I have to admit that reading Stephen King’s THE STAND when I was a teenager rather spoiled me for post-apocalypse yarns. All the ones I read after it seemed to pale in comparison, to the point that I’ve largely ignored the genre for the past couple of decades. But I did enjoy Alex Scarrow’s LAST LIGHT, which depicts the crumbling of civilisation due to a worldwide and near-complete loss of access to oil, and was curious to see what he had dreamed up next for the few left surviving at the end of that novel. Happily I can report it’s a very different story to most of its kind and is equal parts entertaining and thought provoking.
The book opens 10 years after the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Jennifer Sutherland and her children, the family at the heart of LAST LIGHT, are living on a defunct oil rig off the Norfolk coast with about 450 other people. They are largely sustaining themselves with such activities as fishing and vegetable growing and have even managed to produce a little bit of chicken poo-powered electricity although they occasionally head back to shore to forage in the abandoned warehouses and shops for the things they can’t provide for themselves. Thanks primarily to Jenny Sutherland’s quiet leadership and her few but strict rules the community rubs along well together and makes the best of their situation. Even so, most of them old enough to remember the times before the crash have a yearning for the things they miss – lights, music or other comforts they used to take for granted.
In London meanwhile one of the government’s designated emergency centres has also managed to remain functional. There are about 2000 people at the site which is still run by the man who was in charge at the collapse though he is now aided by a group of teenage boys-turned-soldiers who he essentially bribes with privileges (alcohol, computer games and girls) to maintain his version of law and order. With a large stockpile of emergency rations this group has not felt the pressing necessity to become self-sustaining, although an attempt has been made.
From that brief description I suppose it’s not too difficult to imagine that these two communities will somehow come into contact with each other but that is really the only predictable thing about AFTERLIGHT. All the details and the nuances about how that happens and the individual histories of the people in each community are refreshingly untainted by pop culture’s notions of what survival of such an apocalypse might look like. And, because this isn’t a Hollywood-style story, readers cannot rely on their favourite characters surviving through to the end. As in real life some of the loveliest people die much too soon and while that makes for uneasy, sometimes melancholic, reading it adds to the book’s sense of believability.
An aspect of the book I found intriguing is that it is something of an homage to womankind. Not only are all the strongest characters women of various ages and backgrounds but a lot (not all) of the male characters in the book are weak, power mad, useless or some combination of them all and men en masse, especially men under 40 or so, are depicted as barely above wild animal on the evolutionary scale. I don’t believe this generalisation to be true (any more than I believe all women to be shoe-obsessed bimbos as depicted in a different kind of book) but I enjoyed reading a story which turns a widely accepted mythology on its head in the way this book does. The very idea that perhaps brute strength and a fondness for weaponry are not the skills one will need in a revamped civilisation is an interesting heresy to see played out.
But of course a story like this has to be gripping too and AFTERLIGHT is certainly that with plenty of heart-in-mouth moments and a snappy pace. What I thought Scarrow did best was create a series of small stories that readers could easily identify with – a teenager’s yearning for the life of music festivals and fun that he would have had if the world hadn’t collapsed in on itself for example – to motivate his characters to believable if not always intelligent behaviour and through this depict some larger truths. And while there are lessons to be gleaned if desired, there is not a single moment of ‘preachyness’ here which is particularly pleasing. Indeed some of the lessons aren’t the ones you might expect from an environmentally-themed thriller.
I am very glad I finally got around to reading the completion of the story which began in LAST LIGHT (though you could easily read this novel on its own) and that my return, however brief, to post apocalyptic imaginings was such a rewarding read. If you like the sound of an unpredictable, dramatic and thoughtful story that might make you cry and/or cover your eyes for fear of what comes next you should read AFTERLIGHT too.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Orion Books 
Book Series sequel to LAST LIGHT
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