This sci-fi novel pits humanity against an eerie, intractable threat.
Elise Broderick owns a flower shop in Glasgow, Scotland. At 41, she’s unmarried and has no children, but she does have parents who’d like her to move to Edinburgh with them. Yet she adores her bustling city and enjoys regular customers like Craig. One day, they discuss some trouble happening “Up North.” He tells her, “Best head out before things get hairy.” Elise does escape the rioting that engulfs Glasgow, eventually hearing the rumor that a chemical spill in the River Clyde has ignited nationwide chaos. But the spill is just a cover story, disinformation spread by someone like Robert Halifax, working in Washington, D.C., for physicist Lillian Tao. She directs a team of specialists studying the Front, a spherical, slowly spreading (at 0.2 mph) phenomenon that is, as far as anyone outside it can guess, 100 percent lethal to humans. It kills “along the same lines as advanced fungal decomposition of a corpse.” As the Front spreads from Oban, Scotland, it devours cities and nations, driving forth waves of confused refugees. Throughout the United States, the National Transport Agency controls mass hysteria using National Guardsmen like Dwight and Brad, who aren’t sure they’re ready to gun down those in need of food and shelter. Can Lillian halt the Front before humanity succumbs to its own most destructive urges?
For readers who like their sci-fi unflinchingly nihilistic, Halpern (The Man Who Stands in Line, 2017) offers an eyes-on-the-ground document of how various stripes of people might spend their final moments. The narrative jumps back and forth among viewpoints staggered across the several years it takes the Front to cover the world. Elise’s chapters, for example, occur within the first 35 days of the phenomenon. This structure allows the author some perverse foreshadowing tricks, as when he introduces Chinese prisoner Yu Feng, whose chapters begin on “Day 730,” and then reveals through a Dwight chapter, “Day 844,” that the “Chinese had tied prisoners to posts to watch” the Front’s progress. Though reminiscent of patchwork narratives like World War Z that use gore to emphasize humanity’s struggle, Halpern’s work avoids gratuitous violence. The strength of this page-turning extinction event lies in the exposure of its characters’ darker selves. Elise, stripped of cleanliness and agency while detained in a camp, begins suffering flashes of xenophobia and thinks, “The more righteous you seemed, the more you secretly harbored racist thoughts.” Other hot-button topics under review are gun control, the bleakness of the internet, and the seriousness of murder as civilization crumbles. Learning what the Front actually is—the wrath of God or perhaps an alien cleansing mechanism—pales in comparison to the crucible it presents to humanity. The author proves excellent in laying bare the souls of Dwight, Lillian, and others. The final chapter, a rewind to “Day 0,” featuring a miserable couple on vacation, leaves readers much to ponder about the cause of humanity’s fall.
A pitch-black global thriller that is nevertheless supremely intimate.