Directive 51: The Flash Mob of the Apocalypse
John Barnes' great brick of a novel about a futuristic flash mob that very nearly causes the collapse of Western civilization is more haranguing threat assessment than fiction.
Directive 51Publisher: Ace
Length: 496 pages
Author: John Barnes
Publication date: 2010-04
This is why so many people don't like science fiction. Character is subordinated to event, nuance to overkill, dialogue to exposition, and story to sheer information. This isn't a story so much as it is a lightly fictionalized datadump, the sort of thing more correctly experienced as a handout addendum to a PowerPoint presentation on the Newest Threat Facing America being given by some think tank in a Washington, DC-area Hilton conference room.
Set in the coming decade, John Barnes' scenario imagines a swiftly accelerating apocalypse being brought about by a movement calling themselves Daybreakers. In the first of many potentially fascinating ideas buried under an avalanche of tone-deaf writing, Barnes describes the Daybreakers as loosely webbed-together cells of only vaguely like-minded individuals (environmentalists, anarchists, tax resisters, hackers, fundamentalists) whose only linking similarity is a basic dissatisfaction with modern life, known derisively as The Big System.
No matter that there's an entire government department set up to watch for this sort of thing -- the Office of Future Threat Assessment -- when the Daybreakers decide to start raising chaos, like seeding the country with nanoswarms that decimate all the building blocks of modern life from wireless transmitters to rubber tires, there's little that can be done about it.
Barnes' great insight comes in his realizing that the increasingly inescapable totality of modern cloud computing could not only foster paranoia about that system but its facilitation of communication could structure its own demise; particularly if harnessed by a terrorist entity. It's an intriguing idea, and one that seems disturbingly possible in an increasingly atomized world of digitally organized ideological tribes. But Barnes' Malcolm Gladwellian interest in the group psychology and semiotics of these flash mobs of the apocalypse pales in comparison to his subpar techno-thriller style, where every new scene has to be set by a dateline squib ("The Next Day. Washington, D.C. About 2:00 A.M. EST. Saturday, November 2") and every character can only be presented in the most broadly presented manner possible.
Barnes' delivery of information through the opening chapters of the book is efficiently parsed out in good B-grade Michael Crichton style. The book hops from one time zone to the next (an isolated airstrip in Indonesia, the corridors of power in Washington, a lonely mid-American highway, you know the drill), taking its sweet time explaining the mysterious linkages between them all. This is a model that works fine for most techno-thriller writers, but as Barnes cranks up for the collapse of America he has a few things working against him.
First, his characters are even more woodenly created than is usual. There are upstanding good guys and gals (usually those with a military or scientific background) and craven weaklings (naïve college-kid Daybreakers who didn't realize they were the unwitting pawns of a foreign enemy), and little or nothing in between. Second, even though the story convincingly portrays the manner in which society comes unglued once modern technology goes kaput, Barnes has so little interest in showing what happens afterward that it seems almost comical. Mentions of mass starvation and even race riots are treated as perfunctorily as a cable news crawl, while an endlessly discussed plotline about presidential succession and fantastic developments like the billionaire survivalist with a self-sustaining fortress, will grind even the most attentive reader into the dust.
Amidst the drudgery, Barnes' tendency toward bald political sloganeering doesn't help. While it's no surprise that your average techno-thriller author trends to the right of the political spectrum, the viciousness with which Barnes unfurls his agenda is disquieting when not simply obnoxious. Amidst all the upheaval, there is a struggle for power in Washington that features an especially evil force of ne'er-do-wells called "The National Unity Guard" made up of "old gangbangers" and "Democratic Party Organizers" -- it's like some ludicrous Tea Party fever dream in which ACORN and the Crips have taken over the White House.
More disquieting than anything else is the fact that Barnes' characters -- for all his satirizing of the Daybreakers' naïve desire to return to a pre-modern lifestyle -- seem fairly content with life once the post-apocalyptic wrinkles have been ironed out. A nineteenth-century version of life springs up in scattered small communities across the country with surprising ease and proving quite enjoyable to those who survived to live it. It's almost as though Barnes himself subscribed to this Daybreaker antagonism toward messy modernity.
The good news is there's apparently two more books to go, so plenty of time for that "cold start on advanced civilization" (as one character words it) to get worked out.