Fiction Reviews

This Fragile Earth

(2021) Susannah Wise, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, 354pp, ISBN 978-0-857-82820-0


In a not too distant future London, Signey and Matthew, with young son Jed, lead a monotonous but comfortable, middle class life. The world is highly connected and daily life revolves around what in effect are advanced tablets and super-smartphones, with money almost completely digital. Cars are electric, houses are green but this 'eco-friendly' future is all but: there has been an extinction of many insect species including pollinators which means that there are now mini pollination drones. Though not all insects have died out and indeed one, a beetle, has brought a bovine staph pathogen to the country. And then global warming has continued so now in March it is warm and UV protecting sunglasses are the order of the day. Nonetheless, in this digital, info-rich world, the middle classes of Britain live a comfortable life with the elderly and ill cared for by artificial intelligence medical bots. AI is everywhere and controls even fundamental energy and water utilities despite houses having their own solar panels. What could possibly go wrong…?

One day the lights go off; there is a power cut. It is not just the street, but the whole of London. Then after a day it is all of the UK and flights into the British Isles cease. In a situation similar to that Oliver Letwin hypothesises in Apocalypse How (2020), society slowly spirals into chaos.  The couple's last battery-powered device gives them the news that whatever is happening is now global.  With the authorities unable to cope, the couple decide to make the perilous journey to one of their parent's countryside home.

Meanwhile, the various drones are behaving oddly…

This is a debut novel from Susannah Wise, but do not make the mistake of dismissing this as a run-of-the-mill apocalyptic novel: it is not.  As novel progresses the protagonists begin to pick up clues and slowly piece together what is actually going on. Life is going to take a turn.  As far as readers are concerned they need to pay attention from early on should they wish to try to deduce the SFnal dénouement.

In the advance, pre-publication publicity, Gollancz are billing this as their lead debut launch of the year.

A journey, a quest with human ecology and a parent-offspring bond at its heart, This Fragile Earth is not just an apocalyptic story, it gradually transforms into a fresh take on an established SF treatment. Here I won't give you classic examples as this is a review, not a critique, so no spoilers – Asimov (cough) – well, just one hint, but this novel in part follows a rich SF tradition, though is a reasonably fresh treatment in its own right.

Jonathan Cowie


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