Matthew Cavanagh reviews Joe Hill's latest apocalyptic novel.
The Fireman • Publisher: Gollancz • RRP: £20.00 • Author: Joe HIll • Published: 2016-06-07
Nobody knew where the virus came from.
Fox News said it had been set loose by Isis, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980’s. MSNBC said sources indicated it might’ve been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by culty Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation. CNN reported both sides.
While every TV station debated the cause, the world burned.
Pregnant school nurse, Harper Grayson, had seen lots of people burnt on TV, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.
Novels that look at the world when the apocalypse hits such as The Road or The Stand are often said to be warning us of how our society will start to behave should the apocalypse take place. Reading this gigantic tale during the UK’s recent upheavals I can uniquely confirm that his latest novel accurately measures how humanity behaves.
The story begins in the modern US immediately warming to Harper Grayson a kind hearted (huge Mary Poppins fan) and pragmatic school nurse who witnesses first hand the terrifying final symptoms of a virus nicknamed Dragonscale upon a man in her schoolyard. Upon catching it (and no one yet knows how they catch it) you will first find blackish marks with gold flecks around your body; gradually your body temperature will warm until such time as you burst into flames.
We quickly find ourselves in a world just experiencing a seismic shock: the disease has no cure and enough victims that whole areas of the States are converted to flame and ash. The news channels are mystified, the hospitals are in crisis, treatment of those infected is moving from trying to help towards treating them as a problem to be eliminated – yes it’s safe to say this book really does capture the horrific sense of a country no longer in control...
Harper is our companion travelling through this nightmare. Her kindness to a child sufferer means that she is infected and her husband decides her suicide would be a better solution to their problems. She is quickly saved by the mysterious Fireman and brought to Camp Wyndham; an abandoned forest camp where a growing group of sufferers are hiding from the world’s increasingly violent treatment. She is an engaging character and her growth and independence from those trying to influence her are a reminder that there are good people still looking to help others.
The Camp is where we meet our larger cast ranging the genteel Camp leader and his less approachable daughter to The Fireman himself. A man who stands a little outside the main group but who, through his knowledge of the disease, is essential to the safety of the group. His story and Harper’s are a key feature of the book – two very lost people who share a sense of humour and decency trying to work out their lives. They also trade some delicious banter! It’s nice to see how fantasy worlds and many other cultural icons filter into the story from Bowie to even a few Doctor Who references, helping our understanding of what happens; fictional crises help us understand our modern world’s own attempts.
But ultimately this novel shows that even a paradise of people who are like you is not enough. Those who do not play by the rules or conform to the wider group are outsiders and as the stresses on the group grow so people start to turn against one another with shocking results.
The journey you go on from the initial incident until its memorable conclusion is what drew me to the book. You will care about these characters and what happens to them. In a rare moment for me I found myself wishing for a few more side adventures to allow time for the story to breathe in its final chapters. But ultimately I felt I’d travelled with Harper and her group and the ride was memorable. Like Dragonscale it can be very addictive. Sadly unlike some other apocalypses I could escape by closing the book. It was a credit to it though, how reluctant I was to leave it!