(2014) Kenneth Calhoun, Hogarth, £12.99, hrdbk, 274pp, ISBN 978-1-781-09014-5
I sometimes describe Science Fiction as being the literature of 'what if'; in this case what if the whole population became permanently insomniac, never able to sleep again. This is the scenario for Black Moon.
The author does not worry about how this came about, though some of his characters list various theories, because this is not an adventure story about how it happened and how the plucky human race overcame it, this is an apocalypse in which the human race fall. There is nothing light or cheerful in this story – it is the story of our civilisation grinding to a complete and permanent halt.
In some stories not having to sleep would free up time for more activity and a better life but, as we all know, sleep is really important – vital in fact. Deprived of sleep the toxins build up in the brain and the filing of the day’s experiences are interfered with; after a while speech becomes slurred, conversation becomes unintelligible, walking becomes erratic, and the person becomes more and more confused as hallucinations become more real than reality. Eventually people grind to a halt, sitting motionless on a bed or standing blankly in front of a wall, and ultimately they are too caught up in their own delirium to eat or drink and so they eventually perish.
The insomnia does not happen literally overnight but over a short time. The rumour mill and the media comment on the growing numbers of insomniacs and it gradually becomes apparent both that the problem is spreading and that there is no cure. It strikes individuals at different times and some are more resistant to its effects than others, but ultimately all will succumb. Well, not quite all – there is still the very occasional person who retains the ability to sleep. However, there is a point in the deterioration of insomniacs where they take an utter hatred of sleepers and, if they find them, will attack and kill them. Sleepers have to be very careful where they sleep!
Meanwhile society in all its forms is rapidly falling apart as fewer and fewer people are able to perform their normal tasks. There is no law and order, the police being as incapacitated as everyone else, there is no power to buildings as there is no-one to staff the power stations, there are no deliveries to shops so food and other supplies are becoming scarce as looters steal whatever they can find.
The story is told through four characters. Matt Biggs is a sleeper but his wife Carolyn has succumbed; whilst he is out foraging she escapes their apartment within which he was trying to protect and cure her. Knowing she can no longer cope on her own, Matt sets out to find her. Lila Ferrell, a teenager, is also a sleeper. Realising the harm they might eventually do her, her parents try to get her to a safe haven but the car crashes, leaving her alone in a hostile world she does not understand. Chase is a young man who, with his friend Jordan, robs a pharmacy with the intent of stealing enough sleeping pills to see them thought the crisis. They set off on a road trip to escape the problem but find it everywhere. For a while the pills work but then he too succumbs. Felicia, Chase's estranged girlfriend, works at a Sleep Research Centre; they can neither explain nor cure the insomnia and now they too are suffering from it. They do, though, find a mechanical substitute, a device that switches the brain 'off' at 10 and 'on' again at 7 the next morning. Sleeping and waking are instant but there is no dreaming, and the lack of dreaming means that, whilst still surviving, they are loosing some of their humanity. Society has decayed far too far for this 'cure' to be of use to anyone other than their small group.
Through the eyes of our characters we see our world falling apart as fear and mob behaviour take over. Those that have not yet died soon will, and the few surviving sleepers are so far apart that, even if they learn to live off the land and survive the natural perils of the world, they will probably never meet. Soon the human race will all be gone.
Whilst the story ticks along very nicely, I felt that it suffered occasionally from its timeline. Much of the story is told in flashbacks as the characters recall their pasts; it is not always obvious to start with that they are doing so and this back-and-forth approach made it, at times, a touch confusing to follow. Also, the world and its workings are seen through the introspection of the characters and sometimes that introspection went on for too long; indeed, I sometimes felt that the story was more about Matt’s marriage than anything else. A little more action would have helped the pace and presented me with more to maintain my interest; indeed, I could not help but think that there was more the author could have done with this story.
The book is competently written and makes a good job of telling of the horror of our demise. It could have got really gory but it did not, the terror of the events did not need to be laboured over and the author wisely refrained from doing so. This is, after all, science fiction not horror. Although I found it occasionally drawn out and short on the 'wider view', it was an enjoyable enough read.
See also Mark's take on the Black Moon.
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