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Daybreak Zero by John Barnes

April 23, 2011 6 comments

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.

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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