Andrew Hunter Murray’s debut novel, “The Last Day,” also depicts such a cosmic alteration in daily life. But Murray has so thoroughly thought through the ramifications of his conceit and conjured up such a dramatic plot and stellar cast of characters that he might have set a new standard for such tales.
The novel plunges us immediately into the shabby, slightly enigmatic reality of a rundown planet without preamble or hand-holding. After about 30 pages of rapt involvement with the plot, we receive the backstory we need to make sense of the year 2059. Thanks to the rogue passage of a white dwarf star through our solar system, Earth’s rotation slowed very gradually from 2020 to 2029, at which point the stilled planet was locked into hemispheres of dark and light. The United States, China and many other nations were plunged into ice and blackness. Left in the light were Britain, Europe and adjacent territories. Now, three decades later, Britain, run by a despot named Davenport, is global top dog, with Europe generally depopulated, turned into the “Breadbasket,” a giant sweltering farm worked by criminals. During the vast migrations of the interregnum, American refugees were ceded a little land in the south of England, and they remain slightly autonomous.
Murray convincingly skims over dicey physics with the help of logic and bravado, not to mention the sociological changes he so persuasively envisions. He crafts a Britain as radically altered as that of Orwell’s “1984” — and with many deliberate likenesses — where some folks become mole people to avoid the constant sunlight, while others turn “woodsmen,” living like savages in the empty suburbs. “Ranters” occupy public squares, and criminals are marched through the streets on their way to exile and forced labor. Murray’s future, full of bizarre yet plausible changes, is suffused with a palpable grittiness.
Our heroine, Ellen Hopper, is a scientist on a mid-ocean rig, trying to focus on her studies and ignore the tawdry, hopeless reality around her, including her failed marriage to a journalist named David Gamble. But then she is summoned by her dying mentor, Edward Thorne, once highly placed in the Davenport regime. In his hospital room, Hopper seems poised to receive a deathbed secret when mortality intervenes. Yet Thorne’s urgency to meet compels her to dig into his recent past.
Here begins a tantalizing, suspenseful odyssey of frustration, deceit, treachery, torture, hope, despair and ingenious sleuthing. Hopper knows there’s something big she must find, but she can’t be sure what it is. Nonetheless, she persists, stalked at every turn by two frightening agents of the state, Ruth Warwick and the sadistic Inspector Blake. The carefully contrived nature of her search allows Murray to send her crisscrossing London among a variety of social strata, populated by eccentrics, bigwigs and average folks, deepening his portrait of this alien environment. Eventually Hopper’s quest sweeps up her ex-husband in its tentacles, and the resurgence of their original attraction to each other forms a vivid emotional armature to the dangerous investigation.
Murray’s rigorous attention to the implications of his scenario reminds me of a similar meticulousness in Adam Roberts’s 2004 novel “The Snow,” which postulated a totally frozen Earth and could be read as a companion to this one. Meanwhile, Murray’s characterization and plotting is akin to Nick Harkaway’s, with both authors excelling at depictions of action.
But Murray also waxes suitably poetic at times, when describing his sad world: “In the regions facing out toward the universe rather than in toward the sun,” he writes, “nothing except thousands of miles of frozen fields and mountains and plains, interrupted by cities and towns populated by the dead . . . frozen in their homes and on the roads, facing the cold, dead starlight, their bodies frosted, perhaps hardly decayed at all, as though they might get up and move again if only exposed to the light of the sun.”
Reminding us that the ills we focus on are sometimes the least likely to harm us, “The Last Day” joins an illustrious lineage of novels that shatters humanity’s security and complacency but proclaims that somehow the race will survive.
Paul Di Filippo’s most recent novel is “The Deadly Kiss-Off.”
The Last Day
By Andrew Hunter Murray
Dutton. 384 pp. $27