Paul Goat Allen, B&N speculative fiction reviewer, says that 2012 will be the year for post apocalyptic fiction, in no small way to do with the media beat up of the Mayan end of the world predictions. I heartily agree, not just because of his logical reasoning, but because if Jonathon Wise's new novel, Ferryman, is indicative of what's turning up in 2012, I'm happy to read many more.
Ferryman is, in my mind, treating well worn tropes in a fresh way, and I am impressed with the extent to which he raised the bar in this sub-genre of science fiction. These are, in my mind, the main reasons why it is fresh:
1. There are no zombies.
2. There are no zombies. There, I got that out of the way.
3. While there have been top notch virus-based post-apocalyptic fiction in the past – the one that comes to mind as one of the best, was Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, most such stories are focused on the main protagonists solving the problem – finding the cure for the virus, snuffing out the contagion, or some other rescue technique. This is goodness, but it is also, in mind, rather well-worn. Ferryman is clearly about the effects of the virus that affects humanity (and in fact, most animals – naaaasty), but this is secondary, the backdrop. This story is about people – how they are affected in various ways by a catastrophic disaster and how the human spirit rises. Again the human spirit thing is not new, but the way Wise balances the science/effects and placing focus on those who survived, is remarkably fresh.
4. This isn't about good versus evil, which is so well constructed by Stephen King in The Stand. There is definitely evil generated in the aftermath of the pandemic, but it isn't intrinsic. It has reasons attached to it, explored in detail by Wise's excellent narrative. There are moments in his story that wrench your heart – both in terms of brutality as well as sacrifice or unjust loss among some of the characters the reader emphathises with – this is a differentiating feature of the Ferryman.
5. The conclusion. I won't give it away, but I found it appropriate, well balanced, and unexpected. We don't have a cataclysmic good versus evil clash, nor a laboratory cure of a disease. But we have a very good ending nevertheless.
Ferryman is appropriately titled because the main protagonist is a man who, through complex and evolving reasons, turns into a hero. A man who saves others, by getting them from one place to another. A ferryman. Wise develops complex and vivid characters, which is certainly another key feature of this novel.
This is a stand-out novel of 2012, and well aligned with the popular interest in post-apocalyptic fiction (I should mention here that no mention is made of the Mayan end of world prediction – this is also, in my mind, refreshing).
Five well deserved stars.