Fiction Reviews

Way Down Dark

(2015) J. P Smythe, Hodder and Stoughton, £13.99, trdpbk, 288pp, ISBN 978-1-444-79632-1


This is the pick of the bunch for me this time (vol. 26 (1) spring 2016 edition) around – a tense, action packed, character rich science fiction story set maybe a few hundred years in the future on what the inhabitants believe to be a colony ship, the Australia, launched at the stars.

The author has previously written three adult novels, The Testimony, The Explorer and The Machine, and won the Wales Book of the Year award. He teaches Creative Writing in London and writes for The Guardian. He also has a very out of date website.

The dust jacket says this is a 'Young Adult' novel, but that’s to do it a disservice, like calling Star Wars or Doctor Who children’s stories. True, there’s lots of fast paced action. True, it’s a largish type 288 pages. And true, it has a 17 year old female principle protagonist. But this is a novel about survival, and determination, and loyalty, and betrayal. It lets us discover things about human nature, and human stupidity and our infinite capacity to screw things up. And to top it all it’s very well written, searingly paced and emotionally powerful.

The book opens with seventeen year old Chan (female) killing her mother, who is dying of a terminal disease. She lives amongst the ‘Free People’ who keep the ship functional, tending the hydroponics area (the arboretum) and fixing the air filtration systems. Gangs and violence seem ever present, but the main threat comes from the ‘Lows’, a group who have already expanded to cover half the ship’s area who have designs on the rest. The Lows are feral, violent and conscienceless. They have let their part of the ship fall into disrepair, so when they start their attacks on the Free People they are threatening the very survival of the ship itself.

And then the plot twists start. It would spoil the book to go into them but what unfolds seems credible, chilling and very readable. It is partially Lord of the Flies and partially Max Max, all set inside a spacecraft with no windows to the outside. That setting is not a limitation, though – it gives the story a tight focus and a gritty tableau of decay.

Aside from the solid plotting, though, what holds this book together are the strong protagonist and antagonist. Chan is a compassionate survivor and her nemesis, Rex, is an equally determined and compelling force of destruction. Both are female: this book follows the current vogue for strong female characters in the lead in novels aimed at a gender-neutral audience, and here that works well.

It is not flawless. The Lows, for instance, seem to thrive on not-so-fresh air and violent thoughts, while a few fruit trees appear to feed the rest of the ship. And gravity seems to be nicely Earth-norm everywhere despite any actual science being involved. Plus there’s an underlying premise that begins to unravel if you start to think about the economics of it. This is not ‘hard’ hard SF, though – enjoy it for what it is: a fast-paced, emotionally engaging, character driven, adventure story with plenty of tension and lots of lurching plot twists. Best I have read this year. Highly recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Jonathan's take on Way Down Dark.

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