RogerBW's Blog

Way Down Dark, J. P. Smythe 30 June 2018

2011 young adult science fiction, first of the Australia Trilogy. Chan lives on the generation ship Australia, built in haste after Earth collapsed; they didn't find a new planet, so they've kept going. But its society is breaking down. Spoilers.

Stories about generation ships – as distinct from stories that start with the generation ship arriving somewhere – are always about how the ship or the society go wrong, and this is no exception. There are normal people and there are the gangs – the Pale Women, the Bells, the Lows – and the Lows in particular seem to be taking over. From the inside, the ship looks a lot like a decaying tower block, with no police or anything like a civil administration. And the normal people are helpless to do anything about it; there's a pervasive meme of not getting involved, even when your neighbours are being raped and murdered.

The real problem with the book, as well as the society, is that there's no life of the mind. Most people don't read; everything is endlessly recycled; there are stories passed down orally, but that's it. So Chan, the first-person viewpoint character, has no basis for comparison: there's a vague sense that things used to be better, but this is the only life she's known, so the reader has to do all the work of drawing parallels. None of these people knows or thinks about anything interesting; Chan feels a sense of duty to the other normal people, for reasons that never become apparent, but that's about it. She also has a compulsion against killing, and leaves her major enemy alive several times, which only leads to more trouble as she futilely tries to resist the advance of the gangs.

But I've read Hugh Howey's Wool, and that's way more depressing than this. And it has better-developed characters too.

As for the science fiction angle, it does eventually become apparent that Earth wasn't destroyed at all, and that this is simply a prison ship. But there's a huge logic gap here: if the idea was to make a prison that people wouldn't try to break out of, why not simply build it on Earth and pretend it's in space? Given that there's a constant one-gravity acceleration towards the bottom of the ship, and no access to the outside, I can't conceive of any real or imaginary technology that would make it cheaper to build an actual ship in orbit than to put the same structure on or in the ground. That idea's been done in other stories, of course (Jerry Oltion's Frame of Reference comes to mind), but it would just make much more sense here than, as it turns out, putting the thing in Earth orbit and fitting it with what I guess is meant to be artificial gravity.

This is a YA dystopia, so much in the manner of The Maze Runner, after lots and lots of fighting and death our heroine breaks out (and returns to Earth) into what is clearly going to be an even bigger dystopia. To Be Continued. This is nothing like a complete story.

Followed by Long Dark Dusk, but I have no plans to read it.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:06pm on 30 June 2018

    I have no desire to read this book (thank you) but...

    Wait? What?

    They build a prison generation ship? They build a prison for the descendants of the people they want to be rid of? That's... Not only unjust but bonkers!

    Were they convinced that these people were genetically predisposed to being Not Good People? Or was it their Evil Corrupt Culture that was bad? And despite feeling that they were too squeamish to commit genocide?

    The backstory she make no sense!

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:06pm on 30 June 2018

    I assume that these questions will be answered in the next thrilling installment. Or maybe volume three.

    I don't suppose I shall ever find out.

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