(2016) Frank Owen, Corvus, £12.99, trdpbk, 407pp, ISBN 978-1-782-39961-2
One of Donald Trump’s more colourful promises during the 2016 US presidential election campaign was to build a wall cutting off Mexico from the United States. Where did he get such an alarming idea from? Let’s hope he did not get it from a reading of Frank Owen’s disturbing dystopian novel South. There is a wall there too – but instead of dividing the USA from Mexico in this version of reality the USA is divided itself – between the North and the South, roughly along the Mason-Dixon line. Here, the USA never existed but aborted unification talks lead to all-out war between North and South. To keep the South at bay, the North builds the wall. But they do not just want the South out of the way. It seems they want the South punished.
The North has developed wind-borne viruses which sap the vitality of the Southerners (and to which, of course, the Northerners have immunity). These viruses do not seem to lead to wide scale contagion or instant genocide; rather, they cull, weaken and spread fear. After thirty years of bio-warfare the Southern economy has collapsed, but the North does not ride in to finish the job they started; instead they keep sending more airborne viruses.
In the South Vida’s got immunity and she is nursing a sick mother and a wayward stray – Dyce – who is on the run from the murderous Callahans and searching for his missing brother (he’s dead, and Vida knows it – imagine what will happen when Dyce finds out). They move from settlement to settlement looking for the way to keep everyone alive, avoiding plague and bullets.
With the population thinned and the survivors slightly crazy, there is more than a hint of Walking Dead about the proceedings – particularly as technology has broadly ground to a halt along with the government, the economy and the food supply. At least in the Walking Dead the survivors have horses – here even they have succumbed to infection so Vida and Dyce are on foot (presumably the bicycles have all been struck by disease too). So it’s back to the Dark Ages, right down to plant medicines and evil death cults.
There is a lot to like. The characters are nicely drawn and the narrative rolls along nicely. Vida and Dyce’s growing closeness is deftly presented and, although there is a high body count, the writers largely avoid the temptation to splatter their pages with blood and gore.
Ultimately, though, I do not find myself as enthused as the breathless recommendations on the story series’ SouthvNorth website. It is certainly not, in my opinion, a ‘post apocalyptic game-changer’. Rather, it seems rather unlikely and all too familiar. Aside from the Walking Dead (in tone rather than zombies) It reminds me most of the short lived TV series Revolution, where an experiment by mad scientists turns all the electricity off and everyone steps back a couple of hundred years.
Like Revolution, South is weakened by the (apparent) need to find ever more inventive ways that the apocalypse might be triggered, and by subsequently not following the idea through to its logical conclusion. If North and South US states really did start their civil war a hundred and fifty years late, would the rest of the world stand aside whilst the North turned to bio-weapons? Would the Russians or the Chinese just ignore the opportunity presented by a weakened North America? Would the North carry on sending viruses over the wall even though they’d won the war? Would the Mexicans not have had something to say about killer viruses floating down towards them? Would the Southerners not have fled to Mexico? Maybe there’s a wall there too. Wouldn’t that be a novel suggestion?
So, readable but silly. It will appeal to some, but not to me.
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