Thursday, 19 March 2009

‘One’ – Conrad Williams (Virgin)


On particularly dull days at work I like to while away the hours by imagining how I would cope in the event of something large and very nasty happening to the city of London. There’s something very sobering about thinking of what would happen to me, in the event of civilisation collapsing, and it’s usually enough to either help me appreciate my job that bit more or get me daydreaming about fighting my way through zombies instead. Either is good!
I’ve always had the feeling that mankind is rather uncomfortable with its own mortality and things like my daydreams are a reflection of this. Sometimes these reflections can make their way onto the written page as post apocalyptic fiction and this is where Conrad Williams’ ‘One’ comes in...

As someone who fixes the bits of oil rigs that are deep underwater, Richard Jane misses the end of the world when it comes around. There’s no way that he will be missing the aftermath though, not when he’s up in Aberdeen and his five year old son is in London. The roads are molten and the rain burns. Rats are starting to lay claim to the thousands of corpses that litter the countryside but they’re by no means the most potent threat to what remains of humanity. The threat is in the air and soon it will be in us, Richard Jane had better find his son soon...

‘One’ is an intriguing blend of horror and science fiction that (apart from a couple of issues) really kept me turning the pages to find out not only how it all ended but how it all began as well... That’s the beauty of ‘One’, because all the survivors were underground when ‘The Event’ took place, no-one can really tell how it all came about to start off with (for the first part of the book anyway). This leaves Williams with lots of time to get inside the head of Richard Jane, exploring his motivations and reactions to what is going on around him. This is also true with the supporting cast but only to an extent, this is a ‘one character book’ and Richard Jane is that character. A quick point though, Williams refers to Richard Jane by his surname throughout the entire book and I had to keep reminding myself that it was a man I was reading about...

Richard’s story is one of bloody minded obsession, he is on a mission to find his son and nothing is going to get between him and his goal. Not even his deteriorating mental and physical state... Questions over his sanity are asked over the course of the book, the answers are initially vague but everything is all tied up in an ending that is sad but entirely appropriate to the tone of the book. Williams doesn’t shy away from having Richard ask the kind of questions that any survivor would find themselves asking. Do you trust anyone enough to travel with them? What if they’re holding you back? At what point do you kill in order to survive? All these questions are asked and answered in a manner both unflinching and uncompromising.

It’s a shame then that the first part of the book feels so slow... I can understand why it needs to be like this, a journey from Aberdeen to London (on foot) isn’t going to be over quickly! It is slow though and this isn’t helped by the fact that there is only so much stuff you can uncover in a character’s mind before he starts reacting to external stimulus in the same way... The external stimulus is intense though, very much so! The landscape is also beautifully drawn to reflect both the catastrophe that has overcome it and the ruined landscape inside Richard’s mind. This, more than anything else, is what kept me going.

Be careful when you start reading the second part of the book. There’s a big jump forward in time that isn’t made particularly clear, especially given what happens at the very end of part one. Once you realise what it is, the jump works very well but it doesn’t work so well if you’re not expecting it. This bit had me re-reading the first couple of pages a few times...
Once I got over this bit though things really picked up at a pace that is a lot faster than the first part. We get to find out what was behind the original ‘Event’ and this adds a real element of danger to a London that only has a maximum of three thousand people living in it. There is no such thing as a safe place to hide, even though you might think that there is...
The fear and intensity is relentless, right up until an ending that coats a thin veneer of hope over a feeling that things can only get worse. Fair play to Williams for admitting that if something horrendously bad happens there’s a real likelihood that things won’t get better...

‘One’ can be a bit slow and clunky in places but once you get into the story itself then you’ll forgive it its faults. Well worth a look if you’re a horror fan. ‘One’ will be published by Virgin Books on the 15th of April.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

6 comments:

TK42ONE said...

So would it be mostly horror or mostly sci-fi? Is it a spin or sorts on I am Legend?

Graeme Flory said...

That's a tricky one that's been bugging me. There is a real sci-fi feel to it but the horror element wins through as far as I'm concerned. It's all good though :o)

The Doctor said...

Nice review. I've been meaning to try Conrad Wiliams for simply ages; ever since favourable press about his The Unblemished. Interestingly, there was some minor concern about the initial pacing for that one is well.

wendigo1 said...

I totally agree about the pacing in the first part of the novel; it gets itself almost too bogged down in technical detail and its all to easy to miss the 'mythological' aspect of the novel that creeps in here at this point.
I, too, had to find myself going back to re-read certain passages because of need for clarity. In this way, I wished that the supernatural(mythological?)aspect of the novel that comes into the fore only really in the last part of the novel , had been better placed in the first part so that the reader could start to anticipate this aspect earlier on.

Perhaps, though, that was part of Williams' intent: the confusion between reality and fantasy might have been done to mirror the deteriation of Jane's mind.

Nonetheless, apart from a slightly overblown and needlessly climactic ending ( again, there is a disparity in tone here from the rest of the novel), I enjoyed this work immensly and would recommend it.

Somnopolis said...

I'm just about to finish this book, which I notice does not seem to merit even a Wiki entry, and I am very disappointed.

Williams skips and jumps his character from Scotland to London, the grotesque detail that props up the book popping up whenever he seems to remember. At one point a character commits suicide. It happened so fast and was treated in such an offhand manner, I didn't realize at first what had occured. The continuing flashbacks to his son prove ultimately irritating, serving more as padding then insightful digressions into the tortured mind of Jane (his former partner meanwhile is depicted as alternately shrewish and/or manipulative, when she is mentioned at all)

As for the time-jump it killed whatever momentum had built up. A game-changing twist meant to excite, but instead forcing the narrative to a sudden stop. A poor man's I Am Legend.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading the book, and I found the front part is extremly boring and the flashback is irritating too.
and i can seem to understand the story.