is the point at which that morbid fascination begins to turn properly, bleakly desperate. There’s a pervasive sense of loneliness; despite the title, the novel takes place almost entirely in a mostly abandoned town, with only a handful of characters compared to the larger casts and backdrops of the previous two books, the presence of any kind of government or civil society reduced to a repeated and frankly redundant message on the emergency broadcast system: “Do not drink the water in the Muskingum River watershed…” There’s a sense of the world holding its breath, the calm before the storm, the last few days of dreadful anxiety before it really, finally happens.

World of Trouble caps off the trilogy more relevantly than just taking us into the final days of the ever-present countdown. Palace’s younger sister Nico is his only living relative and it makes sense for his final “case,” such as it is, to focus on tracking her down, combining his personal story and his truncated career as a detective in a rather satisfying way. It’s also important because it’s a loose end in the broader plot: for the first two novels, Nico claims to be part of an underground organisation which believes it can help free an imprisoned scientist who can then travel to Britain to adjust a nuclear missile to destroy or divert the incoming asteroid. Palace maintains this is wishful thinking bullshit (why, he asks, would the US government not want to do this itself?) but it can’t be denied that in his limited contact with Nico’s organisation, he’s seen for himself that they have access to impressive equipment in this deteriorating world: namely, a functioning internet connection and a helicopter. Clearly something is going on, and Palace is no more immune to desperate hope than anybody else. Might Nico have been right all along? He mostly just wants to see his sister again, but for the reader, the real driving force in the narrative is the question of whether it might just be possible to save the world after all.

Obviously I won’t spoil the answer to that, but I will say that I found the conclusion to be satisfying, affecting and well-earned. The trilogy as a whole is an accomplished work of science fiction which is greater than the sum of its already very compelling parts. Highly recommended.

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) 323 p.

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Another entry in my growing fascination this year with nuclear holocaust, particularly in those early days of the late 1940s and the 1950s, when people had just seen the world ripped apart by war and had every right to be pessimistic about what was going to happen next. Alas, Babylon was a popular and influential book in its day, at the tail end of the 1950s, a time of rising tensions with the USSR and increasingly powerful bombs and sophisticated delivery systems. The novel focuses on the fictional town of Fort Repose (based on the real town of Mt Dora in central Florida, where author Pat Frank retired after a long journalism career) and how its residents survive a brief nuclear war and its aftermath.

This is not what I’d call a “post-apocalyptic” novel. We’ve been conditioned to think that Trump or Putin pressing the button means life on Earth is wiped out. The most extreme example of that in nuclear fiction is probably Alas Babylon’s contemporary, On The Beach, an exceptionally depressing 1957 novel set in Melbourne in which a nuclear war wipes out all life in the northern hemisphere and the population of the southern hemisphere is left to watch it slowly drift south and kill off each latitude month by month. I’m no expert but I don’t think anybody has ever been able to assess with total confidence whether a nuclear winter event would actually occur and whether it would actually wipe out humanity. It’s probably not true now (only a fraction of America and Russia’s nuclear weapons are armed at any given moment these days) and it probably wasn’t true in the late 1950s , when the technology was less advanced. But anyway, that’s not the point. Alas, Babylon reminded me of the later novel Warday, in that it sets out to demonstrate how even a limited nuclear exchange which still leaves, say, half the population of combatant nations alive is still a horrific outcome which basically unravels them as functioning states. There’s still some limited suggestion of federal government after the bombs drop in Alas, Babylon, but it’s mostly on the emergency broadcasting system or dropping leaflets from planes. Most of Florida’s big cities have been wiped off the map, and the citizens of Fort Repose are on their own.

And this is where Alas, Babylon is actually quite an optimistic book. It eschews the every-man-for-himself tribalism of later apocalyptic fiction for a more hopeful view of how people would behave in a long-term crisis. Most people are not ready to tear out their neighbour’s throat even when the chips are really down – the guy from the next town over, maybe, but not your milkman or your banker or your kids’ school principal. Maybe Frank’s thumb is on the scale a bit, given that nobody in the book ever really faces a scarcity of anything other than luxuries; I don’t know what Florida’s population was in the 1950s, but find it hard to believe a small town doing somewhat okay wouldn’t be swarmed with hungry radioactive refugees if warheads rained down on today’s Florida. But, hey, it’s speculative fiction, and if Frank wants to speculate that civic pride and lingering patriotism would enable the people of this small town to work together for the common good, that’s fine by me.

In many ways this book reminded me of Frank’s contemporaries in the world of 1950s science fiction: John Wyndham and John Christopher, and not just because his attitude towards women is risibly dated. (His views on race, at least, are a bit more progressive, likely because Frank himself was not a Southerner.) The protagonists of Alas Babylon are cut from the same cloth as the protagonists of Wyndham’s books, and specifically John Christopher’s grim famine novel The Death of Grass: they endure an unimaginable catastrophe and the end of their way of life with stoicism, because both they and the men writing them had already endured the Second World War, whether on the home front or in uniform. I don’t mean that as a shallow commentary on The Youth These Days, of which I am one; times change but people don’t, and I believe my own generation would do just fine if forced to undergo a state of total war against fascism today, except of course in the 21st century the fascism is calling from inside the house. Anyway, the point is that this generation was in fact unlucky enough to have to go through an unprecedented crisis, and I think that kind of formative, shared experience is demonstrated in the kind of characters they write: men who already have that awful experience under their belt, which serves them well when they have to face down something even worse, and who accept that they just have to buckle down and get a difficult job done.

And much of Alas, Babylon is about exactly that: getting a job done. It’s about a small street at the edge of Fort Repose which becomes a sort of extended family, and all the various troubles they have in securing fresh water, regular food, medical supplies, security, information etc. It reminded me in that sense of Earth Abides, George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel of viral apocalypse, in that it takes a sort of Boy Scout enjoyment in jury-rigging solutions to problems when modern conveniences are stripped away, and slowly rebuilding a healthy community. It has an odd plot structure, almost as though it was originally written as a serial; a violent confrontation which would probably serve as the climax in any other book is treated as just a particularly difficult problem, and the novel goes on about securing salt and why the fish stocks are declining for another forty or fifty pages afterwards. There’s nonetheless something very readable and engaging about it. I don’t think it’s a great novel, but it’s certainly more sensitive and perceptive than most sci-fi novels of its era, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (2013) 212 p.

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At the end of The Last Policeman, Detective Hank Palace is no longer a detective or even a policeman. An asteroid is scheduled to collide with the earth in a matter of months, and the US federal government has nationalised city police departments and shuttered the investigative units of Concord, New Hampshire. In Countdown City, Palace is approached by his childhood babysitter to help find her missing husband, who vanished one night and hasn’t come home. In this pre-apocalyptic world, people take off all the time, but she’s fervent that he never would have abandoned her. Palace knows that it’s a hopeless case and he’s unlikely to ever find the man, but as a sort of private investigator, he takes it up anyway. Why? Because everybody has something they cling to when faced with their imminent extinction, and that’s his: being a cop. Being a detective.

I can’t remember how The Last Policeman ended up on my to-be-read pile – it was one of those books that I add on Goodreads and then it sets there for five years before I get around to it – but I was surprised to find that its sequel, Countdown City, won the Philip K. Dick Award. It deserved to. There’s a messier central mystery than The Last Policeman, including an undeserved deus ex machina moment, and I maintain that it would fit more with the overall vibe of the series if Palace’s mysteries ultimately went frustratingly unresolved or turned out to be as unremarkably simple as they first appear (a suicide, a guy just leaving his wife to go have an affair). But the police procedural is really just a structure Winters uses to house the actual appeal of this series: a fascinating examination of a slow-motion apocalypse, of how people cope with knowledge of their impending destruction, and how the human infrastructure of the state responds to what Palace calls “the current environment.”

I started and finished this book on the same day; I can’t remember any time I’ve done that which didn’t involve an intercontinental flight. Granted, this day did involve spending two hours lying on a beach, but even later that evening I was more inclined to continue reading than do anything else. Countdown City holds your attention. That’s a testament to how well Winters captures the page-turning essence of a detective thriller (not his typical genre, I understand) but also a testament to what a good book it is and what a good concept it is. The countdown of the title feels very real: not in the specific rattling off of days or the flipping of a calendar, but rather in the gradual decay of the threads of civilisation; the sense that the world we know is slipping away bit by bit and the clock can never be turned back again. The Concord we see in The Last Policeman is one which is still in shock; still a recognisably functioning society, even if hyperinflation is kicking in and people are starting to “go Bucket List” and petrol’s running out. By the beginning of Countdown City, electricity is gone in New Hampshire, the newspapers have stopped printing, and the economy is down to bartering basics; there’s still law and order, but of a kind which is edging towards a police state, and by the end of the novel things have taken a considerable turn for the worse. Given that it’s the entire premise of the series, if Winters had botched this end-of-days atmosphere of anxiety, bleakness and barely constrained hysteria, it would have been a serious problem. But he carries it off perfectly. A great series, and I’m very much looking forward to finishing it off with the final book, World of Trouble.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (2019) 687 p.

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Like its predecessor was and like its successor will be, The Secret Commonwealth is a difficult book to judge because of the weight of expectation it carries. Nobody is reading these books because they plucked them off the shelf at random; people are reading them because they read and loved His Dark Materials ten or twenty years ago and are eager to return to that world. It means these books have to stand up to a more robust assessment than they would otherwise, but I don’t think that’s unfair.

The Secret Commonwealth, unlike La Belle Sauvage, takes place not before the original trilogy but after it. Lyra is now twenty years old, studying at a college in her beloved Oxford – which is of course Pullman’s beloved Oxford, and I tell you what, he managed to make that love shine through in the original trilogy without sounding as though he was drafting a route for a walking tour. Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon, as a result of the events in The Amber Spyglass, has the ability to travel where he pleases without being proximally tethered to his human. This may or may not also be the cause of the emotional rift between the two; one of the things I didn’t twig as a kid but which I enjoy as an adult reader is the fact that, since a daemon represents a person’s own soul, the conversations they have with them are really the equivalent of a person’s internal dialogue, and Lyra and Pan coming to hate each other is a symptom of her own depression. (Later, the actions of another character’s daemon are clearly an expression of her own tragically repressed homosexuality). While out wandering the rooftops and gardens of Oxford one night, Pan witnesses a murder, kicking off a chain of events which sends both of them away on long, separate journeys.

This book is better than La Belle Sauvage. That’s a start. What it has in common with La Belle Sauvage is that Pullman has either lost the ability to kill his darlings or is now old and successful enough that his editors no longer exercise a firm pen. (See also: J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc.) Northern Lights is an epic in miniature, each chapter moving the story dramatically forward, each introducing some interesting new concept or event or set of characters; by page 200 of Northern Lights, Lyra is standing in the snow in Norway, meeting Iorek Byrnison. By page 200 of The Secret Commonwealth, in comparison, everybody is still faffing about in Oxford doing the sort of amateur cloak and dagger stuff Pullman should have got out of his system with the Sally Lockhart books.

Aside from pacing, another issue it shares with La Belle Sauvage is that it feels rather hum-drum. The story of Northern Lights, while it happened to be focusing on Britain and the Arctic, always suggested that Lyra’s whole world was a fantastic map of magic and adventure; if somebody in the first chapter can passingly refer to “the bears” up north in a way which makes it clear they’re sentient, what else might be beyond the horizon, taken for granted by people who live in a world where even southern England is brimming with fantasy? The answer, in this new trilogy, is “not much.” There’s promise at the start, as Lyra reads second-hand in the murdered man’s journal about a mysterious desert in central Asia, a hidden palace containing some unknown treasure guarded by enigmatic sentries without daemons; encouraging stuff! But then she and Pan and Malcolm set off on separate journeys across a Europe which – aside from an encounter with a pair of cursed elemental beings on an atmospheric evening in Prague – does not feel very different from the real Europe. This is not helped by the fact that Pullman inexplicably felt the need to include a ripped-from-the-headlines Mediterranean refugee boat crisis.

Did I enjoy The Secret Commonwealth more than most fantasy? Yes, though I still found my attention wandering quite often. Will I read the final book in the trilogy? Of course. But neither it nor La Belle Sauvage come anywhere close to living up to the legacy of His Dark Materials. Possibly that was inevitable, but it’s a shame nonetheless.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (2012) 213 p.

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The asteroid Maia is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s nothing we can do about it except sit and wait to die in about six months. Society is starting to come apart a little, but is still mostly civilised – lots of people are killing themselves, lots of people are walking away from their jobs and families to go do whatever it is they’ve always wanted to do, but most people are just carrying on as usual out of sheer inertia. Or possibly because they’re already doing what they’ve always wanted to do, like our protagonist Henry Palace: police patrolman in the New Hampshire capital Concord, recently made a detective because half their CID team has, as they put it, gone Bucket List. Palace is called to a suicide by hanging in a McDonald’s bathroom, and soon becomes convinced that it isn’t a suicide at all but a murder.

I would exactly call this a sci-fi book, but certainly the sci-fi aspect looms large over it and I wouldn’t have picked it up if it were just a detective novel. The Last Policeman is a mystery novel with literary aspirations (you know – it’s just a prose style thing) and the incoming asteroid creating a pre-apocalyptic society is basically a study in how people react and how society would change if we knew there wasn’t much time to go. We all know we’re going to die one day, of course, but it’s depressing to know exactly when, and even more depressing to know that nobody’s going to be carrying on after you. The question Palace is trying to answer is why somebody would commit a murder at a time like this – but the other question hanging over the book is why he should care, why anybody should care?

Winters answers that question well enough. Despite its introspective first person narration, The Last Policeman certainly works as a detective novel, zipping along quickly with plenty of twists and turns and cliffhangers. There come points where Palace figures something out which he doesn’t share with the reader, but that’s towards the climax and you aren’t kept hanging for too long anyway, so that’s fine. There was, though, an aspect which reminded me another detective-novel-as-literature I’ve read – the acclaimed writer Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore, in which I suspected the protagonist would never solve the case and would simply be left haunted by lingering suspicions and a sense of unresolved injustice, but in which Temple eventually went back on track with the traditional detective story confrontation and conclusion anyway. In the case of The Last Policeman, there came I point where I was fairly certain that Palace’s case was going to turn out to be a suicide after all, and that his dogged determination and persistent gut feeling that it was actually a murder was his own way of dealing with the impending doom: a way of pretending to be what he’d always wanted to be, a proper homicide detective on a proper case. This turned out to be wrong, which is a shame, because I think it would have made for a more thematically consistent and overall better novel.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a good book. Palace is a likeable enough protagonist, a well-meaning dweeb who grew up to be a cop, learning the criminal code off by heart and thinking that ecstasy is spelt with a capital E. There are some good character beats, and there’s one particularly good moment, when Palace finally tells the reader the fate of his absent parents – a bit within that story which is mentioned almost off-handedly but, in a really affecting way, immediately enhances the admiration we feel for a fellow detective who has mostly been a stock character up to that point. There’s an interesting story thread involving Palace’s sister which is left only half-resolved, and which would have annoyed me except that I know there’s two more books which take place closer to the asteroid impact. A quick, easy and decent read, and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015) 600 p.

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It’s odd that Tchaikovsky picked the title Children of Time, since this refers to the less interesting of his novel’s two storylines: a relatively generic sci-fi yarn about a sleeper ship called the Gilgamesh which, through various trials and tribulations across the millenia, sees its crew going in and out of cryo-sleep as they try to find a new home for themselves, possibly the last remnants of the human race sent out thousands of years ago from a dying earth. The other story thread concerns what takes place on the first planet the Gilgamesh encounters: a terraformed world established by their own long-dead ancestors, in which a tailored virus was designed to uplift the local monkeys so that they’d evolve into something human-like in mere millenia, rather than millions of years. The problem is that something went wrong with the project, and the virus uplifted a different kind of animal entirely.

Anybody who hears about this book will probably also learn which animal, and it’s not like it isn’t revealed quite early, but I still won’t spoil it here. It’s an appealing elevator pitch for a science fiction doorstopper, and certainly the more compelling of the two storylines. Not that the story of the Gilgamesh is unentertaining – and in fact Tchaikovsky has a real skill for stringing out tension and ending chapters on cliffhangers – but the characters are rather flat, and towards the end it starts to become a bit of a colour-by-numbers generation starship story, with nothing we haven’t seen before and certain scenes and concepts Tchaikovsky seems to be including out of obligation. Like most sci-fi writers he also has an enthusiasm for expository dialogue and summary rather than scene – not an issue so much for the god’s-eye view storyline back on the planet, covering many thousands of generations of a developing intelligent society, but a bit of a drag when dealing with the same three or four characters arguing aboard the Gilgamesh.

Overall, though, this book is really good stuff. It’s 600 pages long and I burned through it in about four days. Good, readable, creative sci-fi that would make for a great airplane book.

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