One of the most pressing challenges for the writer is how best to address the political and social crises of the present moment. This challenge is especially tricky for the writer of speculative fiction. Whilst it might appear that science fiction as a mode of literature has a natural advantage in tackling themes of climate catastrophe, government authoritarianism, and the corrosive effects of populism upon the body politic, its useful armoury of specialist tools have often been misused as blunt instruments. While authors such as Dave Hutchinson, James Bradley, Jane Rawson, N. K. Jemisin, Tim Maughan, E. J. Swift, and Kim Stanley Robinson have for some years been employing their fiction in the discussion of urgent environmental themes, there has been a corresponding proliferation of more derivative works, with each apocalypse vaster more deadly and more logic-resistant than the last. There’s no harm in such entertainments in and of themselves, though overused tropes rapidly become stale, and as a cumulative force it might be argued they wear out the very language we should be sharpening.
For the writer who views science fiction as a more radical proposition, the challenge lies in rendering the iconography of disaster newly resonant. For the past five years or so, the Manchester writer M. T. Hill has been creating a series of works in which the idea of societal collapse still feels powerfully threatening. An undercurrent of unease thrums beneath every sentence he writes, furthering the suspicion that the apocalypse may already be happening. Hill’s science fiction is less about the surround-sound sensory overload that is IMAX than the covert video clip, the instantly stifled rumour, the toxic waste dumped illegally in a hospital burn barrel.
Hill’s apocalypse is low-key, small-scale, personal. His first novel, The Folded Man (2013) introduced us to a near-future, industrially contaminated Manchester in the grip of accumulating scarcity, controlled by mafia-type gangs. His second novel, Graft (2016), nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, consolidated this landscape, fusing it with a parallel universe of even greater cruelties and illegalities. 2019’s Zero Bomb saw Hill thinking intensely about climate crisis and the impact of surveillance technology. Now, in 2020, we have The Breach, arguably Hill’s most fully realised work to date, as well as his most terrifying.
Billy “Shep” Shepherd works as a steeplejack. A dangerous profession in any era, the trade of jacking has, in Hill’s version of the near future, been rendered even more hazardous by the rapidly decaying infrastructure of the post-industrial landscape. Crews of jacks are set to work not just on chimneys but on decommissioned power stations, toxic industrial complexes, and other structures made dangerously unstable through chemical cancers. The money is decent, although the average working life of a jack can be counted in years rather than decades. But Shep has a passion for climbing, and with his distaste for corporate authority, no other career path seems viable, or desirable.
He begins—literally—at the bottom, scraping rust off yard equipment and suffering the borderline-psychotic bullying of the more experienced crews. Shep is good at his work though, a natural. His credibility as a jack is growing, and his weekend exploits in the shadowy world of urban exploration give expression to a side of him that his day job leaves no room for. Shep enjoys breaking and entering—not to steal goods, but to investigate and photograph disused industrial sites, to observe the contradictions of our decaying industrial heritage. He burns to see what no one else sees, to be in that landscape. For Shep, there is no greater freedom than scrambling the ridges and fells of High Peak and Cumbria, preferably at night.
Freya Medlock is a journalist who knows she is failing. Forced to move back in with her parents in the aftermath of a broken relationship, a news item about a local climber, Stephen Parsons, seems to offer her the break she has been looking for. Parsons fell to his death from scaffolding following a drinking bout, though his friends’ insistence that Stephen never touched alcohol triggers Freya’s compulsion to find out more. After trawling through Stephen’s old postings on urban exploration forums, she encounters Shep at an indoor climbing facility and becomes convinced he knows more about Stephen’s death than he wants to admit. Equally desperate for answers, Shep goads Freya into accompanying him to the site of a mysterious bunker—the same bunker that Stephen broke into shortly before he died.
Believing she is on the cusp of an investigative breakthrough, Freya accepts. The night of the bunker changes both of them, binding them in a form of symbiosis that rapidly opens the door to greater disasters.
There are different ways of writing about the future. For some writers, the art of prediction, with all its pitfalls, is a lure that proves insurmountable. In this form of science fiction, the driving force of the narrative is often radical change. Hill’s future is more lightly sketched, taking place against a background of driverless cars, gagging orders, genetically modified food, and robotic home appliances—a future that is partially here already. The increasingly authoritarian behaviour of government is exemplified not in open acts of state violence, mass deportations, or imprisonment, but in the rigorous controls that have been enforced on social media. The fact that these controls can be circumvented is both more and less important than the fact that they exist. This is the world of The Breach, Hill insists, with all that entails. That Hill’s world is both familiar and terrifying lies at the heart of his enterprise.
The technology that drives Graft enables the gross exploitation of workers across parallel dimensions. In The Breach, the mega-project that underpins the second half of the narrative proves equally dubious. The vast and greedy Vaughan Corporation has developed a super-strong carbon fibre called Diamondoid. Diamondoid forms the key component of the cables used to power the Vaughan Corporation’s proposed space elevator, a creation that will ultimately render the moon a viable mining reserve. Vaughan is in the process of constructing a beta-structure, a prototype of the main tower situated on an uncharted island somewhere in the Caribbean.
Even as a prototype, this enterprise is vast, a kilometre high, with teams of contracted workers operating under extreme risk as well as conditions of heightened security. With his behaviour becoming increasingly unpredictable, Shep’s boss on the jacking crew offers him an ultimatum: enlist in the Vaughan project or face dismissal. Shep has no choice but to accept the commission. The cataclysmic ramifications of his appointment are left to play out before us in horrifying detail.
One of the defining strengths of Hill’s narrative is his ability to situate his disaster within a believable landscape. Where William Gibson revels in shiny surfaces, nifty future-gadgetry, and urbane stage dressing, Hill’s metal is rusty, scummed with lubricant, and viciously sharp. Hill’s is a world in which ignoring a “keep out” sign is liable to end in ripped muscles and broken bones. His ‘operatives’ do not sweep in obnoxiously from the air-conditioned bio domes, but scrape their living—sometimes literally—from the back streets and toxic scrapyards of a ruined economy. Where Gibson might hint at such things without overtly describing them, Hill is not afraid to get his hands dirty:
Shep removes his helmet and wipes his face down his sleeve. The smell. The tepid heat on his skin. He takes it, though—takes it because he has to. What else can he do, dangling there? Another glance down. Wind-reddened hands. Liquid falling away from his helmet. He’s two hundred feet up now, and the ladder’s lower rungs are no longer visible. The surrounding containers, massive from the ground, are bucket rims. Crew cabins and toilets like matchboxes and dice, casting shadows at right angles. Systems of process line, so intricate and precise you could believe they were lifted from a circuit board. And even at this height, the mingling of gases—eggy hydrogen sulphide, sharp hydrogen peroxide—with a whiff of bitumen, rich and meaty, from the gravy lines.
The unknowable nature of what Shep and Freya discover in the bunker—an alien life form, a parasitic fungus?—is a mystery that The Breach leaves tantalisingly unsolved. What matters most to Hill is the effect of that discovery, its disastrous trajectory, and the wider point it proves about Promethean ambition. In all his novels to date, Hill has masterfully choreographed the collision of the imperfect, precarious world of the individual with the implacable and devious machinery of state. The Breach chillingly ups the stakes of such a collision, leaving us in little doubt that the fate that awaits Hill’s protagonists will ultimately engulf his antagonists as well. Freya’s first thought on seeing the beta-structure is that it is alien, so vast and overreaching as to be beyond the natural scope of human endeavour. That the Vaughan space elevator may accelerate the spread of an actual alien invasion can only be perceived as the bitterest of ironies.
For those who delight in collating such things, echoes and colloquies with other works of speculative fiction abound in The Breach: Shep and Freya’s entry into the bunker strongly recalls the biologist’s descent into the Tower in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014), just as the decaying, corroded industrial complexes that form the working environment of the steeplejacks recall the northern rocket factories in Simon Ings’s The Smoke (2018). The psychic transformation wrought upon Stephen and Shep by the entity in the bunker put this reader instantly in mind of the possession of Seth by Tak in Stephen King’s The Regulators (1996). Yet there are other influences at play here, too. The tight-knit, brutal world of the steeplejacks bears direct and intimate comparison with the company of rock climbers in M. John Harrison’s Climbers (1989), whilst Hill’s gritty, unsentimental depiction of northern landscapes and people earns his writing a place alongside other recent and deservedly celebrated works such as Benjamin Myers’s The Gallows Pole (2017) and Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning (2019):
Nothing. Shep exhales. Shivers a little. The scrambler’s motor ticks as it cools, and these might be the only sounds in the world. It’s lonely out here, and with that comes the first sharp chill of terror. A primal fear—not only of the dark, the unseeable woodland—but of other people: holed-up drugrunners, bear-headed homeless who don’t want moving along, illegal poachers or preppers with twitchy trigger fingers. Never mind the risk of falling masonry, bad roofing, unstable flooring. Fall over, do for your ankle, then what? No phone, nobody in on the act, no means of contact—who knows where you are?
“These Lakes are ours,” says Hill’s psychotic ranger, just after he wrenches Shep’s finger and slings him into the road. “You’re pissing about with stuff way bigger than you.” In his words we hear the echo of those famously uttered by David Peace’s corrupt cop in his brutal 1999 novel Red Riding 1974: “This is the north—we do what we want.” More than any other, this reference reveals the identity of Hill’s literary heroes, laying down a marker for what he sets out to achieve.
Early on in the novel, one of Shep’s crewmates expresses anxiety over whether they’ll ultimately be replaced by robots. Another scoffs at the idea: there are some jobs too dirty and too dangerous for anyone but them. Hill’s science fiction, like his landscape writing, is powerfully evocative, devastatingly strange. Most of all, it speaks truth to power. This is writing of and for our time. Hill is a writer who deserves more attention; for anyone who hasn’t read him yet, The Breach is a magnificent place to start.