Monday, 11 May 2009
Book Review: 'One' by Conrad Williams....it's the end of the world...again!
Now I’m as big a fan of the post-apocalypse as the last man and, as a bit of an afficionado of the end of the world I feel I’ve never had it so good. ‘I Am Legend’ did the business at the cinema a couple of years ago (to the extent that there’s talk of a sequel/prequel), the rebooted ‘Survivors’ was a ratings and creative hit for the BBC last year (and returns for a second series later this year or early next year) and there’s a new version of ‘The Day of The Triffids’ coming to a TV near you this Autumn. lovely jubbly. But sometimes, just occasionally, the end of civilisation as we know it is just a bit too bleak, even for me.
So it is with ‘One’, a new novel by British writer Conrad Williams, which I’ve been ploughing through the last couple of weeks in between doing something – anything – else to raise my spirits. Blimey, this is grim stuff. Richard Jane is a civil engineer working on the oil rigs in the North Sea. During a particularly-hairy underwater operation something goes horribly awry and he and his colleagues battle their way to the surface as what appears to be a violent storm rages overhead. But it’s far more than just a storm. The rig itself is devastated, the bodies of everyone on board horribly burned and melted. Jane manages to reach an escape capsule and, the only survivor, reaches the mainland. There he finds a devastated, scorched landscape, the grisly remains of a roasted or vaporised population and a country – possibly even a world – battered by the cold and the dark of a nuclear winter. Convinced that his five year-old son Stanley, living with Jane’s ex-wife in London, will have somehow survived the holocaust, Jane determines to make his way down to the capital in the hope of being re-united with his child. On his way he discovers the true horror of the new world, the tragic desperation of the few other survivors he encounters and the prospect of staying alive in a world with precious little food and a potentially-poisonous atmosphere. Nice.
One of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic stuff is primarily the old ‘ordinary people in extraordinary situations’ cliché and the fact that I am genuinely drawn to the imagery of the modern world brought to its knees, of society and all its toys rendered useless, of cold, deserted cities and, yes, lots of decaying bodies lying around the place. But behind and beyond all that these stories work for me when they have an inherent optimism, when their characters battle through the most extreme of adversity and where, during the story itself and most especially when the tale is told and it’s over and done, there’s some glimmer of hope, some chance that humanity will survive and, maybe, even thrive. Conrad Williams isn’t interested in this; there’s precious little hope in ‘One’, no real sign of humanity doing anything other than clinging on to the wreckage as it slides towards oblivion. Our hero Jane, our eyes and ears, is a man possessed and obsessed – he sees his son at every turn and his mind wanders back to happier days – and it’s only his overwhelming devotion to Stanley and his touching, if naïve, belief that he’ll find him alive in London when almost everyone else has fried which keeps his going. Jane’s not concerned with how Mankind will survive, how it can feed, clothe and shelter itself. He trudges the length of Britain, avoiding savage aggressors, reluctantly befriending others, grubbing for food and hiding from the cold. And when he finally reaches London…
When he finally reaches London the book pulls off an extraordinary – and initially quite disorientating – narrative leap which throws the reader ten years into the future. ‘One’, already a cold and depressing if fascinating read, suddenly plunges into even darker sci-fi territory. Ten years on it transpires that London is still alive, a couple of thousand human scavengers picking through the remains and grubbing about in the ruins. But now the dead don’t stay dead either; it’s not hugely clear from the text but it seems that some alien life essence – Williams obliquely refers at one point to some consciousness drifting through space and feeding off planets which have been devastated – is reanimating corpses and turning them into blood-hungry zombies. Yes, zombies. The locals call them Skinners (becauss they inhabit the skins of the deceased, presumably) and they prey on the ragged survivors – particularly female ones – for their own rather unpleasant purposes.
Ten years on life is even harder for Jane. he now has a surrogate family, two survivors he met en route to the city, and there are rumours abounding that a bunch of other survivors down on the Kent coast are fashioning a crude raft in order to flee Britain and head for France, in the belief that whatever conditions are like anywhere else they can’t possibly be worse than Britain. A metaphor for our times, methinks. But separated from his family, and with his new ‘partner’ Becky grabbed by the Skinners (ouch, painful!) Jane’s fragile grip on sanity becomes even more tenuous just as his failing body starts to literally fall apart…
As you can tell, ‘One’ isn’t a lot of fun. It’s remorsefully dirty, edgy and uncompromising. It’s uncomfortable. Perhaps it reflects what an end of the world situation would really be like; maybe in those circumstances we wouldn’t all be living in tight ethnically-balanced little groups in big, clean houses, wearing clean clothes every day and driving our 4x4s down to the local supermarket so we can forage for plentiful food supplies whilst rearing our own chickens for those tasty Sunday lunches. But ‘One’ isn’t easy reading. Maybe that’s the point. Williams clearly has a rather pessimistic view of human nature and its will and ability to survive. Moments of hope are born and suffocated almost immediately and there’s never a sense that the human race has got much of a future and is content to just pick on the bones of what’s gone before.
None of this is to suggest that ‘One’ is a bad book – far from it. It’s vivid and compelling but at times it’s difficult to read and wading through it isn’t exactly a pleasure even though, if you like this sort of stuff, it’s not a book you’re going to give up on. Williams’ writing is tough, brutal and never afraid to shock and sicken, piling on the misery as Jane wanders through his new life. Some of the flashback/fantasy sequences with Jane’s son Stanley tend to grate – Stanley is depicted as sickeningly twee but this may just be Jane’s way of conjuring up a comforting image of something as bit less repellent than the life he finds himself enduring after the ‘Event’. And the ‘apocalypse’ itself is never explained – solar flares? Some sort of nuclear holocaust? Something else?
Ultimately I’d recommend ‘One’ to lovers of the end of the world. Just be warned that this isn’t one of those “cosy catastrophe” novels of the type written by the likes of John Christopher and John Wyndham, generally regarded as the fathers of British apocalypse fiction (and it’s often agreed that British genre writers have a particular fixation with the end of the world). This is a modern book which puts an ugly, modern perspective, a realistic perspective on what is, in reality, the absolute worst case scenario for all of us. Read ‘One’ and then hope it never happens here…