Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The nuclear ‘pool

Having rattled through The Ghost, I’ve since rattled through The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter. I loved his The Time Ships (a sequel to The Time Machine by HG Wells), and this is a similarly thrilling adventure of freewheeling paradoxes.

1962. Laura Mann is 14 years-old and not happy at having to move to Liverpool when her Mum and Dad split up. Dad’s staying at his army base in High Wycombe, and Mum’s got a fancy man, the American soldier Mort who she knew during the war. But as Laura starts school, gets teased about her accent and looking a bit like their spiky headmistress, the world is facing a crisis. The Americans and Russians are at loggerheads in Cuba and threatening nuclear war. And in a murky cavern in Liverpool, Laura’s about to hear a band called the Beatles…

The lurid pink cover (which got a few odd looks on the train) and the teen-protagonist might put some adult readers off. But this is a compelling, complex and richly drawn adventure. It’s surprisingly violent and harrowing in places.

Baxter’s Liverpool is full of telling detail, from the names of contemporary shops and products to people’s assumptions about class and race and sexuality. He deftly describes and explains the world and worldview in a way that only becomes intrusive when a character from 2007 starts harping on about mobile phones and laptops.

I’ve sometimes found Baxter’s other books a bit cold and clever. Like a lot of sci-fi, his world-building is masterful but the characters are sometimes just background to the thrill of all the physics, convenient triggers for the plot. Here, though, he takes his time setting everything up before the plot kicks in.

To begin with, it’s a fish-out-of-water, North and South sort of thing with the girl from the Home Counties struggling to survive the dark and brutish scallys. It’s got the teen-angst feel of Tracy Beaker or the first episode of Byker Grove. Even at the end, the book hinges on Laura’s relationship with her parents, the new perspectives she has of them and of herself as an adult.

But an early reference to another Liverpool band, John Smith and the Common Man, is a fun nod to where the story’s going to go.
SUSAN: I-It's John Smith and the Common Men. They've gone from 19 to 2.
BARBARA: (Not understanding a bit of it.) Hmm. (She looks puzzled.)
IAN: (Laughing.) "John Smith" is the stage name of the honourable Aubrey Waites. He started his career as Chris Waites and the Carollers, didn't he, Susan?
SUSAN: You are surprising, Mr. Chesterton. I wouldn't expect you to know things like that.
IAN: I have an enquiring mind…(Motions to the loud radio.) and a very sensitive ear.

Anthony Coburn, Scene 4 of Doctor Who’s first episode.

As the plot gets going, it seems Baxter is doing what Steven Moffat said of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who: you create interesting characters and melt them. The vivid description of nuclear holocaust and its long-term effects reminded me of Threads. Importantly, the horror and complex plot stuff works because of our investment in and sympathy for a wide range of characters – real and invented.

It’s a quick, compelling read with constant revelations and twists. It’s similar in tone and in some plot gimmickry to my own The Time Travellers but also kept me guessing. But it does end a little abruptly – there’s the last revelation and a big bang and then that’s sort of it. Baxter ties up all the plot strands but I felt a bit short-changed. Perhaps an epilogue set a few years later might have helped. Having invested so much in these people, seen everything they have been and might have been through, it’s unsettling not to know how they ended up.

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

Interesting--I probably wouldn't have heard of this book if you hadn't mentioned it.