01/11/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Spectra. 208 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $14.00 (US), $17.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-553-38622-6.
check out website: www.ballantinebooks.com
‘Noise’ is the first novel from Darin Bradley, an American creative writing lecturer. He has taken a familiar trope of Science Fiction, the violent breakdown of modern society and given it an interesting slant. Much apocalyptic fiction starts some time after the collapse of society or focuses on the fate of characters who are unprepared for what has happened. Bradley takes the novel tack of exploring what you might do during the period of collapse if you had seen it coming.
The story follows Hiram and Levi, two young men in Texas, as they implement their survival plan during the early days of the breakdown of civilisation worldwide. The cause of the breakdown is not made clear but the impact on the domestic US certainly is. The National Guard are mobilised to protect strategic assets and prevent looting and civil disobedience. However, from the start it is clear that the forces of law and order will be spread too thinly to reverse the rising tide of chaos.
The novel is structured as a set of chapters of narrative, alternating with extracts from ‘The Book’, a guide to how to survive in the brave new world. Hiram and Levi have assembled this from anarchist messages circulating through the ether, hence the noise, on the old analogue TV frequency bands, now vacant following the switch to digital TV.
The two of them have been preparing for this event for months, if not years. Long-term aficionados of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, they revel in the opportunity to transform their virtual role-playing game skills into reality. Their first act of anarchism, once it becomes clear that the world we know is on its way out, is to break into the local hardware store in order to steal an angle-grinder. They use this to sharpen the ornamental swords they bought at the County Fair months earlier, turning them from decorative tat into lethal weapons.
Their second act is to go to the local shopping mall, loiter in the bushes outside and kill one of the people looting the stores in order to steal from her the goods she has just liberated. This is a classic example of how their post-apocalypse survival philosophy works. You let other people do stuff that is hard or risky. Then you run in at the end, kill them when they’re not looking and nick the goodies. To be fair, Bradley does at least show Hiram feeling shock and remorse at the result of his first use of lethal force. Such feelings don’t last long though.
The story continues to evolve along these lines. We find out how ‘The Book’ envisages that those who successfully negotiate the breakdown of modern society will do so. There are three steps. First, you create an exclusive community who will look out for each other. Second, you ruthlessly suppress anyone external who threatens the security of your community. Third, you move your new community to a safe and defensible place of its own. Hiram and Levi gather a motley crew around them and try to implement this three point plan. Inevitably, though, other people and other groups get in the way. Will the boys be able to do the Book’s bidding?
‘Noise’ is a well-written debut novel. It contains active prose writing and strong descriptions which makes you feel like you’re right there in the middle of the action. The structural device of alternating chapters of story with extracts from ‘The Book’ is also useful as it helps the reader to see exactly what Hiram and Levi are trying to achieve.
There is only one thing I didn’t like about the novel. Unfortunately, it was a ‘deal breaker’ for me. I had real problems with the moral line taken in ‘The Book’ and implemented in full by Hiram and Levi. It explicitly absolves those following its commandments from any moral responsibility for murdering or maiming other human beings, even if the ‘crime’ of these other people is only the potential to get in your Group’s way. It is perfectly possible to argue that, if civilisation did collapse, such naked aggression might be the most efficient way to maximise your chance of survival. However, that is only one way of responding to such a crisis. Other less selfish and less violent choices are also available. I found myself fuming at the way that Bradley has ‘The Book’ dress up the morality of killing unarmed bystanders as representing an ethically neutral choice, suggesting that by the simple expedient of wearing a mask, painting your face or changing your name, the murderer is not really ‘you’. It is. The techniques recommended in ‘The Book’ seem very similar to those used by police states around the world over the years and they gain nothing from the comparison. To put it bluntly, if this is the kind of world that will follow the current one, I’m not sure I want to survive the apocalypse.
In conclusion, I came away from reading ‘Noise’ with the view that it is a technically accomplished debut novel but one that ultimately left me cold. On the plus side, it considers an interesting scenario and deals with it in a logical, consistent and well-written way. On the minus side, I found the protagonists’ worldview cynical and repugnant. I therefore found it difficult to have any emotional involvement with their successes and failures, so didn’t engage very much with the story. I am intellectually glad that I have read the book. However, I don’t think I could say that I enjoyed it.
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