Book review: Radio Life by Derek B. Miller

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

It is pretty accepted by many people these days that the old idea that the evolutionary path for humanity isn’t as idealistically rosy as it once was.

Much of that idealism had its roots in postwar optimism, the kind that existed almost because it had to in the wake of events so horrific and scarring for the human soul such as the Holocaust that considering any other trajectory was well nigh unthinkable.

How could we possibly repeat the terrible events of the war-ravaged twentieth century? Surely, newly sobered postwar, we must inevitable and forevermore be better than that?

Sadly, not necessarily, with the post-apocalyptic and dystopian genres finding new popularity as people soberly accept that perhaps all that optimism was misplaced and wholly misguided.

But Radio Life by Derek B. Miller, while cleaving to the idea that we are, above all else, extremely good, to a desperately lamentable degree, at shooting ourselves in the collective foot, cautiously offers up the idea that while we may once again cataclysmically destroy ourselves, that is not necessarily the end of the road.

That doesn’t mean it’s some euphoric hope-fest however.

In fact, there are a great many times when you wonder if humanity, greatly reduced in number and clinging to the tattered vestiges of civilisation with varying degrees of commitment and tenacity, will actually stay the course and rise to the promises offered by a nascent revival taking place across the globe, but for the purposes of Radio Life‘s arrestingly immersive narrative, in what was once the heart of the United States.

“‘Your death saves us all,’ he says by rote.

‘How?’ she asks, though she knows the answer. She likes his voice. She will listen to to him saying anything.

‘Trying to make the world better is what killed the Ancients. We accept the world as it is so that it will not die again, appreciate what we have so we don’t lose more.’

He feels the crease of her smile on his breast.

‘That’s what we tell everyone,’ she says. (P. 15)

Some 500 years into the future, however, all the old place names and civilisational certainties are as dead as the hulking, sandblasted ruins of the cities of the Gone World in which the Ancients, who it is known destroyed themselves in ways so devatastingly bad that humanity almost did make it back from the brink, left relics of a people capable of flying into space and making great and wondrous things but also fiendishly adept at destroying in ways that dismay groups like the Keepers.

They are a fundamentalist tribe who believe, and not it must be said without good cause, that knowledge is a dangerous thing and offers more potential for the end of the things than for their hopeful and beneficial beginning.

Those at the Commonwealth, about which Radio Life spends much of its thoughtfully absorbing time, beg to differ however with their stadium-based civilisation dedicated to finding and preserving the lost knowledge of the Ancients which is lying thick on the ground, or more correctly, under it, for those inclined to look for it.

It is in the Commonwealth, which bases its categorisation of knowledge on the most delightful of premises – finding out what inspired their system will delight you no end – that Radio Life centres its storyline which also ranges into the buildings of the Gone World where an Archive Runner named Elimisha is trapped in the bowels of a skyscraper where she shares a bomb shelter with AI known as the Librarian, the gatekeeper to something called “the internet” which encompasses knowledge on a scale that no one in the modern post-apocalyptic world thought possible.

Derek B. Miller (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

After she recovers from her shock at finding what amounts to an unheard treasure trove of knowledge, and thus possibilities, Elimisha has to struggle with what this might mean for what’s left of the greatly-diminished human race – will this spell our renewed making or our near-certain doom?

While she is coming to grips with exactly what the Ancients and how it affected them for good and for ill, power politics and war are swirling around a brilliantly vibrant and fully-fleshed out group of characters including Graham and Henrietta aka Henry, the only Runners husband-and-wife duo in existence, their prodigious daughter Alessandra and Lilly, a 71-year-old powerhouse user and adaptor of knowledge, who may not have, for all her brilliance, as good a grasp on how to use all the discoveries they are making to the best effect.

Radio Life is an enthrallingly great novel, full of rich, emotionally resonance, intelligence and an affecting thoughtfulness about the role knowledge plays in the life of people, and whether it is good or bad or simply neutral and it is the uses it is put to that might be the issue.

By asking that question, Miller also appreciates that people are fundamentally flawed.

It’s neither a bad or good thing, and while the Keepers are the enemy of the book and the Commonwealth the good guys, so to speak, the reality is no one is exactly hitting it out of the park as far as getting civilisation back on its tottering feet and there needs to be some new thinking if humanity is to really make a good of all the amazing knowledge newly reintroduced to its collective understanding.

“‘Your tunnels are broken. The Stadium is cut off from its food and supplies. The people of the Territory will abandon this place and move north through the forests or south to the smaller colonies. Like a thousand others before you, your colony has failed. Your people trapped by their own decisions.’

‘Aren’t we all,’ Graham asks sarcastically.

‘How did he die?’ the Deputy asks Graham.

‘My wife shot him. Maybe she’ll kill you too.’

‘Perhaps she will,’ he says calmly.

‘You people wrap words around fear and call it philosophy. If you want to know what probably destroyed the Gone World,’ Graham says, ‘that’s a good bet.'” (P. 344)

Radio Life is one of those books that is good, so clever and so vibrantly understanding of the human condition, with the wit and insight to perfectly articulate it in ways with which we can all identify, that reading becomes an almost compulsive undertaking.

You have to inhabit this world with the Commonwealth and the Keepers, the Roamers and the Abbey, with people who want the very best from life – that much, at least, hasn’t changed in half a millennia – and who, in the absence of once ubiquitous knowledge, are not entirely sure how to go about it.

A post-apocalyptic thrilled that really understands how little we might change but how much we need to and can, Radio Life is one of the best novels of its genre to come along in some time because while it is grimly honest about what humanity might do itself, not once but perpetually, even after the end of the world should have sobered us forevermore, it also offers hope that we can pull victory from the jaws of defeat and that there might be a future for us after all.

That’s a bold claim in an age when climate change, war, pandemic and rampant national self interest are all ablaze with no certainty they lead anywhere good, but it is one worth clinging to, if only because if there is one thing we have in our favour, and Radio Life celebrates it with nuanced passion and ardour, it’s that we are innately curious and tenacious people who, time and again, have shown we can stare disaster down and rise triumphantly from the ashes.

Could that happen again in a far or distant future, or even now? Quite possibly, reasons Miller who, though not even remotely glib about our prospects – he is nothing if not honest which adds a necessary substance to this beguilingly inspiring piece of work – seems to think we have it in us to make something of the very worst of things, a message not simply for those of the Commonwealth but for those of us here and now as we stare down a rough and uncertain path ahead.

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