Nothing is quite as effective at destroying mankind as mankind itself. The world is ruined, its seas are poisoned and lifeless, the infertile land sealed beneath toxic nuclear clouds, and people are diseased beyond repair, turned blue from the inside out with a disgusting blight. Man’s latest creation, the Ficials, organic droids, have now turned on their creators, not through malice or anger, but simply because logic dictates that, if Earth has any chance of surviving at all, it must be with far fewer humans. People are dispassionately culled, their bodies incinerated. The Ficials have settled behind barricades, safe from the few Reals who survive, whose sole purpose is to survive the cull and kill as many of the Ficials as they can.
Kenstibec is a Ficial. He was designed as a construction worker, his job was to build the abandoned, empty skyscrapers. He has given himself a new purpose. He is a taxi driver, carrying Ficials between the barricaded cities. He is given the job of driving Starvie, a television reporter and onetime pleasure Ficial (when there were humans to pleasure) from Edinburgh to London. It is soon clear that they’ll need help to cover such a great distance, a Real is needed to get them across the killing lands. They find a man bloated with disease, his skin covered in blue bleeding sores, a few days from death, but alive just long enough to serve his purpose. With the dispassion that we expect from the Ficials, they name the pathetic, traumatised man Fatty. And so begins the story of two very different men, one human, one far less so, on their lethal journey across a post-apocalyptic Britain.
Barricade is narrated by Kenstibec and this immediately makes the novel more intriguing, which is rather ironic because Kenstibec is a character with no feelings whatsoever. When Ficials die they do so in an orderly fashion, they will line up to do it neatly. In the earlier days before the apocalypse, he would say whatever his human masters (and their child) wanted him to say, while spending most of his evenings, face to the wall, holding a drinks tray, coldly wondering why his construction abilities were not being made use of.
But although we are necessarily distanced from Kenstibec, it’s hard not to be drawn to him. He has a dry sense of humour, whether intentional or not, he is extremely resourceful in a tight spot, he has memories and he does think things through. He is also prepared to suffer horrendously even though we know physical injury causes him severe pain. There is something grand in this killing machine that is satisfied to drive cars from one barricaded city to another. He has given himself a purpose. It’s through Kenstibec that we see Fatty and this contrast between the cool Ficial and the tormented, at times hysterical, Real is for me the triumph of Barricade. I loved the character of Fatty and I loved how he was presented, leaving it up to us to read between the lines of Kenstibec’s narrative to decipher Fatty’s story. The relationship between Kentsibec and Fatty is an unusual one for sure but it’s a relationship nonetheless and it is a fascinating one.
Less successful for me is Starvie. I’m not keen on the rather traditional theme of androids developed as pleasure units but even apart from that her character is undeveloped. Likewise, her purpose seems vague. By contrast, what works very well are the intermittent brief chapters in which we see the last days of the world before the apocalypse, again through the eyes of Kenstibec. There is a distinct chill.
Barricade is a short novel, well under 300 pages, and it is packed to the gills with pace and drama. Jon Wallace presents a powerful portrait of a destroyed Britain, full of intriguing landscapes and settlements, as well as glimpses into the world and society that preceded it, but it is not entirely dark, despite the sporadic violence – Kenstibec’s narrative is far from dry, it is often bleakly humorous, and Kenstibec himself is on a journey of his own that brings him closer to Fatty, the human, rather than further away.
Barricade is a standalone novel but I would more than welcome the opportunity to re-enter this world. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction as I do then this is one to snap up and read in just one or two sittings. An excellent debut.
Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm