Review of “A Time of Quarantine” by Katharine Haake, SF Site, 2013

When I was 13 I saved the £1 and 50p coins I got for working in the family shop and bought, in the  now closed Waterstone’s on Dawson Street, Terry Pratchett’s “Guards! Guards!” and Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana.”

I devoured Graham Greene, and was both unimpressed and unamused by the Pratchett. Nevertheless Pratchett’s skit of fantasy managed to rid me of any interest in the genre, and “speculative fiction” more generally, until later in my teens I read J G Ballard. I never rediscovered a love of fantasy, notwithstanding my enjoyment of this anthology . The SF I liked would not be the multi-volume, world-building type, but the lean narrative in a tweaked version of our reality, a thought experiment brought to its natural conclusion.

Genres are somewhat absurd (only somewhat) and much speculative fiction is of high literary quality. The more “literary” it is,  however, the more difficult it can be not only to suspend disbelief but to care about the whole enterprise. That is what this review was really trying to say, but never had the courage:

 

The Time of Quarantine
Katharine Haake
What Books Press, 294 pages

 

The post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel has become one the most respectable speculative tropes for mainstream literary types to dabble in, without risking the snobbish ire that can be turned by critics on anything that even hints of sci-fi. One thinks of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (and the dystopian vein, her The Handmaid’s Tale), and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We also had the literary novelist Justin Cronin going full bore into the vampire apocalypse genre with The Passage.

There are various reasons for this. The apocalyptic strain in Western thought is strong, and one that persists even if the explicitly religious element declines (some might say it gets even stronger). Post-apocalyptic fictions clearly tend to involve critiques of contemporary society, and don’t exactly mark an endorsement of the sunny uplift of scientific progress. The post-apocalyptic also involves a stripping down of society to a kind of elemental state, and one in which the messiness of everyday modern life is reduced to a certain essence.

All of this is grist to the mill of the modern literary imagination. Plus the daily news — climate change, Manichean debates between self-professedly polar political opposites that increasingly take on the tenor and rhetoric of wars of religion — is itself the stuff of apocalypse.

The opening chapters which form a prologue, are hauntingly written. We are introduced to Peter, the seemingly solitary boy, the lone resident of an Intentional Community in Northern California, maintaining the machines that keep the near-deserted community going and keeps him alive just as his father directed him. Some kind of environmental catastrophe denuded the colony of humans.

There is some wonderful nature writing as well as the more purely dystopian elements. Indeed, Katharine Haake often capture the dislocation any of us can have if we spend time — even a short time — alone away from urbanity — even a very tame wilderness.

Themes of growth, rebirth, renewal, and stuntedness, silence and betrayal echo and re-echo through the book. Sometimes the more “literary” apocalyptic fiction tends towards a certain level of abstraction and telling-rather-than-showing, which I found in this case particularly marked in the sections immediately following the prologue. I wonder if some readers may find some passages surfeited with longeurs. However Haake has created a story which is worthy of being called a genuine piece of literary art. A hoary old cliché about speculative fiction is that it reflects the contemporary anxieties and hopes of its time to a greater degree than it tells us about the future. In this case, the cliché is quite true.

 

 

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