by Brian Francis Slattery
Tor; 304 p.
At this point, a global ecological collapse is so certain that the best we can hope for is that it looks pretty. Or at least that it gives us a chance to get back to basics and mull over some weighty philosophical matters as the final day approaches. Is that so much to ask?
Meager pleasures like those lie at the core of Brian Francis Slattery’s dense, meditative apocalypse-saga, Lost Everything. It’s being billed as dystopian, but that hefty word should be used with caution: one of the traits of a good dystopia is that it seems relatively hellish but stable. There’s a difference between a dystopia and Armageddon, and an aching dread is what provides Slattery’s novel with its most beautiful traits. What he paints for us is a fallen world, for sure — but it’s one that’s on the verge of being snuffed out entirely.
We pick up in media res, a few decades after humankind’s relationship with Mother Earth quietly passed a tipping point. It’s become a gray world, wet with rain and blood. The typhoons have become endless. Communications lines are short and unreliable. A mysterious and allegedly endless electrical storm (spoken of in whispers as “the Big One”) has blocked off all land west of the Appalachians. Borders are hazy — there are “just the cities and the towns, and the land all around.”
And of course, this being humanity, there’s a war over what little remains. No one quite knows what the fight is about anymore — they only know “[t]he front’s gigantic edge, its claws, rusty and broken, tearing up the hide of the world.” War has become something of a natural disaster, itself.
With a setup like that, you might correctly guess that the exposition features a lot of heavy-handed moralizing. Luckily, relatively little time is spent on the exposition — we mostly get tableaux about how folks are getting by. Slattery has composed a travel narrative, following the paths of a reverend, a con artist, a solider, a disillusioned revolutionary, and other Americana archetypes. They make their ways through the highways and waterways of Pennsylvania, each on little missions: finding lost family members, tracking enemy agents, and so on.
The horrors they see provide the book with its strongest passages. Slattery’s prose is heavy and dense, often making a chapter seem like a walk through molasses. But hey, lots of nightmares feel like that, right? Take, for example, a character’s memory of his hometown’s decline:
The doctors’ offices in town on the other side of the river had been abandoned years before they were born, after the last doctor died of tetanus, his jaw locked, his body arched off the bed in a convulsive rictus. There were no more shots, no more antibiotics, for anyone. After that, children were delivered in their houses by a man whose father had trained him as a veterinarian.
Or this bit of dialogue between a protagonist and a pair of wandering brothers who speak in eerie unison and have seen the Big One:
“What does it look like?” Sunny Jim said. “Tell me.”
“Like the land and sky are going to sleep, and all their dreams are coming out.”
Bloody fights in the belly of a ship, murders committed on highways — scenes like these drip into one’s brain in thick, murky color. So do some of the portions in which characters sort out some metaphysical issues. Of particular power is a meditation on the similarities between pre-disaster environmentalism and Christian faith (“Both had their deniers,” for example, but among the believers, you saw “hope that if we changed our ways we would be saved” tempered by “paralyzing fear that we’d done too much and were already damned”).
But the book is stuck on loop. The mélange of characters keeps us from getting attached to any one of them. We just keep meeting new ones, learning their backstories, hearing how they cope with the war, seeing Slattery use them as vessels for more ecological pessimism, then abruptly shifting to new characters for the same routine. And it’s never funny! Not that a book like this should be a comedy, but the text never pauses in its grim solemnity. There are no tonal shifts. Just a march to the grave. Rinse, wash, repeat.
It’s worth noting that Slattery does a remarkably good job of passing the Bechdel Test. Roughly half the characters in the book are women, all with a wide range of roles, from a guerilla to a ship’s captain. Indeed, we don’t even find out about the captain being female until well after she’s been introduced — and even then, no one makes a big deal of it. But like much else in Lost Everything, that liberal bona fide doesn’t quite make for a crackling yarn.