Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
You wait years for a horribly plausible novel about imminent civilisational collapse, and then two come along at once. In terms of topicality, M T Hill’s Zero Bomb can – and should – be read as a companion piece alongside Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail, dealing as it does with an end-of-the-world inflicted by misguided infrastructural terrorism. But these are wildly different books in almost every other way: Zero Bomb is more focussed on the sociological dimension, more concerned with character and the role of alienation and bad-news anomie in producing would-be world-enders; it’s also structurally stranger, comprising three distinct elements which might easily have been bulked out into separate novels in their own right. (Indeed, one section *is* a novel in its own right, albeit one reduced to a synoptic summary of itself by the secret resistance network for whom it is both gospel and recruitment tool.) But don’t expect a fat tome; Zero Bomb is surprisingly short, refreshingly so in an age of wrist-snapping epics – the sort of length that you could realistically scarf down in an afternoon.
First we follow the fall from grace (and sanity) of Remi, a naturalised European immigrant in the north of a bleak and brutal post-Brexit Britain, as he quite literally runs away from his life and seeks out a new career in a new town, riding courier bikes and delivering clandestine dead-tree manuscripts across a near-future London that reads like Jeff Noon remixing Jeff Bezos, a glitchy bit-rotted prospectus for the “smart city” that we’re constantly told is coming to solve all our problems. Remi’s recruitment into what he sees as a resistance movement is achieved in a manner which leaves the reader sympathetic to both him and it, before the novel hinges on the heavily excerpted (and convincingly anachronistic) novel of robot uprising already mentioned.
The second half of the book switches characters and locations to follow the life of Remi’s estranged daughter, whiling away her late teens on an allotment of refuseniks, harvesting biotechnological replacement limbs for an all-but-vestigial National Health Service. Here, in a small northern town far from the political or technological centre of anything, as sympathies become harder to sustain, the threads draw themselves into a terrifying tangle as the book (and its world) take a definite turn for the terminal… or maybe not? As in Infinite Detail, there’s some shafts of hope at the close of Zero Bomb, but they pierce a dark and gloomy future that could realistically result from our increasing over-reliance upon the technologies of automation and algorithmic analysis, and from the solipsistic alienation that is their seemingly inevitable consequence.
Hill’s obvious authorial affinity for the hinterlands combines with his concerns for the intimate human cost of surveillance capitalism (and the ease with which it enables the scared and the angry to manipulate others, as well as themselves) to mark out Zero Bomb as something quite special and (dare I say it?) distinctly British, as well as more knowingly of-its-time than science fiction usually dares to be. The end of the world is always a local and personal experience, taking different forms depending on who it’s happening to, and the technological apocalypse of Zero Bomb feels significantly secondary to the very personal tragedies of its three focal figures, even as it offers a caution to a nation on the brink of a socio-political breach of unprecedented scale and depth: decisions made now in haste and frustration may never be undone, and indeed might be the undoing of everything they were meant to protect.
It’s not a happy book – though perhaps the epilogue will sweeten the last few sips? – but it’s a thrilling, twisted trip across this septic isle, and an exemplar of a sort of science fiction which, at times, has seemed all but extinct. Do yourself a favour and get a copy right away, while there’s still light by which to read it.
Copyright Paul Graham Raven. All rights reserved