Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
Our world collapsed in chaos and war at the end of the 21st century after a solar flare disrupted information networks. Now, the Commonwealth, devoted to rescuing knowledge from the Gone World, is sending out expeditions and creating an Archive. Fifty years ago, Lilly’s discovery of the “Harrington Box” inspired a renaissance based upon the collection of books and the “Trivial Pursuits” set it contained. Lilly is now Chief Engineer of the Commonwealth, whose headquarters is a sports centre built for the Olympics. One of her projects is rebuilding technologies including a radio, on which voices from elsewhere were heard until it ceased to work. A new fuse has been found by a pair of scavengers and given to Lilly. But a tribe known as the Keepers are threatening the networks of Raiders and Explorers and Runners, and the Commonwealth itself. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Elimisha, an Archive Runner, is pursued into a building which collapses, leaving her injured and unable to escape – but in a room containing an “artificial intelligence entity” which identifies itself as a Librarian . . . and a radio.
When Elimisha’s voice is received by Lilly’s radio, another Runner, Allesandra, is sent to rescue her. Her mission is critical, because it is suspected that Elimisha has found the secret of the Ancients’ success – the Internet.
The joke here – it rapidly becomes clear that Lilly etc. don’t actually know what the Internet is – is certainly one of the reasons to read the book: running through it is a vein of humour which counterpoints the bleak post-apocalypse scenario without undermining a serious core: an examination of the nature and purpose of knowledge. Miller has acknowledged the influence of Walter M. Miller’s (no relation) A Canticle for Leibowitz in Radio Life. In some ways he has written a parallel to – or even a parody of – the earlier classic. (There is even a religious community, in which the telling of another joke, an old and hoary music-hall item, somehow underlines the story’s essence.) Like Leibowitz, which itself reveals a dark, even despairing joke at its core, Radio Life is about regaining knowledge, even at the cost of not fully understanding the extent and implications of that knowledge. Derek Miller distributes the hazy search for uncovering the history of this precarious society among a number of interestingly-imagined characters: Lilly, Allesandra and Elimisha, but also Henry (Henrietta) and Graham, (Allesandra’s parents), and Birch, the “Master of the Order of Silence” (one of the interesting things about the Commonwealth is the complicated web of organisations, networks and rivalries within it).
For a while, this is a standard if well-imagined and told tale of post-Apocalypse recovery. But as the complexities within the Commonwealth and its immediate history become apparent, things get deeper. A confrontation between Graham, captured by the Keepers, and the Keeper leader makes us face the question begged by too many of these fictions: are they right to want to regain the knowledge of the past? During their conversation we learn why the Keepers are called the Keepers, and what they want to keep. This is not necessarily a debate between right and wrong. The Ancients had wonderful technology. (The generic term for material scavenged and brought back is telling: “shinies”). One of the delightful “histories” of the pre-catastrophe decades uncovered by Elimisha and Allesandra is the up-until-then undiscovered treasure trove of recorded music. But the legacy of previous days also includes war, genocide, slavery, racism: “So many categories of people, all attacking other categories”. The Ancients did “awful things to each other”. Should those memories be brought back, risking shame and anger and revenge?
Or could the world be rebuilt, better? Walter M. Miller’s theology seemed to suggest not. His namesake, possibly more secular, seems to prefer otherwise. Radio Life rather slips, at the end, into hand-waving improvement, but the arguments are worth confronting.
Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.