“A deeply unnerving read” – Under the Blue by Oana Aristide

It’s 2020 and a global pandemic is killing off millions… Okay, we know this sounds familiar, but actually, Aristide’s novel was written and accepted for publication well before SARS-CoV-2 reared its spiky little head; this isn’t a case of opportunism, then, but rather a quite horrible case of life following through on a very smart literary hunch – which makes the novel all the more chilling.

Under the Blue is a two-stranded book: one half follows Harry, a painter in his late fifties who’s been holed away working and has emerged a couple of weeks later (28 Days Later style, in fact) to find the world outside devastated by a new and deadly illness. This is all due, we discover, to catastrophic environmental mismanagement: climate change prompted the thawing of the Siberian permafrost, and this brought with it the re-emergence of a hugely transmissible ancient virus – one with a 100% human fatality rate in less than two days. Anyway, Harry, panicking, flees a London seemingly populated only by corpses, and heads to his cottage in Devon, to where he’s eventually followed by his neighbour and acquaintance, Ash, and her sister, a doctor called Jessie. Jessie warns Harry that without humans to monitor the world’s nuclear reactors, global meltdown is imminent within a month, and finally, after a lot of bickering about this, the three set off in Harry’s car in an attempt to reach Ethiopia, where, Jessie says, they’ll be safely out of the contamination zone. Will they live? Is anyone else at all alive? So far, so dramatic, right?

The second strand is quite different: Lisa and Paul are computer scientists developing an AI in an Arctic lab. Talos XI is designed to help the human race – to predict large-scale dilemmas and problem-solve for them. This part of the novel, which is interwoven with Harry’s narrative, is set out as a series of message exchanges, as Lisa and Paul chat, and as Lisa works with Talos, testing and retesting his cognitive and communicative skills as he’s fed more and more data about the world and its history. We witness Talos transform from a non-intuitive, chatbot-style robot to a highly sophisticated machine intelligence that’s knocking the Turing Test out of the park; we see, too, the balance of power shifting away from Lisa as the transcripts of their conversations progress. The question that emerges moves from ‘how will Talos help humanity?’ to ‘will Talos see the saving of humanity as the intelligent solution to the earth’s problems?’ And as this narrative catches up on Harry’s – as we move closer to 2020 – this moves from an abstract proposition to a terrifying matter of life and death.

There’s little point abstracting this from the reality of any reader in 2021; it’s a deeply unnerving read. While this virus is much more deadly than Covid-19, everything else is based on fact – the permafrost has in reality released deadly bacteria, the reactors would explode, cans of food will expire… Harry is an atypical hero: old(er), relatively impractical (cue a gory scene with a dead cow), melancholy, and the Jessie/Ash combo are a good foil; Aristide acknowledges the obvious issue around sexual attraction (or lack thereof) between them all and handles it nicely, avoiding both cliché and sentiment. The trio’s experience as they flee south – that they are the last, that the logic of carrying on feels flawed and futile – is credible, and while they do encounter various obstacles, she avoids disaster-movie/apocalyptic tropes while maintaining tension all the way through. This is a function of careful characterisation: while Harry is our protagonist and the other two remain, to a large extent, opaque, they’re all tangible enough to capture the empathy of a readership that itself, right now, feels one step off a similar fate. In the other strand, despite Lisa and Paul only appearing via IM transcripts, they, too, feel real – their workplace banter is tinged with the alienation and loneliness we imagine anyone stationed in the Arctic Circle must endure; their stresses, while mostly more abstracted than Harry’s and emanating largely from hypothetical projections and computer modelling, parallels his increasing despair. Lisa’s conversations with Talos are to some extent a mimicry of undergraduate ethics seminars, and, taken alone, would feel dry, but again, when paralleled with Harry’s experiences (with the reader aware that Lisa and Paul, too, will soon be drawn into the pandemic), they take on a grim urgency: is human survival important? What sets humans above the pure intelligence represented by Telos XI? What value is art? (What value, asks Harry, is my work? What value am I?) The ending – no spoilers – is, perhaps, a little rushed, but lingers and resonates. We’re left with the same questions XR are asking? Do we value the earth? How much? And how much, asks the novel, might be too much?

Any Cop?: A proper page-turner that really hits the sweet spot where literary fiction hits apocalyptic thriller. This is climate-fiction at its most prescient.

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