Fiction Reviews

The Last Day

(2020) Andrew Hunter Murray, Hutchinson, £12.99, hrdbk, xi + 403pp, ISBN 978-1-786-33191-5


It is 2059 and 30 years ago the Earth stopped turning relative to the Sun due to a transient cosmological event!  The event itself was spread out over a number of months did not cause an instant cataclysm.  However eventually the Earth's rotation with respect to the Sun ceased, so plunging one side of our planet into eternal, frozen night, and the dayside into blistering heat.  Only a ribbon circling the Earth was comfortable to live in. The British Isles, Western Europe, parts of Africa and South America were the lucky landmasses able to lead a comparatively comfortable life. The east of North America did have some day but it was a permanent cool early dawn.  So began the 'days', or time, of the Slow.

Ellen Hopper works on an old oil rig monitoring the Earth's ocean circulation along with others on the lookout for surviving ships, and reporting back to the mainland and a dictatorial, protectionist, isolationist government.

She is surprised to receive a letter from a dying man, her former tutor at Oxford from the early days of the Slow.  She ignores the letter, but equally surprising a helicopter from the mainland, with a government representative aboard, arrives asking her to return to visit the dying man in hospital.  It is an offer she cannot really refuse and clearly the authorities hope that Ellen can tease some information from the man before his demise…

The Last Day is a firmly-rooted apocalyptic novel.

First, let's get the fantasy out of the way: how come the Earth stopped rotating with respect to the Sun?  This was sort of explained early on in the novel and so my mentioning it now does not constitute a spoiler.  Without going into the details, it is explained away as a cosmological event and the reader really is not meant to worry about it.  Yet it was not handled as quite as well as perhaps a seasoned SF writer might have; there are things in the SF writer's toolkit that could have been used both to explain the phenomenon away and also signal the reader not to dwell on this aspect to the book.  I mention this because some SF readers may want a better explanation and/or wonder whether this planetary situation will change? It won't, which is why dealing with this fundamental aspect to the novel's backdrop is arguably key to the SF reader's enjoyment of the book: the cause of Earth's rotational slow is purely a McGuffin.  As I came fresh to this book it did nag and this was a niggle that did not disappear until halfway in when it became clear where the plot's focus actually lay.

Now, I mention the above not to have a pop at the author but to assure the reader not to worry about it but to carry on and enjoy the novel.  At the end of the day, The Last Day is not so much a story about the Earth being frozen with half in perpetual night and the other in day, but it is about the Earth facing an existential cataclysm (any sort of catastrophic event) that completely undermines our global human society and how we might react to it.  Here, given that the public has at last cottoned on to the science and human ecology of global warming that itself had began to come to a head back in the 1980s, clearly this book speaks in an allegorical sense to current, early 21st century, climate change concerns.

The only other niggle is that the 'Earth' (our planet – proper noun) was referred to throughout the book as 'earth' (common noun usually associated with soil). Clearly the proof reader had a blind spot.

As an SF thriller The Last Day works well.  As the novel progresses we learn that the dying man had previously been in position of power, hence access to knowledge: he knows something and the authorities are worried.  Ellen Hopper, hence the reader, finding our what this is propels the plot.  Along the way we pass by enough global disaster scenery and scenarios to keep avid apocalyptic fiction readers engrossed.  For hard SF fans there is some basic appreciation of the science underpinning the SFnal premise to keep them onboard: for example, it is recognised that the Broecker global circulation (though not so specifically named) will collapse and that in turn will have impacts. Indeed this is what Ellen is studying on the rig in the first place. (Though it is best not to look at the Earth system science too closely.)  Then, towards the end, an implication becomes clear as to the ultimate fate of the Earth!

Be assured, while in the book the Earth slowly stopped rotating, SF thriller readers will steadily gallop through, turning the pages.

Jonathan Cowie


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