Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Directive 51 - Post-Apocalypse, Barnes style

Directive 51
John Barnes
May 2011, Ace paperback

Reviewed by Ann Wilkes

John Barnes paints a unique picture of a post-apocalyptic Earth, focusing on the United States, or what's left of it. He poses some interesting questions about what might happen to the chain of succession. Not something we really think about except if the President is assassinated. But what if we lose everyone that's in line for the job?

The main character is Heather O'Grainne, a former FBI agent in charge of the Department of the Future's office of Future Threat Assessment. The DOF is suddenly the most important department in the government as Daybreak unfolds. Daybreak is either a systematic campaign launched by an as-yet-unidentified enemy who is able to coordinate simultaneous, global attacks or a system artifact - an idea that propagates, mutates, adapts and effectively recruits people across the globe to do it's bidding. The obliteration of the centers of defense and commerce cripples civilization in a way that leaves little hope for rebuilding.

Daybreak is about sending the planet back to the dark ages – maybe further. Maybe before it was inhabited by two-legged, thinking beasts. How can you fight an enemy who isn't there? This isn't a light-hearted read to be sure. The scale of devastation is hard to take, but compelling in its originality. Daybreak hits the Earth with bombs the likes of which few have imagined, EMPs (electromagnetic pulses), nanoswarm – nanotechnology that attacks electronics - and biotes that turn plastics and rubber into odiferous, brown goo.

In order to orchestrate the huge cast of players and events that span the globe, Barnes uses a devise that seems helpful at first, but soon becomes tedious. Sections of less than a page to two pages are headed with the location, sometimes what it was before Daybreak and the time, often resorting to "about the same time". I found it distracting and choppy.

Barnes' characters and scenes leap from the page. He throws in some very witty inner dialog that not only make the characters come to life, but make them fun to read. A welcome relief amidst all the doom and gloom of the subject matter.

Heather felt the implicit criticism--as Cam had doubtless known she would--in the pit of her stomach. She could feel herself being fitted with the tag that read FAMOUS UNKNOWN IDIOT, the tag that adhered to the officer at Pearl Harbor who saw planes on the new experimental radar and thought they must be a much smaller flight of American planes he was expecting, the intelligence officers who ignored aerial photos of all that Russian construction gear moving into Berlin in 1961, and the FBI administrator who didn't see anything urgent in so many Saudi men with al-Qaeda links taking flying lessons; she could imagine headlines on a billion screens: DOF COP COULD HAVE PREVENTED DISASTER. ...

Heather sketched it out in a few brief sentences--a leaderless, directionless-on-purpose anti-movement, built around the idea that with enough small, self-replicating bio- and nano- sabotage carried out simultaneously, the Big System--the modern world, really--could be taken down so that it never rose again. She took full blame for not alerting people earlier. "Just this morning, Graham Weisbrod himself had to corner me and tell me that we needed to talk to the rest of DoF, and while we were doing that my chief researcher on the project discovered that Daybreak had started."

Heather hooks up with her colleague who's confined to a wheel chair and has a number of high-tech gadgets throughout his body to keep him functioning. This was the hardest thing for me to buy. Not because she's attracted to someone in a wheelchair, but because it's not really clear that they have a connection until she's suddenly ready to attack him. He establishes that they've dated a few times, but nothing about her feelings for him. Barnes wrote her like a guy (in my opinion). Maybe it's that Barnes doesn't clue me into Lenny's charm enough. I need to see what she sees in him to believe she will be so in love with him the next minute.

I enjoyed Barnes' portrayals of three, very interesting leaders: one who is a slave to his ideals; one who quite literally snaps under pressure; and one who seizes his opportunity to lead for the sake of the position, completely ignoring the reality around him and concerning himself only with his new role and the next election in order to keep it. You'll recognize who these characters are when you read the book, which I hope you will. I don't want to spoil it for you. The last third of the book didn't have the zing it should have, but that was my fault for reading them out of order. I received Daybreak Zero, it's hardback sequel, for review and couldn't put it down while waiting for the paperback its predecessor.

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