9 June 2016

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

Image from www.gollancz.co.uk
The Fireman
Joe Hill
Gollancz, 7 June 2016
HB, 752pp
Source: e-copy via NetGalley (and I have bought a copy as well).


Sometimes it's hardest to review the books you liked most. If a review is dissecting, examining and appraising a book, then finding one that is perfect, wonderful, awesome in every way is rather tricky. What can you say other than wonderful, awesome, perfect in every way?

But that doesn't get blogpost written and - rightly - won't get people to pick up the book and read it, which they should. (Unless they're so impressed with my judgement that they just, you know, read everything I recommend. I suspect there are very few folk like that).

So. In The Fireman, Hill describes an apocalypse. it's not post-apocalyptic because the terrible thing, the disease, the 'scale, is still happening and civilization is degrading. Degrading gracefully, but degrading all the same. We are, then, in John Wyndham country, seeing things begin to fall apart as in The Kraken Wakes or The Day of The Triffids. And indeed Hill nods to this - the camp that our hero, Harper, flees to and spends much of the book in, is Camp Wyndham. (There are nods to other authors too: a boat called the Maggie Atwood, mention of JK Rowling fighting the good fight over in Scotland).

This isn't just a superficial matter of setting. Much of Wyndham's writing is more about how we should respond to apocalypse - how we will go on - than mere SFnal musing about how it might occur. He also explores themes of development: how those altered by the disaster may be the next stage in human development (The Chrysalids). Hill takes these themes a long, long way indeed.

It is the present, or the near future. Dragonscale is spreading, a fungal infection that leads sufferers to spontaneously combust in response to stress. Put a bunch of them together and you may get a chain reaction. The fires thus started seem unnaturally fierce and are devastating swathes of the US North East. (And the rest of the world, of course, but that's where this story happens).

The threat to civilization is therefore double - not only the loss of people, but destruction and chaos caused by the fires. Or triple: the fear and mistrust sets neighbour against neighbour, with vigilante squads out to kill the infected. Not the least of the subtexts to this nook - indeed it's a glaringly obvious theme that you really can't miss - is the quick rise of a lynch mob mentality, powered by frothing mouthed religious broadcasters, misogynists and crazed millenarians. With scenes of heaped burning corpses, of prisoners marched to be slaughtered on promises of being safeguarded, of "friendly" neighbours denouncing others, of frantic and bewildered refugees, there are obvious Holocaust parallels, as well perhaps as a warning that "it CAN happen here" which tap into real fears given the direction many countries currently seem to be going. If Wyndham's stories, written in the decades following the second world war, generally (though not always) emphasised the need for a rational, adaptible approach to apocalypse which would (generally) triumph over those wielding sheer force and power, Hill takes a different tack, showing just how vulnerable we all are to a self appointed Messianic leader.

The book focusses on two main characters - Harper, a nurse who, for most of the story is (increasingly) pregnant and Nick, a deaf child. The Fireman of the title is a commanding figure who - at least until the end - is more notable by his absence (it's explained eventually: he has a particular fire he needs to keep burning, but it would still be good to see more of him. We see more than we'd like, on the other hand, of Harper's vile husband Jakob, who eventually teams up with the Cremation Crew to hunt down Harper and her allies). Harper is strong, resilient, quick thinking - and infected with the 'scale. Most of her focus is on surviving long enough to give birth, and on making a safe life for her child: she assumes she won't to see the baby grow up. Nick, though a child, is haunted by the loss of his mother. He and The Fireman have a great deal in common, as becomes clear through the book, and their destiny - and those of a few others - seems to be entwined with the fate of the 'scale itself.

Many are burned by the 'scale. Others learn ways to control it in frightening sessions of groupthink whose bonding seems to prevent it form burning. Still others - and The Fireman is one - seem to learn to live with it. But that is a rare and dangerous gift which Nick's mother, Sarah, died trying to master.

I really can't praise this book too much. There is so much in it to love. The end of civilization - doomed both by damage from the scale and by the vile hatreds this unleashes. Harper's determination not to survive - she doesn't believe she can - but to preserve love, in the form of her baby (a common theme with Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven). The moral ambiguity: with the best of intentions (...from most...) the society that tries to build itself at camp Wyndham contains the same seeds of corruption as the world that the Infected have fled. (The dynamics and subtle politics of the camp itself, with frequent allusions to Watership Down, would be quite enough of a theme for many writers). The sheer length - over seven hundred pages of compelling, page turning story. Even the slower parts of this book are enough to make one's hair stand on end.

Throughout the story, there is foreshadowing of worse to come. No refuge, no safety. Any respite is temporary with Hill often warning us that an occasion of solace will never be repeated, two characters will not see one another again or some plan will be fruitless. Before reading The Fireman I'd have scoffed at this device  - isn't it a tool of second rate melodrama? But Hill makes it come good, underscoring the peril his characters are in from start to finish. He even uses allusions to his other works to emphasise the point (not giving details, you'll have to spot for yourself).

Yet it isn't a bleak book. There is love here, redemption, self-sacrifice, all blazing away like the brightest of flames. There are real, true characters (I don't insist on always having characters in books that I can "relate to" - I think that's just silly - but finding some truly wonderful, absorbing characters in a story is a real joy). Hill's imagining of the ashfields, the searing destructive beauty of the fires, the glory of snow or rain, is just triumphant writing.

You see the problem I have? It is just hard not to gush about this book. I loved his last, NOS4R2, but with The Fireman he has turned the heat up several hundred more degrees and the result is, simply, breathtaking.

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