March 05, 2020
(+++) NOT QUITE A GRAND FINALE
The Last Day. By Andrew Hunter Murray. Dutton. $27.
Dystopias are a dime a dozen these days, and “ribbon world” novels, while not quite that common, are scarcely altogether new: Isaac Asimov coined the phrase nearly 70 years ago to describe a non-rotating planet “where the two halves face the monotonous extremes of heat and cold, while the region of possible life is the girdling ribbon of the twilight zone.” Until the mid-1960s, our own solar system’s Mercury was believed to be a ribbon world – a clever Larry Niven story called The Coldest Place leads readers to believe the title refers to Pluto until, at the end, it is revealed that the reference is to the “dark side” of Mercury (although it is now known that Mercury does rotate). But what if Earth became a ribbon world? How could that happen, and why, and what would the consequences be? Well, Andrew Hunter Murray’s debut novel, The Last Day, is light on the how and why, but this cinematically paced adventure thriller is all about the consequences – to humanity in general and, specifically, to protagonist Ellen Hopper and the people in her, so to speak, orbit.
Murray is not particularly interested in the scientific consequences of the so-called Stop, which is just as well: in fact, it is likely that extremes of climate would be mitigated by thermal recirculation as wind and water carried warmed and chilled air and water across the boundaries between the sun-facing and opposite sides of the planet. That would not suit Murray’s “ultimate disaster” approach, though, so what he gives readers is a world with tremendously reduced population, vastly lowered fertility (affecting humans as well as nonhuman fauna and flora), and the inevitable vicious dictatorship determined to protect its realm (which happens to be Great Britain, more or less) by keeping out whatever remaining masses of unfortunate humans may try to escape sure death by boiling or freezing (a clear sociopolitical stab at anti-immigrant forces on our non-ribboned Earth).
Really, the setup is nothing special: Hopper is a scientist with a heart, who has been driven by personal life experiences to work in lonely circumstances on an offshore rig that searches for long-sunk ships and their long-dead passengers for reasons that are not altogether clear. She suddenly gets a mysterious visit from two sinister government types. That happens after she receives and then destroys a letter from her former tutor, a onetime political bigwig who fell afoul of the aforementioned dictatorship after helping it gain traction and now, nearing his life’s end, is determined to re-connect with his recalcitrant student for unspecified reasons and reveal to her, and only to her, some sort of momentous and possibly world-changing secret – even though the two of them scarcely parted amicably. The sinister types, also after whatever the secret is, get Hopper to her dying tutor’s bedside just barely in time for him to die without revealing whatever-it-is to her – but just in time for him to whisper, croakily, what may be a clue.
Described this way, the plot is simply silly, not to mention a repeat of endless thriller/mystery plots by an unending succession of writers. And this is scarcely the only formulaic element: there is the usual government infestation of (what remains of) the news media, and there is a nefarious attempt to obtain nuclear weapons because the world isn’t wrecked enough yet to satisfy the power-mad ultra-villains who always show up in tales like this one. But Murray, despite all the clichés with which he liberally sprinkles The Last Day, keeps matters interesting in several ways. For one thing, he has a talent for descriptive passages when he pauses long enough in the action to employ it. Thus, when Hopper re-experiences London after being brought there from the offshore rig, Murray writes, “London smelled of tar. She had forgotten that. The same pollution, she guessed, the same industrial works belching out poison as when she had left. The air was thick with it: a warm oiliness pervading the air, almost visible, a thick yellow blanket lying on the city. It made its way everywhere: into the pores, into the deepest recesses of the lungs, between clothing and skin, creeping thick and hot, industrial and intimate.” But there are not enough of these well-crafted passages to make up for quite a few instances of inelegance and plot holes. Why, for example, do so many people smoke cigarettes, and why, with such enormously constrained resources, does tobacco farming seem to get such a high priority, making cigarettes both ubiquitous and inexpensive? After all, this is a world of “shortage, shortage, shortage; shortages of food, of water, of fuel, of sleep, of levity, of decency.” But not of tobacco.
A bigger question, though, and one far more central to the issue of whether readers will enjoy Murray’s novel, is why anyone should really care about Hopper as a protagonist – that is, what makes her special. Yes, she has the usual bruised background: part of the plot involves the possible rekindling of romance between her and her ex-husband; another part has her still trying to cope with her mother’s long-ago death. And yes, she has basically good instincts that stand in stark contrast to the basically evil ones of the one-dimensional villains on whom she gets the goods, or some of the goods. But she is not an especially fully formed character herself – she is simply the necessary linchpin of a story that, typically for the dystopian genre, paints the horrors of an imagined near-future with broad strokes and then brings them into sharp focus by showing their effect on one particular individual who, really, just wants to find a way to cope with life and keep getting by. Hopper is admirable in all the right ways: she is challenged to do the right thing in circumstances that test her feelings and beliefs but that readers will know will not stop her from ultimately doing what needs to be done. Supposedly very smart, she is flat-out stupid in all the usual ways of an in-over-her-head protagonist, behaving with incredible idiocy by blithely endangering numerous other people (who, as a result, have a habit of turning up dead) as she determinedly operates entirely within her voluminous lack of knowledge even when help is available. “I know you don’t give a toss about any of us,” her brother says after she appears thoroughly to have frightened him and undermined his hospitality through her selfish thoughtlessness; and whatever his true motivations may be, this particular statement is exactly correct. And her ex tells her at one point, “People are dying, and you’re running around in the middle of it without a clue. …This whole sick island is a madhouse, and everyone I know is fighting two wars, because nobody knows who’s on whose side anymore, and here you come, just wandering into the middle of it explaining how perfectly simple it all is.” Well, yes – that too is exactly correct. But this is an area where Murray’s inexperience as a novelist shows, because, having raised what could be a central issue that would produce much more insight into Hopper’s personality and motivations, he promptly abandons the whole matter as being out of keeping with the novel’s focus, and the improbable but so-important quest continues apace.
If Hopper were more thoroughly fleshed-out as a character, The Last Day would be a more compelling and more thoughtful book than it actually is. Instead, what Murray offers is a well-paced, generally well-written near-future novel with a manifest absurdity at its center – an absurdity intended to show that human venality and heroism alike will both find ways to emerge even in the face of whole-Earth disasters. The book is a quick and satisfying read as a thriller, considerably less satisfying as a work of science fiction, and still less so as an exploration of human frailties and capabilities. It works well for what it is, so long as readers do not hope for it to be anything more.