I unwind sometimes by reading novels with eco- or techno-disaster themes, either about the disastrous event and aftermath itself, or about the world generations later whether it lays in ruins and savagery or has risen again through restoration, reconstruction and rebirth. Cheerful thought, I know. I just finished both “Directive 51” and “Daybreak Zero” by John Barnes, two books of a trilogy about the destruction of civilization by eco-terrorists and its aftermath, focused on events in the US of A. Actually, after the first 150 pages of “Directive 51”, I got impatient and just skimmed both books, so apologies both to the author and my five readers if my grasp of the details is a little weak.
For all of the extremely deliberate pacing in the first book, with the domestic terrorists moving across the country spreading their “nanoswarm”, some kind of grey-goo, self-replicating, semi-self-aware nanoparticles and “biotes”, some kind of engineered microorganism that turns all kinds of plastic and petroleum products into crud with the consistency and odor of poop, with federal bureaucrats in a “Department of the Future” slowly but-not-in-time uncovering the terrorist plot, and Indonesian Muslim terrorists hijacking Air Force Two, kidnapping the Vice-President and crashing the plane on US soil, it seemed that Barnes hurried the story along to the point where everything collapses. And when that the collapse isn’t happening fast enough through the efforts of dim-bulb domestic terrorists, he hurls from the moon clean thermonuclear bombs onto Earth cities, assembled by someone – human stowaways or AI nanobots from the Chinese-Iranian moon mission of 2019 (they’d better hurry) . . . the federal government declares martial law. . . millions die in fire, starvation, disease and most of the remnants descend into savagery except for some John Galts with the foresight to build and provision feudal castles. A large portion of the remaining story involves the residue of the government trying to reconstruct itself and reassert the Constitution, all told in loving detail and as boring as political blogging.
I need to explain more about the statement that Barnes hurried through his story. For me, there never was the backstory that gives you the sense these events are occurring in a future US. No exposition is just as bad as clunky “as you know, Bob” exposition. While these novels were placed in the near-future, somewhere in the mid 2020s, they were as futuristic as last summer. I was never able to lose myself in Barnes’ US and concluded he could benefit from some coaching from a master at creating worlds of the immediate next generation, such as Charles Stross. The character sketches of the terrorists and the bureaucrats were good and allowed me to form mental images of these people, which unfortunately indicated that most of them were snowy-white. I had difficulty in suspending disbelief long enough to visualize the concept of “Daybreak” as a force to bust civilization down to the level of the horse-drawn plow, the abacus and outdoor plumbing. While the idea was engaging of the terrorists being this decentralized and apparently leaderless group of losers, eco-freaks, fundies, disgruntled unmarried childless Japanese engineers, et al., it was never rendered either believably or amazingly and therefore for me, failed fiction. It would have been interesting to explore a bit more the creation of this social network, the propagation of the meme through it, the collaboration needed to create their weapons occurring apparently without any sort of hierarchical organization, and all of it happening under the noses of the authorities. That would have been a cool theme to weave in – not worth belaboring mind you because talking about social networking is more boring than actually doing it – but it would have been a cool backstory.
Speaking of under the noses of the authorities. . . I can buy the fact that governments, not being terribly resilient or learning organizations, may have been a bit slow on the uptake in responding to this threat. At the same time, I was struck by the lack of surveillance in the story – no RPVs or drones, no swarms of cameras the size of the tip of your little finger or microphones the size of a caraway seed, no eavesdropping on cellphone conversations from halfway across the continent, no satellite imagery, no Internet data mining, no CopSpace. If there’s anything that’s a signature of “age of terror” life in 21st century America, it’s that we’re being watched. Again, the books (or at least the first book, since there isn’t anything electronic more complex than the telegraph in the second book) missed an opportunity – what’s the story about keeping things under wraps when Big Brother has X-ray vision. You could create the kind of dramatic tension associated with stories about the French Resistance in World War II. This story didn’t create any sort of tension for me.
What finally imploded my suspension of disbelief was the clean thermonuclear weapons, built from helium-3 mined from the moon by AI-enhanced nanobots, and launched to the earth somehow, all without the factories or mass drivers under construction ever being detected by some amateur astronomer. . . oh, and by the way, how does such sophisticated AI ever come into being without triggering the Singularity or at least leaving some sort of trace on society, like surveillance tools that find the terrorists five minutes after they’ve hung up the phone. . . .
I can’t get into the writer’s head on this one, but many of the plot elements, Daybreak, nanoswarm, biotes, the nukes, were MacGuffins brought into being solely to propel the story to its war, death, horror and destruction phase. Daybreak is still a nice story idea even though, for me, it’s been rendered poorly in these books. Barnes has a third book in the trilogy coming out, “The Last President”. While I might pick up other things he’s written, I’m going to pass on it. The Daybreak novels were zeroes for me.