Crime and thriller author Derek B Miller took A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter J Miller (no relation apparently), one of the classic post-apocalyptic books of the 20th Century as his inspiration for his new book Radio Life. What he may not have counted on when he began working on this book though would be the proliferation of post-apocalyptic tales, particularly by more mainstream authors, over the last few years. Leaving Radio Life little room to find itself in an increasingly crowded market.
Radio Life is set around four hundred years after an unspecified cataclysmic event called The Rise. It is set somewhere in the former north-eastern United States. The main civilisation is shepherded by “The Commonwealth” which has set itself up in a former Olympic Stadium near a collapsing ancient city called the Gone World. The goal of the Commonwealth is to gather knowledge and old technology and to try and recapture the old world. But the Commonwealth is under threat from a rising force called The Keepers, a group who believe that any acquisition of old knowledge will eventually lead to another apocalyptic event. The Keepers are gathering their forces to destroy the Commonwealth.
The events of Radio Life play out against this philosophical backdrop, made more urgent by the rediscovery of technology that gives access to the internet. Elimisha, the woman who discovers this trove, is trapped underground in the Gone World and the race is on between the two factions to either rescue her or kill her.
For readers of any recent post-apocalyptic fiction the set up will be very familiar. New societies springing up around ancient ruins who find and repair old technologies which they barely understand. There are plenty of American western tropes with trading posts and raiders on horseback, using rifles that have been passed down through the generations. And of course, amusing reinterpretations of old texts – in this case the Commonwealth’s biggest haul of old books has included Gibbons’ Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.
Miller is a political scientist so is interested in exploring not only the warring philosophies between the main antagonists but what informs those philosophies. He is particularly interested in the idea of knowledge and progress versus tradition and conservatism, culminating in a lengthy discussion on the matter between a member of the Commonwealth and the leader of the Keepers. But he also explores the power of ideas, at one point having a debate between two characters who have to preserve parts of the internet that they have discovered about whether the darker moments of humanity’s past should be preserved or deleted.
And underneath it all, questions as to what we should be striving for to create a viable civilisation and what could cause it to fail. In doing so, as all good post-apocalyptic fiction does, Miller takes a swipe at the current state of the world:
…global collapse was coming because the institutions which gave peace its structure were being eroded by neglect and malevolence. He predicted that as the institutions were dismantled, civilisation’s resilience would be too, until we finally became fragile enough that even tiny events could cascade into Armageddon.
By taking a post-apocalyptic classic from the 1960s as a starting point, Miller has produced a modern tale that from its outset feels dated. The post-apocalyptic tropes that he employs, while given a slightly new spin, all feel like they have been done before, down to a spectacularly optimistic ending. And while there are some surprises (it’s unlikely that readers will ever look at Trivial Pursuit in quite the same way again) and plenty of interesting ideas, there is not enough to set this book apart from the pack.