Barricade, by Jon Wallace (28/6/2014)

Declaration of vested interest: Jon Wallace is a Gollancz novelist. Barricade was published earlier this month. We share a publisher (although not an editor) and I was sent a courtesy copy prior to publication.

Declaration of being irritated at willy-waving from my elders and better.

The blurb:

Kenstibec was genetically engineered to build a new world, but the apocalypse forced a career change. These days he drives a taxi instead. A fast-paced, droll and disturbing novel, BARRICADE is a savage road trip across the dystopian landscape of post-apocalypse Britain; narrated by the cold-blooded yet magnetic antihero, Kenstibec.

Kenstibec is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans. Their war on humanity has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials hide in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors. Originally optimised for construction, Kenstibec earns his keep as a taxi driver, running any Ficial who will pay from one surrounded city to another.

The trips are always eventful, but this will be his toughest yet. His fare is a narcissistic journalist who’s touchy about her luggage. His human guide is constantly plotting to kill him. And that’s just the start of his troubles.

On his journey he encounters ten-foot killer rats, a mutant king with a TV fixation, a drug-crazed army, and even the creator of the Ficial race. He also finds time to uncover a terrible plot to destroy his species for good – and humanity too.”

The set-up then: An apocalypse has happened[1]. Our hero, Kenstibec…

Stop. Let’s get something out in the open before we go any further. Do you have a brain? Yes? Can you turn it off for a while? No? Then we’re probably done here. Barricade is not a challenging or though-provoking story, and where it does provoke thoughts they tended to be dismal ones. Not that being though-provoking is a necessary thing. Thought-provoking Hollywood blockbuster? Yes, sure, they exist, but it’s pretty clear that entertainment doesn’t have to come with any weight to work, either intellectual or emotional, provided it can muster sufficient pace and/or wit, and a sufficiency of big explosions. Fun is fun, and sometimes fun means switching off for a bit from all the serious shit. So it’s not for me to say what’s right to like and not to like, but I can tell you something of where Barricade’s strengths lie and where they don’t. It’s moves. It doesn’t use a long word where a short word will do. It doesn’t offer any kaleidoscopic palette of words, metaphor, imagery, meaning or emotion to either soar or bore. Its prose is sparse and functional and so is everything else. If that sounds sterile then maybe so, but the style fits the story, and much the same could be said of Kenstibec. Some people like Mozart, some people like Ministry, and some people like both, and that’s diversity for you.

The characters then. Most of them are artificial lifeforms. Kenstibec is a construction ‘fical, which means he’s largely emotionless, entirely practical and, aside from occasionally worrying about his Landrover and the state or repair of various structures he sees in passing, unflappable. Wallace uses this to good effect in places to keep the pace up and inject a steady dark humour, largely sourced from bemusement at the irrationality of humanity. Personally I found this appealing enough for most of the book to make up for the lack of warmth or empathy. If you’re the sort of reader who looks for characters to connect with rather than hang out with, I didn’t find Kenstibec had much to offer (and why would he – he’s not human and isn’t supposed to have any) by way of emotional depth. Anyway, the set-up is that Kenstibec works for a soldier ‘ficial Shersult[2], who wants him to take a pleasure ‘ficial from the Edinburgh Barricade to London. This leads pretty quickly into Mad Max territory, with a good dose of World War Z–style zombie apocalypse, except it’s not zombies running about in unthinking hordes and being gunned down in droves, it’s people.

Stop again. Lots of people die. Barricade isn’t particularly graphic in its violence but it’s extremely casual. With the exception of the one human Kenstibec picks up to be his guide (casually shooting his companion with absolutely no apparent consequence or subsequent anguish or resentment on the part of said guide), humans exist to run around, be stupid, show off how fundamentally irrational and all-consuming mob mentality can be, and then die, preferably all of those things in swift succession and often. Homo Sapiens does not come out of Barricade looking at all good, either individually or as a species. It’s a dirty, misanthropic little story really. Being a dirty little misanthrope myself, bombing along in Kenstibec’s passenger seat with all my critical faculties turned firmly off, I rather liked it for that, but that’s a matter of taste. The world is shit. People are shit. In large groups, people are really REALLY shit and also dumb as fuck. The largely emotionless ‘ficials are quite often shit too, on the grounds that that’s the logical and effective response to all the other shit, and also because now and then it affords opportunity for some deadpan humour.

Eventually some plot happens…

No. Stop again. Kenstibec’s pleasure model passenger, Starvie. Starvie is the only significant nominally-female character in Barricade. I say nominally-female because she’s a ‘ficial. The treatment she gets from Kenstibec is shit. The way she treats him in return, later, is shit. Both accept this without much of a blink because the logic is apparent and they have very limited (if any – it’s a bit unclear about this) human feeling. Early on (before they even start their trip) Kenstibec punches Starvie out for the sole reason of making her stop talking. As best I remember it there was no pressing reason to do this, he simply had other things he wanted to do and punching her out was the most efficient route to getting on with them. If your gut-reaction to that lies somewhere around “shrug” or “that’s quite funny”[3] then Barricade’s attitude to casual violence to, from and between its various protagonists may entertain and amuse. If it makes you uncomfortable, Barricade probably isn’t for you. If it instantly rubs something the wrong way about the portrayal of women in fiction[3] then you’d best avoid Barricade. There’s worse to come. Pleasure model, remember?

Anyway, some plot happens and nothing is quite what it seems, and to be honest, I found it was better when the plot *wasn’t* happening. As a closely focused nihilistic fast-paced, dark-humoured brain-turned-off ride through a shitty apocalyptic future of faceless deranged lunatics and vaguely annoyed artificial people, the first half of Barricade works pretty well (if you like that sort of thing). I had it mapped out in my head as a road-movie type story, in which the wry but closed-off protagonists eventually reveal depth and bonding and emotions and all that; but they don’t. Instead some plot arrived that was more than a simple road trip and the focus widened. I found myself having to actually think about what I was reading, trying to work out what was going on, and then it all went a bit downhill and also didn’t make much sense[4], but at the same time it shifted up a gear and charged forward with such devil-take-the-hindmost speed that for some reason all I can liken it to there is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen [5] [6].

A fun beach read if you like that sort of Mad Max thing, short and snappy, heavily laden with a misanthropic cynicism, but with no shortage of flaws. “fast-paced, droll and disturbing”? Yes, through at least the first half. After that not so much droll. “Savage”? Yes. “cold-blooded yet magnetic” Yes and, er… well… maybe in flashes.



[1] (the nature of the apocalypse is partly resolved in a series of flashbacks throughout the book, although the greater context is left entirely vague: there seems to have been some sort of global disaster that has affected almost everywhere except Britain for … reasons. Britain has apparently responded to this by building an artificial race of humanoids (the ficals) who apparently come in one of three models: the construction model, the shooting people model and the (privately financed) pleasure model; and then, presumably for some more reasons, we hand over responsibility for the future of humanity to an artificial intelligence of some sort and ask it to please save the planet. Unfortunate consequences ensue. Maybe there’s more explanation to come in the future, but my inner world-builder is looking at Barricade with a “could do a lot better” expression. These events, such as they are, unfold purely through Kenstibec’s eyes, so the only sense of drama, tragedy and emotion is what the the reader can bring to the party. Kenstibec views it all with a rather bewildered “humans, what are you like?” detachment. My inner misanthrope rather enjoyed that. I often feel the same).

[2] (he just does, for reasons again, and you simply have to live with the fact that Barricade offers you next to nothing about how ‘ficial society works or why, except that it seems to be very haphazard. Which actually made more sense by the end than it seemed at the time).

[3] One thing reading Barricade taught me is that the answer can be both of these things at once.

[4] SPOILER ALERT: 1) Where did ten-foot killer rats suddenly come from? 2) Encountering “the creator of the Ficial race” felt like a massive coincidence, which would have been fine until a large chunk of plot subsequently depended on it. SEVERE SPOILER ALERT: 3) If Starvie = Jennifer-E, what the hell was her excuse for being in Edinburgh, and how long had she been there, and didn’t the King of Newcastle notice that she was gone for however long and how did he know where they were, exactly, and oh my, everything to do with that twist was either too clever for me or just didn’t make much sense and was certainly the point at which my suspension of disbelief collected its coat and stomped off to sulk on the doorstep and have a quiet smoke. 4) And then later Kenstibec is unwittingly delivering Starvie to York so she can deliver the “package,” yet Shersult arrives by other means and could clearly have delivered said package himself with greater efficiency

[5] Which was also fun, but dear lord only if you loan your brain to charity for the duration or firmly kill it with beer.

[6] There are no giant robots in Barricade, just in case you were getting your hopes up there.

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One Response to “Barricade, by Jon Wallace (28/6/2014)”

  1. Paul says:

    Nice review, I pretty much agree with all of it. The book passed a couple of days commuting on the train and only cost £1.99 and so wasn’t all bad.

    I think you were unduly kind to the plot though. From about the midpoint it was laughable, and not in a good way. It relied far too much on coincidence (The whole motorway service station section) and ignorance (nobody recognising Starvie). The ending had severe issues and I refuse to believe that you can get that much explosive in a camera and have it still function and feel like a camera. But maybe that’s just me.

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