Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead
For some inexplicable reason probably connected with the increasingly rapid death of brain cells, this book reminded me of several works from the 1950s. I start with Earth vs the Flying Saucers, one of the better alien invasion films I paid to see when it first came out in 1956. These pesky creatures land in their ships and so long as they stay inside their force fields, they are invulnerable to our primitive weapons, until. . . As a short story, I always liked William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), while Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953) has a slightly more peaceful, but nevertheless disruptive, invasion. As to the alien’s motive for the assault on our green and pleasant lands, I offer The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch and Of Men and Monsters (1968) by WIlliam Tenn. I suppose these works have stuck in my memory as yardsticks against which to measure the level of intelligence in the vast number of alien invasion plots encountered since.
All of which brings me to Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead (Solaris, 2013). This plot depends on several overlapping ideas. The aliens have invaded and the devastation produces a post-apocalyptic situation in which survivors struggle to survive in a devastated environment. In this thread, Kylie and her man (he’s impotent thanks to the residual poison in the environment, so he’s not her lover) live in what’s left of Oakland. In this thread, it’s 2013, and her nemesis is a mentally unstable religious fanatic who has plans for her which he claims will save Earth. There’s one anomaly in the devastated landscape. It’s called the Seattle Preservation Dome. As in Groundhog Day (1993), this is a city caught in a time loop — it’s always the fifth of October. The questions, of course, are how this anomaly came into being and what sustains it as Ian Palmer and his friend, Zack, iterate through marginally different versions of the same time period.
The good news it that the post-apocalypse element works well as Kylie is forced to leave Oakland and ends up at a survivor-inspired project to bring down the dome. These humans have both a theory as to what the dome is and a fighter jet which they believe can fly inside. The less good news is that, despite the valiant attempts of Zack to remind Ian they are in a time loop, our hero in this narrative thread is stubborn. Admittedly, it does sound a little nutty to suggest everyone is stuck in time, destined to repeat the same day over and over again. But Ian does take a long time to admit the truth of his situation. This means we have to read through the same day quite a few times before things grow more exciting.
As our example to compare, the short story by William Tenn is nearest in spirit, i.e. the cause of Earth’s destruction is similar. The essential difference lies in the introduction of the time loop which, in a Matrix kind of way, offers some degree of preservation for those inside the dome. As a plot, this is all rather elegant even though the first step for exiting the loop (the first time) is not completely voluntary. I would have been more impressed if the relevant individuals had come up with this idea and then had to trigger the major change. The uncertainty in whether it will work would have produced real tension. I was also slightly disconcerted that, as written, the plot has Kylie disappear from the action for quite a long time as we move through the final third of the book. Since their relationship has been set up as love-at-first-sight between two humans who share a certain characteristic, I’m not sure I approve of this way of finishing the book. I understand the author’s choice. He’s free to write the book he wants. But if the final answer is going to depend on the strength of their romance, the demonstration of their love is long time coming.
So as written, Life on the Preservation starts off in a way confirming the strength of Jack Skillingstead’s craft. There’s real cleverness in the different ways in which the fifth of October are presented. Once the ultimate alien threat kicks in, the pace picks up and there’s considerable excitement. This just leaves us with the ending which is slightly muted. I suppose it’s appropriate for there to be an absence of triumphalism. That would be “unrealistic” in this context. The best we can hope for as an outcome is a marginal rebalancing of forces. If nothing else, it’s a triumph of persistence. As George R Stewart tells us, for now Earth Abides.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.