Radio Life by Derek B. Miller

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In a post-apocalyptic USA, sometime in the 25th century, the scattered remnants of humanity have formed themselves into several small communities. There is ‘The Commonwealth,’ a highly-organised and sophisticated group, who live in a Stadium on the edge of the desert, clinging to the remnants of old technology. They’re a society organised around a mission: to recover the knowledge of the old civilisation, and to preserve and disseminate that knowledge through a distributed network of archives. Out in the desert, another group is gathering in increasing numbers. They are ‘The Keepers,’ a nomadic people who believe that whatever catastrophe killed off ‘The Ancients,’ will surely happen again if people start meddling with things like literacy and electricity. And so the stage is set for a showdown between the two groups.

In the canon of post-apocalyptic literature, technophiles versus technophobes is as ground breaking a concept as florals for spring. Still, Miller creates a strong and eerie sense of place, with the ‘gone world,’ reduced to the upper stories of a few skyscrapers poking out of the desert sands, and a huge glass bridge to nowhere, now used a trading centre. The towers lead down into a subterranean city, haunted by unnerving humanoid robots and tales of the sickness that still lingers there.

Lily, the Commonwealth’s chief engineer, has discovered a box of children’s books and classical texts, which form the foundation of their education system and their worldview. As a result the Commonwealth have a Sparta-style military training system and an unusual knowledge-classification system. Of course their scraps of information float context-free and are easily misunderstood, which provides some great comedic moments. Miller has made a great job of showing what a weird world view would emerge if a handful of texts were all we had to go on. In addition to Lily, The Commonwealth’s head of military and secret service are both older ladies, and the ‘archive runners,’ who undertake dangerous missions to secure documents in different locations, are mostly teenage girls. I enjoyed that ‘girl power’ aspect a lot. Radio Life has plenty of quirky humour and well-meaning characters (the antagonists, the Keepers, are not stupid or crazy pantomime villains; they simply have a different belief system). The book ends on a hopeful note, which is nice because who wants to read something dark in the middle of a pandemic? Miller gives us noble self-sacrifice, co-operation, triumph over the odds and a bright future for humanity, which is all oddly uplifting.

Unfortunately, as a former archivist and a deeply cynical person, I might be the worst person to review this book. Miller points out the uncomfortable fact that more and more of our information is stored online, which means that if Kim Kardashian’s bum, or some other catastrophe, does ever ‘break the internet,’ we’re going to have a lot of problems. Miller’s solution is to have the Commonwealth rediscover the internet. OK, so the great catastrophe that kills off civilization takes place a couple of hundred years from now, and things have become more sophisticated – Miller provides interesting and inventive solutions to the problem of electricity – but that’s still not how the internet works. Even if you download information the storage media will degrade to uselessness in about ten years. Digital information doesn’t just sit there, unattended to, for hundreds of years, which is why digital archives are such a huge headache. Other aspects of world-building felt unrealistic to me. Bees are extinct yet there are crops. There is extreme scarcity yet everybody is nice to each other and they fight over philosophical beliefs, rather than access to basic resources. There are lots of bad-ass ladies in Radio Life, but unless the Commonwealth have contraception and a good medical system, the adult women would spend most of their time pregnant or caring for babies, not riding through the desert dressed in Suzy-Quattro style leather jumpsuits and pole-vaulting into old buildings. Although I’m not a fan of very hard sci-fi where every little thing is explained in exhaustive detail, Radio Life isn’t trying to be a silly romp like Dr Who. In order to buy into this world, I needed more explanation about some of these quite major technological and sociological issues. Without addressing these topics, even if just in a few lines, all of Miller’s lovely hopefulness feels like a hollow and impossible dream.

I also felt there were some problems with pacing. Radio Life starts off at an amble and ends at a frenzied gallop. There’s quite a lot of quite clumsy and repetitive exposition, and a lack of foreshadowing in the plot, which leads to a few Deus ex Machina moments. This is Miller’s first venture into science fiction – he has previously written some well-regarded thrillers – and I wonder if he’s still getting to grips with the specific difficulties of writing science fiction: namely giving the reader all the information they need, but in a non-boring way. I don’t think that’s an easy task.

Radio Life is an uneven read, but it offers an escape into an interesting and well-described world, and raises some interesting questions about the role of knowledge and mass communication for good and evil in our society, about whether censorship is ever a good idea, and how to choose what information needs to be preserved. All good questions, that archivists ponder all the time.

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Radio Life if published by Quercus Books and is available here.

Derek B. Miller

Derek B. Miller, Ph.D. (international relations), is the award-winning author of Norwegian by Night and the forthcoming novels Radio Life and How to Find Your Way in the Dark. He lives in Oslo, Norway.

Reviewed by Kate Tyte

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