"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Silence by Tim Lebbon (2015, Titan Books)

The quiet earth

The Silence (2015) is a brief, enjoyable doomsday horror adventure.

This type of novel usually breaks down in three parts. My favorite is invariably the first section: characters introduced, points of view established, small peripheral intimations of trouble and rumors of trouble. Crises quickly develop, emergency services and experts are overwhelmed, and our protagonists must work together to find safety, all the while being picked-off as remorselessly as Agatha Christie dinner guests.

Lebbon alternates point-of-view between a father and his deaf teen daughter. The daughter Ally's sections are first person; those focusing on Huw, the dad, are written in third-person.

Additionally, Lebbon heads each chapter with select transcripts from Twitter or newscasts to provide a third viewpoint.

Lebbon begins chapter six:

     There is evidence that the spread of the creatures popularly known as "vesps" is slowing. Contact has been made with all affected governments, and policies put in place. Great Britain is as prepared as it can be, and we have one distinct advantage over our European neighbours—we are an island. There is no evidence of the infestation crossing large bodies of water. Our message to you at this time is as follows:

     1. Do not leave home. Mass migration is not the answer, and may impede the ability of military or emergency personnel to travel where required.

     2. Continue monitoring the BBC News channels—television, online, and radio—through which all government statements will be released.

     3. Do not panic. All necessary measures are being taken to combat the threat.

     BBC News Emergency Broadcast, Friday, 18 November 2016 (repeated hourly)

     What a heap of fucking shit.

     BBC Newscaster, Friday, 18 November 2016 (her final broadcast)

Lebbon  contextualizes the crisis without omniscient authorial intrusion. Every generalization, false step, and estimate of a situation flows from character.

One of the most compelling early scenes takes place on the last day of school:

     My first lesson was geography. I always enjoyed the lesson, and liked even more that I got to sit next to Rob. But as soon as I saw him I knew that something was wrong.

     "What is it?" I signed. Sometimes I liked the fact that Rob and I could have secret conversations in the midst of a crowd.

     "That news," he replied. "The cave. Those weird things that came out of it. They've spread. It's all over the TV. And my cousin is in the army, based in Malta. He sent a text to his mum, she sent it to Dad, and he just forwarded it to me." He took out his phone and held it out to me. We weren't supposed to bring phones into the classrooms, but everyone did.

     I read the text on the screen:

     Been mobilised. Thing in Moldova bigger than they're saying.

     "Bloody hell," I said.

     Rob nodded. He was not his usual casual self. The frown did not suit him.

     "Sir?" I asked, hand raised.

     Mr Bellamy pointed to me and nodded. He was one of those who found it awkward, even uncomfortable, communicating with me. He was also a mumbler. I could barely see his lips moving, let alone read them, and he could not sign.

     "Can we talk about that thing in Moldova today?"

     Mr Bellamy smiled and spread his arms wide, said something, and most of the class turned to look at me. I glanced sidelong at Rob.

     "He said that's exactly what he was going to do anyway."

     I smiled at the teacher. He clapped his hands once and the class faced front again. He spoke to some of them, blinds were drawn, and one of the girls went to sit at the front of the class to work the computer. Mr Bellamy fussed with the remote control for the ceiling projector, then a square of flickering light appeared on the whiteboard.

     I prepared myself for another incomplete lesson. The teachers were great, and if they knew I wouldn't be able to follow a lesson completely—if, for instance, they were talking about a lot of stuff instead of displaying it all on whiteboards—they'd have a printout ready at the end of the period. I'd come to terms with the fact that my schooling took up about twenty per cent more time than my fellow pupils', because I spent an hour or two after coming home every evening reading printouts. If there was anything I didn't understand, the teachers were usually available during free lessons to help. Some were better than others, and Mr Bellamy was one of the few who found dealing with me problematic.

     The first image appeared on the whiteboard. It showed a cutaway section through a cave system, and I wondered if I was the first to notice what made it unique—there seemed to be no entrance.

     I could see Mr Bellamy starting to talk, and Rob tapped my arm. He started signing for me.

     "Let's start with a different cave to the one we saw on the news yesterday. Movile Cave in Romania was discovered by construction workers in 1986. They were drilling to assess whether the remote area was suitable for a new power station, broke through into an underground passage, and immediately sealed it up again. What scientists discovered when they ventured down was a cave system that had been cut off from the outside world for millions of years. What surprised them more was the unique ecosystem that existed down there. Apparently, it's an arachnophobe's worst nightmare." The class laughed. I focused on Rob's hands, his mouth, his facial expressions. I liked it when he signed for me; he became mine.

     "There are no stalactites in the cave, so no evidence of water ingress. The atmosphere is only ten per cent oxygen. And there's no evidence of radioactive isotopes from the Chernobyl disaster. That convinced scientists that what they'd found was a genuinely isolated ecosystem, completely enclosed from the outside world. Some of what they found down there… remarkable." Rob nodded forward and I looked.

     The projections changed every few seconds. Images of strange spiders, scorpion-like creatures, snails, spring-tailed insects, millipedes and worms, all of them ghostly white and eyeless. Some of them seemed almost transparent, their insides visible.

     Rob touched my hand as Mr Bellamy continued.

     "Only a handful of scientists have been down into the cave. It's such a difficult environment to work in, with oxygen levels so low your kidneys will fail within a couple of hours, and the heat is almost unbearable. Quite an amazing place."

     A cross-section of the cave appeared on the screen and he used a light pen to point at particular features.

     "It's estimated that the caverns had been cut off from the outside world for over five million years. In that time the species within have evolved and become quite unique. It's a perfect example of Darwinian evolution, actually. There were plants and creatures that were found nowhere else on the planet. Many were familiar, but some necessitated whole new classifications."

     The picture showed a milky-white spider, bloated and moist, mandibles dark-tipped and seemingly ready to snap from the screen.

     "Eww," I said, and I saw other pupils laughing in equal disgust.

     Mr Bellamy fell silent as the slideshow of images continued, one picture fading out as the next faded in.

     A fern-like plant, the edges of its pale leaves glimmering with moisture or mineral deposits. A small beetle, its shell a soft-looking pale yellow. Several types of fungi.

     "It's just one of several such sites around the world," Mr Bellamy said. "That we've discovered, at least. And the system in Moldova is the latest." He fell silent again as the screen turned to white. He seemed to be staring at the wall, lost for words. The pupils glanced around at each other, a few of them smiling, most a little worried.

     "Sir?" I saw one of them say.

     Mr Bellamy used the remote to turn off the projector. He turned to face us, and I'd never seen him looking so old. His face was grey, eyes dark. It was as if he'd returned from seeing something terrible without ever having left the classroom.

     "I've always worried about things like this," he said. "When I was your age it was the idea of space exploration that troubled me. But as I learned more, it became obvious that there were countless places still on Earth that were yet to be discovered. Ecosystems are just that—systems. Whole, complete, sometimes in turmoil, yet usually, eventually, balanced. Introduce one unique ecosystem to another and the result is unknown. And as the world becomes smaller with advances in communication and travel, so remote dangers come closer."

     One of the kids put their hand up and spoke, and Rob signed for me.

     "Like with Aids?"

     Mr Bellamy nodded. "Just like with Aids. Some of what are known as the hot viruses, too. Ebola, Marburg. Roads were built deep into the wilds of Africa; lifelines for many, but routes along which diseases and contagion could travel much, much faster than nature itself could spread them. Isolated valleys were explored and plundered." He stopped again, trying to smile to see away his seriousness. But the smile only made it worse. "I always worried," he said again.

     "So what do you think has happened?" I asked.

     Mr Bellamy looked at me, and this time he spoke clearly, for me, so that I saw the answer on his own lips. "We'll find out soon."

Lebbon clearly enjoys exploring ways each member of Huw and Ally's family rise to meet their portion of global carnage. Ally at first seems the most vulnerable because she is deaf. Huw is initially relieved to let his more masterful and accomplished friend Glenn take the lead. BothHuw and spouse Kelly have at the outset been accommodating themselves to the stupefying routines of adulthood and parenthood. Jude, Ally's obnoxious younger brother, is caught in preteen contrariness. Lynne, Kelly's mother, has lived life independently and on her own uncompromising terms.

One of Lebbon's many strengths as a writer is his ability in a novel of modest length to track how each family member learns better. Those who survive must grow.  And grow-up quickly.

The Silence lets its flying monsters loose early, and readers will enjoy that chaotic creature-feature spectacle. The humans-are-the-real-monsters petty bourgeois moralizing is left to three late chapters, and efficiently compartmentalized.

The unstable and tentative new equilibrium protagonists find in the last pages of this type of doomsday fiction allows Lebbon's survivors some very circumspect optimism.

Still, finishing The Silence, I could not help recalling the last lines of Pat Frank's 1959 nuclear doomsday novel Alas, Babylon, where the human remnant turns "to face the thousand-year night."


16 October 2021

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