Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Day the World Changes

We are conditioned to think of change as lots of small changes—a continuum—although history tends to be punctuated by large, unforeseen events that are only understood after the fact. Last year's reconquest of Aleppo was one such incident. People are still assuming that Pax Americana is still an item; well, we'll just have to see. The US defense establishment may have just joined higher education, medicine and, of course, finance as just another brazen swindle.

Whenever something big happens, people become confused. Is a power cut just a temporary glitch in the grid, or is it the end of the grid?

Novels can very helpful in helping us think through scenarios, filling the void left by journalism, by journalists who are conditioned to think that there will always be the next news cycle—until there isn't one. Jason Heppenstall's The Seat of Mars, now available from Club Orlov Press, is one such novel. Here's an excerpt.

The crowds became tighter and the sounds of a Samba band swirled around them as they walked along with their plates of food. Shrill whistles pierced the air and the streets reverberated to the sounds of drumming and singing. Huge figures appeared above the heads of the revellers and the crowd began to cheer. The monstrous tentacled face of a movie pirate appeared – twenty feet tall and with a mechanical arm that raised an oversized bottle of rum to its lips over and over. Cat squeezed her way through to the front of the crowd to get a closer look. The effigy was being borne on a bamboo palanquin by a dozen schoolchildren, their teachers all wearing plastic pirate hats. Next came a giant tin man, followed by a Cyclops, followed by a red-skinned devil with smoke pouring out of his nostrils. She laughed. What kind of crazy place has Jack brought me to? she thought.

The sound of the samba band receded and as the parade passed people poured back onto the roads, which had been blocked off from cars. Jack spotted Cat and came over to her. “Let’s go down to the seafront and get a drink,” he said.

They walked down a narrow street past a house that had been turned into an Egyptian folly, through a churchyard and down a hill that led to the sea. Strung out along the promenade was a funfair, the cries and whoops of teenagers rising above the drone of the diesel generators that powered the rides. There was a tent selling beer and Jack went in and ordered drinks. He emerged a couple of minutes later holding two plastic glasses containing frothy Cornish beer. “Been ages since I had a pint of Doom,” he said, handing one of them to Cat, who eyed it suspiciously before taking a small sip. They sat on a low wall together and watched the revellers. Mostly it was families, strolling along with buggies and candyfloss. Gaggles of teenagers charged about, unable to contain their restless energy. And behind this human scene of fun and frivolity lay the sea, blue and implacable, glinting in the sun.

There are a lot of drunks here,” stated Cat matter of factly. Jack looked around. It was true. They stood outside the beer tent, men with sun-reddened noses, softly bulging beer bellies and raucous laughs, gabbled loudly with one another. Close by, a particularly large woman with faded shoulder tattoos was holding court with a group of them, causing them to bend over with laughter at something she said. A muscular man with a shaved head and a dog tied to a piece of string staggered past holding a bottle of vodka, followed by his equally plastered girlfriend who was hurling insults at him. Cat sipped her drink and tried not to stare.

It was early evening when the tide came in and the crowds began to drift away. “I am hungry,” announced Cat, prodding Jack.

Jack knew a place. It was an old beachside tavern, redone as a bistro and with a star chef from London. He knew Cat would approve and he wasn’t wrong. They ate Newlyn crab and fresh mussels for starters, and beer battered pollock with monkfish tail and wild mushrooms for the main. The waiter suggested a wine pairing for the crab, saying the lightness and acidity of a bottle of Domaine Chandon Brut would “elevate the crab’s sweetness and purify your palates.”

I could get used to this,” said Cat, thinking it would please Jack to hear it.

When it came to paying it was already getting late and candles had been lit at each table. The waiter took Jack’s credit card and wrote down the details, getting him to sign a receipt. The manager came out and spoke to the diners one table at a time. When he got to Cat and Jack’s he said “We will take payment when the system comes back online.”

The pair returned to the town centre, walking beside the sea as the light faded. Some beach revellers had set fire to a pile of debris and their techno music pulsed across the bay as sparks rose into the darkening sky. In the centre of the town once more the pair came across a troupe of well-lubricated Morris dancers who were leaping about, bashing their sticks together and waving handkerchiefs. A heavily bearded man with a black top hat squeezed an accordion and a thin woman with grey hair played a tin whistle as the dancers performed their ancient fertility rite. “I’ll just use the bathroom,” said Jack, disappearing into a nearby pub and leaving Cat by herself. She carried on watching the dancers as she waited, getting out her mobile and taking some pictures of them. She was about to tweet it with a suitably sarcastic message when she remembered. “Still no signal,” she said out loud to nobody but herself.

And neither will there be for a very long time,” interjected a man standing next to her. Cat looked up at him. He was a smooth-faced and overweight man in late middle age, and he appeared to be slightly unsteady on his feet.

What do you mean?” said Cat. “When will the signal come back?”

Problems upcountry is what I can tell you,” he replied. “Power’s out all over the place, they say. Motorways at a standstill, shops shut everywhere, no word from anyone as to what’s going on. For all we know it could be a nuclear war’s ’appened and they forgot to tell us.”

Cat stared at him in horror. “How do you know this? My boyfriend says the television and radio is not working.”

The man looked at her for a moment and took a swig of beer. “Driver, I am. Been in haulage since ’84 and never seen anything as bad as this. Got a radio in the rig and I’s been on it ’alf the night speaking with our boys. Pumps stopped working, they say, and one of ’em’s got a load of dairy and he’s stuck on the M5. ’Parently there’s some sort of tyre depot fire near Bristol, he says, black smoke billowing all over the place and nobody to put it out.”

But why?” said Cat. “What’s happening?”

Your guess is as good as mine. Seems there’s some sort of power outage, though nobody’s saying why. Army’s out on the streets of London, trying to stop what ’appened the last time, what with all them riots and all.” The man paused for thought for a second, as if something had just occurred to him. “You wouldn’t be down from London would you?”

At that moment Jack reappeared, another couple of pints in his hand. He smiled at Cat sheepishly. “I couldn’t just walk past the bar, could I?”

Cat ignored him. “Jack, we have to leave this place and get back home. We need to leave right away.”

They never “leave this place,” and they never “get back home.” And that's actually a good thing, because by then their home—London—is no longer a desirable destination. To find out more, please read the novel.


Roberto said...

We expect this very scenario down here in southern Mexico: a sudden info blackout and no news with things beginning to manifest locally as well..... little telltale details as it even jacks up locally for all the 1001 reasons collapse cognizantis know and loath. We'll have to see if the book protagonists finally get news via shortwave!

Aegirsson said...

A little reminiscent of "Ravage" (Ashes, Ashes in English) by French SciFi writer Barjavel (the book dates back from the 40's of the 20th century).


Aegirsson said...

A little reminiscent of "Ravage" (Ashes, Ashes in English) by SciFi French writer René Barjavel (published in 1943 already!). A must read by the way.


Mister Roboto said...

I read this when Jason was posting the rough draft on a side-blog of his. It was a very compelling story, but the last parts of it weren't as tightly written as the initial parts of it. But I guess that's exactly what rough drafts are for, right? :-)

Jason Heppenstall said...

@Mister Roboto - you're totally correct. Towards the end I was suffering from a bit of writing fatigue, but luckily the entire story has been expertly copy-edited, and various sections have been extensively re-written. Some bits have been cut (that didn't work) and other bits have been added in (that do work).

It was quite an experiment writing this book 'live' and I learned a lot about method. In some ways it was a good thing to do and in other ways it was quite constraining. Anyway, I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out and am already plotting the next book in my head.