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Directive 51 by John Barnes

October 28, 2010 1 comment

Let’s start with the title. This is a real-world directive to decide what is to happen to the government of the US should there be a “decapitation” of leaders. Under normal circumstances, the President would be succeeded by the Vice President. But if this succession proves impossible, there has to be a mechanism to decide who shall become the next President.

Part of the problem with this book is that it can’t seem to decide exactly what it’s about. It could be a political thriller in which we watch the various factions jockeying for positions to assume power. Except, although considerable wordage is devoted to discussing the options as the scenario develops, it’s all rather swamped by the devastation taking the world back into a new Dark Age where most modern technology will not work.

So what’s the primary narrative theme? Well, this being John Barnes, we are back in meme territory again. Those of you who know his work will remember Kaleidosope Century, Candle and The Sky So Big and Black in which AI entities invade human minds through the power of ideas. Well, Directive 51 is playing in the same kind of semiotics sandpit with a loose alliance of human malcontents infiltrated and subverted by idea pumpers. These vulnerable innocents are inducted into a kind of underground movement to wipe out technology and restore the simple life before the “big machine” took over. It’s a form of brainwashing that produces conformity of thought through a repetition and reinforcement of key ideas.

The book therefore starts with two different sets of personal stories. One set covers the “terrorists” as they seed the US with nano and biotechnology swarms designed to “eat” the plastics and chemicals essential to our modern lifestyles. The other set introduces those in Government who will be pivotal in trying to keep the US from falling too far into the abyss. Bridging between the two is the story of the Vice President who is kidnapped by a third group who are playing both sides. This being the first book in a planned trilogy, we do not yet know who this third group is, but they are obviously powerful and ruthless. Quite what motivates them is as yet unclear.

This third strand involving the VP is the best element in the first third of the book. It’s got good pace and tension, building to the eventual shooting down of the plane. The multiple POV elements showing the different methods of seeding and introducing the various “terrorists” is somewhat strange. It should be quite interesting to see into the minds of those bent on causing such massive destruction, but it’s actually self-defeating. All you see is what they do. There’s no sense of awareness that this is dangerous and could bring an end to civilisation as we know it. Put it down to their programming by the idea pumpers. They seem mildly amused, perhaps even a little aroused by their daring and the cleverness of what they are doing. This is not traditional local terrorist fodder where we observe the mindset of an ideologically driven group, intent on the destruction of their enemies. These people are remarkably passive in psychological terms for all their physical commitment to activity inevitably designed to kill millions. Equally, the Government characters are all a bit cardboardy. We have the usual suspects of dodgy politicians, high-minded civil servants and intelligent operatives. Frankly, it all moves slowly forward as the co-ordination of effort from the different terrorist elements produces the first step towards the end of things as we know them.

All of which brings me to a major problem. I was brought up on a diet of books describing worldwide catastrophe. It could be rising seas or disease. But once started, the end of the world meant just that. Given this is not simply an attack on the US (albeit we have the cod triumphalism at the end of this book when brave Americans face the future with confidence because America is great), dismissing the unfolding catastrophe in the rest of the world with a few well placed bomb blasts, seems unreasonably USA-centric. I can understand the US feels a bit victimised after terrorists crashed planes into buildings, but only seeing a world-ending disaster from the US perspective is carrying cultural imperialism a little too far. Worse, it’s a sanitised disaster. Billions die through starvation, in fires and during rioting, but none of this is shown. It’s all left unspoken, unacknowledged. As if Barnes can’t quite bring himself to describe so many Americans (and some foreigners) having to die.

And then we are all perky and getting ready for the renaissance. Except those pesky people start arguing about who should be the President and locking each other up, and then threatening a new Civil War. In all this, there’s no real sense of hardship. Even our terrorists settle into comfortable lifestyles. When did we get around to burying all the dead? Why were there no epidemics of cholera or any of the other diseases that inevitably follow a systemic breakdown in civilisation? Were there really enough tins of food around to keep everyone so well fed? I could go on posing questions, but all this would show is loss of life without a darker side. What we seem to have here is an author caught up in the desire to cull vast numbers of humans but, in the best traditions of a neutron bomb, leave the remainder a good place to live. A place in which they can look forward with hope.

I suppose this is what the blurb writers call a techno-thriller. Set a few years into the future with new technology for those who want some sfnal ideas. Bits of this book are excellent, but the overall feeling is one of great disappointment. Barnes is usually better than this rather turgid, catastrophe-by-the-numbers effort. I suppose I will have a look at the second instalment, apparently called Daybreak Zero, but it will be more out of a sense of duty than anticipation.

See here for a review of Daybreak Zero.

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