The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Headline: decent thriller + botched science fiction premise = cursed novel.

I know AHM these days by dint of his presenting the Private Eye podcast, Page 94, though he’ll also be familiar to listeners of There’s No Such Thing as a Fish, the podcast of the QI elving community. Personally I’ve always really hated the twee and reductive description of BBC researchers and fact checkers as “elves”. They might as well call them gimps. 

Although he has clearly published before, this is Murray’s first novel. And it’s in my favourite* genre: science-fiction-written-by-people-who-clearly-haven’t-read–much-science-fiction.

This may be deeply unfair of me; the genre misfires here might be entirely the fault of his editors, because it has been clear of late that science-fiction-written-by-people-who-clearly-haven’t-read–much-science-fiction has become increasingly common. In particular, the climate-change-Brexit-Trump nexus of post-apocalyptic text is currently en vogue in the way that books-with-GIRL-in-the-title were (are still? I daren’t look).

Now, I was always a fan of the post-apocalyptic. Footfall, by Niven and Pournelle (asteroid); Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (fertility, climate); Dinner at Deviant’s Palace by Tim Powers (Mad Max with brains); The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndam (triffids); even David Brin’s The Postman; are all books I’ve read and enjoyed. There are TV and film properties I’ve liked too, such as 70s classic The Survivors, various adaptations of the Triffids… the list is long.

But when a skilled genre writer like Wilhelm creates a world, or when a hit machine team like Niven and Pournelle get involved, the results are thoughtful, entertaining, fully realised and immersive. Science-fiction-written-by-people-who-clearly-haven’t-read–much-science-fiction, on the other hand, is problematic in a number of ways. Emily St John Mandell pulled it off with Station Eleven, but others have fared less well. I didn’t like 84k by Claire North and hearing established literary figures expressing their wide-eyed brand-new interest in old science fiction tropes on the radio gives me the rage.

First, ideas. Please: don’t write about artificial intelligence as if you are the first person who ever came up with the idea that there might be some, well, ethical issues. Please don’t stop the earth turning as if no writer ever had a tidelocked planet orbiting its sun. And, yes, it’s tidelocked, not “in lock step”. Larry Niven, to name one, has created a whole universe (Known Space) of interesting environments for humans to inhabit. A world that’s a giant ring; a world where the only inhabitable zone is the top of a mountain; a giant tree in a gas torus; a world with multiple suns, with life forms that emerge only when one of them emits a flare.

The biggest problem with Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day is that Robert Charles Wilson already wrote Spin. And while the premise isn’t exactly the same, the ideas contained within, about the social and psychological impacts of an astronomical event on the people on the planet below, are similar. If you write The Last Day without reading Spin first, you’re a fool. 

And if you write about human environments in any one of a variety of scenarios without reading half a dozen works by Kim Stanley Robinson, you’re negligent.

I started to suspect that AHM wasn’t quite in command of this material when he threw away more good ideas in his info-dump exposition than he bothered to include in the rest of his novel, which is, really, more of an espionage thriller than the other thing.

And – as an espionage thriller – it’s really okay, but then the question becomes, why did it need this SF element in the first place? Because the science-fiction-written-by-someone-who-clearly-hasn’t-read–much-science-fiction part ends up just getting in the way. If you wanted to write a thriller about someone running around a dystopian version of Britain poking their nose in where they shouldn’t, do that. You wouldn’t even have to change much of this, since you paid so little attention to the premise in the first place.

And that’s the second problematic part. The science. Fine, do some hand waving here and there – all great SF writers do – but, oh god, are you sure? Murray shows enough awareness here that if the world stops turning then weather systems and ocean currents change. Or, importantly, vice versa. But then really ignores what might be the consequences. He wants us to know that it’s hot (allegorical climate change) but then he wants some characters to be wearing overcoats—because they look menacing? He tells us the world no longer spins, the sun no longer rises and sets, and then he repeatedly uses words like “night”, “morning”, and “evening”.

“She wondered if she was to be followed that morning…” [Chapter 21]

“She hadn’t slept enough for the last couple of nights…” [Chapter 24]

“…it was still just after seven in the evening.” [Chapter 27]

“It was a hot night, too bright to hide anywhere.” [Chapter 32]

This matters because every instance of this kind of thing throws you out of the story, and it would have been such an easy fix. A better book would have invented a whole new way of conceptualising and speaking. It would be “sleeps” and “shifts” and everybody would have a problematic relationship with time.

And what do plants do with no night? Because even my old brain remembers from Biology lessons that plants photosynthesise during the day and then something else at night. And what happens to the magnetic field? Circadian rhythms? And the atmosphere? Some of this is mentioned, but there are so many major problems caused by the science here that I can’t see the rest of the plot – the geopolitical plot – happening at all.

This is a book that could have done with a map at the start, so illustrate what AHM spends too many pages explaining. But even with all the explaining, I’m still wondering why someone is wearing a coat over their army uniform, or why you’re wandering the hot streets of London in endless daylight wearing a trench coat.

The third, related, problematic area is the consistency of the world building. Larry Niven wrote sequels to Ringworld because knowledgable readers pointed out the flaws in his design; which he then addressed head-on. AHM wants us to know that food supplies are constrained (believable), and that diets are very restricted (also credible). The contintents are closed, half of the world is dead and frozen, the ports are blockaded (allegorical Brexit)…

And then Murray describes the lingering “smell of spices” coming from “a row of shacks” in Brixton. Spices? From where? Grown by whom? Imported and sold by whom? After 30-odd years of this disaster? FUCKSAKE. Have you seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail? They did a better job of imagining what a restricted diet would look like and they weren’t really trying.

And then there are the cigarettes. Let me understand this: people are starving, there’s not enough food, but there are tobacco plantations and cigarette factories? Where? And again, how are these drugs being transported?

And then there’s the day-night thing. A curfew. Why? And “morning”? And “evening”? It’s exhausting.

With something like this, you want to feel you’re in a safe pair of hands, someone who has a notebook filled with details that they’l never even include, just because they’re so thoroughly immersed in this fictional world. You need to trust that they’re not going to spend dozens of pages talking about a collapsed civilisation and constrained lives and a stuck planet and then assume that someone who was four when all this happened is going to (a) think in terms of mornings and evenings and (b) pick up the filthy smoking habit and a ready supply of fags. Ration books but somehow, still, cigarettes over the counter? Please.

*Not my favourite