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Guardians of the Phoenix Paperback – 16 Dec 2010
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The high points for me were the characterisation and the description of the settlements. Both of these subtly showed us how life might be for the survivors decades after the catastrophe that wipes out civilisation as we know it.
A few months ago I read and enjoyed Stephen Baxter's Flood, which tells a story with superficial similarities to Eric's Guardians. They are very different novels, though. Stephen Baxter shows us the catastrophe (flooding) taking place blow-by-blow over a global and multi-decade scale. In places Stephen Baxter's story reminded me a little of his much earlier Ring, because the characters occasionally act in ways contrived to give the reader a viewpoint to observe interesting aspects of the catastrophe (Baxter's forgiven because the events in these novels are so compelling). In Guardians Eric Brown takes a different approach by having his characters act true to (a very different) life, and leave us to draw conclusions from the way they behave.
Whereas Flood starts with today's world and show it shrinking inexorably to a zero point, Guardians shows us a world already shrunk. The scale of human society and the range of options available to the survivors feels tiny to us. There is a feeling of claustrophobia, almost of incarceration within a doomed future. The characters reflect this too. Most were born after the catastrophe. The human population is perhaps a millionth of the present day. That ferocious winnowing of the population would leave survivors that I would not like to meet on a dark night. If anything, I suspect Eric Brown has made his characters more moderate than they would be in a real example of near-extinction evolution, and that is probably necessary to make it easier for us to identify with them.
The year 2011: economic collapse
The year 2060: environmental and social collapse
The year 2120: cannibalism
Young Paul of Paris (one of only two inhabitants to remain from the failed colony) survives on lizard stew and water from an old pump station. When he spies a young woman running through the streets, he is instantly weary of the bandits who follow. Tracking their location, Paul later sees the girl missing and a torso being roasted upon the fire, bellies being stuffed. Paul's suspicions were correct; these are heartless cannibals. When the posse discuss a secret underground cache of goods in Paris, Paul attempts to snatch the plans but is captured. Another colony from Copenhagen descend upon Paris to find and bring justice to the kidnapper Hans, one of the posse. They save Paul from certain death... and there begins our story.
The explorers from Copenhagen are on a trek to the northern Spanish coast to drill for water in the dried-up ocean bed. At the same time, Hans meets up with his former colony in Aubenas, France. With detailed plans of a old space port with bountiful provision in hand, the colony creates a team officially head by the powerful female Samara, but unofficially, Hans plays a strong hand in the dealing with the other males in the group.
The descriptions of the deserted European landmass doesn't tire nor do the descriptions of what life before the collapse was like. The passages are full of post-apocalyptic discovery, old-world rediscovery and, as with other Eric Brown novels, human discovery: the heartless matriarch witness an even more heartless man, changing her outlook... the loss of patriarch family spurns his trust in others and spurs his taste for revenge. Death certainly plays a prominent role in the characterization of the small cast, who are all but a portion of the estimated thousands of humans remaining alive on the face of the planet earth.
Beyond the bleak landscape and dour mood of the withering cast, Eric Brown doesn't disappoint with elegant passages and a vocabulary to keep you smiling: sybaritic and scintilla are two words you don't come across very often in fiction. Granted, some of the dialogue is a bit far-fetched and the scenario for the ending is a long-shot but if you massage the history of the years between 2060 and 2120 enough, some far-fetched things could certainly spring up. It may also be a bit too lusty as times, but it fits in the frame of characterization and plays an important role in the plot twists.
If reflective reading and human challenges are your forte in science fiction, rather than the blunt force trauma of hard science fiction, then Eric Brown is definitely your author to read. But... humanistic science fiction isn't for some.