Afterlight, by Alex Scarrow (Orion, May 2010)
What would Britain be like 10 years after the oil has run out? This stark question is the basis of Afterlight, a crackingly absorbing thriller. The novel is ostensibly a sequel to the author’s Last Light, but you don’t have to have read the earlier book to enjoy this one, even though the same family, the Sutherlands, is at the centre of the story.
Afterlight is set at a time 10 years after the “end of oil”, interspersed with flashback chapters about the days and weeks immediately after this climactic event, told in Last Light, when civilised society as we know it collapsed. The “10 years on” story focuses on a small community who scratch an existence on a defunct gas/oil rig off the Norfolk coast. The surviving members of the Sutherland family have made their way there and live with a few hundred others, mainly woman and a few older men. They manage to be self-sustaining by growing plants, keeping chickens and doing lots of fishing. One of the men has rigged up a generator producing methane from human and chicken excrement, which provides a few hours of power each evening. The group lives simply, everyone making a contribution, sleeping crammed together on the various rig platforms: occasionally, a few of them sail to Bracton, the (fictional) coastal town nearby, for supplies from the abandoned shops and warehouses.
In the “10 years ago” sections, we learn the bare outline of how the Sutherlands ended up on the rig. This part of the novel, however, mainly focuses on one of the government-designated areas for people to collect in the event of a disaster, the ex-Millennium Dome. The Dome is the only one of these areas left, owing to Alan Maxwell, the civil servant in charge, only letting in a fraction of the number of refugees that he was told to in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. He’s used some clever tactics learned during his time as a history teacher to keep control of his mini-society in the ensuing years, but he is acutely aware that the supplies laid in 10 years ago are in danger of running out.
The first third of the book establishes what passes for the norm in this strange new world. The plot is kept taut by a commendable lack of sentimentality – no character is exempt from the authorial sentence of disaster or death. Hence, when a small group decides to leave the rig and cycle to London on the basis of a rumour that a new government has begun to re-establish order, we know that it is highly unlikely everyone will reach this destination. Similarly, we can be pretty confident that the social structure on the rig is unlikely to hold for very long, and it’s obvious even to those who don’t know their Ancient History that the management structure of the Dome’s population is highly unstable.
The author is not simply interested in a Steven King-like schlokfest, thankfully, and nor is he interested in providing the reader with a survivalist’s handbook approach to post-apocalyptic life – though there are brief encounters with groups who have found these “solutions” to the anarchic chaos of the new world. Although characterisation isn’t the author’s strong point, he is very good on human psychology as well as plot pacing, and this is where the book fully comes into its own, as the tension increasingly builds up to breaking-point – while at the same time presenting and exploring outcomes of alternative societal values – young vs old, male vs female, passive vs active, religious vs athiest, etc.
Afterlight is a real page-turner, which just gets better and better. It’s written in an easy, accessible style and has some attractive protagonists who you’ll be rooting for while at the same time knowing that they aren’t all (or even any of them) going to make it. It’s this ability to create a nervy, paranoid atmosphere, together with a relentless pace, and a focus on individuals’ thoughts and actions rather than on spectacle, that makes this novel just a great way to spend the two or three hours it will take to read it. It’s a far superior book to Last Light, not least because the author has jettisoned the James Bond elements that for me were a weak spot in the earlier novel, and has focused on the drama of people and of society.
In a post-script, the author writes: “This was a chance to see what a world without oil looked like…I’ve imagined it as being a relentlessly hard life of grim endurance, where every day is a constant reminder of all the little luxuries we once had, and lost…So this book has ended up being less about railing against our evil, greedy, consumer ways and more a swansong to those times…[The characters] ache for that old world. They pine for it.
Afterlight has certainly turned out not to be a manifesto for the hardcore survivalists out there. It’s not a celebration of anti-consumerism nor a yearning for a simple smallholding lifestyle. Sorry, that’s just not me. But, what it is – just like Last Light was – is a warning that we can’t go on consuming the way we’re doing now. ..Tough times ahead. Tough decisions ahead…and it’s unavoidable…The sad thing is, even though I’ve had my head in ‘Peak Oil’ for years and written these two books, I’m just as childish and selfish and shortsighted as anyone else.”