(2012) Janet Edwards, Harper Voyager, pbk, £7.99, 358pp, ISBN 978-0-007-44349-9
'It's the year 2788, and the universe is dived into two different types of people: the norms who can portal between planets, and people like me, the one in a thousand who are born with an immune system which doesn't allow us to leave planet Earth…'
So begins the back cover blurb, and it's a strong beginning. There has been a diaspora, and most of the human race has gone to the stars – not by spaceship, as in Eric Frank Russell's collection The Great Explosion, but even quicker and more easily by matter-transmitter. Without enough people to keep things running, most of civilisation on Earth has folded and much of the planet has reverted to wilderness. The ruins of New York are the setting for a major archaeology project, with a student workforce like so many digs today, but recruited mainly from universities out across the waves of settlement among the stars.
I read this novel in parallel with Alan Weisman's The World Without Us (Virgin Books, 2007), not by chance but because I came across it and noticed the relevance. After writing about how swiftly nature was reclaiming the town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, Weisman was asked by an editor at Discover magazine to assess 'What would happen if humans disappeared everywhere?' His chapter on 'The city without us' could well be the inspiration for Janet Edwards' novel, which shows us very little of what has happened to the rest of Earth, but it clearly shows how dangerous such large-scale excavation could be. The excavators wear high-technology protective suits, combinations of spacesuits and battle armour, and they work with tractor beams and force fields rather than with the diggers and bulldozers of Time Team (Editor note: A British archaeological popular science TV programme), but the collapsed city is still highly perilous. Manhattan's stability now relies on continuous operation of 753 pumps, and an overall power failure would bring irreversible damage within days if not within hours. Once the subway system was flooded, the streets would swiftly collapse and the buildings would soon fall into the voids. New York was abandoned in 2409, and the ruination of the city Edwards describes seems convincing for 380 years.
This is a Young Adult novel, a first-person narrative by a teenage heroine, so I suppose it's inevitable that the word 'feisty' appears on the cover. However, Jarra Reeath has more than usual to be feisty about. Her medical problem is that her immune system reacts violently – not to matter-transmission, as you might have expected, but to being anywhere off-world. The people with this condition are in the paradoxical situation of being exiles from the major currents of civilisation although they're living on the home world, and they're made to feel it by visitors, who dismiss them as 'apes' and 'Neanderthals'. Consciously or unconsciously, Jarra has prepared herself to beat the prejudices at university by posing as a military brat, raised on a succession of pioneer worlds and with no firm roots. Her experience on previous digs can be passed off that way, as can her skills in self-defence and as a pilot. When everything is linked by matter-transmitter, but both the net and the power supply are vulnerable to solar interference, then authorities in charge of the city-wide dig are curiously blind to the need for physical air cover in rescue situations, if only as backup. Their one aircraft hasn't been used in twenty years and only Jarra, a student, can fly it, by chance, yet there's no awareness of the gap in their safety coverage. And that blindness underlines the prejudices of her fellow-students about 'apes' and Earth in general, which are convincingly portrayed.
That said, this is a young adult novel and she has things comparatively easy. Her tutor knows her true status and is hostile, or perceived to be, but his hostility is expressed only by giving her technical challenges which she handles with ease. Her own touchiness is as big an obstacles, e.g. when she doesn't see the need to rotate team leaders to give the others experience. But the big issues are the relationship she forms with an offworld boy, when she's going to drop her cover, how his family will respond to the issue, and, as her 'ProMum' says in the opening chapter, 'to value herself at last'.
I don't know any teenage girls to pass this book on to for comment, but I suspect they might review the topics in reverse order to mine. But I'm currently reading (genuinely by chance) J.G. Ballard's autobiography Miracles of Life, and his teenage battles with the class system of pre-war Shanghai and post-war England are similar enough to make me think Janet Edwards has got the viewpoint right – though I do wonder if things will really be that much the same for teenagers in 780 years' time.
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