This excellent post-apocalyptic omnibus brings together three novellas, each different, each set in different parts of the world (or off it) but all taking place within the chaos of the Afterblight – the aftermath of a devastating illness, the Cull, that wiped out most of humanity, at least those of it with the ‘wrong’ blood type. There are linking themes, including: religion versus science; the ascent of madness over reason; the survival of the most violent; the indestructible character of hope. They are also linked by something else – all three stories are not only thought-provoking and memorable, they are also extremely good.
Orbital Decay by Malcolm Cross – set aboard the International Space Station, this story takes place at the time that the Cull strikes. The Russian and American crews are separated from their families and from the news, having to rely on communications with Huston (or, more precisely, Tom) for information. At the beginning all is normal, as far as life can be in orbit, with wonderful descriptions of life aboard the space station, its rigid routine of experiments, sleep, exercise, recreation and time spent contacting Earth while looking out over the beautiful blue planet. But fear soon grows for those on Earth as they learn of the pandemic which doubles its number of victims each week. Hundreds become thousands become millions. The link with Houston is lost, the space centre attacked by zealots, maddened by disease and terror, and the astronauts are isolated.
I was captivated by this story, as I couldn’t not be being so fascinated by the ISS and its contact with those of us on the ground. Astronaut Alvin, our hero, if there is such a thing, is responsible for an experiment involving mice and disease. Its link with what is going on, out of reach, on Earth is obvious and it is extremely intriguing. The relationships between the crew in this increasingly claustrophobic environment is critical, both for their survival and for the success of the story, and it is well done. I did feel that the ending was somewhat rushed but overall Orbital Decay is a great story, full of tension, enriched by little details, and a fine start to the omnibus. I would have loved this as a full-length novel.
Dead Kelly by C.B. Harvey – if pushed, I would have to admit that this is my favourite of the three. Its antihero, Kelly McGuire, known as Dead Kelly to those unfortunate enough to know him, should have been dead before the Cull even hit. Leader of a gang in Melbourne, McGuire’s final raid ended in disaster and, betrayed by one of his own, he ended up in the desert, surviving there for months while, without him knowing it, the blight hit and mankind was culled. When he walks into the devastated streets of Melbourne, McGuire has vengeance on his mind as he creates new order out of chaos.
The character of Kelly McGuire is brilliantly created. It’s possible that he might think he has a moral code, that he’s fair and honourable, but we see the truth of his actions and the reality of the society he kills to create. What makes the story particularly enjoyable to read is that it is packed full of clever twists and turns, its characters linked together by all kinds of complicated relationships. Religion raises its head, or rather the religion of cults – a society in which gang leaders become gods and nuns become killers – a distorted society and twisted religion. Dead Kelly is also extremely exciting, hugely violent and pulse racing. It’s difficult not to become involved with the battle as its combatants take a step back out of the modern age into a time ruled by instinct.
The Bloody Deluge by Adrian Tchaikovsky – further time has gone by since the Cull and now society has regressed even further. Dr Emil Wagner and Katy Lewkowitz represent science – and hope – but they are directly threatened by a world gone mad. Caught between two religious factions – one inspired by 20th-century fascism and the other by medieval military monasticism – atheists Emil and Katy find themselves fought over to such a degree that they soon become almost irrelevant. The narrative shifts cleverly between perspectives, hinting at past pre-Cull lives, showing how far some have fallen while also highlighting how little lies between modern civilisation and chaos. The story is set in Poland, reminding us of past conflicts and persecutions.
The personal struggles that are played out in The Bloody Deluge are enormously powerful. The world now centres on a battlefield a few square miles’ across, the focus a besieged monastery. The Cull to some signals the Second Coming, it is God-given. It is in this environment that Dr Emil Wagner must argue for the survival of medical science, a debate judged by the remarkable figure of the Abbot. This is a very clever story, mingling the medieval and the modern, the religious and the scientific, all the time retaining the humanity of the characters at a time of unimaginable stress.
I am not generally a reader of novellas – I do like my brickbooks – but Journal of the Plague Year works so well for me because its elements have such unity. They present the chronological and thematic development of a disaster and its repercussions for society across the globe. One leads on to the other while each retains its unique character and voice. There are other novels and novellas in the Afterblight Chronicles – I will snap them up.
I should also mention that Journal of the Plague Year has my favourite cover of the year so far.