Mark Gallacher’s debut, for all its flaws, never lacks ambition. We begin in a small village community, but the scale of the story is quickly set. This is a society rebuilding from the ashes of our own, having been knocked back to a second Neolithic era by a variety of disasters: the Culling, The Fire, and some dark era where knowledge in general and books in particular were blamed for humanity’s woes and destroyed in The Fire. But the written word is still alive, with the few surviving books carefully horded and protected by those who recognize their value. In an inviting twist, the narrator tells us we’re about to read some of the titular saved books – a history of those dark times.
And sure enough, Earth in the 22nd century is in a bad way. Humanity is being ravaged by man-made climate disasters and, topically, ever more lethal waves of viruses. Fueled by fear, an anti-knowledge cult is gaining traction, the first of those book-burners we heard about. Despite this, advances are still being made in science and technology. Artificial intelligence is coming of age, bordering on true sentience; space exploration has arrived at its next logical step with NASA managing to put a small team on Mars. But there are no champagne corks popping in the corridors of NASA – their scientists have discovered an extinction level event heading for Earth in the form of an asteroid strike, and they have only one chance to prevent it.
Interesting fact: a section of this novel has already been published as a standalone short story called “Pioneer”. It’s a journal entry which serves here as an elegant introduction to the Martian landscape and to Mission Specialist Max Grade. He and the rest of the Mars team have yet to learn of the imminent catastrophe and their role in it, but they already have a lot on their plate. Their android Quant, with his state-of-the-art AI software, has quit following orders and left the base, engaged in a secret project of his own. Tension in the group is high. Most of Max’s colleagues agree with NASA’s orders: Quant is a faulty machine, a potential danger which needs to be destroyed. Max sees it differently, convinced the android has achieved self-awareness. Besides, he and the android have become friends.
Part Two is set a few generations after the exploits on Mars, but much has changed. In fact, it looks like saving the planet may have simply condemned its inhabitants to a slower fate. Super coronaviruses and climate-related disasters have decimated the population, social order is in free-fall, and science is taking even more of the blame. A few of the super-rich have retreated to their private islands, taking their taboo technology with them. As one character puts it:
“Everything’s fallen apart. There’s no centre holding anything together. No governments. Just people scrabbling around. It’s medieval, man.”
The only form of social order still surviving – indeed, thriving – is the brutal totalitarianism imposed by The Librarians, rulers of the few city-states not emptied by plague or other disaster. Living under their rule calls for “quiet terror and blind obedience” and is underpinned by a fanatical commitment to the destruction of “soiled technology” and – despite their name – to “a world without books”. Mass book burnings have become state-mandated public holidays, and those who fall under suspicion are either tossed into the Centre For Corrective Thinking, or onto the pyre with the books. So far, Hartman has survived by keeping his head down, until the day he makes contact with an underground resistance group committed to preserving knowledge and the books which contain it. This group has decided to escape the city, books in tow, and start again on one of the nearby islands. The roaming Librarians present the first obstacle, but there are rumours, good and bad, about the island to which they’re heading.
This is an ambitious novel which shines in places, showing promise and obvious passion for the genre. But it’s also a novel hampered by the weaknesses of a writer still honing his craft. Gallacher’s prose can be plodding, often describing a character’s actions in a lifeless, moment-to-moment list of movements and actions, including irrelevant details which add nothing to the story and are a chore to wade through. There’s also far too much dodgy syntax and plain bad grammar, stuff that really should have been tweaked or polished before the book hit the shelves.
There are other problems. Structurally, the novel doesn’t quite hold together. There are more prologues and epilogues than are really necessary to the telling of the story, and not all of them hold water; for example, we sometimes discover we’ve been reading a recovered document or official account, much of which couldn’t have been observed or recorded by anyone. There’s also a mismatched feel between parts one and two. The first half of the book, which focuses primarily on the Mars team, is essentially a conventional sci-fi thriller, a decent if flawed yarn with a fairly straightforward narrative. Part two is a far choppier ride. The splintered, chronologically freewheeling narratives, leaping back and forth in time, are often a challenge to piece together. Presumably the fragmented structure is intended to reflect the shattered world it depicts, but even the most attentive reader will find themselves flicking back through the pages.
Still, there’s good stuff here, too. Gallacher shows flashes of descriptive brilliance, and he can often stir emotion, most notably when a character perishes in a moment of selflessness (Gallacher frequently uses our capacity for self-sacrifice as a welcome counterpoint to the darker themes). He can be clever, too – the passage in which the novel’s two parts finally intertwine is ingenious and moving. Gallacher’s prose needs more sparkle, less superfluous clutter, and more cohesion, but there’s enough raw talent in his debut to suggest he’s worth watching.