Fiction Reviews

Radio Life

(2021) Derek B. Miller, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, hrdbk, iv + 483pp, ISBN 978-1-529-40858-4

Jo Fletcher Books, £8.99, pbk, iv + 483pp, ISBN 978-1-529-40861-4


This is post apocalyptic fiction, the world as we know it has ended. There was some cataclysm. The coastlines have changed.  In some places the wrecks of ships lie inland.  On other there are the ruins of cities, some half submerged in sand.  The past is largely forgotten.

The few survivors have long learned how to get by.  Crops are grown and some technology from the ruins is still useable, but much is not, and a lot remains a mystery.

One region, where there are survivors, borders a sea of glass, while beyond the region's other side lies the empty quarter.  In this area, a strong group lives in the Stadium gathering knowledge and learning from the past. But recently folk called the Keepers have been migrating from elsewhere to camp by The Flats – an area of flat land between the Keepers and the Stadium.

One thing is known about the Keepers is that they seem to disdain knowledge of the past as using it might engender a cataclysm like that which visited the ancients.

Elimisha is an Archive Runner from the Stadium who follows pre-prepared routes unknown to the new Keepers into the Towers of the Gone World. On one of her trips, she is chased by Keepers into a Tower with nowhere to go but into the poisonous down and risk death.  The Keepers blow up the floors above her, but she manages to find a hard room, a survival bunker, with food, power and something called the internet.  Trapped there, she begins to learn more about the ancients than even the oldest of the Stadium's archivists: a bitter-sweet recompense for her being permanently imprisoned.

Meanwhile, some of the Stadium's scouts have gone missing.  There is mounting concern over the Keepers' growing camp and that they have blown up one of the Gone World's towers.  Could conflict be looming…?

Jo Fletcher Books bills Radio Life as the imprint's lead title for 2021, and, truly, it is a cracking SF read. There are distinct echoes of Walter Miller's (no relation) 1959 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, which makes this one of two Canticle related titles of the year (2021) with the other being Notes from the Burning Age.  Though, unlike Notes, Derek Miller acknowledges the link to A Canticle for Leibowitz and includes a homage nod to that novel.

Derek Miller's world-building is excellent, which makes the deconstruction of this world by its inhabitants, so as to elucidate the past, fascinating.  This is not just a Mad Max romp – though it is that too – but asks questions such as whether our 21st century mode of existence has its frailties as well as the Miller Canticle issue of what knowledge is worth pursuing, or indeed whether some knowledge should be positively shied from?

Philip K. Dick once opined that with post-apocalyptic fiction it is best to explore the post-apocalyptic world and not get distracted by how that world came into being.  This is not so for Derek Miller who slowly reveals, over many chapters, just what happened to the ancients.  This simply adds to the world-building explaining some of the quirks – such as the presumed health risk of going deep into the Gone World – presented early on.

Radio Life is, in short, a brilliant read: almost painful in that as the page-count to the end dwindles you realise that you will never again devour this novel for the first time.  In fact this is one of those books I deliberately delayed finishing, stopping reading a score of pages from the end, leaving it a week, then going back several pages in a run up for a sprint to the finish.  I loved it.

Now, it could be that like me you have never heard of Derek Miller before now. This is his debut SF and few debut authors present such an accomplished work their first outing.  Well, there's a reason for Miller providing us with such a rounded book: he is an established crime writer who works have previously been short-list for the Crime Writers Association Dagger Award and has once won it (for Norwegian by Night).  So you can take it as read that he has practice working out any kinks in his penning prose.  Of course, established writers in another genre do not always successfully make the transition to SF. Derek Miller has probably – as evidenced for him being a fan of A Canticle for Leibowitz – because he seems to be familiar with the genre.  Let's hope he will return to SF again.  I certainly will be keeping an eye out for him.

Jonathan Cowie


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