Home > Books > Daybreak Zero by John Barnes

Daybreak Zero by John Barnes

To start off this review, I have to explain some of my prejudices about America. As an outsider, the country seems to be edging away from social cohesiveness towards a loose coalition of very disparate groups. Reviewing the history of the nation, there are apparently two political parties. Traditionally, they have been broad churches, tolerating membership by those holding a wide diversity of opinion for the sake of maintaining the two-party system. This papering over the cracks has been not unsuccessful because a moderate majority has held a centrist position — in some senses, these individuals operate as swing voters, giving each side a reasonable prospect of winning a national election (ignoring the gerrymandering at a local level). So long as this majority has survived and the Constitution is upheld, the more extreme groups have never been able to exert any real influence. Until now, that is.

There seems to be a polarisation of the political system, most immediately characterised by the rise of the Tea Party. This is the more acceptable face of the extreme Right, albeit that it includes individual Libertarian groups regularly asserting the right of secession. Yet, even though they are exerting some political influence within the GOP, their numbers remain small. In reality, they can still be regarded as fringe groups punching above their weight. How long this situation will persist is anyone’s guess. In this I note the enduring popularity of Ayn Rand’s rather tedious novel, Atlas Shrugged — now filmed and given limited release. Her advocacy of selfishness seems to resonate with many people today, indeed being taken to support the idea of possible militant action by an inspired minority to fight against an oppressive Big Government. In a country that prides itself on being a democracy, the spread of armed and anarchic right wing groups is disconcerting, giving credence to the possibility of more home-grown terrorist activity in the US.

So, with this second installment called Daybreak Zero, John Barnes deals with the situation some ten months after the terrorist release of the biotes in Directive 51. This shows the remnants of the American people trying to rebuild. Now that the moderate majority has been removed, the Libertarian groups who created their own militias find themselves a new power in the land. Other more religious groups also find they can assert influence, all of them, of course, wrapping their political agendas in the flag of the Constitution. It’s remarkable how self-righteous they sound in the promotion of their narrow selfish interests. Out in the new wilderness areas, it’s also interesting to see one tribe of Daybreakers following Rand in effect. Although instead of promoting abortion, they are simply killing the babies. This goes along with the hedonism of raping the females slaves, their general indifference to the death of the other slaves while foraging for food, and their willingness to torture “enemy” spies — so much for the notion of compassionate conservatism.

John Barnes comfortable in his own skin

We also continue the exploration of the nature of Daybreak itself. This rehearses debates within the community led by semioticians and political analysts. Is it a system artefact with an existence in its own right, or is it actually under some form of control — which might be human or an AI? This is important because, unless you understand what or who you are fighting, it’s rather difficult to know how to fight back. Initial evidence suggests there has been significant effort over time to prepare the Daybreakers for life after the collapse and to provide a weapon in the form of the moon gun. The co-ordination of EMPs aimed at residual areas of technology and intervention by armed tribal forces indicates practical intelligence at work. There are also interesting ideas about the place of knowledge in a capitalist country. It may be cynical, but it comes down to the money people being prepared to pay for information confirming their beliefs, and discouraging blue sky research that might find evidence for contrary beliefs. But, when all the talking is done, it always comes back to the threat of dispute resolution through fighting. In exploring this theme, John Barnes draws on both the philosophies of formalised martial arts and the use of violence as a form of negotiation. When two individuals or groups discuss an issue, they are usually looking for a winning position. In a consensual model, both sides will give way to agree a compromise via media or third way. In a conflictual model, one side must prevail but the mechanisms for winning are varied. There can be inducements in money or money’s worth, including the offer of intangibles like status or the acknowledgement of an idea as legitimate. If actual discussion fails, the parties can agree to disagree and go their separate ways. Or there can be fighting, but this is only pressuring both sides into reaching agreement on who the winner is. In this novel, we have the possibility that the system artefact called Daybreak is engaged in the overarching negotiation, but within the remnants of the old society, there are separate negotiations to decide whether there can be any unity against the common Daybreak enemy.

Perhaps, as I grow older, I’m less interested in stories about mental patients that want to take over the asylum. In a long life, I’ve seen the destructive results both of WWII itself and of the active terrorism on the mainland, in Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. The early news broadcasts on the radio were full of reports about the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya and the fight against the Malayan National Liberation Army. It was a happy day when Britain finally surrendered the Empire. Frankly, I’ve had enough of these negotiations over who should rule and on what terms. So I find a significant proportion of the political debate in Daybreak Zero rather painful, albeit somewhat facile. I understand America’s obsession with its Constitution and what it should mean, but many of the set-piece assertions of belief are bordering on the weird, even in a science fiction context. Perhaps people really would join and support such self-interested groups but, at a time when the residue of civilisation is under such pressure, it’s a sad prospect.

It’s also sad that civilisation stops when it comes to dealing with the Daybreak tribes. Although one hero may feel it justified to wipe out the tribe that has kidnapped the postal worker and enslaved his daughter, there’s an awful lot of carnage among those who refuse rehab. It’s not unlike the recant or die approach to solving the dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants in the sixteenth century.

Summing this up, I suppose there’s enough “adventure” to carry us forward and a few of the ideas are interesting to observe from a safe distance — taking all precautions to avoid contamination, of course. But I’m still struggling to find Daybreak Zero genuinely enjoyable. Everything is simplified down to its bare essentials with the intellectuals trying to preserve the Constitution and the remaining right wing groups arguing their corners. Having come this far, I’ll get the final part of the trilogy to see how Barnes resolves it. I like to keep things neat and tidy even though it feels like a chore.

  1. March 14, 2012 at 3:35 am

    Give Mr. Barnes his due: he writes very readable, even enjoyable fiction, even when the characters are less than pleasant.

    Frankly, I’ve had enough of these negotiations over who should rule and on what terms.

    You and me both.

    But one problem – and this might be my American perspective [1] with that: the people who would rule _you_ are not tired of the subject. They are legion and they never will be tired of it.

    Eternal vigilance, price of liberty, and all that.

    [1] Socially, personally, conservative, politically liberal. Go to hell in your own way, is my motto, just leave me out of it.

    • March 14, 2012 at 4:29 am

      I agree that John Barnes is highly readable. I’ve read all but one of his books and, for now, I’ll probably continue to read him. That doesn’t change my sense of frustration with the way this particular book turns out. That being said, I don’t think our views diverge on the question of individual freedom but merely on the way in which societies might take practical steps to implement it. In American terms. I’m so far to the left I’m positively Satanic. This means I see individual freedom best protected by both national and supranational laws based on what, for convenience’s sake, I will term inalienable human rights. This crystalises the probable difference between us. I suspect you believe in sovereignty and the absolute right of a state to rule within its territorial boundaries. I admit to the possibility that sovereign states may unreasonably limit freedoms unless their sovereignty may be breached by international laws. Britain has signed up to a process that allows its own laws to be overridden if a supranational court finds those laws in breach of international standards. Frankly I’m relieved I can refer to universal rules if my individual freedom is threatened. There’s no need for me to sit frustrated by local courts blindly applying unjust laws. I can insist that more abstract definitions of justice prevail. It’s this lack of recourse to external standards that gives Americans a straight choice. Either you accept the current version of the American way or, like some of the people in this book, you become a terrorist.

  2. February 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    I posted my reaction on my own blog, as was my intention anyway, but thanks for the impetus:


    The book is an interesting read, and the group stereotypes in this novel are not so stupidly simplistic as in most available science fiction. Ben Bova’s “Christians” are always power-mad evangelicals and never the more imminent danger from the New World Order control freaks like in the present modern world, for example. The post-Rapturalists in Daybreak Zero are a bit more like most of the current “Christian” Establishment (although Christian libertarians –“..To set the captives free..”) are in growing numbers…

    • February 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm

      Your reaction represents a fascinating counterpoint to my own views. Thank you for illuminating my day.

  1. February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm
  2. May 5, 2014 at 12:25 am

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