Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart

Earlier this year, I was approached by Jamie to see if I’d like to read his Spec SF novel. I’m often slightly wary of direct author approaches in case I have to disappoint, but having fallen in love with the cover, I am relieved to tell you that this is a superb novel. It shows a strong Ballardian influence too, JG being a favourite of mine!

Kings of a Dead World is set in the near future, a time in which the second half of the 20th century is still fresh in some minds and vintage TV programmes are still broadcast. But the world inhabited by the subjects of this novel is now broken. Climate change has wreaked havoc on the world, in Britain large areas are flooded, uninhabitable. The world can’t support those left, so a radical programme has been put in place–the majority will spend three quarters of the year asleep, waking every three months for one month of so-called normal life. Robots keep crops growing to feed everyone, and all is managed and overseen by a team of ‘Janitors’ who stay awake, one for each of the remaining cities where everyone now lives.

The novel is told in three strands and voices, two contemporary, and one from around fifty years earlier–before people slept. We begin in the book’s present with Ben. It’s April and the city status is AWAKE. Ben is waking, coming to as the tranqs leave his system.

Feeling creeps back into my legs. It’s always like this. It is designed this way to ease you back into the world. The shock could kill us otherwise, but I know I’m only on the surface of things and any minute now I’m going to look to my right and the race will begin. […]

Then I say a silent prayer to Chronos, count down three, two one, open my eyes again and turn to the side. The real countdown begins.

I see my wife in profile and for a millisecond everything is as it always was. Her face is timeless and beautiful, the cruel hand of age not visible on her. Her eyes open and she turns her head slightly to me. I see the smile in her eyes.

Then the diagnostic barrel begins to move.

‘Stay still, beautiful, stay still,’ I say, trying to keep the panic from my voice. […]

She looks down at her naked body and I know what she sees, an old woman, whereas her mind is hidden in the youth of her past. Her mouth opens in a horrified O and she begins to scream.

Ben is eighty-two, his wife Rose has dementia, and with her confusion the system puts her back to sleep for a while which allows Ben to check their creds (disappointingly low – what are the guys who are looking after them doing?) and go out to get some simple food. When he returns, she is up and safely watching the TV.

The next chapter takes us back into March and the city status is SLEEPING. We meet Peruzzi, fiftyish, one of the janitors who is preparing in his luxury flat in the compound for the ‘Rite’ – the quarterly party for the Janitors at the end of each sleep. Ripley, his AI assists him. Shortly, he goes down to join in the Rite to join in the hedonism of their club night. Slattery, his mate, another janitor is there and when Slattery asks him ‘Want to see something cool?’, Peruzzi is intrigued. Slattery takes him through a hidden door – which ultimately leads … outside! The world outside is asleep, and Slattery ‘borrows’ a car and they go for a drive. He wants to show Peruzzi the corpses – they stop at an overturned double-decker bus and find a skeleton. Peruzzi pockets an identity card lying by it. Time to go back to the Rite. Slattery drives like a maniac shouting out the window:

‘Look at us. We’re fucking kings!’ ‘Kings of a dead world.’

The third chapter is BEFORE. An unnamed narrator tells the story of how he met a group of activists and also the woman who would become his wife. This is the story of a dying world, the terrible plans the government has to deal with it, and the activists’ reaction to it.

Excuse the prolonged explanation of the beginnings of the three strands. Mollart continues to weave them around each other, and as the novel progresses, we begin to see how they link together. The plight of Ben and Rose is particularly devastating, especially for Ben who sees his wife disappearing faster each time they awake. Peruzzi finds himself profoundly affected by what he saw outside and it sets off a malaise in him, a depression that could jeopardise those he is responsible for when they sleep, as he feels compelled to explore further outside and to find out more about the girl whose identity card he picked up.

There is also a lot of politics built into the novel, which we feel primarily from before and Ben’s story. Peruzzi, in his privileged position, is akin to a pension fund manager hedging his bets on other city’s misery, but times are becoming increasingly dangerous and the janitors’ ivory towers may not be safe much longer.

I mentioned JG Ballard back in my introduction: in Kings of a Dead World, we have the haves and have nots from High-Rise; we have the flooded cities from The Drowned World, we have the dystopian journeys of The Drowned World and The Drought. Whether intentional or not, Mollart’s novel felt very Ballardian to me, and I liked that aspect a lot. There is a message to all of us in the book too, about climate change, Mollart’s vision of the near future could be closer than we think.

My second review for Sci Fi Month (I wrote about two novellas here), I really enjoyed this thought-provoking and suitably complicated spec fiction novel. I’m very keen to track down a copy of Mollart’s debut, The Zoo, which tracks the descent into madness of an advertising man. Meanwhile huge thanks to Jamie for sending me a signed copy of the hardback – it was much appreciated.

Source – Review copy – thank you! Sandstone Press hardback, 352 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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