Sleepless Near Seattle
A lack of kip drives humanity to the brink in Adrian Barnes’s Clarkenominated novel.
released 4 march 261 pages | Paperback/ ebook
Author Adrian Barnes
Publisher Titan Books
Is there a crisis around sleep at the moment? Nod was first published back in 2012 through a small press called Bluemoose, but even then it wasn’t the first novel of this decade to depict a dystopian world beset by widespread, life- threatening insomnia. This is also the premise of Sleepless by Charlie Huston ( 2010), Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun ( 2012) and Sleep Donation by Karen Russell ( 2014). Our social anxieties tend to bubble up through SF – so in our increasingly 24/ 7, always- switched- on world, are we telling ourselves we need more downtime?
Nod, Adrian Barnes’s debut novel – shortlisted for the Clarke Award and now enjoying a wider release through Titan Books – never explains why, one day, almost everyone in the world stops sleeping. There are no teams of fretful scientists looking for a cure – or if there are, they’re doing it elsewhere. Instead we focus on our narrator Paul, one of the few still able to sleep, who lives in Vancouver, writes books about etymology and would be the first to admit he’s not the most useful person to have fully functional in the midst of a total societal breakdown.
Things fall apart with terrifying speed. All power is shut off in an effort to reverse the plague of wakefulness. The state of panic is exacerbated by everyone becoming too tired to think rationally, and within a week psychosis is setting in. Within a month, everyone unable to sleep will be dead. The remaining “sleepers” – many of them children – are treated first with jealousy, then suspicion, then aggression. Weird new social groups form, including one led by a man named Charles, who was unbalanced to begin with and now believes the manuscript of Paul’s next book holds the key to this new world, which he calls Nod.
In its depiction of a sophisticated society rapidly reverting into a feral state, Nod strongly recalls JG Ballard’s High- Rise – and its brevity harks refreshingly back to an era where SF novels tended not to be epic, plotty doorstops, but concise novels of ideas. It explores its concept from several angles, gives us a character story to make us care, and then vacates the stage. Frankly, if it went on any longer it might be unbearable. The end of the world as viewed by a self- confessed misanthrope makes for a bleak and often depressing novel, with violence that some may find hard to stomach, and there isn’t even much in the way of gallows humour to offer relief.
Ultimately the novel isn’t really about sleep, or why we need it, or why we shouldn’t take it for granted. The insomnia is merely an apt way of showing us that society itself is the dream, as Paul explicitly states at one point. We think of our world as something solid, when really it exists in our minds. Staying awake means we go mad, our world collapses and we die. The choice of an etymologist as narrator underlines how our dream- world is made not of physical things but words, agreements that we will do this and not that. The longer the insomnia crisis goes on, the more incoherent everyone becomes and the less any of it means.
Nod is very well written – appropriately, given the nature of its narrator, it has a clarity that renders it vivid throughout – and it’s a clever, thoughtful and thought- provoking novel. However, it’s easier to admire than to enjoy, unless you delight in watching the grim collapse of civilisation ( and granted, some people do). At times it lays it on rather thick, dragging the reader along with its deeply pessimistic worldview. But it’s undoubtedly powerful, and has a great deal to say. Eddie Robson
Since finishing this novel, Barnes has been diagnosed with a brain tumour, which has sadly taken away his ability to write.
Drags the reader along with its pessimistic worldview