A Departure – Tom Ward (2013)
The cover strapline for this book was one of the things that made me think it might be worth reading. “Possibly the best young writer in this country – Tony Parsons”. After reading this load of nonsense, I’m wondering if Parson’s following line was something like “And possibly I am a tulip”. Another factor that made me click on the Buy button was the price; even for a Kindle book, 77p is amazingly cheap; all I can say is that I’m glad I wasted only 77p.
Also, I’m a sucker for apocalypse literature, the sort where global disaster strikes and the few remaining human survivors have to struggle to survive. In A Departure the catastrophe is a mysterious airborne contaminant that, in the space of minutes, kills most people in the UK and possibly globally as well.The book then follows Micheal Taylor, the hero, as he journeys from the North of England to the Sussex coast, in order to escape to France.
It’s not a completely terrible book. It’s readable – there are no typos, the grammar is correct, sentences are properly constructed, there are no noticeable continuity errors. But, oh my, what a lumpen read! It’s the sort of book that an 18-year old literature student would attempt after reading lots of Hemingway and Mailer. The 18-year old literature student hero is an obvious Mary Sue; there are lots of gory bits, lots of fighting, and the women are all caricatures and stereotypes – no, scrub that last. ALL the characters are caricatures and stereotypes; it’s just more obvious with the women. Either they’re helpless mums looking for a protective man, dotty old bags who despise teenage males, or fight-ready hotties straight out of an online game.
There are some delightful Throggisms such as “The boy tilted back his head to scream at the sky and words erupted from the hole in his face like sewage from a burst pipe.” And he describes the Sussex downs as “craggy hills”!
What’s even more annoying is the lack of world-building. If you’re going to write fiction that turns on a huge disaster, then you have to at least think about what effect this will have on the characters’ world – not just the lack of power and communications, the transport difficulties, how to get food and so on, but also the government’s reaction, the military’s reaction, the overall attempts to restore order. You might even do a little research – find out what measures the government has already prepared for large-scale emergencies, how long the national power grid and water supply is likely to last without humans, what sort of diseases are likely to break out, what happens when millions of corpses are left to rot in the streets.*
Ward seems to have hardly troubled himself with such matters; his characters don’t try to find working communication and power sources, or re-establish a working local government, or band together to protect food and medical supplies; none of them even come down with food poisoning. It’s not as if there aren’t already plenty of disaster novels to give him some ideas – The Stand, On The Beach, I Am Legend, Day of the Triffids are just the ones I can immediately think of; has he really never read any of these classics of the genre, noted how their characters reacted to the collapse of civilisation?
And none of his characters seems to have any idea of how to use the resources they do have. For example, when Micheal and the stragglers he has picked up suddenly come across a supermarket that still has full electricity, do they go “Find the staff kitchen, grab some of those microwave meals, we’ll have some hot food at last. And find out if the water’s still running – if not get those bottles of water and some electric kettles and heat up water for washing. Then we’ll find out where else the power is still on.”? Nope. They open up some tinned and packeted food and settle down in the aisles for a night’s snooze. To be fair, Michael does say that perhaps they should find a computer and see if the internet is still running, but another character tells him not to bother – and that’s that. That’s the only mention of the internet in the whole book btw, and I don’t think anybody even has a mobile. If it wasn’t for that, and a reference to global warming, the action may as well be taking place in the 1980s.
Michael is a hugely annoying character. In the first few chapters he constantly moans about having only a bottle of warm Coke to drink, when there’s nothing to stop him from taking bottled water from the shelves of the nearest grocery shop, or scooping up some water from one of the many streams and rivers he’ll have passed as he drives around. And he sleeps in the car when the countryside he’s going though is full of empty barns, farm buildings and holiday homes. It’s possible that Ward is trying to portray him as a typical clueless townie teenager who’s further rendered hard of thinking by stress and hunger. But if so, he failed; unfortunately, it comes across as cluelessness on the part of the author.
This authorial cluelessness is emphasised by his treatment of David, the other main character, who is introduced as a teacher of history. This should have presented Ward with a splendid excuse to tell us, via David, about previous disasters and about the extensive preparations every modern government makes for disaster – alternative means of power and communication, the sequestration of fuel and food sources, the establishment of an emergency governing committee, the role of the military and so on. But no. There is never another mention of history, or any indication that he was even an academic – only thumping great clues that he may actually be a Bad Man (this isn’t a spoiler; the clue-dropping starts early on and they’re hidden about as well as Chekov’s gun).
The book ends with Our Hero and his hot escapee-from-an-online-game girlfriend preparing to sail to France. Why? We’re not told (or maybe we were, in one of the tedious bits that I skipped over). Since there’s every indication that the rest of the world has gone the same way, it seems a pointless waste of time; it does, however, make a good hook for a sequel. If so, let’s hope that he has a good editor for it, somebody who can tell him to write about real people and real situations. And do some damm research.
*I remember an episode of the original TV series of Survivors, where somebody looking out from the top of a London tower block at night sees flickering phosphorescent gases rising up from ground level and is told that it’s “corpse gas” from all the unburied bodies. That’s an example of world-building research.