(2023) Grace Curtis, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, trdpbk, 248pp ISBN 978-1-529-39053-7
This could have been a good read, after all the pages turned easily enough and it had a few good ideas, but it failed to make the grade. Instead, it had me going ‘er?’, ‘what?’, ‘why?’, and other similar disbeliefs, far too often. It felt that somebody should have said ‘nice outline, now write it up properly’.
The book is set several hundred years in the future. Mankind has done a pretty good job of wrecking the environment and planet Earth is hot and dry, with just a small population trying to survive the ever worsening calamity. It appears to be set in what used to be the USA (though it never says so) and feels like it is part of the desert landscapes you find in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, etc.. Most of mankind had left the planet centuries earlier, using what must have a large flotilla of huge colony ships (the story offers no details); they had arrived on many planets and now there is a thriving human community spanning the stars. Earth, however, is regarded as a write-off and ignored; its only inhabitants being the offspring of those deluded people who had insisted on staying behind, the worshippers of a fringe religion that worshipped the Earth itself, determined to stay and take the punishment their god meted out to them. They regard those that had left as sinners; after all, they were the ones whose sins had all but destroyed the planet. However, there are a few out there in the Galactic Empire who think that the time had come to send a mercy mission to Earth, to see if they can help those left behind. The worshippers of Gaia thought otherwise and, we finally learn near the end of the story, shot the spacecraft down. Indeed, we only learn much of the story towards the end, when things are finally explained, and only then does it start to make much sense - and that, I thought, was too late.
The story opens in the scrap traders’ town of Buckette. At night Bolton and Crawley watch the skies in the hope of seeing some piece of ancient space junk fall from the heavens, though, from their own conversations, this makes little sense given how rarely it happens. However, this is their lucky night as something does fall. Next morning, accompanied by Marie in her van, they find the crash site. This is no old communications satellite with a few spare batteries or solar cells, this is a huge object marked ‘LIFEBOAT - 01’. In a fit of greed as they realise its worth and each wants it all for themselves, and suddenly with no regard for their friendship, they manage to kill each other. A little later our main character, our heroine you might say, steps out of the craft, presumably having sufficiently recovered from the ordeal of her crash landing. So far, this is a reasonably good opening to the story, though I was already getting a little worn by the excessive number of adjectives used to describe everything (it was like watching a TV where the colour is set to maximum).
Some time later, the Stranger (with no name) walks into the town of Springwell (for some reason having not used Marie’s van for the considerable number of miles involved - we are not told why she walked, maybe she did not know how to drive?). She is dressed in Bolton’s clothes, complete with his broad-rimmed hat, and carries a very unusual, shiny pistol. After hostile stares from the townsfolk, who really do not like strangers (and might well lynch her if they knew she was a sinner from the stars), she visits the Sheriff, needing to use his radio to contact her ship (if it has survived – what we later learn – the attack on it). He, though, is mainly concerned with the three murders and the crash site (having obviously driven there whilst she was still walking). He agrees to help her if she will ‘arrange’, with the aid of her shiny gun, for all the books in the nearby travelling library to be delivered to his private library in his mansion, which she does (obviously now being able to drive as the library is in a van). However, it is a trick as she thinks he has wronged the librarian and, beside which, he does not have the promised radio. And so she continues on her way.
From the description of her appearance, her reluctance to use her shiny gun to kill anyone, her obvious skills in a fight, and her support of the underdog against corrupt authority, I was reminded of Clint Eastwood in films such as High Plains Drifter. I suspect I was meant to.
A couple of weeks later the Courier, as she is now referred to, accepts the job of taking a package from Rat Junction to Moneta; it is a twenty-mile walk and the package must be delivered that evening. This is another example of ‘what?’ - walking twenty miles in one day in the baking heat? She does not know it but the package contains medicinal drugs and the trader is justifiably afraid of the thieves on the road as they know there will be a delivery. This whole episode is full of ‘what?’ moments. The medical drugs are insulin pills - yes, pills. This is science fiction so I suppose we have to accept that the future has invented insulin that can be swallowed rather than injected - or does the author not know that insulin must be injected? When she delivers the insulin to the customer, who can only obtain it for his daughter through such devious methods, and having walked twenty miles in a day and survived three attacks from the thieves, he does not even offer her a glass of water - just shuts the door in her face. Really? His daughter’s supply of insulin is a matter of her life or death yet he cannot even spare a moment to properly thank the Courier and see her safely on her way? Furthermore, his daughter will need a regular supply of insulin so is he really so reliant on the casual delivery method of an occasional passing stranger? I suspect that insulin was chosen without the author having any understanding of it but simply because it is a commonly known medicine whose name the readers would recognise!
With the Earth’s population a tiny fraction of what it had been, I wondered about the feasibility of the manufacturing industries necessary for the technology still obviously in use. Who has been making the technical stuff over the last few centuries? There are few people, only small country towns and hamlets, no cities, and therefore, I would have thought, no motor factories - but there are still trucks and vans on the road after all this time (they are all described as old - but surely not several centuries old). Who makes them? Who makes the parts to maintain them? Who makes the steel? Who pumps oil up from the ground, processes it into petrol to fuel them, and delivers it to forecourts? Who made the mobile phone the Sheriff uses and the batteries that it wears through over the years? Oh, and where is the pharmaceutical industry that makes medicines such as insulin (in pills!)? All these are hallmarks of large, integrated societies and industries and yet the world is almost empty, save for those few religious folks who decided to stay on. The small towns and settlements we see in this story are proof that there is nowhere big, nowhere that could populate the range of factories and industries required.
And another thing, when the Courier is hiding in a derelict roadside diner, would a thief really run their valuable vehicle crashing through a building on the off-chance that there was somebody in there they could rob?
Our lead character has various other adventures, being referred to as the Stowaway, the Traveller, and so on. And this brings me to my next concern - the character’s adventures are scenarios featuring an undefined figure and with nothing much to link them, rather like a computer games player going from one level to the next. I think this might be because the author is a gamer and, from the ‘About the Author’ at the end of the book, ‘mostly makes her living from video games’. It shows in her writing: individual scenarios, challenges the character must succeed at before arriving at the next challenge, but not a flowing story about a real person.
Furthermore, from the way the scenarios work, we learn almost nothing about the character. Until very late in the book, we do not even know her name, let alone what she is doing on Earth. She is a stranger to us, simply a plot device, and offers nothing by means of which we may understand her, get to know her, empathise with her, or take her side. She is a blank to whom adventures happen. And that makes it very difficult to really care, which in turn makes it almost pointless reading about her.
Later, when she finally arrives at New Destiny (still looking for a radio), she manages to get herself fatally shot. Well, almost fatally. She wakes up in the home of Nana and her son Ken. They explain that they had found her on Main Street, dumped and left for dead, but realised that her life could yet be saved. And so she slowly recovers, helping them with growing food in their garden. And here I had another ‘er?’ moment. She was ‘killed’ in New Destiny yet Nana lives in the remains of an old city that is many hours drive away. Did they find her in New Destiny and bring her home or did her ‘corpse’ get taken all the way to the distant city to be dumped? The question is not even noticed. I suspect that Nana lived in a distant city merely so that the character could later be seen riding a motor bike back to New Destiny for the final showdown. Again, it was reminiscent of Clint Eastwood being nursed back to health and then riding back into town for his showdown in A Fistful Of Dollars.
And another technical quibble. At the end of the story, a surviving member of the spaceship’s crew explains that her measurements have shown that the planet is in the earliest, barely discernable, stages of cooling back towards its pre-disaster levels. Like our main character, she has, of course, only been on Earth a matter of a few months. I doubt that long-term climate change can be measured in such a short time; only weather changes that fast. I presume that this was supposed to be a reassuring message of hope for the reader.
Throughout I found that ‘facts’ did not agree with each other, as if the author had thought of something ‘profound’ to say yet forgotten that this was the opposite to what she had already said. For example, several times the character mentioned the long length of the days yet elsewhere we are told that days are short this far north. There were a number of scenes in which the description or action felt muddied so I had to go back and read chunks again; sometimes this clarified my confusion, other times I concluded that I was simply reading errors. Someone would unnecessarily press the accelerator pedal harder whilst all they were doing was simply keeping their vehicle moving along, as if the narrative demanded that they take a describable action in this sentence. The character even pressed the pedal to go faster on a motorbike, having just been told to twist the handle. And then there were the three, soon to be dead, scrap traders who, having the removed the corks, had clinked the nozzles of their beer(?) bottles. Nozzles?
Towards the end, we finally get told much of what was going on but, rather than being the end-of-story reveal in a who-dunnit, it was simply in the wrong place - the story would have worked better if we knew something of what was going on to start with. It was if, like in a computer game, we had to get to the end to find out what it was we were trying to achieve.
This could have been so much better. I would advise the author to think more carefully about the differences between a computer game, of which this was too reminiscent, and a novel. The pace, the layout, are very different. I would also advise her to get some help with her science as it was rather naïve and lacking. If you are going to write about disastrous climate change, do not simply say that it got dry because all the water got locked up in the oceans; find out how global warming will change the climate based on our current understanding. And do not put in illustrative little details of actions just because they sound good, make sure they are at least correct.
Finally, at the end of the book are the first half dozen pages of her next (her second) novel, Floating Hotel. As with this book, they offer a promising start. But will that novel be any better written than this one?
See also Jonathan's review of Frontier.
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