The Silent Invasion by James Bradley
We tend to think of apocalypse as a fast-moving thing—a meteor strike, a nuclear war, a zombie horde multiplying at speed and devouring all before it. There’s value to this type of narrative because it’s immediately destabilising. A sharp distinction between before and after attaches the reader to the characters, follows them as they reel, shocked and uncomprehending, into the new world that apocalypse has created.
Less common, perhaps, is the slow apocalypse, the one that grinds on over decades, where normality can be maintained, perhaps, in some spaces and for a little while. And how might the children born into that precarious normality, that shadow of a fading world, perceive apocalypse? How do they cope with the not so hidden threat, the realisation that there is nothing, ultimately, to be done?
The Silent Invasion is a young adult book, the first volume in the Change trilogy, so it’s safe to suspect that something can indeed be done, otherwise this would be an unutterably bleak book to inflict on kids. But even though we have our suspicions as readers, sixteen-year-old Callie is struggling to cope with a growing and inevitable sense of futility. When she was a young child, the Earth was biologically seeded with alien spores: “From horizon to horizon green traceries of light filled the sky, flaring and fading like shooting stars” (p. 39). Callie perceives this as a “beautiful, magical” event (p. 40), but her biologist father has a better grasp of the situation. It’s an invasion, he thinks, and he’s right. A beautiful, magical invasion is still an invasion, and the introduction of this new life form into the biosphere has immediate and terrible effects.
The Silent Invasion is set in Australia, and, like most isolated landmasses, Aussie has its own problems with biological invasion. The notorious case of the cane toad, introduced from Hawaii in 1935 to control pests in the sugar cane industry, has had an enormously detrimental effect on indigenous ecosystems—so it’s unsurprising that Bradley has built an invasion around ecology. For an Australian writer it’s a matter of national and everyday concern, and Bradley has ratcheted up the stakes by emphasising ecological consequence. But unlike cane toads, which though wildly destructive have some limits—they’re no threat to the human population, for instance—Bradley’s alien spores infect all plants and all animals. There may, for all we know, be viruses or bacteria that are functionally immune to them, but the rest of the ecosystem is wide open to biological contamination and exploitation.
Most of the population lives isolated from the spreading infection, but spores sneak past Quarantine to infect the odd individual, who will then begin to Change. The effect is immediately obvious: phosphorescence, and a body that grows adapted to a hive mind. In humans, this also affects personality. The spores essentially destroy it, the infected person losing emotion and interest in anything but the hive.
Callie’s five year old sister is infected.
There’s no cure. At the first sign of infection, Quarantine takes the infected—plant, animal, person—and destroys them. Callie knows this from experience, as Quarantine also took her father, infected not long after the birth of her sister. There is widespread fear and loathing of the afflicted and absolute popular support for their extermination. (Be aware that there is a disturbing scene of animal abuse in here, wherein three men take it in turns to gleefully beat an infected dog to death.)
The sensible thing is to give little Gracie up. Callie and the rest of her family will be punished if they don’t. It’s very sad, but the infection can’t be allowed to spread. Yet Callie can’t stand to lose another family member to Quarantine, so she sneaks Gracie out of the house and goes on the run, heading north.
The invasion is so massive, so widespread, that vast amounts of the globe—and of the country—has been abandoned. The Exclusion Zone, a place of total infection, exists hundreds of miles to the north, “beyond what was once the Queensland border” (p. 27). Once there, Quarantine will no longer chase them. Of course, once there Callie will be infected as well, and by the time they get there Gracie will no longer be Gracie: “as she Changed Gracie would begin to disappear, her memories, her intellect, her very self supplanted by something else, something alien and unknowable” (p. 12).
In many ways this is a futile endeavour, doomed to death and failure. Still, Gracie is Callie’s sister, and so the long trek north begins.
This is a fantastic premise, but, because there is such a tight focus on Callie, there’s a lot that’s not explored here. For a novel so invested in ecological change, in the problems of invasion, there’s relatively little focus on the state of the environment. There is, granted, a really beautifully written passage at the very end, when Callie and company reach the Zone and get their first look at a fully Changed biology. And it is fascinating. The images alone are wonderful:
Although it was dark our way was lit by the luminescence of the trees, from which globes of light hung … Where once trees had stood, there were now huge tuberous structures, their sides fleshy and swollen, like massive rhododendrons … things with cilia and flowers that unfolded like anemones … layers of shells or scales that clung to the roots … the cilia swivelling to follow our movement, not individually but almost as one, a shiver of sound moving with them. (pp. 285-286)
I want to see more of this world. This novel is about weird biology, and I want that. Instead, what I get is an infected five-year-old-who sparkles a bit and travels through a countryside that is essentially not much different than today.
The basic idea of this book is that invasion took a real foothold in tropical and subtropical ecosystems and is spreading out from there. Callie’s family, living in Adelaide (South Australia), is isolated from the worst of it, though community suspicion of even normal biota is rife: “most people, even kids, were so paranoid about contamination they avoided places where plants grew wild” (pp. 6-7). Hence Quarantine, which tries to isolate largely uninfected communities from the life-forms that might infect them. But this effort seems so limited. The story is so focused on Callie, on her emotions and experiences, that it skimps on the world-building—and it’s not often I make that complaint in speculative fiction, I can tell you.
There’s lip service to the fact that spores are microscopic organisms that will eventually spread everywhere and can’t be stopped, but all the time I’m thinking: this is Australia. Where’s Cooper Creek? Why is there no mention of the goddamn Murray-Darling river basin, which stretches from infected Queensland all the way down to South Australia? It’s like writing an ecological sci-fi novel set in Egypt and not mentioning the Nile. Cooper Creek and the M-D rivers are massive; they are absolute conduits for infection, going from the heart of the Zone down to the remaining habitable lands—the M-D rivers irrigate the food bowl of the nation.
In fact, let’s talk about food. Where is everyone getting it? Callie passes a lot of deserted and overgrown farms. We can surmise that anything grown within irrigation reach of that monstrous river basin must be suspect. There’s been a massive influx of refugees (not that this seems to cause any cultural conflict in the text), with people fleeing south from Asia, often with the military support of their countries, who are naturally trying to save everyone that they can. “To the north the Indonesian Air Force strafed Australian ships that were attempting to repel refugees from Indonesia and Timor and Papua” (p. 42). To recap: population increase, arable land decrease, borders closed. No apparent food shortages, and Callie’s still frequently ferreting out chocolate bars in the local shops. (Cocoa plants are grown in Australia. In the north, in what is now the Zone. Where are they getting the chocolate? I spent an awful lot of time wondering.)
These seem like petty things to worry about, I know. Granted, the novel’s focus is very narrow, but it’s built on a world that has extraordinary blank spots. I might consider that a deliberate choice on Bradley’s part if sloppiness hadn’t crept into other parts of the text. For instance: Callie, captured by Quarantine, is given medical treatment for her scrapes. Most serious is a deep cut on her knee. “I think we can probably get away without stitches,” says the nurse (p. 198), and tapes the cut shut with medistrips instead. Not twenty pages later, having escaped from Quarantine, Callie’s cleaning the stitches in her knee—the stitches the nurse decided not to give her (p. 216).
But these might be seen as relatively minor issues, resulting from a possibly inadequate focus on world-building. Far more problematic, to my mind—and far more irritating—is the treatment of Callie’s biologist father. (Being a biologist myself, I take these things personally.) And because it impacts so heavily on the narrative, it’s impossible to ignore.
Dr. Adeyemi was working on a cure, a vaccine, when he was taken away by Quarantine for being infected. And throughout the text, rumour and questions as to his work repeat. A school friend asks Callie if the rumour that her father infected himself is true. Callie goes for help to Claire, a colleague and close friend of her father’s, and Claire asks if he gave her anything, if there’s anything of his work left. “The day after he Changed, Quarantine came, impounded his lab, took his files. But if he said he was close, Callie, he was close” (p. 61). And when Callie is taken by Quarantine herself, officer Kostova asks her, “How much do you know about your father’s work?” (p. 195). He questions her again and again as to whether her father ever discussed his work with her. This all despite the fact that Callie was around ten years old at the time her father was taken. Hardly a useful debate partner for a researching biologist.
You know who would be a useful partner? Other fucking biologists.
I mean, for goodness sake. Please just picture it. The Earth is invaded by aliens, seeded with spores that begin the slow transformation of every living thing. The contagion—the invasion—is global in scale. It is having massive destructive effect, everyone is panicking because they understand, deep down, that this total destruction of the biosphere isn’t something that can be stopped. Except one man thinks it can. Maybe. And he’s keeping the details to himself. Because the tens of thousands of biologists around the world, all of whom are connected by the internet, all of whom are frantically working on a cure—nah, they’re not going to be helpful. Better keep it secret.
Science is absolutely fucking useless if you don’t share your results. It’s one of the first things they teach you in grad school. The scientific method, the accurate reporting of that method, is crucial because it allows for objective replication by others, the independent verification of results. And yes, interesting results might be worth keeping close if you’re developing a new flavour of Pepsi, or don’t want to lose your company an economic advantage before a patent kicks in. But “worth keeping close” does not apply to end of the damn world. Every scientist—every single one, especially those working in a university lab, because those are the ones who are often most concerned with the communication of science for the common good—would be sharing every scrap of information they had the very second they got it. Yes, even results they think might be invalid, or haven’t yet adequately verified, or even suspect might be absolute balderdash, or too confronting for other people to handle (the arrogance of that last one, I swear).
They’d share it all.
They’d share it all because a global population of biologists latching onto every scrap of information work a whole lot faster than one man alone, and time is of the essence when alien spores are effectively destroying every life-form on Earth. A Doomsday scenario is not the time for a scientist to forget how to be a scientist.
And yet, for purposes of Idiot Plot™ this is exactly what Dr. Adeyemi does. He doesn’t even think to share his work with Claire.
People trained to share information do not work like this. Not unless they are very very stupid. There is no indication that Adeyemi is very very stupid, so here I am, dear reader, tearing out my hair at yet another poor depiction of science in science fiction, because The Silent Invasion just makes no fucking sense. Not on a scientific level, and not on a human one.
In fairness, it should be pointed out again that this is the first book of a trilogy, and it is not a self-contained one. The Silent Invasion ends on a cliffhanger. It is certainly possible that any issues I have with this book—including that massive central problem—are given plausible explanations in the subsequent volumes. I honestly cannot think of one that would excuse Dr. Adeyemi’s grossly unscientific behaviour, but that may be failure of imagination on my part.
The problem with reviewing first volumes is that one doesn’t always get an entire story. The Silent Invasion, however, doesn’t inspire confidence. Let’s go back to our old and ugly friend, the cane toad. The thing about invasive species is they not only have a direct effect upon some (or all) of the other species they come in contact with; they can also affect the way that those species interact with each other. Australian lizards who try eating the cane toad frequently end up dead, because the bloody things are toxic. This is bad for the lizard, but dead lizards reduce predator pressure on native frogs. Effects knock on, is what I’m saying, but there’s no exploration of ecosystem effects in this novel, past the Change. This book ecologically-based science fiction. I was expecting, well, ecology to be in there somewhere.
These absences bother me. Some series are structured so that each entry contains a complete story, and, in Bradley’s defence, cliffhanger series don’t have this advantage: readers have to take what they’re given, and wait to have the gaps filled in. This does build suspense—I’m not saying there aren’t advantages—but I also tend to think that each volume of a series should make consistent internal sense on its own—and The Silent Invasion, though it has an absolutely fantastic premise and a sympathetic protagonist, fails to do this.