Fiction Reviews

Way Down Dark

(2015) J. P. Smythe, Hodder, £7.99, pbk, 279pp, ISBN 978-1-444-79633-9


Seventeen-year-old Chan was born on the Australia, a generation starship that left an ecologically ruined Earth centuries ago. The ship effectively runs itself, though its 'crew' (a term barely applicable as there is no organisational structure) maintains things such as a garden and arboretum that are essential for life support. Yet everything is run down and worn and nobody knows where the Australia is headed: there are no view ports (presumably none are needed in the depth of interstellar space). Every day is like the last and it is a fight for survival. This last is literally true, for without a formal organization, some of those on the Australia have formed savage gangs; these are the 'lows'. Life on Australia is not one of space exploration in a clean, high-tech environment: it is a nightmare!

When Chan's mother, Riadne, dies Chan realises that she needs to find the strength to be seen by others as someone with whom not to tangle but otherwise keep her head down and avoid any trouble amidst the disorder. However the lows have no such fears. When the lows start expanding into the higher decks, and when young Chan is threatened, Chan realises that neutrality is not an option; it is either fight or die.

This is a very well written, tight and fast-paced story that grips the reader from the off. With a contained and decayed mini-society in the process of further decline to what seems inevitable extinction, the stakes are high. This is a taught SF adventure that holds its readers from page one and refuses to let go.

It will appeal to more seasoned adult readers, but with its teenage protagonist and her perspective, Way Down Dark will be particularly enjoyed by younger readers especially those into things like The Hunger Games and perhaps more so Maze Runner.  That adults will get off on Way Down Dark is not just demonstrated by SF² Concatenation's reviewer Mark's enjoyment of the novel (for which see the link at the bottom of this review) which in turn was a factor in it being listed in our team's recommendation back in January (2016) of this book being one of shortlisted in April for the Arthur C. Clarke (book) Award.

So in terms of writing and story telling Way Down Dark certainly ticks the boxes. But how about its SF dimension?

Generation ships are a longstanding SF trope whose notable uses include those in: Aldiss' Non-Stop (1958) and more recently Hull Zero Three (2010) that was also short-listed for a Clarke.  To my mind, good science fiction involves it being a good story that fully embraces and explores SFnal concepts and tropes. Such SF is far better than those stories that simply use tropes as backdrops or settings for stories: these last are more akin to the sub-genre of 'sci-fi' (see Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of SF for 'sci-fi' definitions).  In truth Way Down Dark sits half-way between these two: something is decidedly wrong with Smythe's set-up and I was waiting for it to be resolved (sometimes such resolutions can be neat plot and concept twists) but alas it never came and it genuinely bugged me.  (Here, if you are an SF Concateneer, Big Bang Theorising the boundary between science and SF and wondering what Smythe ducks, then think equivalence principle between virtual and inertial frames of reference.)  Perhaps I am too seasoned a hard SF reader and the more artsy will be forgiving (assuming they see the problem in the first place), with younger readers neither steeped in hard SF nor the science to notice.  To be fair to the author, there is some (logical) exposition in the follow-up novel, Long Dark Dusk, and there is enough wriggle room for my concern to be resolved in the third title in this trilogy, which I'd greatly welcome but am not banking on it. (I am not going into detail as that would constitute a spoiler but point this out so that you realise that you are going for this novel more for the adventure using SF tropes rather than one that explores them in the process.)

Notwithstanding the above, this is a solid SF adventure which, since the hardback came out, has been making a mark, and I can see why. I was carried along from the off and devoured it in only little more than a couple of days. Teenage SF readers especially will love it as it does fall into 'the rites of passage' camp of stories: young protagonist grows up in a strange society into which s/he is not sure of how they fit, where most are seemingly against them and they are misunderstood, before bursting forth into a brave new (adult) world…  Though this is a familiar theme for older readers, Way Down Dark is an engaging adventure that does not let go. Fret not, as you turn the final page, thankfully Long Dark Dusk follows.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Mark's review of Way Down Dark.

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