Brian Wood, Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown
“The first in a yearlong series of catastrophic events occurred on January 4. The Cook Islands were subject to a storm that defied any formal, or informal, description. Entire landmasses vanished. Regional economies were decimated. The loss of life was near total.”
From this quote early in The Massive you will gather that this is not a barrel of laughs. This near-future science fiction work is set in a dreadfully ruined Earth, savaged by a year of unprecedented cataclysms around the world. The coastlines of almost all continents have been radically changed, gargantuan chunks of ice from the Arctic and Antarctic have broken off the shelves and are melting slowly into the ocean, many cities are under metres of water, the resulting death toll, flooding of great cities, the refugees and weather combine to crash the world economy, while food and fresh water become increasingly scarce.
Through this environmental disaster the Kapital, a ship from direct action environmental protection group Ninth Wave, searches the expanded seas for their sister ship, The Massive, lost for months. New natural dangers aside there are plenty of man-made ones in a world where international law is all but gone as remaining governments struggle to deal with problems in their own borders, unable to think of anyone outside. Piracy is rife and right from the start of this book we see Callum Israel, skipper of the Kapital, trying to get his ship and crew past such dangers while searching for The Massive. Given Ninth Wave’s charter clearly states it is a peaceful organisation which doesn’t believe in violence this gives Callum’s security guy more than a few extra headaches in how to deal with armed pirates but still protect his shipmates… Is it possible in a now lawless world to refraing from violence when others will happily kill you just for your clothing?
As the search for The Massive continues and the crew attempt to avoid being boarded by vicious freebooters, Wood interjects frequent flashbacks, both to some of the catastrophes that took place over the last year (told almost like segments from a new broadcast, a broad panel depicting the event like a widescreen TV report) and flashbacks further back in time which shed light on the Kapital’s crew and their interesting personal histories, nicely rounding them out. Callum, for instance, is no stereotypical tree-hugger, he’s former special forces, then private security, the violence and killing sickened out of him, then a bizarre sea incident changes his view of life’s priorities and he dedicates himself to peacefully protecting the oceans.
Other characters are also slowly revealed to be far from the stereotypical activists you might expect, and all are now having to try to adapt their principles and mission to a radically altered world (can you hold to your high principles when your very survival is at stake?), as well as search for their missing friends and family on the Massive. More than a few aren’t just motivated by environmental awareness but have ‘felt’ the call of the sea, a feeling that the ocean has a use for them. Along with a growing suspicion that these disasters may be more than just natural results of human damage to the ecosphere, this aspect adds to The Massive, hinting that behind these events there is a far greater tale which is going to unfold slowly.
And some sections do indeed go slowly, but it is the good kind of slow – thoughtful, slow-burn, building character and tension kind of pace, interspersed with bursts of action such as a pirate attack. Some sequences draw heavily on current geo-politics and environmental issues (though never in a soap-box manner) while there are nods to some other aquatic tales, with a couple of scenes reminding me of The Abyss or Besson’s beautiful The Big Blue (especially one diving scene which, like The Big Blue, captured that feeling of falling slowly into space that comes with deep diving). Compelling and intelligent, nuanced work, as you would expect from the writer who brought us brilliant works like Demo, Channel Zero and the DMZ – I mean the fact it is Brian Wood writing should be enough to get anyone interested in my opinion. Sign me up for the next volume, please, I’m eager to see where this unusual work goes.