(2014) Jon Wallace, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 250pp, ISBN 978-0-575-11813-3
The world has all but ended due to a nuclear exchange. The British population is divided into two surviving factions: the 'Real' and the 'Ficials'. The Real are real, biological humans. The Ficials are artificial, synthetic biological cyborgs: a combination of artificial biological organism and nanotechnology. Ficials were created before the nuclear catastrophe with there being various specialist types to undertake specific roles in society… Which brings us up to the book's present.
Behind the Edinburgh barricade Kenstiblec is tasked with driving Starvie to London to Control. This means traversing much of Britain, getting past settlements of survivors and through checkpoints. It is a tall order and if they can deal with these obstacles then there is the landscape with which to contend: the Earth is in a nuclear winter, the seas are poisoned and the air contaminated with sulphurous acid and ash that makes air travel all but impossible.
This then is the set up. But do not let it mislead you. This is not some sort of post-apocalyptic, quasi zombie, quest novel; though clearly this book owes a heck of a lot to these tropes. Barricade has far more SFnal depth to it than that.
First up, there is its structure. We get the main story – the road trip – and, also in-between chapters, there is a brief prequel tale leading up to the nuclear exchange.
Then, through this twin-threaded structure, we get to see both how the 'Ficial' and 'Real' conflict developed and the motivating backdrop – Malthusian demographics and John Beddington's (2009) 'Perfect Storm' – and also plot development with factors beyond the road trip itself furthering the 'Ficial' and 'Real' conflict. All of this is revealed through Kenstiblec and Starvie's journey. Be prepared for quite a ride.
With so much going on, and given that the main story is just 250 pages, the plot simply races along and so complements the considerable action and adventure taking place. This book is a proverbial page-turner: indeed, I polished of 90% of it in two sittings over a couple of days in between getting on with life's other tasks as well as daily chores. Barricade is a cracking read.
That this is a debut novel is rather remarkable given that it properly pushes so many buttons: including story-telling, plot arc, post-apocalyptic trope, SF concepts (which I don't want to explore with you due to spoiler caution) and tight writing. Yet it probably may take a while for this novel to get the recognition it truly deserves, as a summary read (and possibly even much of this review) makes it sound all to like the hoards of post-apocalyptic zombie-type novels that have been published in the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century: there has been a veritable plague of them. However, make no mistake, Barricade is a very decidedly head and shoulders above the vast majority of these.
Now, the good news is that there is a sequel, Steeple due out, and I greatly look forward to that. The big question will be whether or not Jon Wallace can keep up the background plot development above and beyond the protagonists' own story, and whether he can continue to include a good mix of SF tropes? Certainly there is much potential. The nuclear winter is global, and we know that previously the world as a whole was heading towards resource depletion and that some were attempting to deal with that. Then there were also hints that 'Ficials' were largely confined to developed nations, if not Britain ('Ficials' were a made-in-Britain product), among other passing story elements that tease the reader. If the sequel, Steeple, is as complete and thoroughly constructed a novel as Barricade then perhaps the author could be heading towards being an SF action/horror master. We will see.
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