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It would be well worth beginning with Sharp North (now in paperback) before reading this, the sequel, for we are in bleak but exciting territory. I haven’t read any fiction which looks so steadily at those stark matters which leave most of us with a sense of gloomy impotence. An author’s note reminds us that in as little as 15 years our islands could be extensively flooded, our temperature often below freezing, our population decimated by pandemics. Cave offers a grim picture of how things might be, setting his interweaving plots first in 2023 and then among much later generations shaped by the policies we see introduced at that date.
The Europes of these two periods are savage places, manipulated by authorities relying upon raw force and genetic engineering to create super-survivors. The people of the later era are partly distracted and controlled through an extension of reality television – gladiatorial competitions to the death justified by the principle of survival of the fittest. As the weakest go to the wall, the viewers exult in their slaughter. Against this, Cave’s heroes and heroines – often flawed ‘spares’ in the cloning strategy – can muster the passion and unpredictability of ‘the human heart, where we are all joined and equal’, as Cave writes in his final Note. As well as its brave complexities, this novel also offers both subtlety and power in a narrative where violence, corruption and compassion meet.
What will readers in their early ’teens make of all this, for they will not even be 30 by 2023? This is tough reading, chiefly because more than most dystopias, the novel elicits our reflection. Such optimism as there is promotes little confidence; the book ends with a liberated populace singing in the streets. But, as we have learned in our own times, the lasting question is, ‘And then?’