I was quite torn by this one, which came to my attention after being nominated for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. Microcosmically I think Way Down Dark is pretty effective; it’s well-written, pacy, and has some beautiful turns of phrase. It manages to convey a lot of information about its setting without ever resorting to info-dumping or dry exposition. The narrator is a delight, too; Chan is multifaceted and idiosyncratic, often wrestling with complex ideas about a moral code as a philosophy, versus a moral code as practice, which is a nicely intricate thing to find in a YA novel. I also liked the cloying sense of claustrophobia that acts as a satisfying metaphor for the characters’ ignorance about their wider circumstances. Macrocosmically, though, the book has problems. The worldbuilding is, at best, very inconsistent. Aspects of the plot are highly derivative, and the constant, constant violence quickly moves from being shocking, to apathetic, to downright tedious.
The book is a sort of salvagepunk science-fictional Young Adult dystopia (seriously), and while I don’t know much about YA in general, Way Down Dark seems, to me, to tick all the more voguish boxes of that genre’s clichés. Kickass teenage protagonist? Check. Who’s an orphan? Check. Struggling to survive in a hyper-violent nightmare society? Mega Check!
Okay, so while that’s all broad-strokes unoriginal, the actual setting is pretty intriguing. The action transpires aboard the ‘Australia’, a vast spaceship that fled a dying Earth hundreds of years ago in search of a new home. Since the ship left Earth, something has gone wrong, and society aboard has devolved into a barbaric feudalism. Almost none of the ship’s wonderful technology functions anymore, and most of its metal has been stripped away for makeshift stabby weapons (leaving grating for floors and curtains to separate living areas); it’s one of those setting-as-metaphor-for-the-decay-of-society things. Oh, and nobody on board has any control over the ship’s systems or location “There are no windows on Australia, no view of the stars”.
The ship is divided into a hundred or so floors, all looking inwards around a central pit, at the bottom of which is a dark mulchy landfill of whatever garbage the ship’s inhabitants decide to throw down there (which mostly seems to be dead bodies and faeces. Lovely). Most of the novel is concerned with a civil war, as the ultra-violent inhabitants of the lower decks – dubbed “The Lows” – attempt to take over the rest of the ship, indiscriminately killing and torturing whosoever resists them.
And it really is violent. Removing the physical descriptions of violence would probably reduce the book’s length by a third. Much of this violence is highly visceral, revelling in gory detail, “I kick one to the floor, jamming the stick into his mouth, smashing his teeth and frying his tongue.” and, “I can see the bone jutting through her torn skin. I don’t have time to save her”. And even when the violence isn’t being described so vividly, it forms the general background to the book’s events. Such asides as “two Lows were in the middle of torturing man I know”, and “The Lows were stringing them up” are commonly peppered throughout otherwise more prosaic passages of description. In fact, these casual asides irked me more than the gratuitous stuff; rather than meaningful attempts to create tone or transmit information, they come across as just patronising reminders of the setting’s intrinsic horror, as if we could ever forget that EVERYBODY IS ALWAYS FIGHTING.
I guess the brutality does serve a purpose in the novel’s opening chapters, establishing WDD as a book that doesn’t pull its punches in regards to its depiction of the human propensity for savagery. The violence also marks Chan, our teenage protagonist, as even more distinct for her refusal to commit murder.
It’s not long, however, before the sheer amount of violence begins to have implications not just for the reading experience (the aforementioned creeping tedium), but for the wider worldbuilding itself. How has the society onboard the Australia lasted so long if this level of violence is the norm? Surely it would have destroyed itself long ago? As @Couchtomoon eloquently tweeted, Way Down Dark “isn’t really concerned with how this all works”.
The shining star of the book is the narrator, Chan. Her personal journey from raw ingénue, through to self-preserving egoist, and, finally, compassionate saviour is convincing. But her refusal to kill anybody can be a little baffling in light of a) the society in which she’s grown up, and b) the fact that her enemies, the Lows, are characterised as raving murderous lunatics incapable of reason or empathy. That Chan’s moral sensibilities are so well-developed despite the brutality and ubiquitous darkness of her entire lived experience is a little hard to swallow in places, but the novel’s justification that she learned all this from her dead mother more-or-less has things covered. Just about. Her voice is also nicely distinct, a believable blend of emotional introspection, moral uncertainty, and frantic teenage expression, “And suddenly, as if we blinked, it happened, fast as anything”.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention The Twist. Towards the end of the novel, the core protagonists discover that they’ve been wrong about their circumstances for their entire lives. Yup, it’s one of those generation ship novels in which you’re led to believe one thing is happening, but then it turns out that, actually, the setting is something very different. DUN-DUN-DUUUN!
The Twist seems to divide readers in a love-it-or-hate-it kinda way; people are either gobsmacked, or they cry “bullshit”. Personally, I found the whole thing exasperating, and saw it coming a mile away; not because it’s particularly over-telegraphed in the narrative, but because this kind of plot twist is such a cliché of the generation ship sub genre, starting with Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958), and re-appearing in everything from Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969), to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993 – 1996), and terrible SF horror movie Pandorum (2009). I get why it’s so popular (and hence over-used); it’s a fruitful kind of twist that generates impressive narrative momentum and sense-of-wonder while simultaneously knocking on the door of deeper philosophical ideas about a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us. But c’mon, it’s 2016, and this is very old hat. Hell, it’d be more radical for the inhabitants of a generation ship NOT to face such an existential volta.
I mean, it’s not a bad book; Way Down Dark is mostly good fun if you don’t think too hard about all the inconsistencies and holes in the worldbuilding (seriously, how is there enough food for everyone? Why would anybody wade out into the gross sea of decomposing bodies at the bottom of the ship? How does anybody reach child-bearing age without being murdered? And The Twist exposes even more flaws that I can’t really talk about without resorting to massive spoilers). Chan is a compelling protagonist in the Katniss mould, and some of the sub-cultures onboard the Australia (such as the religious fanatics living at the top whose doctrine consists of scraps of bible verse combined with bits of Dante’s Inferno) are interesting and quirky. I just, I dunno. It’s a really odd book, fun and action-packed, but let down by an over-reliance on old genre clichés, and a OTT amount of violence. But I’ve read lots of Amazon reviews, and the target audience of teenagers seem to love it, so what do I know?