Catastrophe fiction, so popular in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, has in recent decades kind of, sort of, given way to post-apocalyptic fiction—what happens after rather than during the catastrophe. Perhaps because all the obvious ideas have been taken—drought, floods, carnivorous plants eating people blinded by an alien meteorite shower—it’s a bit strange these days to see a book that reverts to so simple a premise. But such is the case with Adrian Barnes’ 2012 Nod. Like Ballard, however, Barnes (thankfully) focuses his book on something more human than the details of cataclysm.
Paul is a poor, introverted writer of quirky books about etymology who lives with his bread-winning girlfriend Tanya in Vancouver. A golden dream visiting him one night as he sleeps, he wakes to discover that Tanya hadn’t slept a wink. Arriving home from work that evening, Tanya reports that nobody else she knows slept the previous night either, that Paul is somehow part of a 1% of the population able to get a night’s rest. A novelty at first, the situation worsens, however. Night after night, only the tiniest fraction of humanity are able to sleep. The insomnia getting so bad, the government makes the drastic decision to shut down all telecommunications in an effort to remove potential interference. But nothing helps. Cut off from the net and phones, society dissolves, leaving Paul to navigate a city of sleep-deprived madness, and survive.
By premise, Nod is in the classic science fiction vein of: what if we removed aspect X from life? Sleep said aspect, Barnes approaches the premise from an individual perspective, with Paul’s personal demons and social interaction forming the bulk of the novel. In doing so, he avoids any John Wyndham shenanigans, instead positing a decidedly post-modern—existential, if I can be more specific—slant to character, plot, and dialogue reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s unnamed narrator from Notes from the Underground. There is a world of difference between the two authors’ settings, nevertheless there is something of Paul in the unnamed man: the distance with which they hold themselves to society is palpable, as well as their acerbic nature and discomfort with mundane life. I won’t say Barnes’ novel is the sci-fi version of Dostoevsky, but there are certainly interesting parallels.
I am thus highly doubtful of Ian Sales’ ‘review’ of Nod, and the negativity he directs toward the novel due to the main character. As stated, Paul is openly misanthropic. The reader may dislike his tone and general post-modern grouchiness, but his is a human disposition. Not every main character should be warm and likeable (what a boring world that would be). Fiction should represent humanity, and for better or worse, Barnes has done so through Paul. Whether or not the reader is able to get over this is not Barnes’ issue, rather the reader’s. If the reader can, they will find a fulfilling narrative.
In keeping with this, undoubtedly hard sf junkies will likewise be disappointed not to have the ‘scientific’ details of sleep deprivation related to them; Barnes keeps the novel’s human side front and center. For as curmudgeonly Paul may seem, he nevertheless becomes almost a voice of reason among the mad, sleep-craving people around him. Barnes bouncing ideas from the nearly insane off Paul, the man’s worldview is firstly contrasted, then secondly forced to evolve in ways he previously never thought possible. And it’s this evolution (as subtely as Barnes hides it in the descent into madness happening around Paul) that is key to understanding the novel.
In the end, Nod was a surprisingly interesting and intelligent novel. Reading the blurb, it’s possible to believe Barnes is simply re-creating catastrophe fiction of yesteryear. But such is not the case. A human novel more than its science fiction premise, Barnes uses the tools of fiction to examine a dislikable character (vs. the setting he is a part of) and deliver him to a new point in life. The prose sharp and wicked, it’s likewise a compact read that spills over the short distance between its covers due to the wealth of content imbued. Recommended.