Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
Reading this book about an infection changing us in the middle of a ‘lockdown’ in which an infection is changing us turned out to be a strangely calming experience. The topic of invasive biological agents is a not a new one, but even so it has reached an intensity in recent years in works as varied as Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy and, most recently, Paul McAuley’s War of the Maps. Following these exotic species of fantastika, The Breach’s cold, sharp bite of Northern realism is a welcome anaesthetic that numbs the pain once the shock has worn off. Whether the invasive force are fairies, insect lifeforms, parasites or a type of virus is never made clear and doesn’t really matter to Shep, the trainee steeplejack, who only comes alive when climbing or urban exploring. As he says, with shrugging acceptance, ‘I think they turned up here, and now they just are.’
‘Here’, at least in the opening two thirds of the novel, is the North sometime in an all-too-foreseeable post-Brexit future when even the promise of ‘ENGLAND’S YEAR OF REGROWTH’ is only a faded slogan on one of Freya Medlock’s retired father’s old corporate planners. Freya is living in the box room of her over-fussy parents’ bungalow following the breakup of her relationship and barely going through the motions of her job as a reporter on a dying local paper. An assignment to cover the death of a local climber leads her to the night-time world of ‘urbex’ and Shep. Shep is basically a dangerous chancer and something of a cowboy but he has a redeeming innocence. His only mode of expressing agency is through the equivalent of enacting slapstick pratfalls, rather like Buster Keaton performing his own stunts. The first three meetings between Freya and Shep are by turns charming, funny, and like something from a found-footage horror film. Rationally there is no reason why Freya should feel responsibility for Shep after this but emotionally it makes perfect sense.
In the England Hill depicts, everyday life is attenuated to the extent that all meaning seems to have been leached out of the blighted, post-industrial landscape. This present haunted by the ghosts of a future that never came is not so much tragic as farcical. A trip to the (gene) splicer’s market is neither the utopian or dystopian marker it might once have been but simply an excuse for a coffee in the garden centre on a Sunday morning. Yet while Freya has the skills to head to the place in England which has drained all the rest, London, she never really contemplates this possibility. She is still looking for something else even though there is nothing indigenous left.
The existence within this world of the attempt of an English corporation to build a version of the space elevator from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise is not just incongruous but in itself a form of extraterrestrial intervention. On the one hand, this is a parody of past dreams of the future in which the once industrious engineers who peopled the golden age are replaced by no-nonsense Northern steeplejacks and riggers like Shep. On the other hand, Clarke would probably enjoy the black humour of Hill’s novel, with its twisted take on Childhood’s End. Indeed, in some ways The Breach is the most optimistic novel I’ve read for some time. Let’s face it, the best hope for a future in most parts of England is probably alien invasion. As the cryptic text Freya reads on an urbex forum thread proclaims, ‘The path for its replicants is decided, for the extremities of worlds are essential’. Even as experience recedes further into memory, The Breach imparts a visceral sensation and promises an awakening. And while this might be like Shep’s at the beginning of the novel, in the back of his van, face pressed numb into the cabin bulkhead and with a tin of cheap lager spilled inside his sleeping bag, it’s still a new day with the promise of something actually happening.
Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.