The last time we saw Chan, in the first of JP Smythe’s Australia trilogy Way Down Dark, she and other survivors from the spaceship Australia had just landed on earth—an earth they had presumed destroyed and uninhabitable. They couldn't have been further from the truth.
Earth may have suffered and been irrevocably altered by climate change, but it is still inhabited: society still exists and functions in some sort of organised semi-chaos. The Australia doesn't get the welcome it was hoping for, though, since the world seems to want to deny that they ever sent humans off into space knowing that they may die. As Chan explains, "the government denied it, didn’t tell a soul. Nobody owned up to it. The stories about it took place on message boards, in clandestine meetings where true believers called the government liars. They were unifying, driven by faith. There was no evidence, but they believed in a ship fun of prisoners trapped up there, desperate to come home, or dying up there, ships full of skeletons, drifting up there forever" (p. 125).
But Chan escaped the authorities, who took away the surviving population of the vessel Australia, and now she is eking out a life in the slums of a city, trying to remain under the radar as she searches for Mae, the young girl she had sworn to protect. Mae is missing, and Chan will not rest until she’s found her. It’s interesting that Chan never wonders if Mae may well be safer and happier where she is, rather than eking a living off the slums of the city with Chan, constantly on the run from the police and doing shady deals to get what she needs to live. Chan’s world has changed but it also hasn’t; she’s still doing what she did on the Australia. She’s fighting, making dubious trades, running, running, running. Chan’s survival skills are still finely honed. She’s persistent, pervasive even, in her single-minded search for Mae, stopping at nothing to get the information she needs. She runs dodgy errands for Alala, a woman who appears to be far too well connected to be living in the slums as she does. Striking a deal with Alala is striking a deal with the devil—Chan knows she will have to give up something of her soul, but she has no other choices. Caught up in Alala’s games, Chan eventually does find out what happened to the survivors of the Australia, though not in the way she had hoped.
Long Dark Dusk is also about storytelling, about creating your own narrative against the one handed to you—by fate, by society, by the accident of your birth. Chan isn’t just navigating this world and playing the role this new world has given her; she’s also telling the story of her past on Australia, quite literally narrating it to Ziegler, an older man who has befriended her and is interested in investigating this alternate, secret history of the violent, gang-run floating microplanet. Chan isn’t afraid of her past—she’s willing to exchange the stories of her past for a potential future with Mae. "I mean it," she tells Ziegler, "I’ll tell you everything, straight away, all in one go. I don’t care. Put my name on the front of a newspaper. Put my picture up there. Tell my story. Sell it. Call your publisher. You can have it all" (p. 103). All she wants is any information he can get her—from his own sources, from the city’s archives—about where the residents of the Australia were taken, particularly the children.
Chan’s story isn't the official one about "the prison system, about the government’s desperation, about death." It is her own very personal one of "a different type of story: one of demons, of blood and bodies, of torture and pain; of a teenage girl taking revenge against bad people, and saving the good, who killed her own mother. Death, the only real unifying part of both" (p. 126). Chan, however, evades death again and again, though it is harder for her to break free of who she is expected to be—a deviant, a criminal, maybe even a murderer. For if that is what she’s expected to be, can she really be blamed when she fulfils the role forced upon her? Can any of Australia’s population?
Smythe continues doing with Long Dark Dusk what he did so well with Way Down Dark. The narrative is well paced, packed with action, and often brutal—though much of its violence takes place off-screen or in the larger-than-life way of comic books and action movies. There are new characters but also returning ones, some of whom reappear in surprising ways that add to their depth. If the worldbuilding of the Australia was well developed, that of this near-future city that has picked itself up from massive climate change is just as effective, if more subtle. The city itself—harbouring the richer, more fortunate citizens—is air conditioned and barricaded from the rest of the urban area by massive walls. Those who can live there and manage just fine. Those who can’t instead live on the peripheries just outside the walls, in slums and the remnants of what were once inhabited buildings. Some of Long Dark Dusk’s world, in fact, echoes that of Smythe’s earlier novel, the Clarke Award-shortlisted The Machine (2013). It is easy to believe that the Earth of The Machine quite naturally progressed to that of Long Dark Dusk. Easy, and equally frightening.
If Way Down Dark was about the Australia, the environment in which Chan was raised and why she had to be how she was, then this second book is very much about who she is and how she has to change in order to deal with what she now needs to tackle in this new world. And the new world isn’t entirely different from that of the Australia—there are still gangs, still powers that push and pull against each other for control, there are still those who want to manipulate and control others around them.
The Australia’s passengers are a displaced people, many of them are not criminals. They are refugees almost, to this new world. Smythe’s take on how society deals with them is interesting, raising questions on whether assimilation and integration can be forced in order to make even criminals useful, to ensure that they contribute in some practical way to the world. And while those in charge may want to "fix" the criminals in order to not waste resources on prisons, they do not imagine there to be any equality—how can there be, in a society where many remain on the fringes, living off the scraps the more fortunate leave behind?
But there’s a frightening concept that Smythe introduces to the trilogy in Long Dark Dusk: that of brainwashing, subliminal suggestions for mind control, a regime that actively practices altering the personalities, characteristics, thoughts, and beliefs of its citizens—albeit those it thinks are violent or cannot contribute positively to society. But where does it stop? How far can it go? The more Chan finds out about the world the Australia returned to, the less inclined she is to believe that it can be somewhere she can belong. And so her struggle continues, promising that book three in the trilogy is bound to be an equally exciting ride.
Mahvesh Murad is a book critic and recovering radio show host living in Karachi, Pakistan. She currently hosts the podcast Midnight in Karachi on Tor.com and writes for multiple publications. You can find her on Twitter @mahveshm or at www.mahveshmurad.com.
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