I got off my Green Line trolley at Park Street Station the other morning and turned toward the broad flight of stairs that leads up to the corner of Boston Common. I’ve probably done it a thousand times but I was struck by a pang of fear. I was sure that outside of the familiar, skylit granite box of the station entrance was a deadly whiteout blizzard. A winter to bring the glaciers back. And I wasn’t facing it with a clear head, either, but with the narced out fogginess of someone who ought to be sleeping through this season. I might even meet the Gronk, and I don’t mean the Patriots’ goofy tight end. No, the Gronk is invisible on film, huge on radar, takes the fingers of her victims and leaves their clothes neatly folded. Fortunately, it was just a passing impression. In reality, Boston winters aren’t much. I had been reading Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser.
I felt like a wealthy man when the Boston Public Library called me to tell me my reserve was in. I took an extra long lunch break and went to the central branch to pick up my brand new copy, four days after release. I had been waiting a long time for a new Fforde novel. Unfortunately, I’m just not ready to let him off the hook for Shades of Grey. The present book, a standalone I believe, is genuine Fforde and pretty strange, but it suffers in the shadow of that unfortunately titled unfinished series. Still, the list of things the book does well is impressive.
Perhaps because I’d expected something quite different, I thought a lot about how closely Fforde hews to the formula of the noir. Fforde’s characters, as far as I know, are always loners and always out of their depths investigating some mystery. Family plays a role in the Thursday Next books and in Shades of Gray, but the really important characters are always antagonists or comrades in arms. Though I’ve hardly read any real noir, I feel like I know their stock characters somewhat through Fforde. In Early Riser, there’s Birgitta, apparently a classic seductress. She’s trouble anyway, and she has a ravishing routine when she asks to paint our young hero’s portrait. There’s Laura, a cheerful girl just trying to get along in a harsh world. Her firstborn has already been optioned. She has self effacing lines that reminded me of Stiggins, the neanderthal cop in Thursday Next. Finally there are the actual comrades in arms, including a couple of haunted veterans of a vaguely described southern war who have taken to wearing suicide vests at all times. They’re determined to take as many Wintervolk, Villains, and Nightwalkers as possible out with them when they go.
So I haven’t said what’s going on yet. It’s not really a spoiler, though there might be a few mild ones here. Charlie Worthing is a novice Winter Consul. His calling is to see the bulk of humanity through hibernation. In this Wales, people hibernate not only to escape the cold but to save food. Someone has to keep any eye on things. Fforde doesn’t do a lot of broad, explicit world building, but there are clues as to what’s going on. Anglesey, in the northwest corner of Wales, is under the ice cap (the cause of an important philatelic rarity). There’s suggestion that England suffered a catastrophe that scattered the traditional nobility. One question is whether this is a global cooling novel, so to speak, and I’ll return to that.
Every year, some portion of the sleepers fail to return to full consciousness, and instead wake up as mindless zombies called Nightwalkers. It’s quite an achievement for Fforde to have made zombies fun again. This version is only dangerous when very hungry, so a good Winter Consul makes sure to have a stash of Mars Bars and other British sounding goodies on hand to facilitate the humane treatment of Nightwalkers. Despite the risks, the annual hibernation is embraced by all to the point of being a physiological habit. Only someone like Charlie, an indentured orphan, would take on the dangers of staying up in winter and “early rising”.
It’s a problem that when Charlie begins investigating a dream that’s upsetting sleepers and causing violent behavior, the reader recognizes it as the crucial mystery, whereas the consuls must continue to fumble. It doesn’t help that the plot drew comparisons to the movie Inception, which I feel caused a big splash and went absolutely nowhere, like most dreams. Perhaps Early Riser will do better, partly because it’s a novel. In places, I was fairly impressed that through all the bizarre madcap, Fforde was coming round to the bluntly topical. But maybe I’m unrealistic in expecting that dream reading and dream inducing technologies will shortly exist. Literature certainly already creates a kind of shared dreaming, more so than movies, as was mooted around the time of Inception.
Other aspects of Fforde’s satires strike me now as more realistic than they might appear. I think in most of his novels the maleficent corporation is only ever chastened by the investigator’s work, not brought down. I also noticed that the strange and irresistible walnut handled Bambis, the Thumper, and the array of other amusing weapons and effects quite casually show security forces willing to repurpose and push the use of less lethal weapons to the point where someone mentions that bringing back bullets might actually be desirable. Sure, a little knock from a wave of compressed air sounds ok, but what about when a blast from a two handed Cowpuncher gets refracted through a narrow doorway and pops your target like a balloon? It gives different meaning to the term “Bernoullize”*.
I hope I’ve already conveyed that some of the blizzard scenes in this are pretty good and a bit frightening. There’s a fairly dark infanticide subplot. There are creepy scenes in the dormitoria, which are huge silo structures, heated by atomic reactors to just above freezing. After lights out, there’s only the flickering of ritual candles. Of course, there’s more activity in them than meets the eye. These buildings are named like ships, it seemed to me, like the Sarah Siddons, and resemble them also with their skeleton crews and cargoes of innocent passengers trying to travel from autumn to spring.
Is this a global warming novel in some sense? I wonder if it’s been raised in reviews or interviews but I haven’t looked yet. Fforde makes some transparent allusions, in questionable taste. I take global warming seriously. He uses the words “inconvenient truth”. He also talks about trading carbon, but in the opposite sense, with Wales getting positive credit for out of control coal mine fires. But I think I’ve reconciled myself to this. For one thing, I’m open to a fairly wide characterization of what global warming literature might be. I’m fairly sure that Seveneves should count, even if Neal Stephenson is trying to set himself up as a skeptic or a techno optimist or what have you. In Seveneves, people are fighting a natural disaster against an impossible deadlines, and the experience as a reader is not claustrophobic just because it takes place in space capsules. I think this may be more pertinent to, or descriptive of our situation even than instances where authors like Kim Stanley Robinson take global warming seriously and work it into their versions of the future. I don’t see any reason to think that Fforde is pushing willful ignorance. When he casually reveals that his characters are speaking Welsh, it produces what has to be a deliberate loss of balance. The climate has changed things profoundly. There are other examples of this, and of course a lot of starvation.
* Bernoullize was used by Leibniz to mean doing mathematics, in homage to the Bernoulli family.