Ace, 2010, 483 pages, $32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01822-2
One of the reasons why I’m quickly cooling off on Science Fiction’s current post-apocalyptic craze is my nagging suspicion that not everyone sees the apocalypse (whether it’s climate-, alien- or zombie-driven) as a bad thing. There’s a streak of wish-fulfillment in “rebuilding the world” fantasies that makes me uneasy: I love the comforts of our civilization, and anyone talking about bringing it down strikes me as an enemy more than a romantic.
Knowing this, you can probably guess why the opening section of John Barnes’ Directive 51 struck such a deep chord: As this first novel in a new trilogy begins, an uncoordinated group of eco-saboteurs, disaffected college students, back-to-the-Earth dreamers, international terrorists and other miscellaneous hoodlums spontaneously act on the belief that October 28th, 2024 is “Daybreak”: The day modern civilization dies. Three particularly nasty pieces of work have a disproportionate impact on the story: A biological critter that disintegrates plastic and rubber, some nanotech that eats electronics, and the kidnapping of the US Vice-President. While the breathless thriller of the vice-presidential kidnapping unfolds, our heroes from the US “Department of the Future” are introduced: a couple of brainy protagonists who desperately try to figure out what’s happening even as the world breaks down around them.
It’s too late, though: As plastics melt away, electronics are reduced to dust and the US president declares himself mentally unfit to cope with the situation, order breaks down in more ways than one. Before long, our protagonists are stuck between an implausibly clueless acting president, an ultra-right-wing challenger, massive systemic shortages and increasing violence. It gets even worse as evidence accumulates that Daybreak was carefully orchestrated with follow-up strikes designed to wipe out any hope of recovery. As the book ends, the duelling Presidents of the United States have to confront one question: Is there still an active campaign against them, or are they stuck dealing with a dead man’s switch? (We readers, having been made privy to one crucial half-page scene [P.220], know better: something is going on, and I’d be surprised if the next volumes don’t explain how Daybreak was less spontaneous than it may first appear.)
Given that this is the first volume of a trilogy, it’s no surprise if Directive 51 is all set-up with partial payoff: Much of the book is spent contemplating the rapid destruction of modern American civilization (with late and occasional glances at the rest of the world, which doesn’t do any better) through viewpoint characters who either caused part of it to happen or are desperately trying to mitigate the millions of deaths that follow.
Frequent readers of these reviews know that I’ve been a fan of John Barnes’ work for a long time and so shouldn’t be surprised if I end up soft-pedaling a number of Directive 51’s annoyances. The first chunk of the book is more irritating than the rest: In an effort to telescope as many things as possible in his “One Day” structure, Barnes’ hand is more obvious than usual in the interlocking plotting. Worse, though, is that much of the book’s first third is spent with the terrorists, saboteurs and fools who initiate Daybreak: There’s nothing pleasant in reading about people you just want to hit on the head (with something suitably low-tech, such as a shovel or even just a baseball bat) for bringing about the end of civilization. This explains, in part, why the VP-kidnapping subplot feels so thrilling: here’s a chance for heroics against the impending doom that cloys the rest of the novel.
The novel gets more interesting after Daybreak is over, as our characters get the chance to be protagonists, are stuck in an impossible crisis of succession and more unusual plotting elements get their chance to shine. The first presidential succession crisis is great good fun for political junkies readers, posing questions about personal responsibility in serving the nation even when it contradicts regulations. Few non-rabidly political novelists ever end up writing about gunfire and insanity in the White House, so Barnes at least has that running in his favour.
But what the second chunk of the book (“Ten Days”) ends up revealing is a curiously bloodless approach to the end of civilization: Cities burn, libraries are torched, super-weapons are detonated, billions of people die and the narration barely raises an eyebrow. It takes a while to understand that the disaster is not limited to the US, and the novel seems to be in such a hurry to tear everything down that it barely manages to give us a sense of how bad it’s getting: There are a few moments in the narrative where the characters coolly mention how Daybreak is irreversible, that it will destroy all electronics, that it will take hundreds of years to recover from it (if ever) and those one-liners are everything we get in order to realize that this is as bad as it gets. Perhaps worse is the lack of resentment and regret from the characters at how primitive their situation has become in a matter of days: A couple of saboteurs are treated sympathetically (well, sort of; as so often happens in John Barnes’s novels, one of them gets raped –albeit off-screen in an unusual show of restraint, although see “bloodless” above.) and even the so-called heroes end up saying things of comfort to the Daybreakers. Hard-SF is about brainy readers more than emotive characters, but even that stance be carried too far.
On the other hand… this novel has haunted me more than most of the others I’ve read this year. I’d acknowledge my unusual attachment to civilization if it wasn’t for the fact that you’re reading this on a website, maybe from devices that didn’t exist as recently as five years ago. Everyone has their particular nightmares, and when my own Maslowian hierarchy of needs is nicely fulfilled, I worry a lot about the fragility of our contemporary way of life.
Then there’s the entertainment value of the scattered political outlook of the novel. Barnes is a professional contrarian, and it’s amusing to see how he tweaks current partisan outlooks as the world of the novel changes around its characters. There’s some sympathy for ultra-rich libertarians as they finally get to make use of their “Castles” enclaves built during the Obama administration even as the novel concerns itself with the (re)establishment of a national government. A right-ring evangelical politician initially disliked by the book’s progressive heroes ends up rising to the occasion and being a preferable alternative to a delusional old-school Democrat. Part of Directive 51‘s effectiveness lies in showing how crises can change our certitudes, so it’s no surprise if hyper-partisan readers will be upset at the novel’s shifting political sands. More independently-minded readers will have more fun –especially when reading the amazon.com reviews accusing the novel of being a mouthpiece for whatever extremism is convenient.
There’s also the fact that John Barnes is a seasoned SF writer, so that even when he errs, he’s able to deliver what his SF-reading public wants. Directive 51 cleverly combines science-fictional concerns with a techno-thriller narrative mode to deliver a novel that’s up to the latest SF gadgets while delivering the thrills we expect from such a large-scale canvas. When it gets ripping into the mechanics of pure fusion bombs, it directly scratches the sense of wonder that his readers are looking for. (It’s also an eloquent piece of evidence for critics who argue that techno-thrillers and hard-SF are basically the flip sides of the same storytelling impulses.) I happen to be unusually susceptible to the kind of narrative strategies used in this novel, so that purring sound you hear from my frantic pre-ordering of the book’s sequels may not necessarily translate into any similar affection from anyone else.
Ultimately, though, the flaws and virtues of Directive 51 will be best appreciated once the story it’s starting to tell will be over. Barnes has often upset the narrative certitudes of his previous series, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the upcoming Daybreak Zero ends up telling a different story than what we can predict. In the meantime, Directive 51 is a flawed but fascinating end-of-the-world narrative that does a few new and interesting things. It’s good enough to satisfy even those who are tired of SF’s current depressive phase. Unlike all of the zombie or post-oil catastrophes, it asks the far more disturbing question: What if some people actually worked toward the end of the world as we know it?