Daybreak Zero, John Barnes

<em class="BookTitle">Daybreak Zero</em>, John Barnes

Ace, 2011, 400 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01975-5

While I generally agree that all novels should stand upon themselves and require as little contextual knowledge as possible, there are exceptions. John Barnes has always been a surprisingly challenging author (his repertoire of authorial motifs often includes sexual violence, repellant protagonists, deliberate antagonism of his core-SF audience, tragic endings, and at least one novel in which the entire universe surrounding the protagonists changed every few pages) and in his case, I believe that as much external knowledge of the work is usually preferable.

While Daybreak Zero may look like a bog-standard post-apocalyptic second-volume-of-a-trilogy, at least one piece of information may help in understanding it. [August 2014: Actually, two pieces of information may be best, but after reading the third volume of the trilogy, I’ve moved the second item to the review of the third volume. As a hint, though: The trilogy was never meant to restore civilized order, but to set up another series.)

So: keep in mind that the book was the result of a somewhat unfriendly editing process. The story, simply put, is that Barnes was attempting a sprawling post-apocalyptic trilogy in his usual in-your-face fashion at a new publisher. (After years and dozens of novels published by Tor, this was Barnes’ first experience with Ace) Conversely, Ace wanted a safe and comfortable SF trilogy with clear heroes, despicable antagonists and a focused storyline. Add to that the industry context (falling sales during a recession, mid-list writers being squeezed out of the industry, the 2010 sea change in ebooks as signaled by the quick uptake of the iPad) and you can see how a novel like Daybreak Zero could be affected. As he writes on his too-infrequent blog…

So the first two books were chopped way, way, way down, with me trying to keep them sprawling and ambiguous and undecided and interesting, like the world, and the editor trying to narrow them down to one-hero-one-problem-on-one-side like movies-on-the-reader’s-forehead. One way we frequently compromised was that I got to have some of the material left in but with scenes shortened

So that probably explain the stop-and-go pacing of Daybreak Zero, which takes a break to tell us how a scoutmaster was able to survive an all-inclusive apocalypse, while setting up traitorous plot developments as quickly as it can knock them out in the next scene. There’s a bit of discontinuity to the book that could have been smoothed out with more breathing room. (Not helped along by a structure that takes place almost all “in real time” with quick little scenes that offer little opportunity for time-skipping such as “for the past three weeks, our characters had done this…”) A surprising amount of stuff takes place off-screen, or so quickly on the page that it may have not been there at all.

I mention this because it helps a lot in forgiving some of the irritants in Daybreak Zero. I had a few others that were my own fault –I read Directive 51 four years ago, and didn’t remember some of the crucial details: So I was all ready with indignant objections that so many people would be part of Daybreak, until I was reminded that it was a self-sustaining memetic system partially prefigured by Barnes’ own One True series.

Mind you, it doesn’t explain away the novel’s lack of overall plot development: Despite the trips and decisions taken, deaths of viewpoint characters (no less than four of them!), and ominous final developments, the shape of the world as the novel begins is very, very similar to the one it ends with despite pieces being moved on the checkerboard; the third novel, The Last President, should settle how useful this middle volume truly was.

Still, I’m rather pleased by Daybreak Zero. The entire concept of Daybreak is ingeniously infuriating (although I do hope that its mysteries get cleared up nicely in the next volume), one character gets a terrifying arc from nerdy hero to brainwashed villain and, as is usual with Barnes’ work, Daybreak Zero remains a pleasure to read with plenty of narrative velocity. It doesn’t quite amount to much more than interesting sequences furiously aligned one after another, but that’s part of the problem in second-volumes of trilogies.

Fortunately, those second volumes also require quite a bit less hand-holding than first volumes. Now let’s see what Barnes intend to do to close the story.

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