Sleep­less Near Seat­tle

SFX - - Reviews -

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

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