Fiction Reviews

The Guardians of the Phoenix

(2010) Eric Brown, Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 350 pp, ISBN 978-1-907-51914-7


For a decade Paul has struggled to eke out an existence in the sweltering, sun-baked, sand-encroached crumbling ruins of Paris. He is one of two last inhabitants of the once-great capital city. Each day he struggles up the remains of (what the reader knows is) the Eiffel Tower to set traps for bats and reptiles. Water is all but gone but can still be found in the deepest of wells. Desert is gradually smothering the smaller buildings in dunes. Life is grim.

Then one day a motorised vehicle arrives with people. Paul is cautious, and rightly so. One of the party makes a break for it but is soon caught, dragged into a deserted building and the pursuing men have their way with her…

Eric Brown is of course known for his SF detective stories and especially the 'New York and 'Bengal Station' (telepath) trilogies. The Guardians of the Phoenix is, however, firmly a post-apocalyptic tale. The Earth has gone through a major climate flip and is now baking hot: so hot that even the seas are drying out. Humanity which just decades earlier was numbered in billions, now probably only numbers several hundred: maybe even a thousand or two. Most live in small communities that heavily recycle and use water very carefully as the days where a living could be made scavenging off the remains of civilization have gone. It is a desperate world and Guardians of the Phoenix takes us on a journey through it with just a few flashbacks to when the climate turn was just beginning.

OK, so that is the set up. Let's get the science out of the way – after all this is the Science Fact and Science Fiction Concatenation. It is clear from the story that the climate flip the planet has gone through that the Earth is now being gradually transformed into a Venus-like state. This is a nightmare scenario that some climate-doomsayers did warn of back in the 1980s but – let me assure you as a biosphere scientist – is not at all possible even if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the worse of IPCC rates, deforest all the tropical rain forest and trigger an early Eocene-live carbon isotope excursion event. However, as a backdrop for an SF novel such an over-the-top scenario is just the ticket for a rollicking good yarn. Nor is such a radical departure from real environmental science anything to complain about: 'science fiction' is, after all, 'fiction'.

Here one is reminded of Stephen Baxter's recent Flood whose basic concept was ludicrous (ever-rising seas that eventually swamped all land) but the story of which was a superb portrayal of human frailty and strength held together with strong sense-of-wonder (sensawunda). Or perhaps Lee Wood's Faraday's Orphans where the central concept (magnetic reversal causes a biosphere extinction event) was fantasy but the story-telling was superb and her other science was perfectly sound. So I have little problem with the fantasy of the climate flip as portrayed in Guardians of the Phoenix although unfortunately this fantasy does reverberate down to other aspects of the story. To take one example, if things were as they are depicted, then the vanished seas would form a stratospheric cloud haze within which we would be slowly steam cooked and not subject to a Saharan-like glare of the Sun. But then my nitpicking is no doubt due to my specialism.

So what we have with Guardians of the Phoenix is a landscape at which we can marvel as well as the horror (or perhaps our own subconscious fear) that our currently seemingly powerful technological society is actually frail and that the savage within us lies beneath only the thinnest of superficial veneers our so-called civilization confers.

In short, Guardians of the Phoenix, is a cracking tale in one of the genre's finest traditions, post apocalyptic portrayal, that keeps you going until the closing pages. Alas as Eric Brown's regulars will know, he does tend to contrive his endings and if you are familiar with his other novels you will guess what is coming long before you get there: Brown may have a very readable writing style and knowledge of SF tropes, but he still has not quite got the hang of this story arc thing. Nonetheless, do not let this put you off. Eric does regularly give good reads and he does it again here. Many aspiring writers would be happy with just that as would publishers welcoming predictably steady sales that this author no doubt delivers.

Jonathan Cowie

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