Reviews: Barricade – powerhouse science fiction debut from Jon Wallace
Meet Kenstibec, a ‘taxi driver’ in a ruined, near-future Britain. But in this post-apocalyptic world taxi driving doesn’t quite mean what it does to us today. This ruined, irradiated, polluted land is now split into rural and urban, both utterly wrecked, the rural areas held by the Reals (natural human survivors) while the pulverised cities are in the hands of the Ficials, at first glance human-looking, but a closer inspection shows them to be that bit taller, better built, more perfect. They are engineered beings, a sort of biological version of an android, somewhat like the Replicants of Blade Runner, and like those Replicants usually stronger and more capable than mere humans, originally designed to serve, with different models optimised for various specific purposes. Kenstibec started as a Power 9 engineering model, very strong and optimised for engineering and construction – not so much call for that after all the wars and destruction of course, so now he has adapted to his taxi role, one of the few who are skilled enough to take a passenger across the Real-infested wasteland that had been the British countryside from one Ficial urban stronghold – or Barricade – to another.
Fortunately as well as being strong, Ficials are also built to last, unlike mere humans, loaded with clever nano technology which can repair even devastating injuries (early on we encounter Kentsibec in a flashback to before the wars, hanging upside down in the recovery shed, missing a limb after a horrendous construction accident, but unlike us, he can heal from such an injury – it takes a lot to really terminate a Ficial, and if course this means they are very difficult for humans to stop, let alone kill). Currently resident in a ruined Edinburgh, Kentsibec gets the call for a driving run and makes his way to the underground garage where his ride is being prepared for a fare he has to take, a former pleasure model (and one time media celeb) now working on a Ficial news channel that broadcasts out of an underground chamber near one of the city’s old breweries. He is to take this female Ficial, who calls herself Starvie, to Control in the London barricade, a hell of a run, extremely difficult to do – even just getting out of town is hard enough let alone traversing the distance from the Scottish to English former capitals with hundreds of miles of diseased, violent, hate-filled Real tribes trying to kill them all the way.
There’s much more going on here than a simple Mad Max style road warrior fight across a ruined landscape though (fun though that is when done well – and it is done very, very well here). Wallace presents the journey but intersperses it with more flashbacks to the pre-war world, a world where political and economic struggles between nations have pushed humanity beyond the planet’s ability to cope (not exactly far fetched idea, sadly). Our sceptred isle is one of the few places where life is still relatively good, and, in a UKIP supporter’s worst nightmare, there are legions of political, climate and economic refugees desperately working across the Continent trying to aim for Britain (imagine the Daily Mail headlines). And into this come the Ficials, invented as servants and workers it isn’t long before they are also adapted for combat, with soldier models (complete with eerily glowing green eyes that let them see in low light), sold to the human population as the only resource we have to help us manage in this collapsing world and to keep out the ravening foreign hordes desperate to enter Britain. In true Frankenstein tradition though, humanity makes its own monster, which turns on it…
There are other strands coming together here too between the troubled journey south from Edinburgh and the flashbacks showing slowly how the world came to be the horrible mess it now is – for example, why does Control want a former pleasure model turned news presenter transported such a distance? And more to the point why is it most Ficials don’t hear the commands of Control these days? While some things are exactly as they seem other elements of this mission may be other than Kentsibec has been lead to believe, but I’m not going to risk any spoilers by going into the plot in any more detail, because Wallace has constructed a powerful, fast-paced, gripping, sci-fi actioneer and I don’t want to ruin it for you.
The advance copy I had contained an introduction from Gollancz associate publisher Simon Spanton, saying one of the reasons he was so keen to take on this book (Wallace has a solid track record with short stories in excellent SF journals like the venerable Interzone – and I consider being published in Interzone to always be a high recommendation for a writer’s ability – but I think this is his debut novel) was because it reminded him of Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut, Altered Carbon. Since Richard is fantastic writer and his Altered Carbon was one of the best débuts I had read (it was also the first novel my long-running Edinburgh SF Book Group read, a decade ago), that got my attention – of course that sort of comparison could be a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s terrific for a new novelist to get such a comparison, but on the other hand it also places a fairly hefty expectation on you! Back in the days of The Alien Online (some of you may recall that early SF and comics site) we really raved about Altered Carbon, so when I say I think the comparisons are more than fair, that’s a bloody big compliment. Wallace creates a very believable post-war society (and without resorting to some padded-out 500 page brick – this is a slim but muscular read) and a compelling, page-turner of a narrative, and steeps it with sufficient details and characters to make it all very believable and real to the reader, but not overloading it with too much detail that would slow down the well-paced narrative.
And this is a wretched future, not just the remains of the Reals fighting the Ficials for survival, but the ruined landscape, destroyed between chemical pollution, fighting and a nuclear exchange (it is hinted with Bible-thumping remnants of what had been the USA, who see creating Ficials as creating soulless demons). Yes, there are some nods to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs, but while the tweaked abilities and healing powers of the Ficials may remind the reader of Kovacs’ custom-made ‘sleeves’ (engineered bodies to download into), Kovacs was still human and the Ficials really are not, despite being built in our image. No real emotions, no particular drive other than to do what they were optimised for, this leads to what a human would see as a dreadfully cruel amorality, although the Ficials don’t see what the fuss is about. And the contrast between them, with their self-repairing bodies, and the miserable human Reals, half-starved, ridden with diseases in a world where even the air and water is toxic and damaging (unless you are a hardy Ficial) is quite disturbing, as disturbing as the contrast between one of us and a desperate refugee in Africa. Just as JF Sebastien observed of Roy and Pris in Blade Runner, they’re so perfect, and the Ficials seems inhumanly perfect, especially in this wrecked world. Blade Runner and Altered Carbon are obvious influences here, but Wallace draws on other elements, from other science fiction (the toxic environment and engineering beings reminds me of 2000 AD’s classic Rogue Trooper, for example) but also from real world concerns – mass immigration of economic and environmental refugees, an environment and resources being pushed beyond what the planet can handle by short-sighted humans, even the ruined future draws on parts of recent events such as conflicts that include children as soldiers, all adding to the grim, hard-edged atmosphere of Barricade, he even manages to slip in references to our pop cultural obsession with celebrities.
Perhaps his greatest trick here is that the Ficials like Kentsibec, amoral, inhuman beings who ‘cull’ humans on sight, man, woman or child, without a twinge of moral pain or guilt (human traits they care little for, along with compassion or love or nostalgia), still come across as more likeable than most of the wretched humans we meet here, both in the pre and post-war segments, which is a tribute to how well he crafts his characters, I think. A superb, powerful, perfectly-paced debut that I found myself galloping through – clearly a writer we should be keeping an eye on. Hugely recommended. You can follow Jon on Twitter and there’s another Twitter for Kenstibec here, and you can get a taster with a short extract to read online here.