Thursday, 20 January 2011
Review: 0.4 by Mike Lancaster
'My name is Kyle Straker. And I don't exist anymore.'
So begins the story of Kyle Straker, recorded on to old audio tapes. You might think these tapes are a hoax. But perhaps they contain the history of a past world...If what the tapes say are true, it means that everything we think we know is a lie.
And if everything we know is a lie does that mean that we are, too?
Over the past year or so I have occasionally had a little moan regarding the lack of intelligent science fiction stories written for young people these days. Keith Mansfield has produced two fine 'space opera' novels as part of his Johnny Mackintosh series, A.G. Taylor is flying a sci-fi flag with his brilliant Superhumans books and over in the US Douglas E. Richards has also produced a trio of cracking books for the 10+ involving alien worlds. But where are the John Wyndhams of the new millennium? Well there just might be a chance that Mike Lancaster is ready to step in and apply for the position. Yes, I know that John Wyndham is a legend in science fiction circles, and books like Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos are true classics of the genre, but young readers just developing a thirst for science fiction often prefer something a little more modern in writing style before progressing on to the classics, and they could do a hell of a lot worse than start off with 0.4.
The opening pages of 0.4 inform the reader that the item in their hands is a book, and we very quickly work out that this future society no longer reads as we do, and the written word has been obsolete for many years. The book goes on to tell us that the story is a transcript taken off some old analogue cassette tapes, and if what is dictated on the pages is genuine then it could have a huge impact on how these people view their society. The bulk of the story is then written in the first person, that being Kyle Straker, an average teenage boy who lives in a typical small town British village. He goes to school, he has friends, his family situation has been happier, but everything goes on as normal.... until the day he volunteers to be hypnotised at the annual village talent contest. One minute he, and three other volunteers, are being put into a state of hypnotic sleep, and the very next they are 'waking' to discover everyone else in the village has become a living statue, frozen doing whatever they were doing at that single moment in time. The mystery, and their terror, intensifies as the foursome discover that the phones are also dead, and there is nothing but static on the radio. However, this terror is nothing compared to what they feel as the villagers suddenly 'awaken'.......
I really don't want to say any more about the storyline as to do so would create spoilers. All I will say is that older science fiction fans will probably feel that the author was partly inspired by Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, but there are also parallels to be drawn with the previously mentioned The Midwich Cuckoos. I certainly experienced the same sensation of eeriness and creeping dread that I felt when I first saw both Invasion films and first read Wyndham's classic; and it is the kind of feeling that meant I just did not want to put the book down. Usually this only happens with books that I have long been anticipating, but I had not heard of 0.4 until the kind people at Egmonst sent it along with a copy of The Shadowing, and so having started this as I went to bed I found myself reading well into the night.
The engaging and fast moving plot is aided admirably by the author's main character. Kyle is a long way from being the kind of boy we find in many books for the 12+ age group these days - he is certainly no Alex Rider. As I said before, he is an average teenage boy, and it is his very ordinariness that makes the story that much more believable. As I have said before in reviews, children often like their heroes to be normal kids, as they find it much easier to relate to the actions they take when placed in extremely difficult situations.
Throughout the book the narrative is occasionally broken up with editor's notes (Mike Lancaster being named as the editor of this future society). He uses these notes to clarify certain cultural references that Kyle makes, a device that adds to the concept of this being a transcript of tapes recorded long ago. Let's face it, a society that no longer reads would hardly be expected to know the meaning of terms such as 'Coldplay', 'Britain's Got Talent' and 'Teletubbies'. I say this adds to the concept, but I personally found these notes a little intrusive and distracting at times. Perhaps they would have been better placed at the rear of the book as a glossary? That minor gripe aside this is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I will certainly be looking out for more from him in the future.