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Kings of a Dead World (SF) - Jamie Mollart ****

Jamie Mollart's Kings of a Dead World is a challenging read, but is a great demonstration of why science fiction is much more than just space operas (fun though they can be) - the genre gives a unique opportunity to explore the worlds of 'What if?' I'm not quite sure why, but dystopias - which this very dark book is with a vengeance - seem to be back in fashion. To be honest, in difficult times likes these I prefer to read enjoyable escapism, but if someone insists on publishing a dystopian novel during a pandemic, Jamie Mollart has discovered a way to make the concept fresh and interesting. 

The book has three interlaced storylines. One is from before the collapse of society as we know it, pretty much around the present, which is 50 years in the past of the other two storylines. In that future world, most of the population is put to sleep for months at a time, emerging for a month of life before being put back to sleep again. We see this occurring from the viewpoint of an elderly citizen and his dementia-suffering wife, and from the worldview of a janitor, a member of an elite who stay awake all the time to look after their sector of the country and to somewhat magically generate money ('credits') for the sleepers to live on when they wake. The setup is hugely imaginative - a fascinating thought experiment in world building.

For me, by far the best segments were those featuring the janitor - to an extent, I wish the whole thing had been told from this viewpoint which would have both removed the mildly irritating interlacing of storylines and would have made the gradual reveal of what had happened more dramatic. As it was, I rushed through the other segments to get back to the janitor. There's real depth in his gradual realisation of the false nature of his picture of the world, and an excellent portrayal of his stranger-in-a-strange-land experiences in the zone that he nominally controls as his world falls apart.

I did have a couple of problems with the book. We discover that Ben, one of the two main characters,  was a bomb-making terrorist in the past-set segments, which makes it difficult to identify with him. He is also in his eighties in the late-set segments, yet despite this and a poor diet, he sometimes acts physically as if he were Bruce Willis in Diehard. The bigger issue was the credibility of the scenario. The changes to the UK don't bear any resemblance to current climate change predictions. For no obvious reason, countries seem to have abandoned all efforts to produce renewable energy or mitigate climate change. The country can't support the basics of life, but is able to maintain an extremely high tech computerised system controlling citizens' sleep. Similarly, it's not possible to maintain simple technology like wind generators, but somehow this extremely advanced technology is kept going. Perhaps worst of all, in the 50 years or so between the 'our world' and 'their world' segments, all existing culture and religion has been replaced by one dreamed up from scratch - it's far too short a timescale for such a fundamental culture change.

The result is a mixed bag. Mollart leaves a lot hanging at the end - I don't know if the intention is to have a sequel, but there is a lot that is never tied up. For a modern title, there are surprisingly few female central characters - the strongest drawn is an AI. Despite the flaws, though, the action sequences are engaging and there is considerable depth to the world that Mollart has created. It's not the sort of book that I can really say that I enjoyed - but I'm very glad that I read it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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