26 September 2023

This Fragile Earth

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Susannah Wise, Gollancz, $32.99.

Clearly the pandemic has got the literary world’s post-apocalyptic juices flowing. Every second science fiction book at the moment seems to want to imagine the end of civilisation. The problem being that there are only so many scenarios to explore and most of them have been done. So then the question is – how well does this particular author deal with the apocalypse and do they have a new way of telling this story or anything new to say? Susannah Wise’s debut This Fragile Earth, hits all the right post-apocalyptic beats but in a way that many readers of this genre will have encountered before.

This Fragile Earth opens on a slightly future London. Signy is out in the heat with her son Jed when the drones start to malfunction. Not too long after the electricity fails as do all of the computer-controlled cars. Her husband Matthew abandons his car and walks home and the three spend days trying to adapt to a new normal of no electricity, sporadic water, dwindling food supplies and growing unrest on the streets. It will come as no surprise to readers, particularly of English post-apocalyptic fiction, that Signy’s eventual journey of survival takes her into a silent but menacing countryside where she slowly starts to understand the reasons behind the chaos.

This Fragile Earth pushes a number of the usual apocalyptic buttons – the failure of technology, a possibly rogue or compromised artificial intelligence, the army being brought in but unable to maintain control. Layered on this is an environmental message – in Signy’s world the bees have died out and have had to be replaced by pollination drones but when the apocalypse starts, she starts to see bees again. This environmental layer elevates the material slightly but is itself a fairly common climate-fiction trope.

Signy is a resourceful character and there are some moments of real tension and tragedy in the narrative. Her son Jed is a little less successfully defined – oscillating between acting his age (around 5 or 6 – shouting “Hallo! Goodbye!” to his shadow) to being preternaturally intelligent (discoursing on The Golden Ratio). Other characters are fairly standard apocalyptic fare – including the violent thug taking advantage of the chaos, the friendly family heading in the opposite direction because they have heard it might be safer and the gang of countryside scavengers.

Those who have not dipped too far into the apocalyptic genre (and it is hard to avoid at the moment) should find enough to chew on in This Fragile Earth. But this is far from the best example of a genre that was already well established and seems to have exploded thanks to the very real events of 2020.

This and over 700 more reviews can be found on Pile by The Bed.

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