Ace, 2012, 400 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-93700715-7
As of mid-2014, John Barnes has written thirty-three books and I have read twenty-two of them, with eight more somewhere in my to-be-read stacks. (What I’ve got left to read quickly gets into his early-career juvenilia and obscure titles long out of print.) I mention this as a feeble claim to authority when I say that when it comes to Barnes, I have come to expect the unexpected. He’s one of my favourite SF writers despite/because I’m never too sure how I’ll react to any given book.
As I’ve written elsewhere, there are good Barnes novels, there are bad Barnes novels but there are no dull Barnes novels. Over the years, I have become convinced that he is a bit bored, disillusioned and maybe even disappointed with the genre SF readership. How else to explain the constant subversion of expectations, the nose-tweaking, the genre-hopping to be found in his bibliography? Reading Barnes is like being dared to go past hidebound genre expectations, even when he’s demonstrably working within the traditions of Science Fiction.
The price to pay for liking such an unpredictable author is that, from time to time, he ends up writing a novel that doesn’t require assessing as much as explaining. The Last President, third book in the Daybreak series and arguably the concluding volume in a trilogy, in one of those: With the wrong expectations, it’s a dud, but with the right expectations it becomes half-way interesting.
It almost goes without saying that the rest of this commentary will include complete spoilers for the end of this book. There are no other ways to discuss it. For reasons that will soon become clear, that this is a novel (heck, a series) best spoiled rotten from beginning to end, as readers prepared for what Barnes has in mind have better chances of appreciating what he is trying to do. I’m going to write two further non-spoiler paragraphs and then I’m going to delve deep into the keys to The Last President.
What about a few general thoughts about the book? It’s written cleanly, although some of the Midwestern geography gets esoteric without a map. Long-time Barnes readers will note that after a Daybreak Zero that was generally exempt of sexual violence (one of the author’s recurring motifs), we get a far-too-rough-sex scene just in time to make us lose sympathy for a character who is then promptly killed. Barnes has written elsewhere about how this third book was written more closely to his vision for the series than the first two heavily-edited ones, and while this does show in smoother pacing and scene transitions, it’s not a radically different reading experience.
Last non-spoiler stuff: What makes this Daybreak trilogy interesting, as far as catastrophic slides into post-apocalyptic mayhem are concerned, is the titular concept of “Daybreak”: the idea that a substantial number of humans would execute a variety of plans designed to make human civilization regress hundreds of years in the past and ensure that we’d stay there. That’s Nightmare Fuel stuff as far as I’m concerned, and I suspect that it’s a reason why, despite my overall distaste for Barnes’ goals in writing the series, it has occupied such an unusually large space in my thoughts since I’ve finished the book a few days ago.
OK, on to the good spoiler-full stuff: The Last President concludes this Daybreak trilogy with a downbeat tone exemplified by two overlaid let-downs: The protagonists of the trilogy lose their bid to rebuild the United States of America, and Daybreak is revealed to be a creation of aliens determined to destroy human civilization.
Let’s tackle the aliens first. As far as science-fictional ideas go, “paranoid aliens kneecap human civilization before it causes them trouble” is a pretty good one. Alice Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution” still gives me the notional heebie-jeebies, and buried deep into my files is the manuscript of a (bad) novel using that exact same premise (even down to the “next step is them coming here to finish the job” send-off which also figures in The Last President) But a good idea doesn’t necessarily mean an appropriate idea, and its use as a definitive answer for Daybreak isn’t nearly as compelling as I thought it would be when I first supposed it while reading the first volume. Daybreak is a lot scarier as a purely human creation, arising in the collective unconscious as a response to the contemporary environment. It’s also more appropriate to have human protagonists fighting another human creation: making it come from aliens takes it deep into “unfair” territory, and comes close to trivializing the struggle against Daybreak when the deck is stacked so obviously against civilization.
But, you know, cool idea –well-presented if perhaps revealed a bit too late like the cherry on a sundae.
Still, it becomes a forgivable weaker point when compared to the other big let-down of the novel: the idea that the forces of civilization (as represented, perhaps pretentiously, by the attempts to keep the United States government intact) are served a resounding defeat in their efforts to fight back against Daybreak. Not to put a fine point on it, they spend roughly half the book winning battles and spanking Daybreaker hordes, only to be ambushed by authorial fiat and lose for the rest of the novel, until the United States are no more than a handful of separated fiefdoms.
That’s quite a bit more problematic than aliens, especially as the conclusion of a trilogy. Genre readers have been conditioned to expect the pot at the end of the rainbow, so to speak. We read fiction for the hardships, but also with the expectation that something will be a bit better at the end despite the terrible prices paid along the way. This is especially true the longer the work: I don’t particularly care if a character dies at the end of a short story: I haven’t had time to attach myself. But a trilogy requires a far bigger investment in time, and my expectations of a reward go up correspondingly. So when I tackle a series that starts with the apocalypse and sets out with the stated goal of keeping the United States together, it’s kind of, oh, a massive disappointment when the ending consists of characters shrugging and telling themselves that at least they tried. The book doesn’t end in defeat as much as in dramatically lowered expectations, and a bit of hope for the bits and pieces left. (There’s also a bit of dramatic irony in how Daybreak is ultimately dismantled not by the cleverness of characters fighting for peace, order and good government, but by the ruthless plans of a back-wood dictator going for a power-grab. Let’s put the worst facets of humanity against each other and see who wins…)
But before climbing the barricades of outrage, let’s take a moment to second-guess this first reaction and double-check that my expectations as a reader were the same as those with which Barnes wrote the series. Because the piece of information that is essential in understanding the Daybreak trilogy is this: Barnes is an iconoclast, and he’s not entirely unsympathetic to the destruction of civilization as he describes in his series. As he writes on his Amazon page:
I like writing on all sides of an issue, and in this case it was particularly easy because fundamentally, I’m a Luddite; if I could figure out a way to make Daybreak happen and send us all back to steam trains and biplanes without killing a few billion people, I would be sorely tempted, but at the same time I recognize that emotional response as idiotic…
I couldn’t be any less sympathetic to this point of view (I really, really like civilization) but I’m trying not to take it personally: Barnes’ entire bibliography, as fascinating and varied and exasperating as it can be at times, is filled with examples of him writing to get some reaction out of his readership. It’s no exaggeration to write that, as far as this trilogy’s characters are concerned, Barnes is Daybreak in the most literal sense, especially when, on his blog (and elsewhere; Barnes hasn’t been shy in discussing his series), he admits that…
…the reason for engineering the Seven Nations Future in such a complex way is surprisingly simple: I wanted a huge canvas for all kinds of adventures, and it took a pretty big story to set that up. I wanted to contrive a dieselpunk kind of world that would never be wiped out by computers and nukes, as was the interwar era where so many of my favorite pulp adventures took place.
So there’s the important takeaway, and key to the series so far: this Daybreak trilogy was never about readers seeing characters winning the war against the Daybreakers, regaining their iPhones and rebuilding a modern civilization: it was about Barnes setting up a fictional playground for further adventures. The deck was stacked against the defenders of civilization from the onset, both from Barnes’ affections and from his ultimate goals.
I can respect the series a lot more now that I know this. I also expect that in the later grand scheme of things, after Barnes has had time to write further novels in this universe, the initial Daybreak trilogy will be regarded for its true nature: the opening cycle of a much longer Seven Nations Future series. I’m still not too sure, mind you, that a trilogy was the best way to go: A novel could have low-balled the sensation of betrayal, while a long-running unified series à la Song of Ice and Fire would merely see the first three books as prologue.
But so it goes with any Barnes novel, which aren’t usually to be read unless we’re committed to a bit of a struggle and soul-searching about expectations. I’m amused to see that The Last President, as of mid-2014, has an average Amazon reviews ranking of 3.5 stars, but those reviews are widely scattered across the five stars spectrum: Such a novel ends up getting reactions all over the map, and that’s the way Barnes seems to like it. Given that this review is roughly twice as long as my usual ones, you can gather that I have engaged with the novel to an unusual extent, that that I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not I liked it. What’s confirmed, though, is that I’m eagerly waiting for the next Barnes novel with no other expectations than being surprised.