Long Dark Dusk - James P Smythe
Long Dark Dusk - James P Smythe ***
Australia Book 2 (The Australia Trilogy)
**Long Dark Dusk is the second book of J P Smythe's Australia Trilogy, so although there should be no spoilers about what happens in this book, it would not be possible to review this book without mentioning significant events that took place in the first book of the trilogy, Way Down Dark.**
Towards the end of Way Down Dark, the first part of J P Smythe's Australia Trilogy, there was a major revelation for the inhabitants of 'Australia', an interstellar spaceship several generations into their journey to discover new habitable worlds as Earth struggles with over-population and ecological disaster. Over the years social order on the ship has broken down and the ship is overrun with violent gangs and strange cults in a battle for control that eventually threatens the integrity of the ship itself. Among those struggling to simply survive is Chan, a 17 year old young woman who does her best to help the vulnerable against some of the most violent aggressors, but her efforts seem to be in vain.
The big revelation when it comes is a major shock to the citizens of 'Australia', although it might not come as quite as much of a surprise to readers familiar with this type of SF adventure. 'Australia' is not on it way to interstellar space, but rather is actually - as the name of the ship might indicate and perhaps go some way towards explaining the social unrest - a prison ship packed with the descendants of criminals. Launched into orbit as a way of dealing with that particular problem, the inhabitants of the ship have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves, forgotten as the planet struggles to cope with its own problems. Chan and some of the surviving members of 'Australia' are now back on Earth, a place they have never set foot on before, and things have changed there...
Earth has come through a 'Dark Age' that has wiped out 90% of the population, and Smythe's vision of the post-collapse world is refreshingly different from most other books popularly dealing with this subject. Long Dark Dusk depicts a world where technology and 'augs', augmented enhancements for the body, enable much of the remaining population - housed in cities protected by huge impassable walls - to survive. It's something of a Big Brother state, but again refreshingly, Smythe doesn't attempt to describe the rules and social order from a hierarchical perspective, or get bogged down in whatever conspiracy the ruling order are trying to accomplish, but rather takes the day-by-day view of a young girl new to it all trying to figure out how thing work and survive on a day to day basis.
Essentially the second book of the Australia Trilogy then is Chan's attempts to come to terms with the strangeness of a new way of life on Earth, but primarily the mission that drives the book is her search for a missing child she once saved during the wars on Australia, Mae. Chan has some initial help finding her way through this disorienting experience with one or two contacts, some of whom might not be entirely reliable, but essentially, she's on her own. The kind of challenges she faces on Earth might seem less threatening than the constant battle to simply survive on 'Australia', but the kind of risks that Chan must take to find the information she needs end up being just as dangerous.
Unfortunately, Smythe's continued use of the present tense to describe Chan's moment-by-moment progress doesn't lend the writing the kind of urgency it is presumably meant to create. It is in fact rather plodding and myopic, shutting down any wider perspective in favour of mundane descriptions of getting from here to there, what is seen on the way and how Chan feels at any given moment. This was a major problem with the first book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, where the repetitive descriptions of Chan going from one pitched battle to the next felt like so much padding to compensate for the lack of any real ideas or purpose up until the big 'reveal' at the end.
Long Dark Dusk then feels very much the same. Despite the fate of 'Australia' and the feeling of Chan of being something of an illegal immigrant on Earth, there doesn't appear to be any attempt at allegory by the author or any sign in the second book of there being a deeper purpose or commentary on social or environmental collapse in the trilogy. It's little more than another chase adventure, Chan single-minded ambition and sense of purpose extending no further than finding Mae, running around in circles and making it up as she goes along. That's the whole premise of Long Dark Dusk, and although there are some further revelations and insights into the way this futuristic Earth operates that are interesting and have a distinctive character, there's not much that is new here and little that points to any real progress in the forthcoming third installment, Dark Made Dawn.
Long Dark Dusk: Australia Book 2 (The Australia Trilogy) by James P Smythe is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 7 April 2016