In the world of post-apocalyptic fiction, heroes and anti-heroes struggle to survive in a land without rules where 1980s cartoon punks, faux-mystics and quests for oil or knowledge or redemption are the order of the day. Such works of fiction, be they classics or b-movie-style pulp works, tend to follow a familiar path.
The blurb for debut novelist Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life states “the gaslight and shadows of the underground city of Recoletta hide secrets and lies”. Not the usual promotional gumph for post-apocalyptic, but it has a strong whiff of steampunk. Not the usual path.
What we have is a crime novel, dressed in steampunk clothes but with very little of the rest of the trappings of that sub-genre, set some point in the future. It begins with the portentous mention of something called Prometheus. Never a good sign in any work of fiction, from Frankenstein onwards. Then there’s a murder. As Inspector Liesl Malone investigates, and laundress Jane finds herself falling into a world she’s not really a part of, we learn all about life in the buried city of Recoletta. All aspects you’d expect are present and correct. There’s class divide and power struggles. There’s tension between the Municipal police and the ruling council. Conspiracy, parties, more murder, revolution and the reveal of the Promethean secret. It all whips along with an assured and enjoyable pace. You’re never bored. But then you’re never really enthralled either.
Patel can do everything required of a genre novelist. She can write well enough, although unlike the suggestion of the blurb, her voice isn’t as distinctive as China Mieville. The Buried Life is thoroughly readable. Patel’s characters are reasonably well rounded, despite the clichés (the grumpy police chief, the rookie cop, the mysteriously suave anti-hero, the corrupt councillor, the plucky laundress). It is great to read some fiction with two separate and rounded female leads that aren’t in the story just for the romance. There appears to be no gender issues in this future, although there are few male servants as characters and there are still ‘society ladies’. The most accomplished area of the book, however, is the world-building. It’s not an overly complex world. There’s not explanations of steam-punk or lost technology, but there is a bit of back-story to the power and political structures in place. Recoletta reminded be a little of the Gentleman Bastards books by Scott Lynch. A kind of cross between Victorian England and post-renaissance Italy/France. There is no exposition as such, and no explanation of why civilisation is underground. Something clearly happened in the distant past to drive people underground, but life is evolving and society is enlightened. Despite being called The Buried Life most of the inhabitants aren’t described as buried; life is fine for some and quite a sanitised version of poverty for the underclasses. I imagine that this might be a universe where the artillery man in Wells’ War of the Worlds built those tunnels he’d dreamt of and humanity survived the attack of the Martians underground. But probably not. The police procedural moments of the novel are quite novel, with the municipals having to pick up contracts to solve a crime, and those can be withdrawn. This leads to a natural and interesting conflict between Malone and those in power whom she would investigate.
What is interesting, is that science and technology, albeit basic, exist in the world, but books, literature and knowledge are controlled by the powerful. This is the only real subtext of Patel’s story; people’s access to knowledge and information should be a basic right. There is, also, an obvious class struggle common in most Victorian-style fiction. There seems to be some kind of pay-off in genre fiction. The more a book rattles along and is enjoyably readable, the less depth and sub-text it has. Maybe that is true of other fiction too? But then The Buried Life probably doesn’t mean to be earth-shatteringly insightful. It is, I imagine, what it wants to be, which is a crime thriller (the criminal conspiracy isn’t particularly complex or challenging) set in a Victorian underground world a long time after some imaginable catastrophe (which spins the reader around once the Promethean twist is revealed). A different and refreshing version of the post-apocalyptic fiction. A different dystopia. And another example of the recent trend of genre-defying speculative fiction.
Thanks to Angry Robot for this pre-release review copy.