01/03/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Solaris/Rebellion Publishing/HarperCollins. 350 page small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-907519-14-7.
check out websites: www.solarisbooks.com and www.ericbrown.co.uk
Eric Brown is an underrated British Science Fiction author who seems to be going through a particularly productive period right now. He produced the three books of the Bengal Station trilogy across 2008 and 2009, a revised re-issue of his early novel ‘Engineman’ came out last October and he has another new novel, ‘The Kings Of Eternity’, coming out in April. In the midst of all this, ‘Guardians Of The Phoenix’ was published last December. However, whereas most of Brown’s recent output has been set in relatively optimistic versions of the future, this latest book is a gritty and unrelenting post-apocalypse tale. So can Brown do the end of the world as well as he does space opera?
‘Guardians Of The Phoenix’ is set in Europe in the year 2120. The Earth has been devastated by a series of both natural and man-made disasters and conflicts over the previous century. The oceans have boiled away leaving a baking desert world inhabited by no more than a few thousand human survivors. Humanity ekes out an ever more precarious living in isolated communities, eating bats, lizards and fungus and having to dig ever deeper to find the next source of water. Homo sapiens, along with all other living creatures on the planet, looks doomed to a rapid and total extinction within a few more decades.
Paul is one such survivor, living in the ruins of Paris. Early one morning, while he is checking his lizard traps for food before the sun gets too hot, he sees and hears a distressed young woman in a red dress running away from a group of chasing men. Paul hasn’t seen another human soul, apart from his foster mother Elise, for over three years. He follows them, daydreaming of rescuing the woman and punishing the men. However, Paris is a rabbit warren and by the time he locates them in the ruined building they’ve gone to ground in, it is too late. He overhears Hans, the men’s leader, as he boasts of catching and raping the woman. When he sees her dress on the floor, abandoned, and smells what they are cooking for their next meal, Paul realises the depth of their depravity. He tries to attack them when they are dozing following their cannibalism, but one of them wakes and he is captured.
Hans has brought the men to Paris with a stolen map, showing the location of a large food store in the city and forces Paul to take them to it. Thankfully, as they get there, Paul is rescued from his inevitable disposal at their hands when three more people pop up and tell them to surrender. There is a fire fight, at the end of which Hans has escaped while the rest of his group lie dead or dying. Paul’s saviours are Dan, Kath and Ed, three friends from a community in Copenhagen who had trailed Hans’ gang ever since they absconded from that community, taking both the map and the young woman. She was Ed’s daughter and he is destroyed by the news of her violent death. Paul joins Dan’s group and the four of them head for Biarritz, where there is supposedly a deep trench in what used to be the Atlantic Ocean. Dan wants to drill for water. If it’s there, he proposes to move their community from Copenhagen, where the water is running out.
Meanwhile, Hans makes his way to another French community in which he has previously stayed and takes up once more with Samara, the daughter of the group’s dying leader. Before he dies, Samara’s father tells her of a top secret research facility deep underground in Northern Spain where the European Space Agency were building an ambitious new type of spaceplane before the final breakdown of global society. Though the spaceplane never flew, her father tells her that the fully equipped base was locked up before being abandoned and he has the codes to unlock it. He wants her to mount an expedition and, if its food stores are still intact, to move their entire community there. She agrees and takes Hans with her. However, their route takes them ever closer to Paul and his new friends. Inevitably, in a world of so much sand and so few oasises, they eventually catch up with each other at one. Then all hell breaks loose.
‘Guardians Of The Phoenix’ is a brutal, unforgiving book. We are brought face to face with a group of rapists, murderers and cannibals in the very first chapter. The story is littered with episodes of sadistic violence, casual murder and sado-masochistic sex. It is shocking, but is it justified?
I think it is. Eric Brown has chosen to portray what looks like the final twenty to thirty years of the human race. Given the almost total lack of available food or water and the ever-present threat of infectious diseases, it seems unlikely at the start of the book that any humans will still be alive by 2150. Worse, the situation has been almost this bad for the last thirty years. Under these circumstances, is it really so shocking to find that our modern social norms have been abandoned and humanity’s baser instincts have reasserted themselves in the daily battle for food, water and security? In my view, Brown has portrayed the bleakness of the scenario with extraordinary clarity. It is disturbing, certainly, but it rings true to me.
This makes the book sound unrelentingly depressing. It isn’t. Several of the key characters, including Paul, Dan and Kath, are shown to be sensitive, compassionate people who have not lost their common humanity, even if the world is conspiring against them. They provide some limited assurance that it is possible to transcend your circumstances. At the story’s resolution, which I won’t spoil, provides a positive twist which left me feeling optimistic for Paul and his new friends, almost for the first time.
There are almost inevitably a few weaknesses in the story. I’ll highlight three. First, towards the end of the book, parts of the top secret research base that Paul and friends locate is shown as having been heavily attacked by terrorists during the final breakdown of society, yet the base’s lifts, lights and ventilation systems are still working sixty years later, which seems a little unlikely. Second, some of the lesser characters are rather two-dimensional with very little complexity to them. Mind you, this may be perfectly realistic, given the bleak lives they are living. Third and more seriously, I found it difficult to fully believe in the character of Hans, the main anti-hero. His murderous actions throughout the story betray him as psychotic, perhaps even insane. Yet he is supposed to have taken in both Samara and Dan at different times. It may be possible for a highly intelligent psychopath like Hannibal Lecter to manage such an act but Hans is portrayed throughout as an impulsive, stupid man. So how did he gain the trust of two otherwise intelligent people?
‘Guardians Of The Phoenix’ portrays a truly bleak future for humanity. Eric Brown doesn’t pull his punches and that makes the narrative difficult to stomach in places. However, I would urge you to persevere. This is a real departure from Brown’s more usual subject matter but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also made me think. Which is, perhaps, an even better testimony.
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