Near the end of John Barnes's Directive 51, Heather O'Grainne, one of the good guys, sums up the situation for her team: "We've just won a big victory for a lot of things . . . most of our people believe in: good home cooking, comfy clean houses, honest work you get paid for, making things easier for the kids than they were for us, letting your neighbor go to the devil in his own way, and some time on the back porch to read the paper, drink beer, and argue with the neighbors" (p. 477).
At which point, a captured enemy notes that Heather has, more or less, outlined the philosophy of the Daybreak terrorists, those saboteurs who have just destroyed world civilization and killed millions of people. Oddly—or it ought to seem odd to us, though the novel encourages us to accept the point casually—Heather O'Grainne, one of the world's top leaders at this point, does not seem disturbed by her enemy's observation.
John Barnes's new novel is, let me say upfront, a book with many merits. However, in a story about how terrorists get together to destroy world civilization, if you find yourself encouraged to be on the side of the mass-murdering terrorists, it seems to me the novelist is probably doing it wrong.
The conceit of Directive 51 is that an internet meme called Daybreak has captured hundreds of thousands of people worldwide into affinity groups (AGs), convincing them that the "Big Machine" of modern civilization is destructive. These AGs range from religious conservatives to leftist eco-nuts to engineers, all of whom want to bring down civilization for their own reasons—because it pollutes, or because the internet destroys the nuclear family, or because without a technological society the feudal world would rise again. Whatever. The meme lets each Affinity Group decide for itself what terrorist action to accomplish, come the day of Daybreak.
So far, so good, and the various terrorist tricks Barnes comes up with are one of the well-done aspects of the book, especially as the plot thickens and we start to suspect that things are not as they appear. Further, Barnes knows the American landscape well, and as he moves both the terrorists and our heroes across it, his descriptions and panoramic overviews are a pleasure to read. Finally, the book is set in the near future, and Barnes has a lot of fun giving us a look at this new America. Apparently the Tea Party / Libertarian movement, though it did not win politically, did not go away: kids are named Track Palin Carlucci and Ann Coulter Carlucci (although other kids are named Bambi Castro and Quattro Larsen) and those Tea Party members both rich and paranoid enough have, apparently, during Obama's presidency bought up huge tracts of land, built "Castles" on them, and surrounded them with elaborate defense systems to keep out the ravening hordes when civilization falls. Now that civilization has fallen, the delight the Castle owners take having been right all this time—and in being able to offer protection to select friends, on their own terms—is instructive to watch. Barnes does these sections of the novel well.
However, as I mentioned, there are problems.
First, Barnes's characters, with the exception of the captured terrorist Ysabel, hardly seem to notice that they have been through the destruction of their civilization. Millions of people die; most transportation systems, power systems, and weapons are destroyed; systems of communication, including the internet, go down; food stores are depleted; major cities burn; and no one gets very upset. They watch the destructive on TV until the televisions stop broadcasting, and then immediately, within three days, with no panic or pause for shock, everyone is over it and welcoming strangers to town (no one bothers to interrogate these strangers, or even ask how they stand on Daybreak) and having town meetings about whether to hold Halloween this year.
Worse, even the terrorists don't seem deeply interested in Daybreak. A few days ago, Jason, the terrorist we get to know best, was so deeply committed that he was willing to kill millions. Now, he hugs his girlfriend (who has been gang-raped in the aftermath), says, basically, Wow, that was a bad idea, and moves on—joins up with a small town in the Rockies, repairs roads, makes friends, goes to town meetings. Only here is the problem: Jason is who the novel must be talking about when Heather speaks of honest work you get paid for, and neighbors on back porches, and drinking beer and the rest, because his is the small town we've been seeing all that happen in, and his is the point of view we have been mainly seeing it through. While this small-town life might seem attractive to some readers, surely we ought to be made to reflect on how Jason achieved his little pocket of paradise? Instead, the novel presents life in the post-Daybreak Colorado mountain town as relentlessly idyllic; further, we are given a Jason who never seems to feel much remorse for what he has done. Rather, all he feels is pleasure at how good his life is, now, after Daybreak.
Barnes does a better job with Ysabel, who provides some of the key scenes that argue against the Daybreak terrorists having created a better world than the one they destroyed; also, Barnes shows Ysabel as traumatized by the events of Daybreak and her part in them.
On the other hand, the reaction of her captures is as odd as their reaction to the Daybreak event. It's the dog that doesn't bark in the night again. Heather and the rest don't seem to have noticed they've been through the end of the world and that one of those responsible for the death of all their friends (and Heather's one true love) is sitting in the room with them. Again, this is the general reaction we see when our citizens encounter Daybreak terrorists. Barnes does mention, early on, that some terrorists get lynched; however, we don't see this happening, and the protagonists never have to face it.
This brings me to another problem: we don't see enough in this book. Thousands die when Washington, D.C. burns. More thousands freeze in the icy rains when winter hits. At The Battle of MIT mobs burn the library. All of these could have been gripping stories, but Barnes doesn't tell them as stories: he runs through them in summary. This city burns, those riots happen, these cattle freeze. To his credit, Barnes varies his delivery methods, so that it takes the reader awhile to notice the flaw; but still, over and over, when something important happens, Barnes mentions it in passing, rather than allowing us to experience the event.
All of which feeds into the original problem I mentioned, the question of whose side we're on and meant to be on. I don't believe it is intentional—indeed, from one or two scenes in the book which directly contradict what I am about to say, I'm fairly sure it is not—but much of the book's narrative seems to endorse the actions of the Daybreak terrorists. I believe this is mainly because Barnes has left out the horrifying scenes. Barnes showed us no graphic damage, nothing we actually feel; and because we don't have the counterweight of these scenes to put against the brave citizens banding together in the aftermath, the novel encourages us to feel that this aftermath, filled with good neighbors and clean, comfy houses, is a better world. The death of millions, along with the loss of democracy and human rights, is, I suppose, meant to be a small price to pay.
As I said, Barnes includes a couple of scenes that directly contradict that message. But it's difficult for those few scenes to win the argument with the preponderance of the text. The strengths of the book—including its large cast, political intrigue, ideas, sense of landscape and pace—are many. With a bit more balance, I think Directive 51 could have been an excellent book. As it stands, it's just a pretty good one.
Kelly Jennings teaches writing and English in Northwest Arkansas. She is an assistant editor at Crossed Genres.