In this debut futuristic novel, most of Earth’s degraded population retreats to virtual-reality limbo, with rogues, cannibals, and a few godlike beings competing for humanity’s destiny in the dangerous outdoors.
After the creation of free energy, cures for all diseases, and affluent income for everyone with no need for labor (drones accomplish it all), the world should be a Utopia. But “Energy Wars” killed billions and elevated to power a shadowy, rather untrustworthy, space-station–based savior called the Lord Judge, who molded the planet into a “Federation.” Now 90 percent of the survivors dwell in clustered “Hub” cities, which are practically ghost towns, as everyone atrophies indoors in mind, spirit, and body, plugged into virtual reality most of the time. The outside “Wilderness” has been deliberately abandoned to rebel primitivists, a more-than-human policing force, and a monstrous race of drug-mutated, prowling cannibal killers called the Wrynd (compared to zombies, they are actually in almost every respect orcs). And seemingly incarnating the Earth spirit Gaia, animals ranging from livestock to former pets savagely attack defenseless humans, incidents called Rages. Several linked, outsized characters who traverse the ominous landscape in the former American West—principally Navajo drifter Harley Nearwater, a legendary outlaw and casual killer—set the stage for a major paradigm shift. Davis launches his series with a tale that conjures familiar dystopian genre tropes but still invokes what one protagonist calls an “interestin’ world.” What happens in that realm is “interestin’ ” in long, rather tentative stretches but primarily sets up enigmas that may or may not be answered down the line. Early inklings of foreboding and menace turn into extravagant action scenes, as the Federation military battles Tolkien-esque hordes of Wrynd that bathe the Rocky Mountains in blood. Other characters appear on the scene, controlling elemental forces of nature, seeming more mystical than sci-fi. Harley morphs from an intriguing agent-of-chaos antihero into a more typical Shane-style cowboy loner with a soft spot for children and seniors. There are hints of Mormon underpinnings with the gradual introduction of the supernatural into what began as a sort of frontier cyberpunk story. “We’ve slipped from reality to fantasy, from science to wizardry,” observes one character after yet another cascade of death and special effects. Future volumes will have to address open-ended puzzles this outing sets up.
An ambitious and gory series opener that somewhat bafflingly straddles sci-fi and metaphysics/religion.