The other day, masked and browsing used books at a local antique mall, I ran across a copy of Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse, a 2011 novel about a frighteningly prosaic and believable fraying of society. I picked it up and read the back cover, surprised to find it between surplus copies of Danielle Steele and David McCullough. I had read one of McIntosh’s stories from the novel’s universe years before in Daily Science Fiction and was still haunted by it. A decade later, with a pandemic raging, terrifying heat in Canada, and record-breaking flooding in Europe and China, Soft Apocalypse feels even closer to home. I put the book back on the shelf. I can’t do apocalypses, soft or otherwise, right now.
Which makes it slightly awkward that I keep recommending that people read M. R. Carey’s Rampart Trilogy, the third volume of which was published March 2021. As I mentioned in my review of the first volume, I definitely didn’t think another post-apocalyptic science fiction series was what I wanted when I started reading it. Yet the journey of Koli, Carey’s protagonist throughout all three novels, quickly became one of hope, with a cast of characters it was easy to fall in love with. The Fall of Koli, third and final volume of the trilogy, brings Koli and his companions back full circle to his home of Mythen Rood, from which he was exiled in the first volume, and wraps up an epic journey with closure, loss, and—ironically—heavy notes of technological utopianism.
In the trilogy’s first volume, The Book of Koli, Koli was cast out of his village for stealing forbidden technology: an artifact that turned out to be an advanced music player with an AI who, with Koli’s blessing, traveled the ruins of the internet to bootstrap itself to self-awareness. In the carnivorous forests of future England, Koli fell in with Cup, a “turned” (transgender) girl warrior, and Ursula, a healer looking for technology to increase birth rates and save the dwindling population of England. Initially thrown together to escape from a cannibalistic cult and its messianic leader, they embark on a journey toward London, where a still-transmitting radio beacon signals a remaining cache of tech.
The second book, The Trials of Koli, chronicles Koli’s journey with Ursula and Cup to find the source of the signal but introduces a second major narrative thread, that of Spinner, Koli’s friend and erstwhile lover from Mythen Rood. It was Koli’s desire to win back Spinner that led him to the theft of tech that in turn got him exiled. But whereas Koli stole tech to try to become “Rampart,” and thus a member of Mythen Rood’s ruling class, Spinner finds technology thrust upon her. When a plague breaks out in the village, the aging, senile Rampart Memory, bearer of the village’s single interactive database, approaches Spinner for help. Slowly, through her interactions with the database, Spinner learns the secret of the Ramparts’ hold over Mythen Rood as well as how to unlock additional technology.
When forces from a neighboring town ambush Mythen Rood, Spinner is able to “wake” more powerful tech, a tank surviving from the last wars, with the consciousness of a dead soldier locked within it. The second volume ends with Koli and company setting out on the sea that has swallowed London and finding a huge warship as the signal’s source. Spinner, meanwhile, has risen to leadership in Mythen Rood and is preparing to fend off further attacks of a dictator intent on controlling all remaining tech in England.
What a summary like this misses is the richness and warmth of Carey’s language, which he uses to weave the story into something much richer than boilerplate post-apocalyptic fiction. The narrators—Koli in the first volume, joined by Spinner in the second, and both joined by Mono, Koli’s sentient Dreamsleeve, in the third—balance a rough wisdom with a rustic idiom that could feel very affected, distracting, or even obnoxious in hands less skilled than Carey’s. Over and above the well-paced plots, it’s this language and characterization that makes the novels hum and sometimes even sing.
In this third and final volume, the parallel narratives of Koli and Spinner ultimately converge. Koli, Cup, Ursula, and Mono find their way to a relict battleship from the final wars, with two android custodians caring for the ship, the armada of drones and weapons it contains, and a clone of the last dictator of England. Technology plays an increasingly prominent role in this final volume, as it becomes clear the androids have lured Ursula to the ship to make genetic repairs to the clone they have raised. The battleship, Sword of Albion, has been standing by for a century, ready to resume its reconquest of England as soon as a proper clone is created and its original memories downloaded. This high-science-fiction stuff is, of course, only pieced together slowly by Koli and company, and gives Carey an opportunity to reveal future England’s past history, which involves a final descent into nationalism and fascism. From the limited amount of English post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read, I’m wondering if this is a perennial fear. See, for example, The Children of Men by P. D. James.
The overall narrative rhythms are somewhat out of step in this third volume. The narrative thread concerning Koli and his friends aboard the futuristic battleship, dealing with a resurrected clone of England’s last dictator and a robotic army powerful enough to re-take the country, seems to play on a different scale than the rising tension in Mythen Rood, to the point that the different narrative arcs almost feel like two books in one. Back behind the wooden palisades of Koli’s home village, Spinner prepares her people and their limited weapons to survive the coming attack by a neighboring militia first through negotiation and, when that fails, some excellent guerrilla tactics. The narratives of these two separate crises, though, miss each other, and the resolution of one doesn’t tie in with the resolution of the other, as though the novel’s dual climaxes are off a beat, not quite synchronized.
What we do get, though, with Koli’s party on the Sword of Albion is a new narrative vantage point, one that gives insight into Mono, Koli’s companion AI for the series and this novel’s most compelling character, who also illustrates the problematically deus ex machina role AI plays throughout the books. Mono is the Trojan horse that allows Koli, Cup, and Ursula to survive and ultimately take control of the robotic forces of the Sword of Albion. But what actually motivates Mono, who, so far in the series, has seemed to be a benevolent caretaker of Koli, her “dumpling” and “dopey-boy”?
For the first time we get a look inside Mono’s mind and see the blend of personality she was originally programmed with (the brain-scan of a K-pop celebrity from before the world ended) and the intelligence she’s become. Carey reveals the self-interest motivating Mono from the beginning of the series as well as the paradoxical fondness she genuinely has for Koli. It’s anthropomorphising technology, the enduring hope that our computers will actually love us, and Carey acknowledges it as Mono recognizes this fondness might simply be vestiges of her original programming. Yet, when the time comes, Mono decides not to edit that code out of herself, choosing to keep herself human in that respect.
If you feel inclined to judge me, go right ahead. I’m literally incapable of giving a shit. My needs aren’t the same as yours, and our lives barely overlap. You’re a warm, cuddly biped with sexual dimorphism and a four-chambered heart and lots of other neat stuff. I’m a message in a bottle. And when you people were busy trying to burn each other down to ash and tallow, you kind of cracked the bottle. (p. 278)
Whatever her internal motivations, the plucky, sassy Mono proves more than a match for the best the warship can do, and Koli and company fly away with the vast weaponry of the ship sinking behind them except for what Mono decides to save: a fleet of excavators she will control to build a road connecting the isolated villages of England and allowing a “gene pull” (gene pool) large enough to save the population.
Self-aware, man-loving technology to the rescue! As the first narrative arch wraps up far from Mythen Rood, Koli, with his earnestness and simple goodness, controls the most powerful technology on the planet, and the good fairy Mono directs his idealism with a wise benevolence. There’s a problematic dynamic here, and Carey recognizes it through Koli’s unease. As they begin their project of joining up the villages with a ribbon of blacktop carved through the forests, Koli wonders if they aren’t just starting the cycle that got the planet in so much trouble originally all over again:
“How will we know when to stop?”
The drone, that had been dancing in the air, stood still of a sudden and turned its red eye to look at me “That’s easy, Koli-bou,” she said. “You stop when I tell you to.” (p. 354)
This would have been a nicely ambivalent ending, with Koli and his friends beginning to stitch England back together with their AI overlord (current mode: benevolent). But it would have been incomplete, as the strongest parts in the second and third volume are the creation of Spinner as a character and the home front drama at Mythen Rood. The training and strategies the villagers engage to resist and repel a siege by overwhelming (compared to them but not, critically, to the robotic forces from the Sword of Albion that Koli now controls) forces are great reading. The Koli-Mono dynamic repeats in Mythen Rood as well, with Spinner having the assistance of a huge tank and the downloaded consciousness it retains of its dead pilot who serves, like Mono, as both a character and powerful resource.
The slippage in pacing comes when the two primary narratives conjoin, as Koli’s story arc has climaxed but Mythen Rood’s ramps up. The last-minute arrival of Koli and his forces of course spells salvation for the beleaguered Mythen Rood, but, after all the buildup and the misapprehensions on the side of the villagers, nurtured now for three volumes, against what they perceived as Koli’s betrayal, his final scene of self-sacrifice comes too quickly and abruptly and doesn’t allow for the reconciliations for which we’ve been waiting for three books. This book is already the longest in the series, but I would have welcomed another few dozen pages if it had given Koli time to be reunited with his family.
The absolute resolution of this series is surprisingly and somewhat problematically technologically utopian. Koli’s body is destroyed in the final battle as he sacrifices himself to save the woman who originally banished him from his home. But there’s a tech to fix that now too, one helpfully introduced back in volume two. Koli’s consciousness can be uploaded, so he can live forever with Mono as a disembodied intelligence. This, it turns out, is the vantage point from which he’s been recounting the narrative of the entire novel, and this is the hope of the new humanity because, as he explains, besides Mythen Rood surviving with the best technology left in the world, now humanity also has a community of benevolent AI watching over them.
That’s a great part of our work now—to guide humankind in the use of tech, and see that no Stannabannas nor no Peacemakers get hold of it to vaunt themselves over their neighbours and work woe on them. We watch the villages, and we watch the forests too—for humankind don’t get to have the whole world as their own, or to take more than they need. We set ourselves to keep a balance, kind of, between the people and the rest of the world. When that balance tilts, it’s a bad thing for all and some. (p. 526)
After a long journey, and one as well written and with as memorable characters as this one, I appreciate a hopeful ending. But I can’t help feeling that Carey has cheated a bit, that the only solution he can provide for the future of Mythen Rood, England, and the rest of the world of his novel is the sort of starry-eyed optimism of the wonders of technology that carried with it the seeds of the previous world’s destruction to begin with.