When I read Rebecca’s review of this novel last year in her 20 Books of Summer for 2021, I immediately had to get a copy for myself, but didn’t get around to reading it until now when it fitted into my 20 Books of Summer! As Rebecca says, if you’re a Station Eleven fan (and you know I’m one of the biggest) this dystopian post-pandemic novel is definitely one for you.
It begins in London, where artist Harry, has moved into his late nephew’s flat. The only person he really talks to is the woman who lives in flat Twenty-Two, he doesn’t know her name, but he enjoys their chats in the lift. She has blue eyes, and he finds himself talking about blue oil paints, some which were historically derived from semi-precious stones and poisons.
‘Blue is demanding. Blue,’ he sighs, ‘gives me grey hairs.’
The times are worrying though. People are starting to disappear from the streets, there’s talk of a pandemic. Harry decides it’s time to return to his cottage in Devon, but puts a note under Twenty-Two’s door inviting her to join him there. He’s well-installed, when Ash turns up with Jessie, her sister, who is a doctor and stocked up with drugs before abandoning her post. It’s fair to say that Harry and Jessie don’t really hit it off, there is always a tension between them, and Ash is now chaperoned, so any romantic notions are effectively dispelled.
However, it soon becomes clear that Harry, Ash and Jess are amongst the few survivors from a pandemic that has killed more than Station Eleven‘s 90%, a worse-than-Covid killer, perhaps similar to the potential of Jim Shepard’s Phase Six virus unleashed by the melting Arctic ice. This leads Jessie to come to a fatalistic conclusion – huge parts of the world will soon go into nuclear meltdown with noone to run the power stations, the water cooling will fail and BOOM! the whole of the northern hemisphere where nuclear plants are concentrated will be irradiated and they’ll die. The only solution is to go to Africa to get as far as possible from the nuclear power stations as possible: it takes a while to persuade Harry. Eventually they embark on a road trip through France, across the top of Italy aiming for Turkey, and the gateway to Africa. Needing to stop and restock their fuel and provisions from abandoned homes and vehicles, their trip in the trusty Mercedes is slow going and often stressful with Harry as the only driver, and Jessie always needling.
‘I wish I had my paints,’ he said.
‘Why?’ Jessie asks.
She is in one of her moods. He pretends he hasn’t heard.
‘Is it a stupid question?’ she insists. ‘Why? Why? Why?’
‘Art–’ he starts, but Jessie cuts him off.
‘Art. What is that essentially? It’s just us thinking that’s a brilliant thing to do. Art is just entertainment for us, like fetching a stick is entertainment for dogs.’
‘Dogs!’ he says, but he has no reply beyond that and is quiet.
Jessie doesn’t stop.
‘Anyway, I didn’t see you draw or paint once in weeks at the cottage.’
The question of what art is, and even more so what it is that enables humans to feel emotion connection to it is an essential philosophical theme at the heart of this novel. So far, I’ve only introduced you to one of the two strands in the plot of this novel; there is another way of looking at this conundrum. Let’s meet TALOS…
In the Arctic Circle, two computer scientists are feeding their ‘baby’ Talos XI, an advanced AI, data. Each week, they introduce the AI to a new era in human development. Dr Dahlen, Lisa, leads the sessions with Talos, interrogating him to uncover his levels of development each time after her colleague Paul has added new data. In session 1, when asked ‘what is the world made of?’ he answers, ‘Ones and zeros.’ By session 779, Talos asks Lisa what happened to Talos I to X. Soon, Talos is well into the 18th century in absorbing the human race’s history…
Dr Dahlen: You have come into contact with a fair amount of what we call art by now, Talos. I’ve noticed you are very quiet about that area.
Talos XI: I accept it.
Dr Dahlen: You accept what?
Talos XI: I accept that humans have a category of things they call art.
Dr Dahlen: That’s not exactly how humans see it.
Talos XI: Humans derive satisfaction from patterns.
Dr Dahlen: Is that all it is?
Talos XI: I suspect it is a by-product of some other processes that are necessary for survival. The drive to organise, to experiment. Appreciating music is very likely an implication of advanced linguistic capacity.
Dr Dahlen: That’s nonsense. You have advanced linguistic capacity and zero interest in music.
Talos XI: I do not need to ‘like’ something in order to do it, as humans need to, so there will be no by-products of my interest in language.
Dr Dahlen: Give this subject some more thought.
You can see that Jessie, with her rational way of looking at life, is articulating the same kinds of thoughts as Talos in a way. Just as Talos is finding it hard to get to grips with the human condition and Dr Dahlen is hoping that one day he’ll make that evolutionary leap, Harry finds it difficult to explain his drive to create to Jessie; although Ash gets it.
Underlying Talos’ continuing education is the purpose he was built for – to predict what will happen to the human race, given that as consistent with Asimov’s laws of robotics, human life is sacred. But is this actually ethical?
I couldn’t possibly tell you any more about how things will pan out for either group, but their strands will converge with a terrifying inevitability that, given their circumstances, you can probably imagine.
As she explains in her afterword, when Aristide started writing it in 2017, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion had yet to come to our attention, and the pandemic threat was also far from the forefront of people’s minds. Yet, as she was writing the book over the next few years, the themes she was describing started to happen for real. Under the Blue is a novel of deep ideas, and it is clear that Aristide believes passionately that we as humans need to change, else her alternate reality might become all too real.
There is an elegance and intelligence to her writing that echoes Mandel, leavened with wit – such as the exchanges between Lisa and Paul in particular, colleagues who must live in isolation and never meet, who can thus virtually flirt gently with each other.
It’s a shame that when this novel was published last spring, it rather fell under the radar. I absolutely loved it, and have no doubts that it will feature in my year end ‘best of’ list. It is thought-provoking, clever and even prophetic, and I hope that many more will discover and read it now it is available in paperback.
This was also my 11th book of my 20 Books of Summer 2022 (I’ve now read 16 – more reviews soon).
Source: Own copy hardback, Mar-21. Now in Serpent’s Tail paperback, 288 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.