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The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009) 431 p.

For somebody who hates science fiction so much, Margaret Atwood sure does write a lot of it. The Year of the Flood is a novel set in the same world, and involving many of the same characters, as her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake. Featuring a bio-engineered apocalypse, a dystopic corporate state and rampant genetic engineering, it’s science fiction whether she likes it or not, and she should take heed from Michael Chabon and embrace the term rather than staring down her nose at it.

Oryx & Crake was a fantastic piece of writing. Snowman, a hermit clad in a baseball cap and bedsheet, lives a lonely and melancholy life on the American eastern seaboard, apparently the only survivor of a cataclysmic plague. Nearby is a society of humanlike beings called Crakers, who revere Snowman as a prophet or god. The bulk of the story is told through flashbacks detailing Snowman’s former life as Jimmy, growing up in a hyper-commercialised world ruled by corporations. In high school Jimmy befriends a boy called Glenn, who nicknames himself Crake, and who grows up to become a brilliant bioengineer. Disillusioned and disgusted by humanity, Crake creates a new race of people, and releases a plague to wipe out the old ones. He vaccinates Jimmy against this plague beforehand, allowing him to survive as the guardian of the Crakers.

One might wonder what he is guarding them against, but at the climax of the book Jimmy discovers three real humans camping on the beach nearby. As he ponders his role as a guardian and agonises over what he will do with them, the novel ends.

The Year of the Flood isn’t really a sequel; it takes place chronologically alongside Oryx & Crake, featuring two characters instead of one, but again utilising the flashback method of following them as they grow up. Ren and Toby are both former members of a religious group called God’s Gardeners, a peaceful vegetarian sect that cultivates a rooftop garden in the middle of the otherwise bleak and grimy city. Eventually they both leave the sect, but are reunited after the plague.

The problem with this book was that I couldn’t help but compare it to the much better Oryx & Crake. For much of the novel, I felt like I was reading a book that I’d already read, because essentially I was: same themes, same world, just different characters. (Ironically, the book improves quite a bit in the second half, when Jimmy and Crake enter as supporting characters; it is, after all, their story.) One of the things that made Oryx & Crake so great was the perfect sense of crushing loneliness, the feeling that Jimmy was the last true human being left alive, something that was only slightly compromised by the sudden arrival of others in the very last chapter. The Year of the Flood, on the other hand, has a post-apocalyptic world that seems scarcely less populated than it was before the plague, with strippers and ex-convicts and artists and scientists and nearly all of God’s Gardeners crossing paths, shooting at each other, and spying on Jimmy. It kind of spoils the sense of Snowman’s miserable solitude in Oryx & Crake to know that a bunch of random characters from The Year of the Flood are living just down the road. I’m not even talking about Ren and Toby; there’s a group of ex-scientists they meet who are living in some huts and farming sheep who warn them to steer clear of the crazy guy who sleeps in a tree and talks to himself. Lame. We also never get any indication how these seething multitudes of humanity managed to survive the plague.

The Year of the Flood is not a bad book. I don’t think a writer of Atwood’s talent is capable of writing a bad book, and if you read it without first reading Oryx & Crake perhaps you’ll really enjoy it. But it’s an unnecessary book, and one that, to some extent, dilutes the quality of an earlier and much better one. Atwood already told the story of this world: the story of Crake, who tried to remake the human race, the story of Snowman, who was left behind to protect this new breed, and the story of Oryx, the woman who was a symbol, or perhaps even a catalyst, for the failings and desires that set these events in motion.

Why, then, bother telling the story of a bunch of unrelated nobodies? If Atwood writes more novels set in the world of Snowman and the Crakers, perhaps this one will slot in better in retrospect. If not, it’s an odd and unwieldy companion to a superior book.

The Year of the Flood at The Book Depository

Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1988) 482 p.

I love reading good science fiction. It’s a shame that with genre fiction Sturgeon’s Law is closer to 99% than 90%, because I know I’ll have to read about twenty mediocre sci-fi books and five awful ones before reading another one I enjoyed as much as this. Hyperion is an excellent piece of writing, the only flaw being the shitty, frustrating non-ending.

The novel revolves around the world of Hyperion, a planet at the edge of mankind’s interstellar empire, where there dwells a creature called the Shrike: a three-metre tall bladed killing machine who is nigh-invincible. Fortunately it never ventures beyond a small series of structures called the “Time Tombs,” a tiny slice of the planet’s territory, and so the rest of the world has been settled.

The book opens on the eve of a war between the Hegemony of Man and the post-human Ousters who live beyond their reach. The Church of the Shrike (for there are those who worship it) has selected seven apparently unrelated non-believers to make a final pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and meet the Shrike, apparently in the hope of stopping the war. Ordered by the Hegemony government to obey, apparently as a last-ditch “what have we got to lose” effort, the reluctant pilgrims set off on their journey. Along the way they agree to tell each other their stories in order to learn more about why they have been sent and how they might survive meeting the Shrike.

And so the novel is modelled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: we have the Priest’s Tale, a creepy journal-style story of mystery and horror that had me hooked on the novel in the first 50 pages; the Soldier’s Tale, of epic sci-fi space battles; the Poet’s Tale, a disturbing story of the first settlement on Hyperion which made the mistake of establishing their first city too close to the Shrike’s territory; the Scholar’s Tale, a heartbreaking story about a father who loses his daughter Benjamin Button-style; the Starship Captain’s Tale, which doesn’t actually get told and left me quite annoyed; the Detective’s Tale, a hardboiled private eye story where the client is an AI; and the Consul’s Tale, a romance.

Nearly all of these stories are excellent on their own terms, but the story in between is fascinating too, even though it’s mostly journeying. The party lands in the largest city on Hyperion to find it swamped by refugees desperate to escape, because “the Shrike has begun ranging as far south as the Bridle Range…. at least twenty thousand dead or missing.” There is a sense not just of impending war, but impending Armageddon. As the pilgrims travel overland to reach the Time Tombs, they find chaos and disorder, ruined towns and deserted villages, and while they don’t actually encounter the Shrike itself (though some of them do in the stories they tell) it builds up a great amount of suspense.

And so, with all the tales told, as the pilgrims finally climb the last sand dune and see the Time Tombs laid out in the valley before them, bathed in the light of an orbital battle above their heads as the first Ousters reach the system, they descend into the valley to meet their fate… and the book ends.

I felt like throwing it in the fucking lake. It’s the equivalent of ending Star Wars just as they make the final run on the Death Star, or ending Watchmen just as they arrive in Antarctica. I know this is the first book in a series, but what I don’t know is whether the next book will deal with the same plots and characters or simply be set in the same universe.  I really hope Simmons wraps this story up properly, because apart from the lack of an ending this book is great.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (2000) 867 p.

Many have commented that China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, of which Perdido Street Station is the first installment, defies easy categorisation. While I don’t think it’s quite the staggering anomaly that other reviewers seem to, it’s certainly a creative mix of fantasy, science fiction, steampunk and horror, and the world of Bas-Lag is one of the most intriguing I’ve come across. My opinions on this book are mixed, but I still want to read the next book in the series (The Scar) simply to spend some more time in this fascinating world.

This is Mieville’s first and foremost talent: worldbuilding. Perdido Street Station takes place in the city of New Crobuzon, a filthy, smoggy, industrial urban wasteland where dozens of different species rub shoulders under the shadow of a fascist government. The city itself is explored through the eyes of a large cast of characters: freelance scientists, artists, convicts, journalists, thieves and adventurers, who come across (or are themselves) a variety of wildly different inhuman races, ranging from the wyrmen, small and stupid gargoyle-like creatures that infest the city’s rooftops and slums, to the Weaver, a near-omnipotent gigantic spider that lives beneath the city and speaks in a constant poetic babble. And it’s not just monsters – there are a lot of strange concepts jockeying for space here, like the anti-reality energy source called “Torque,” the city neighbourhood dominated by an enormous, half-buried skeleton, or the primitive artificial intelligence assembling itself from discarded machines in a city dump. Thankfully Mieville manages to keep them all largely believable and consistent, soothing my fears that I was going to end up reading another clusterfuck of a book like The Court of the Air.

It’s unfortunate, given the clear passion Mieville has for his creations, that he often stumbles over his own language when writing about them. Vast swathes of each page are given over to some of the most ridiculously ornate prose I’ve ever seen. Every sentence is saturated in adjectives, and Mieville seems to rack his brains to think of the most obscure nouns in existence:

There was a suddeon burgeoning swell of foreign exudations. The surface tension of the psychosphere ballooned with pressure, and that hideous sense of alien greed oozed through its pores. The psychic plane was thick with the glutinous effluvia of incomprehensible minds.

It’s always frustrating when an otherwise talented writer believes that the best way to paint a picture with words is to cram as many complex ones he can possibly think of into a paragraph. It looks amateurish and slows down the pace of the story, and this is already a book suffering from bad pacing. Let me break down the plot for you: a birdman who has lost his wings comes to New Crobuzon to have them regrown with the help of our protagonist, a scientist named Isaac. In the course of his research Isaac enlists the city’s underworld to steal a variety of winged creatures for him to study. One of these is a strange grub that eventually creates a chrysalis and emerges as an extremely dangerous moth-like monster that escapes, frees its brothers from a government lab, and proceeds to terrorise the city with them. Isaac and his cohorts must then try to hunt the moths down.

It takes Mievelle literally three hundred pages to get to the point where the moth emerges from its chrysalis. That’s two other novels, right there. And those three hundred pages are not particularly enthralling; Mieville regularly spends pages and pages exploring the minds of characters who are neither relevant to the plot nor particularly interesting. Combined with the aforementioned purple prose, this makes Perdido Street Station an appallingly slow read.

Now, once the story does get going – again, you have to wade through three hundred pages of set-up first – it’s actually pretty damn good. Mieville combines elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror to create a very unique story, playing off the strengths of each genre and discarding elements that don’t work. His characters, for example, are extremely resourceful and intelligent, devoting themselves to learning as much as they can about the creatures they have unleashed – and Mieville does not hesitate in giving them answers when they deserve them, unlike in most horror novels, when the element of fear relies on the unknown. I was happy to overlook some of the typical problems found in speculative fiction (stilted dialogue, overly rational characters, in-depth explanation of emotions as though they’re some kind of bizarre phenomenon) because Mieville was telling an entertaining monster-hunt in an original way in a brilliant fictional city.

Perdido Street Station is, overall, a good book – just not good enough to justify 867 pages and four weeks of my life. I’ll certainly read The Scar, but I hope that after his first novel Mieville threw away his thesuarus and got a better editor.

Fugue For A Darkening Island by Christopher Priest (1972) 125 p.

This book was bundled in an omnibus (how quaint!) with Inverted World, and I’m not entirely sure why. Aside from being science fiction novellas written by the same author, they don’t have much in common. One is a gripping, creative science fiction mystery, while the other is a fairly generic dystopian apocalyptic story, which was both unremarkable and somewhat disturbing.

Fugue For A Darkening Island presents a tale of gradual social collapse that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read Wyndham or Christopher; typically the only variable in these stories is what causes the collapse. In this case it’s a nuclear war in Africa sending millions of refugees flooding onto British shores.

And this is the disturbing part. For much of the book, I thought it was severely racist: a story of thuggish blacks invading the white British homeland and causing death, anarchy and destruction. It was written more than thirty-five years ago, before the UK became the multi-cultural melting pot it is today, when the idea may have reflected the concerns of many British citizens (or, alternatively, the concerns of many citizens in modern-day Australia). As the book progressed, it seemed somewhat less racist – the British government in the story is extremely right-wing, fascist and engaged in overt genocide, and the narrator is portrayed as a hapless civilian refugee caught up between the two forces, light and dark. He sums it up in the last few pages:

In my unwitting role as a refugee I had of neccesity played a neutral role. But it seemed to me it would be impossible for this to continue in the future. I could not stay uncommitted forever.

In what I had seen and heard of the activities of the Secessionist forces, it had always appeared to me that they had adopted a more humanitarian attitude to the situation. It was not morally right to deny the African immigrants an identity or a voice. The war must be resolved one way or another in time, and it was now inevitable that the Africans would stay in Britain permanently.

On the other hand, the extreme actions of the Nationalist side, which stemmed initially from the conservative and repressive policies of Tregarth’s government (an administration I had distrusted and disliked) appealed to me on an instinctive level. It had been the Africans who had indirectly deprived me of everything I once owned. Ultimately, I knew the question depended on finding Isobel. If she and Sally had not been harmed my instincts would be quieted…

Priest appears to be arguing here that while we will always harbour a natural instinct to distrust the Other, defend our family and fight off outsiders, we should rise above that with our intelligence and civilisation, and hold to the better part of human nature. This is a wise argument, which is also the defining theme of Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite books of all time.

Yet there are certain elements of Fugue For A Darkening Island that still seem racist – white Secessionist forces always treat the protagonist more humanely than black militants, there’s an unrealistic shallowness to the portrayal of African refugees (a fairly unified force that speaks Swahili across the board), and there’s the squirming feeling I get simply from reading this scenario put into words. It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis – the population of the Third World greatly outnumbers that of the First, and Europe and Africa are geographically close… though you’d think continental Europe would cop the brunt of it, rather than Britain. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the handful of Muslim riots in France, which right-wingers interpret as evidence that immigration has turned Paris into a corpse-strewn wasteland identical to Mogadishu, and that some kind of apartheid should naturally be introduced.

I digress. I don’t want to accuse Priest of being racist. Science fiction is all about exploring speculative scenarios, especially with a political bent to them, and while significant parts of the book made me uneasy I’m not going to cast judgement on his decision to write it.

But, having barely cleared the political correctness board, Priest must now pass the literary merit test. And he fails. Fugue For A Darkening Island, allegations of racism aside, is simply not a very good book. The bulk of it consists of the protagonist scavenging, conflicting with other parties of survivors, picking up what bits of news that he can and wandering through refugee camps and ruined towns looking for his family. It’s not a badly realised world, but neither is it an original or compelling one. This isn’t helped by Priest’s decision to tell the story in four different timeframes at once, rapidly switching between them, mixing up pointless adolescent sexual misadventures and taking us through the protagonist’s marriage problems. Finally, the cold and detached tone that seemed perfectly natural in Inverted World does him a great disservice here, portraying the narrator as an emotionless bastard with a tediously analytical mind. Fugue For A Darkening Island is a fairly unremarkable book, which is why I was so puzzled at the decision to bundle it with Inverted World, an excellent science fiction classic.

Inverted World by Christopher Priest (1974) 251 p.

I read this book after going through the “Classics” section in the New York Review of Books and noting down the ones that seemed interesting. I’m glad I did – it’s been a long time since I read science fiction so intriguing in its ideas and concepts that it had me reading well into the early hours of the morning.

Helward Mann has reached “the age of six hundred and fifty miles,” when he becomes a man and joins one of the guilds of “the city.” The city is in fact a moving vehicle, constantly travelling north at a rate of about one mile every ten days, through an arid landscape where the local populace is stricken with poverty and disease. It is unclear, at first, where this book takes place – the citizens speak English and the locals Spanish, yet the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and is not spherical but instead shaped like an inverted hyperbola.

Mann is put to work with the Traction Guild, constantly dismantling the rail tracks to the south of the city and reassembling them to the north. Here Mann learns that the city is travelling towards something called “the optimum,” the ideal position for it to be in. He asks his supervisor if they will be able to stop when they get there, but is told that they will never get there, because the optimum is always moving. As Mann is shifted amongst the guilds, learning about the strange world he lives in, it gradually becomes clear that the purpose of the city’s movement it is not about what they are trying to reach, but rather what they are trying to escape.

The ominous foreshadowing Priest applies throughout this story, developing the fascinating mystery of the terrible thing that lies to the south, is brilliantly executed and makes for very compelling reading. I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to sit down and read rather than do anything else, because I was so drawn into this world and determined to discover its secrets just as Mann was. I stayed up reading Inverted World until 3.30 AM, which is late even for me. So, yeah, DO NOT READ ANY OTHER REVIEWS OR SYNOPSES OF THIS BOOK, because you want to know as little as possible going into it, and quite a few of them (i.e. Amazon.com) give away significant parts of the mystery.

It is classic science fiction, mind you – the kind of dry characterisation, dialogue and description (just the facts, ma’am) that can only be supported by an excellent concept, as in the case of John Wyndham or John Christopher. Priest’s concept is excellent indeed, so no complaints there.

The issue I have with Inverted World is the ending. The mystery of what lies to the south is resolved, quite satisfactorily (it involves very hard science fiction, but is explained perfectly well to the layman). But it doesn’t answer all the questions about the city – about its origin and history, and certain outrigger mysteries – and it is in this second resolution that Priest falters a bit. He seems to have felt the need to bring the more outrageous aspects of the world down to earth, so to speak, and it results in an explanation that robs Mann’s world of some of its magic, does not actually answer certain things, and seems almost crammed in at the last second – again, I’ll compare Priest to Wyndham.

But this was only a minor issue in an otherwise excellent science fiction novel. Inverted World is a brilliantly crafted mystery that is original, intriguing and certainly worth the time of any science fiction reader.

“Homecoming” can be read for free online in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #40.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2003) 529 p.

Another excellent book, the kind you wish you could read more often, rocketing straight into my top ten favourites of all time. Cloud Atlas consists of six separate narratives, ranging across time and space from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century, to a dystopic sci-fi Korea, to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each story cuts off halfway through until the “final” one, which is whole, and then the arc swoops back down again and finishes every narrative off, like a mirror image; a more complete and satisfying version of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, if you will.

The stories, in order, are:

The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing
The diary of an American notary circa 1850, returning home from a business trip to Australia, who makes a brief stop at the Chatham Isles and then sets off again bound for Hawaii; the diary cuts off in mid-sentence as we are sent to…

Letters From Zedeghelm
… a series of letters written by a Robert Frobisher, a young, bankrupt English composer in 1931, fleeing debt collectors by hopping a ferry to Belgium and offering his services as an amanuensis to a reclusive, eldery composer. Frobisher ends up stealing books from the library to pay off his debts and sleeping with the composer’s wife, but before things are wrapped up we find ourselves in…

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Written in the style of an airport novel, featuring a determined young reporter taking on a corrupt nuclear power company in 1970s California. This was my least favourite of the stories, but that’s okay, because it’s not long before we’re reading…

The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish
Set in early 21st century Britain, in which a man in his 60s, perfectly sound of mind and capable of living, is accidentally sent to a nursing home from which he finds himself unable to leave. Unjust imprisonment is a favourite theme of mine, so I was somewhat disappointed when I was yanked away and sent to…

An Orison of Sonmi~451
Dystopic, futuristic Korea, where an archivist is interviewing a “fabricant” on death row, tracing her life voyage from worker in a fast food outlet to champion of clone’s rights and freedom for a secret rebellion group. One of the best science fiction stories I’ve read in a long time, fully realised in technological, social and political dimensions, but the creeping sensation of humanity’s march towards destruction culminates with…

Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
Set in a rural post-apocalyptic society in Hawaii, where young Zachary relates the story of his visitor Meronym, a woman from an advanced culture across the ocean (tones of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids). Written in the spoken style, as a campfire story told by someone with a rough accent, which means a lot of apostrophes and phoenetic words, annoying at first but I soon grew used to it. This is the middle of the story, the mirror, and following this we retrace our steps through Korea, through Timothy’s nursing home, through 1970s California, through 1930s Belgium, all the way back to the lonely trade ship on the South Pacific in the 19th century.

These stories can easily be read on their own, but they share three common threads. The first is that each one is, ostensibly, read by a character in the next; Frobisher finds Ewing’s journal in the library at Zedeghelm, one of the characters in Half-Lives is the man Frobisher was writing to, Timothy Cavendish is a publisher who receives a manuscript for Half-Lives, etc. The second thread is that a character in each story has a comet-shaped birthmark; suggesting reincarnation, I suppose, although that doesn’t quite work out, as Timothy Cavendish was most certainly alive at the same time as Luisa Rey.

The final common thread is the theme of the book itself – one of dominion, of slavery, of power and predation and the vicious heart of human nature. Each individual story contains dozens of miseries, of humans forcing their will upon others, from the invasion of the Chatham Isles by Maori, through to the more civilised but no less malevolent imprisonment of Timothy Cavendish, right back to savage brutality in Hawaii centuries from now, as Zachary’s home valley is pillaged and his friends and family slaughtered by the brutal tribes on the other side of the island. Almost every major interaction between human beings in this book reveals, upon closer examination, the will to exert one’s influence over the other – whether with intimidating words over drinks at a formal luncheon, or with sword and spear on the battlefields of the barbaric future.

The writing itself is perfect; Mitchell paints pictures with words and constructs sentences with elaborate care, resulting in one of those few books you can pick up and read again at any point, any page or sentence, and enjoy. The simple aesthetic pleasure in seeing words strung together so well, even outside of any greater narrative scope – that’s a real accomplishment, and I could count the number of books that achieve it on one hand. I absolutely love this novel, and now I really have to read The Line of Beauty – because to have beaten Cloud Atlas for the Booker Prize, it must be staggeringly brilliant.

Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson (1993) 254 p.

no consequences whatsoever!

I bought this book based solely on the title. “Bears Discover Fire.” The implications of that are horrifying. A second sapient species on the planet? Man reigns supreme only because of his oversized brain; on a level playing field, the bears would wipe the floor with us every time.

The book is actually a collection of short stories, and unfortunately none of them, including the titular ursine escapade that was brimming with promise, are particularly good. Terry Bisson is one of those classic science fiction writers who has a brilliant imagination, and some amazing ideas, but lacks the writing ability to really bring them to their full potential (the terminal point along that spectrum being the filthy, wretched hovel of Philip Jose Farmer). Some of the stories are quite bad; most are merely not good. They’re readable, certainly, but Bisson just makes so many mistakes. He drops foreshadowing too early, leaves blatant hints that the reader could easily guess for themselves, and his stories just seem to lack some vital spark. A good effort, but give this one a miss.

Bears Discover Fire at The Book Depository

49. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992) 438 p.

they're not unicorns, they're horses with swords on their heads

Hiro Protagonist is a freelance hacker, pizza delivery man for the Mafia, and the world’s greatest swordfighter, swashbuckling his way across a hyper-capitalist America in which the federal government has relinquished most of its power to corporations, whose self-contained enclave franchises line the privately-owned freeways of this dazzling dystopic… future? Or alternate history? The main character is in his twenties, but his father fought in World War II, which means Snow Crash can’t be taking place any later than… well, now.

Snow Crash is essentially Neuromancer on acid: a louder, more adrenaline-pumped book that contains many of the same themes and concepts, in much the same way that Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is On The Road on acid. The difference is that Fear And Loathing is much better than its predecessor, whereas Snow Crash is not. It’s an excellent book, but doesn’t seem quite sure of what it wants to be, creating a world that is almost cartoonishly over-the-top and yet takes itself completely seriously. It’s hard to know what to make of a novel that intersparses tedious discussions of Sumerian mythology with skateboarding chases and sword fights.

It’s still a lot of fun. The action scenes are excellent, and there’s a creative flair in every chapter – I was especially impressed with the Raft, an enormous floating construct of several ships lashed together, with a chaotic shanty town of smaller boats surrounding it, populated with refugees from all over the Pacific. Also interesting was the Metaverse, Stephenson’s virtual reality MMO that inspired Second Life (he also predicted Google Earth, although his version had real-time satellite feeds). And the climax was extremely well executed, one of those classic action-adventure structures that slowly moves all the characters into place for a fast-paced, explosive finale. I haven’t read one of those in a while, and I love them.

Snow Crash isn’t exactly a mess. It’s consistent all the way through. But it felt like a mess, because I could never truly believe the impossible world it was presenting – as opposed to Neuromancer, which took place in one of the most believable, well-realised fictional worlds I have ever read. Nonetheless, it’s still a great book, and recommended for any science fiction fans.

Books: 49/50
Pages: 16, 033

My final creative writing assignment, a short story of about nine thousand words. It’s an indirect sequel/prequel to The Planet’s Corpse, so if you haven’t read that already I suggest you do. Then report back here. Aren’t we having fun!

______________________________________

The boat pulls up to the island’s only jetty, and the visitor steps out onto the planks. He turns back to face the pilot, a sunburnt teenager wearing a Hawaiian shirt, pulling knots into the docking rope. “Three hours,” the visitor reminds him, and the boy nods.

He turns and makes his way across the narrow beach, up the steep path that winds around the island’s cliffs, marked occasionally with a scraggly tree clinging to the edge, or a mossy old shrine carved into the rock. At the summit is a Spanish villa of orange walls and red tiles. Tethered to a peppermint tree, a goat sneezes idly at flies. Seagulls screech and wheel around a flag with a family crest, snapping in the wind.

The visitor knocks on the door, and after a moment it opens slightly. A young woman peers out at him. “I have an appointment with Mr. McEwan,” he says, and she lets him in. It is cool and dark inside. She leads him through the living room and corridors, past antique furniture, leatherbound books, a brass telescope mounted by the flowers at a windowsill. A house full of old things.

There is a tower in the corner of the villa, and he follows her up a spiral staircase, narrow windows providing a glimpse of a sun-bathed central courtyard where a gardener is trimming rosebushes. At the end of the stairs he is ushered into a circular room, sunlight and salty air drifting in through open windows. The room is sparse, with only a bed, a few bookshelves and a desk where an old man sits, writing.

The woman leaves the room. The old man keeps scratching away with his stylus. “You’re the bloke I talked to last week,” he says, without looking up. “The reporter from the Haven Times.”

“Yes,” the visitor lies. “It’s a pleasure to meet you in person, Mr. McEwan.”

“Don’t give me that,” McEwan mutters, and motions for him to sit. The visitor lowers himself into a rickety armchair, and opens his computer to take notes.

McEwan finishes writing, and swivels his chair to face the visitor. He has heavy wrinkles running down his face, wiry grey hair, a bony frame – but he does not seem diminished, or weak. His eyes glint with something that makes the visitor uneasy. “So what’s so interesting about me this year?” McEwan asks. “Centenarian? Trillionare? Philanthropist?”

“None of those, actually,” the visitor says. “I’d like you to tell me about Earth.”

* * *

I was born on the 9th of Libra, 248. I am one hundred and eighteen years old and, at last count, the seventeenth oldest person in the system and the sixth oldest person born on Earth.

With every passing year my birthplace becomes more fascinating to people. It was very different when I first arrived here, when I was just a single soul among millions displaced by the Exodus. Back then, more than half the Martian population had been born on Earth, though most were immigrants from the mineral boom. Very few of them were Exodus refugees, and an even smaller amount were like me: traumatised, bewildered and incredibly lucky people who had been on Earth right up until the outbreak of the war and only managed to scramble to safety at the last second.

The trigger for the war was most certainly the eruption. Many modern historians argue that Earth was spiralling towards disaster one way or another, that it was already a world in crisis when the eruption occurred, but take it from somebody who was there: absolutely nothing changed the course of history quite like that. I simply woke up one morning to find that what the media dubbed a “supervolcano,” lurking beneath the Himalayas, had blown apart and killed tens of millions of people in India and Tibet.

It happened on August 6, 2094. I was fifteen years old. I skipped school that day, sitting at home with my family, all of us entranced by the minute-by-minute coverage. We watched footage of pyroclastic flows sweeping down into the Ganges river valley with frightening speed, wiping away trees and bridges and buildings. We saw satellite imagery of a swelling dark blotch over the subcontinent, twisting and expanding like an evil cyclone. Dehli and Islamabad and Kathmandu had been wiped off the map. In Beijing, in Singapore, in Dubai, ugly yellow sulphur and grey fumes blotted out the sun. My brother and I watched it as though it was just another exciting movie, while our parents exchanged grave looks behind us. “Don’t worry,” I remember my mother saying soothingly to my five-year old sister when she crawled into her lap, frightened and upset. “It’s on the other side of the world. Far away. It can’t hurt us.” But when the sun rose over our town the next day, it was with a dirty brown tinge. Krakatoa was nothing compared to the supervolcano.

The death toll from the eruption itself is impossible to calculate, as it is so overlapped with the events of the next few years, but modern estimates put it at nearly a billion. The Himalayan plateau was all but obliterated, and the surrounding nations suffered greatly from poisonous fumes, from agricultural failure in the unnatural darkness, from economic and social collapse. Asia was not a good place to be. China invaded and occupied Siberia in October. (I recall grainy footage of soldiers in gas masks pillaging rural villages, flecks of ash constantly wiped away from the camera lens by a gloved hand). Europe, inundated with refugees, soon closed her borders and guarded them with unrestrained military force. (I am sure you have seen the famous photograph of the MV Salaam, an Egyptian ferry torpedoed by the Hellenic Navy, children floundering and drowning in the wreckage). The United States, which for decades had been held together with red tape, propaganda and compulsory military service, began to fragment as California seceded, Canada reclaimed the North-West, and the government suspended elections indefinitely. (That immortal day in November: the Patriot Guard dispersing protesters in the National Mall, clouds of tear gas rising above the Capitol Dome, bodies lying in the streets among the abandoned placards and broken bottles, half-finished slogans spraypainted across Lincoln’s statue).

Against this backdrop of death, war and disorder, the Exodus had begun. Over the next five years and four months, more than one hundred million human beings would flee the Earth.

You may be surprised to know that leaving Earth was not on everybody’s mind. It is easy to look back with perfect hindsight, to assume that the last few years of the 21st century became a panicked rush to escape. But we had no idea what was coming. We assumed the atmosphere would clear itself of the ash and dust eventually (every day I rode my bike to school with a cloth wrapped around my mouth, the sun veiled and cold), that the wars and conflicts would sort themselves out, that life would go on as before. Leaving the planet was a popular option, but was by no means considered essential to survival. It was merely an adventurous investment into a better life, just as the pioneers of the eighteenth century had crossed the Atlantic to start over again in the virgin wilderness of North America. Nobody could look at the images from Mars, of the happy domed biomes, of the flourishing cities with their parks and rivers, and not feel a twinge of jealousy. They were also building such habitats on Earth, of course, underground sanctuaries that recreated not only pre-eruption conditions but pre-Industrial Revolution conditions: clean air, sparkling rivers, a happy hologram of a flawless blue sky. But Earth’s biomes were the exclusive domain of the upper tax bracket. Mars, on the other hand, was an exciting frontier where everybody lived in these beautifully modelled environments, where there was plenty of work, where a terraformed surface was just around the corner, ushering in a glorious future for all.

At least, that was the view that government and corporate propaganda encouraged, with happy Martian families waving out at us poor dying Terrans from every billboard, flash ad and bus flank we walked past. But it was common knowledge that conditions on Mars weren’t quite so rosy: refugee workers living in terrible conditions, UN security police clamping down on human rights, an increasingly violent resistance movement setting off bombs outside public offices. My mother was vehemently against our family emigrating off-world, no doubt because her friend’s son had been working in the uranium mines of Tharsis for five years and sent regular messages home gloomily describing how bad things were. My father dismissed these arguments, pointing out the disturbing turn our own government had taken, scapegoating minority groups and introducing conscription into the military police for all men turning eighteen, shipped off to the civil conflicts in the South Pacific. I spent many late nights with my ear pressed against the door of my father’s study, listening to their arguments slinging back and forth, ready to duck for cover into the stairwell at any minute lest one of them become so angry they should stalk right out of the room. I don’t think I was ever caught eavesdropping. I might be wrong. It was a long time ago.

In any case, my father eventually prevailed, with my mother begrudgingly conceding that I would soon be of military age, and that she had no wish for her eldest son to die in the half-flooded streets of Port Moresby or Suva. I was perfectly happy about this, and not just from my own desire not to be killed by a firebomb hurled by a rioting crowd. I had always been fascinated by space, growing up watching American science fiction shows on Saturday mornings, and as I’d grown older, my interest in shooting aliens in some distant nebula gradually transformed into a passion for engineering and aeronautics. In 2096 I dodged the draft by being accepted into a Commonwealth scholarship at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious on Old Earth, comparable today to Reeve or Marshall. I stood at the international airport with only a single suitcase, nervous and excited, listening to the departure calls for distant and exotic cities. I hugged each member of my family goodbye in turn before walking through the entry gate for the European terminal, my mother’s perfume still lingering in my nostrils, my little sister sitting atop my father’s shoulders and waving farewell with the furious energy of a child. It was the last time I ever saw them in person.

For the first time I flew in a plane. We grazed the upper edges of the atmosphere somewhere over the Indian Ocean, just south of the Maldives elevator. It had been dormant for two years, since the volcanic ejecta had fouled it beyond repair, the cars clinging to it silently like cicada husks on a tree trunk. The cable extended below us through the blurry grey air, and above us into the star-speckled darkness. The Australian businessman sitting next to me snorted at my wide-eyed amazement and ordered another scotch, but I ignored him, pressing my face up against the window and drinking it in. Despite everything that I’ve witnessed in the century between now and then, that motionless elevator cable remains one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. If you went to that spot today, I don’t suppose it would look any different.

We landed at Stansted Airport on September 25, 2096, the same day Sacramento was nuked and the dreams of the Bear State secessionists drifted away on the jetstreams over the Sierra Nevada. England was a different world. There was more ash than I was used to, constantly building up in the street corners like snow, car headlights on at all hours of the day, people with masks on their faces when they stepped outside. Socially, politically, it felt more important. More central. My hometown had been a tiny nook of the planet where nothing but the ash could reach us. In London, however, there were refugees on every street corner, trash piling up in the alleyways, shanty towns in the parks and squares. I saw African children playing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square beneath the granite gaze of Lord Nelson, black-clad riot police pushing protestors away from Downing Street, strange religious cults holding prayer masses in Piccadilly Circus. A few days later I was riding the western maglev, following the muddy grey Thames upriver.

Semester began in October. Oxford was an oasis of calm, with the comforting solidity of age imbued in her gargoyles and echoing halls and antique bookshelves. They were celebrating the university’s thousandth anniversary when I arrived, and the reassurance I had felt when witnessing London’s venerable landmarks was further encouraged. Surely nothing could destroy this great legacy humanity had created, millennia of culture and art and science? Impossible. The Renaissance paintings in the Ashmoleon Museum, the Gutenberg Bible in the library, the stained glass of the Exeter College Chapel… these were unimaginably ancient, and had been through so much before this. I suddenly felt egotistical to assume that it would be my generation that would destroy the world. We had survived worse catastrophes. History was full of crises. The human race would recover.

In the Botanic Gardens, ash swirled and eddied in the wind, mixing with dead leaves around the skeletal trees.

I studied hard. Although I was generally more optimistic than I had been at home, having convinced myself that the human race would pull through yet again, I never relinquished my fundamental desire to fly through space. The more cynical part of me also argued that, perhaps, it might be prudent to watch the human race pull through from an extra-terrestrial vantage point. So I stayed committed to the family plan, speaking with my father at least once a week, organising funds and visas and paperwork. He was employed by Sumitomo, a Japanese transnational with major stakes in the mining industry on Mars. Ever since the eruption he had been using this position to apply for an off-world transfer. But waiting lists were long, and the space elevators could only take so many people per day. “At this point, we’ll be lucky to get there by 2100,” he said grimly on one frigid February morning in my first year, when I was holed up in my dormitory while a dirty grey blizzard screamed at the windowpanes.

“That’s not so far away,” I said, shivering in the cold, pulling my blankets further up around my shoulders. “It’ll be here before we know it.”

How true that turned out to be.

December 2099. The final month of the century. The final month of Earth. I was midway through the third year of my degree at that point, scoring excellent marks, one of the top students in my class. An opportunity arose for accredited field work over the Christmas holidays, on the American space elevator in Ecuador. I signed up immediately, along with a handful of other students who were more eager to gain field experience than to go home for turkey dinners. We boarded a plane on the 18th of December, the day after term ended, streaking south-west across the Atlantic.

Was there a sense of dread in those final days of Earth? Did people speak in sombre tones? Had there been so few applicants for the field trip because other students were desperate to get home to their families? Or do I apply that grave mood retrospectively, after a hundred years of historical dissection, of documentaries and movies and sims and novels? It was so long ago. I may have been there in person, but in the years that followed I was shaped and moulded by the zeitgeist just as easily as anyone else. For many years I was certain that sometime during my first year, I had been watching news of the riots in London sparked by the King’s house arrest, and had heard a fellow student remark: “Wanker never leaves the bloody palace anyway.” It was only recently that I happened to see a screening of the 2145 film Dance Of The Sugar Plums, and was startled to see one of the characters say the exact same line, in exactly the messy student dormitory I supposedly “remembered.” It was a sobering experience – especially since I don’t recall ever having seen the film when it was first released. How many of my memories are real? How many are imposters, absorbed subconsciously over the course of 97 years?

What I do remember, beyond a doubt, is intense media saturation. There were updates every few minutes on whichever hotspot was deemed the most interesting. Russian and Chinese troops clashing in the Ob river basin, burning towns and laying waste to industrial cities. American and European forces squabbling in the orbital realm above our heads, infringing on each other’s defence nets, warning shots, gunboat diplomacy. The perennial clashes between South Asian refugees and locals in Africa and Australia, governments in exile pleading for calm, displaced figureheads of nations that were buried under metres of ash. Even Mars received coverage as an interesting sideshow, where the massive five-year influx of people fleeing the dying Earth was causing trouble with the locals, where incompatible cultures had been thrown together by necessity, where the excessive infringement of freedoms was resulting in riots and curfews and assassinations. I spent the entire four-hour flight to South America scanning the net, reading reports from the BBC and Euronews and GDR. Until the captain announced that we were approaching Simon Bolivar International, I didn’t even realise we were over the continent.

Quito. The capital of Ecuador. Six million people crowded into an Andean valley, spilling out across the peaks and mountainsides, the smog and pollution mixing with the ever-present global ash cover. Only six years ago, on a clear day, I would have been able to see the space elevator as soon as I stepped off the plane: a shining silver cable, stretching down out of the blue sky to the anchoring citadel on Cayambe’s bare and rocky summit, its shadow cast over the city. Now, I could barely see twenty metres ahead of me.

Our field studies were being sponsored by BHX, the American engineering conglomerate that had built the elevator and had representatives in every major university in the English-speaking world, eager to snap up any fresh-faced young graduates. They put us up in a nice hotel in El Panecillo, an old city neighbourhood where a handful of Spanish colonial buildings stood like islands in an ocean of shopping malls, apartment buildings and multi-level freeways. It wasn’t a pleasant city; even in the two decades since the elevator had been completed, it was still struggling to cope with runaway population growth. Watanabe used to be like that, under that idiot mayor they had during the Calm. Millions of people clinging to a mountainside, inadequate housing, rampant poverty…

But it wasn’t Quito we were there to see. Every day our BHX representatives would take us up the winding service highway that spiralled around Cayambe, to the frigid and impregnable perch of the Citadel. With visitor passes clipped to our shirts, we were led through the departure terminals, down hallways and elevator shafts, out onto the catwalks suspended above the subterranean cargo bays. Below us were ranks of loading robots as big as Ferris wheels, transferring vacuum crates into elevator cars with their spidery legs, the roar of activity so loud that our guides had to shout to be heard. Every day they took us there to dispense facts and figures about the globe’s largest engineering project. It was managed by a trifecta of AIs developed by Caltech, BHX and the U.S. Department of Defence. It was nicknamed the “Stairway to Heaven” after some old song from the 20th century. It generated 67% of Ecuador’s GDP. Those three facts have stuck in my mind. One of the quirks of the human brain, I suppose. I may not be able to remember my mother’s face, but I can certainly tell you pointless trivia about an old aerospace megastructure.

What I was looking forward to most was our scheduled trip up the elevator itself to Liberty Station, that marvelous, gargantuan space terminal that had been immortalised in so many films and serials. Squeezing that into the program of our visit had been no mean feat, and was only accomplished after a lot of pressure from Exeter College’s engineering faculty. The elevator was packed every day, with rich or influential or just plain lucky refugees arriving from every corner of the world, hurling nearly a hundred people off the planet with every passing hour. It had been operating around the clock for the last five years, along with the European elevator in Kenya and the Chinese elevator in Sumatra. The Indian elevator had suffered from ash failure very early on, while the other three space powers raced to find a solution to protect their own vital links to the other worlds from the volcanic miasma creeping across the atmosphere. They had succeeded, all finding different solutions, the details of which I won’t go into. Suffice to say that their success resulted in the preservation of a hundred million human lives who would never have otherwise escaped Earth – including, of course, my own.

Our trip was scheduled for the 24th of December. On that day, at about seven o’ clock in the morning, I spoke with my father for the last time. Back home it was just past midnight, and he was sitting at the coffee table in the dark living room, speaking quietly so as not to wake the rest of the house. Half a dozen screens were open before him, filled with application forms and employment grants and all the other bureaucratic red tape necessary to transport a human family off-world.

I remember that image well. The lights of the Christmas tree were blinking in the corner, the family cat was curled up asleep on the armchair, and there were three stockings hung from the mantelpiece above the empty fireplace. One for my brother, one for my sister, and one for me. It was family tradition, even though I had been away from home for three years.

My father was stressed and tired. The Sumitomo grant had fallen through, erasing any chance we had of leaving Earth in the next five years. Our next best option would be a UN application, but most of those were going to the displaced South Asians whom Australia and South Africa and Kenya were trying to get rid of. I tried to remain cheerful, told him about the BHX reps I’d been talking to, who were watching the Oxford team closely for potential employees. If I could get a foot in the door, maybe end up working on the American elevator… vague hopes, naive speculation, but it lifted his spirits a little. I told him to go to bed, wished him Merry Christmas, closed the window and never saw him again.

Two hours later I was walking through the departure terminal of the Citadel, bypassing long queues of refugee families, having my passport scanned with the rest of my group, and being ushered into an elevator car with the BHX reps. It was one of the company’s new private models, designed to transport business executives up to Liberty in comfort and style. There was a small restaurant, an observation lounge and even a bar. By comparison, the regular models were ten-storey towers designed to carry upwards of three hundred people, produced shortly after the eruption to accommodate the skyrocketing emigration numbers. It was like comparing a private yacht with a container ship, and we were ecstatic to be provided with such luxury. We took quick advantage of the free drinks and were soon gathered on the observation deck, clapping each other drunkenly on the back and excitedly shouting, “I can’t believe we’re going to Liberty!”

There were seven other students on the trip, and one professor. I can’t remember any names or faces. I was the only person on that car who would be alive by the end of the week.

We were treated to spectacular views: the snowy spine of the Andes range, the tropical blues and greens of the Amazon, the azure-fringed Brazilian coast, the plains and deserts of Argentina. As the elevator cable dragged us higher, our view expanded ever further, across the dark Atlantic, up past the Caribbean islands to the grey urban sprawl of the American east coast. It was completely fake, a hologram based on pre-eruption recordings. What we really would have seen, had the hologram been removed, was nothing but grey. Just the same as if we were staring out of our hotel room in Quito. Nonetheless, we enjoyed it immensely for the first three hours of the ride.

During the fourth hour, the war broke out.

The causes of the 72-Hour War, or the Christmas War, or the Apocalypse, or whatever you want to call it, are a perpetual guessing game. Talk to a different historian and they will give you a different catalyst. The Chinese use of chemical weapons in Novosibirsk is a popular one. So is the seizure of Turkish civilian vessels by a Russian Navy frigate in the Black Sea. Fernando Loubet, a Gannish writer with some interesting theories, argues for a glitch in the American defence network that made it appear as though a thousand nuclear missiles were spearing down across the Midwest from orbital weapons platforms. Of course, it all dated back to the supervolcano. Or to the first Sino-Russian conflict. Or to the Cold War. Or to the first caveman who used a bone to hit another caveman. Whatever the cause, what I know is this: I was happily drunk, climbing up the space elevator into orbit, my childhood dream finally realised, when the first reports came in over the net and my world collapsed.

As I remember it, it was the BHX reps who first informed us, rushing up to the observation deck in a panic. The gravity of the situation didn’t connect with me, at first, until I tried to check the net to verify their story and found that I couldn’t, and a sick, nauseous feeling of horror descended on me. For my entire life, I had taken the net for granted. Everybody did, and still does. We are raised in a media-saturated culture, and even three or four seconds of down-time from any major outlet will result in tens of thousands of complaints. To have the entire net simply stop working was disturbing in itself. What it implied was greater still.

As all of us frantically tried to bring up news feeds, or open a transmission, or contact our families, we found that some connections still worked. They were tenuous and flimsy, prone to cut out suddenly, but they were there. Evacuation alerts. Religious broadcasts. Die hard newsreaders. A glimpse of a world plunged into chaos. Smart bombs tumbling down through the atmosphere. Orbital troops clashing, corpses spilling out of breaches in battleships, robotic drones gunning down refugees. Europe swathed in nuclear detonations. Entire cities and provinces set alight. I imagined the ancient stonework of Oxford, incinerated in a searing blast of white heat.

The hologram was turned off. The wall-to-wall windows of the observation deck, a roomy bubble atop the elevator, showed the truth for the first time in five years. We were leaving the atmosphere now, the ash thinning out, and through the gloomy murk below us we could see the dimly flickering trails of inter-continental missiles, dispatched from the American heartland to murder a few million people in the crowded cities of the Brazilian Federation. Higher still, and we could see the four-way orbital war that was being fought on the border between grey and blue: the munitions released from weapons platforms, the phosphorous gleam of military stations on high alert, the silent orange blossoms as warships broke open into the vacuum and vomited out sprays of furniture and paper and bodies.

Soon everyone onboard the car was standing on the observation deck, watching the carnage being played out all around us. Cooks, security guards, bartenders. Most people were working feverishly with their computers, trying to get through to their families. Some people were weeping, or shouting in rage, or lying there in blank shock. I was sitting quietly, overwhelmed with sheer disbelief. The more I stared out through the windows, the less I could accept what my eyes showed me.

We were only two hours away from Liberty Station when Galileo Point was hit, either by a Russian surface missile or an American sabotage team, depending on who was telling the story. We didn’t actually see the explosion, since Galileo Point was at the end of the Kenyan elevator and thus on the other side of the globe. But it was one of the few tidbits of news that leaked through the crippled net, and sent everybody into hysterics. It suddenly felt as though we were being hauled up our own elevator into a ticking time bomb.

With its counterweight gone, hurtling off through the void (where it would eventually take up solar orbit just inside the vulcanoid belt, and eventually be reclaimed by a Mercurian tourism company as a stopover for passing cruise liners) the European elevator cable came crashing down through the atmosphere. It laid waste to western Africa, dropped huge chunks of platinum alloy into the Atlantic Ocean, and unleashed tidal waves to devastate every coastal city that hadn’t already been rendered a smoking, glass-rimmed crater. The upper reaches burned away to nothing as they plunged through the atmosphere, along with the thousands of falling cars and their occupants. A good thing, too, or it might have hit our own elevator cable.

We arrived at Liberty Station and quickly left the car in a dazed, disorderly mess. Some people had developed the idea that we were incredibly lucky to have been outward bound when the war started, and should leave the neighbourhood as soon as we made it to the station. I went along with them, confused and disoriented. Had I been thinking clearly I probably would have wanted to stay on Liberty, refusing to leave Earth without my family; as it was, I clung to any leadership that presented itself.

I had no idea what to expect upon our arrival. Grinning American troops directing everybody to evacuation ships, a Red Cross worker handing me a care package and cup of warm soup. Or maybe Chinese and Indian soldiers, waging a battle for control of the station, refugees ripped apart in the crossfire. Neither was true. Liberty Station was like everything else on or around Earth during those monumental three days: a chaotic, violent mess. Nearly all the vessels docked at the station had fled as soon as the war had broken out; lifeboats leaving half-empty, in accordance with human tradition. Thousands of refugees were now stranded at the tip of ten thousand kilometres of elevator cable, the ultimate dead-end, with nowhere to go except back down to Earth. More were arriving every hour.

What occurred next was one of those great, courageous strokes of humanitarian brilliance, as famous as the Dunkirk Evacuation or the Valigrad Rescue. It’s taught to every Martian schoolchild, and has been related to us over and over again in every imaginable medium – my personal favourite is Petra Thorpe’s 2126 film Final Flight of the Athena, on which I served as a technical advisor.

The situation facing us was bleak. The only ships left at Liberty were those unable to fly – crippled, mid-service or awaiting decommission. The largest of these was the Athena, one of about twelve heavy lifters built during the mineral boom to transport massive amounts of workers between Earth and Mars. The Athena was the last of her fleet, awaiting dismantling for parts and scrap metal, already deactivated and with some of her systems removed. She was attached to a docking cradle visible from the main concourse of the station. Her carrying capacity was five thousand.

Leadership emerged. It always does. A team of security personnel, station marines and members of the engineer corps moved into the Athena and began to repair her, working non-stop, gutting the other remaining ships for supplies and replacement parts. All the while, the war was still raging below us and around us. Distant explosions at the cusp of the Earth’s curve would momentarily bathe Liberty with light, while Indian and European fighter jets screamed past us locked in combat, swooping between the docking cradles and long arms of the construction cranes. While our saviours worked, the rest of us waited, terrified and exhausted and tense.

It was around this time that my memory fails me. The shock and trauma of what was happening was taking its toll. I was a sheltered upper-class youth, never having been exposed to so much as a fistfight, and suddenly I had been swept along on the tide of the largest war in history.

I have a single memory from Liberty Station that I remember well, like a spot of clarity in a foggy window. It was early on, while I was still with some of my fellow students. We were on an observation deck, crowded up against the window with lots of other people, watching the distant flashes and flickers of the orbital battles.

Suddenly there were screams, a sense of aggression. It was a brawl between two groups – American security personnel and Brazilian workers – but the fear and hysteria spread like a contagion until the whole crowd was dangerous. Amidst the crackle of tasers, the makeshift weapons smashed against security visors, the screams for help in dozens of languages, I was knocked to the floor. Something hit me in the head and my vision instantly blurred. Through the trampling feet and falling bodies, I caught a glimpse of one of my classmates, a girl with red hair, being stepped on, a security guard with heavy boots crushing her neck as he swung his baton at an assailant. I reached out for her before something slammed into my head again, and I collapsed.

When I woke up, the observation deck was deserted. The carpet around me was littered with broken glass and splashed with blood. There were a few other prone bodies. Somebody had taken my wallet and computer. All of my classmates were gone.

That was Liberty, for me. That was the anarchy that raged in the main body of the station, even as a few plucky heroes were crawling across the hull of the Athena with spacesuits and multitools. Worse things happened than that – rape, murder, violence of all kinds. Liberty Statio was the largest space station ever constructed, with casinos and restaurants and bars and hotels, but with half the population of Ecuador flooding up the elevator it was becoming crowded very quickly. The fact that many of these people came from Quito’s multicultural melting pot, representatives of all the nations across the world that were now ripping each other apart, didn’t help the situation.

After the fight on the observation deck, I never saw any of my classmates again. I wandered through the malls and esplanades of the station, hungry and alone and miserable. I would flee from the smallest sign of tension, take shelter from fights in the looted stores and obscure utility rooms with other quiet groups of survivors. I wasn’t involved in the repair of the Athena, or any leadership role at all. Because I’m famous now, people assume I was, but at the time I was a twenty-one year-old nobody with red eyes and a fractured skull, shuffling feebly amongst the crowds, weeping for the girl with the red hair, whose face I can no longer remember.

But all the squabbling and fighting and violence came to a halt on Christmas morning, when the Citadel was vapourised by a fusion warhead, along with the summit of Cayambe and the entire Quito metropolitan area. We didn’t even realise that, until we noticed that the station was drifting away from Earth, trailing the cable behind it.

I don’t remember it happening, or what I felt, or how everyone else reacted. Benjamin Urrutia wrote in his memoirs that people reacted with a collective sigh of relief, glad to have been cut free of the conflict, unaware that being adrift in outer space was hardly a better scenario. Jorge Jamarillo, on the other hand, claims that the terror and panic intensified as people saw the grey circle of Earth slowly grow smaller, likening the feeling to being dragged below the ocean’s surface, losing sight of the light and the air. Take your pick as to who’s right, because I certainly can’t remember. I was beyond gone, then, my mind shutting down from sheer grief and terror.

There were roughly 7600 people on Liberty Station when it was cut loose. Eight hours later the Athena was finally declared spaceworthy and every single one of us was hustled aboard, abandoning the drifting space station to achieve escape velocity and leave the solar system. It’s headed for the star 70 Virginis, and by now it’s travelled about four and a half light years, or one twelfth of the way. By the year 3300 it should either crash into it, swing past it, or fall into orbit and become a new satellite. Like I said, I don’t remember much of it, but I’ve walked through it plenty of times in the sims since the war, and it’s a hell of a place. The sims don’t cover the devastation, of course – they don’t have the dead bodies or the smashed shopfronts or the view of mass homicide out the windows – but if there’s any aliens living in the Virgo constellation, it should still be pretty astounding for them.

So we bade farewell to Liberty Station and set off on the glorious Flight of the Athena, seven thousand people crammed onto a leaky ship with jury-rigged life support systems, untrained crew, barely suppressed ethnic tension and a seething atmosphere of terror. Our self-elected leader was a Canadian security captain named Stephen Abatzi, who took charge with a natural air of authority. He later emigrated to Europa and became a high-ranking general, which got him killed during the Jovian War. He was a brilliant man – although I never met him, I was always very much in awe of him. It was his decision to press on to Mars rather than turn back to Luna, which was only about two days away. It turned out to be a wise decision indeed, for the war was already spilling over onto Luna, and less than half the moonbound refugees made it off that bare and desolate rock alive. Abatzi was of the opinion that it would be safer to resupply at an asteroid enroute to Mars rather than turn back towards the war zone, and he was absolutely right.

Through a stroke of sheer luck, Mars and Earth were virtually in conjunction at the time of the war, reducing a journey that would otherwise have taken half a year to only six weeks. With the vessel overloaded by twenty per cent, we were burning through water and oxygen fast, and Abatzi immediately charted a course for the nearest settled asteroid. My memory of that time melts together into an endless stream of lying in crowded corridors, listening to my fellow refugees talking in Spanish, babies crying, the stink of sweat and unwashed bodies. I knew that my family was dead, but that minor grief was swallowed whole by the terrible certainty that Earth was too. After Boxing Day, we heard no broadcasts from Earth, only cries for help from the overwhelmed lunar stations, and talk of revolution and independence from Mars.

Earth was gone.

I didn’t cope very well. As I mentioned earlier, I have trouble remembering the events clearly because I was simply no longer functioning. I slept, lying in a corridor or storeroom with dozens of other people. I ate, whenever the security guards would distribute our carefully rationed food. I went to the bathroom, which was about as fun as you might imagine in an overcrowded spaceship that had no time for luxuries like hygiene. But my mental state was completely blank.

There are limits to what the human mind can take. I had reached mine. I was, like so many of the people around me, sinking into a catatonic condition.

Meanwhile, many storeys above my head, Abatzi and his people were on the flight deck working around the clock. They were monitoring communications, watching the sensor trails of other vessels, guarding the ship’s supplies from the ravenous hordes of refugees below who had no concept of rationing. They were stressed and scared and exhausted, but they were doing everything in their power to get us to Mars. Abatzi addressed us over the PA every twenty-four hours. “We are still alive,” he said. “We have come through the most terrible chapter in human history. We have had to face the unthinkable. We have had to accept that Earth, the cradle of civilisation, the mother world, has died. But humanity has not. Humanity lives on, in the asteroid belt, on Mars, on the moons of Jupiter. Even as the bombs were coming down from orbit, there were humans in scientific vessels enroute to Uranus and Neptune. Humanity will recover. Humanity is still alive. We are standing at the next great step of human achievement. And I swear that I will get you to Mars, and that we will survive – all of us – to see it happen.”

He wasn’t the best orator, but he had more important things to worry about than keeping our morale up. Like keeping our oxygen levels and water supplies up.

The asteroid he eventually picked to accomplish this was Adonis. It was being used as a labour camp, like hundreds of other asteroids in those days, mostly for political prisoners and enemies of the state. There were about six hundred convicts there, mostly Americans, and when we arrived on the 6th of January they were engaged in a power struggle against the fifty or so well-armed guards. The same scenes were being played out all over the asteroid prisons in the days following the 72-Hour War: guards vs. convicts, the victors earning a long, lonely wait to die out on the border of nowhere.

We cut a deal with the convicts as soon as we came into the asteroid’s orbit, agreed to take the prison guards to Mars in exchange for the supplies we needed to get there. The prisoners were free to remain on the asteroid, to create whatever new society they wanted, and we were free to travel to a world that actually had a future. Everyone was happy. There were problems, naturally, mostly relating to the fact that we needed far more supplies than the prisoners were willing to give us. After haggling for several days Abatzi decided that we were running out of time and sanctioned the use of force. A lot of them were killed, and the asteroid’s main nuclear reactor was damaged in the fighting, triggering a meltdown. The fight was immediately forgotten as convicts, guards and Abatzi’s makeshift militia all fled the tunnels of Adonis and crammed onto the Athena, which was now blasting off from its second radioactive wasteland in two weeks. The prisoners were understandably upset about the fact that they were now heading for a planet which looked like it might end up being controlled by the same powers who’d had them imprisoned in the first place, so there was an attempted coup, and they managed to seize control of the flight deck for a few hours. It might as well have been happening on another ship as far as I was concerned; the Athena was huge, and I was lost somewhere in the bleak mass of fragile souls scattered about the lower decks. Abatzi’s people soon regained control and executed the ring-leaders. Then it was only a month to Mars.

When we came into orbit around our new home, the Second Revolution was still in full swing. The UN holdouts, stubborn representatives of nations that no longer existed, controlled several major cities. Resistance fighters and government troops were openly clashing in the streets and the outback. Martan Pearse was broadcasting passionate speeches to the people from his hideout in the caldera of Elysium Mons. There was nobody to greet us or help us, nobody to intercept us and provide us with a safe landing and medical treatment. Quite the contrary: after we set our own approach vector and cautiously descended through the pink Martian atmosphere, intending to land at Manakh Interplanetary, an orbital weapons platform shot us out of the sky.

It was a UN station, but it had been commandeered by the resistance. I don’t look kindly on that, obviously, but there were worse atrocities in that war, and I can understand their motives. The Martians were in the midst of a tsunami of refugees from Earth, swamping their delicate infrastructure, at the same time that they were clashing with old Terran power-brokers in a fight for their emerging national identity and ultimate freedom. Jingoism and anti-Terran sentiment, always popular themes among native Martians, were now running at an all-time high. Especially after the majority of refugee vessels, dropping out of the sky in the last six weeks like so many raindrops, had included equipment and weapons and soldiers that automatically supported the UN.

So our entry into our new home was appropriately dramatic: searing down through the florid dawn sky over the cratered plains of Terra Cimmeria, the ship’s hull burning up, the thousands of refugees inside pinned to the walls by the g-forces. Now that, I do remember – trapped inside a labyrinth of human limbs in whatever dark sub-corridor I’d happened to be in at the time, straining for breath, my vision greying out as the blood was drawn away from my eyeballs.

And then the impact.

I’d lived through one apocalypse. This was my second. Cracking a sonic boom across the thin Martian air, the Athena ploughed through nearly twelve kilometres of rusty desert before finally coming to rest at the end of a smouldering tail of debris that stretched beyond the horizon. My legs and my spine were broken. Many of those around me were dead. My last memory, before blacking out, was the remarkable silence around me – after the agonising roar of the ship’s hull being scrubbed across the landscape at hundreds of kilometres an hour, the occasional distant scream or the muffled whimpering of my fellow refugees sounded very quiet indeed.

When I woke up, five months had passed. The Second Revolution had ended while I was in a coma. The resistance had stamped out the infighting in its own ranks, gutted the Mangala Tong, and seized firm control of the planet. Martan Pearse had been sworn in as the provisional President of Mars, and given his famous speech signalling the beginning of the Humanity Project. Thousands of people – statesmen, soldiers, refugees, politicians, scientists, journalists – had congregated in Agassiz to draft the Martian Constitution. All while I had been fighting for my life in the reconstruction ward of a hospital in Manakh.

After the Athena had crash-landed, it had taken three hours for the local UN forces – Manakh was still under their control at that point – to scramble a recovery team out for the survivors. There were very few. Out of more than 8000 people onboard the Athena, only 425 survived the crash. Nearly all of us were grievously injured, destined to spend months, years or even entire lifetimes in that hospital. I was there for 22 months, having my new spine spawned and calibrated, going through mental trauma counselling, learning to walk again. The hospital was at the edge of what would one day become Crescent Bay. I could look out my window and see the terraforming works in Hellas Basin, the city-sized gas platforms crawling across the encroaching sea of ice, throwing up huge plumes of steam and boiling water as they dragged the moisture out of the earth, growing an ocean from scratch. It was a view I needed, at that point in my life.

I was eventually judged fit to leave, although they were wrong about that. I may have been able to walk but I certainly wasn’t capable of entering normal society, healthy and whole. I suffered from nightmares, nervous breakdowns, and flashbacks for years to come. I spent more than a decade wandering around Mars, working here and there, sometimes for the resettlement programs and sometimes off the books. People say the Calm was a noble time, an optimistic period of history when people realised what they could accomplish by working together. That’s what children are taught in school. Perhaps it was like that, for some people. Not for me. Not for any refugee. We were treated as second-class citizens in those days – don’t ever let them whitewash that one out of the history books – and we had our own trauma to deal with. I did foolish things in my grief. I got into fights. I became involved with some bad people. I ended up addicted to wire, a homeless dreg sleeping underneath bridges. It was a long, long time before I could feel good about life again.

The Athena is still there. Her wreck has been lying out in western Cimmeria for nearly a hundred years now. It’s a pretty remote spot, so it’s not as tourist-infested as it might be otherwise. The forest grew up through it during the terraforming, right through the breached hulls and empty rooms. The rest of the ship is covered with grasses and flowers and vines, and there are entire flocks of birds and troops of monkeys living in it. Unless you saw it from afar you wouldn’t even recognise it as a spaceship.

I’ve been there a few times, most recently in the eighties. I didn’t like it the first few times. It triggered bad memories. But after a while bad memories just become… memories. It seems odd to say that I miss that time. It was a terrible, traumatic, dangerous, horrifying time in my life. But as the decades slip past, as I become one of the only people who still remembers it, as it become less and less important… it just seems sad. It may have been horrifying, but it was also incredible and amazing. I was no participant; just a passive observer. And yet I observed the most massive and unbelievable events in human history, on such a grand scale…

I live in a dull world now. I have for far too long – a world of meetings and minutes, of suits and ties, of paperwork and government regulation and funding reports. I moved out here to get away from all of that, but it leaves me far too alone with my memories. I moved on from those days, spiritually and emotionally, a long time ago. But lately… lately I’ve been missing them.

Lately I’ve been missing Earth.

* * *

Outside, the sun is setting, casting an orange glare through the windows as the visitor taps away at his computer. “When I was at university, I had big dreams,” McEwan says quietly, staring at nothing. “I thought I’d become a pilot, fly settlers to Mars and Jupiter, go on exploration missions to the edge of the system. But I always thought I’d be able to go home whenever I wanted, go back to my hometown and stay with my family. I always thought I’d be able to be buried in the local cemetary.”

The visitor entertains the notion of asking McEwan how long he thinks he has to live, but instead says, “Your hometown. What was it called?”

“Napier,” the old man says wistfully. “Very beautiful. White beaches, pine trees, wineries up in the hills.”

“And this was in New Zealand?”

“That’s where I’m from, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Right.” The visitor glances up from his screen. “Tell me… as an Earth veteran, what’s your opinion on the conspiracy theories about life still existing on Earth?”

McEwan waves his hand dismissively. “It’s rubbish dreamed up by idiots. What kind of a story are you writing? You’re sounding more like an Inquirer journalist than a Times boy.”

“To tell you the truth, Mr. McEwan,” the visitor says, “I’m most interested in New Zealand. As a country. What was it like? I’ve heard a lot of theories that put it as the focal point for any surviving life on Earth. Rugged, isolated… well, I’m just really interested in those theories. I was thinking of making it the, uh. The angle. For this story.”

McEwan tilts his head slightly. His expression makes the visitor uneasy. “What’s this really about?” he asks him.

The visitor hesitates. “I’m just asking. I mean…”

“You’re not a journalist,” McEwan continues. “I’ve talked to hundreds of journalists in my time, lad, and you aren’t one. So what are you?”

The visitor pauses. “How long have you known?”

“Since the beginning,” McEwan says. “I checked, and the Haven Times has no staff member with your name on their payroll. So, do tell me – and this had better be good – why you’re here.”

The visitor gives McEwan a defeated smile. He turns off his computer, and pockets his stylus. He leans forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together earnestly.

“My name is Andrew Hopper,” he says. “And now I have a story to tell you.”

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