A road trip beneath clear blue skies and a blazing sun: a reclusive artist is forced to abandon his home and follow two young sisters across a post-pandemic Europe in search of a safe place. Is this the end of the world?
Meanwhile two computer scientists have been educating their baby in a remote location. Their baby is called Talos, and he is an advanced AI program. Every week they feed him data, starting from the beginning of written history, era by era, and ask him to predict what will happen next to the human race. At the same time they’re involved in an increasingly fraught philosophical debate about why human life is sacred and why the purpose for which he was built – to predict threats to human life to help us avoid them – is a worthwhile and ethical pursuit.
These two strands come together in a way that is always suspenseful, surprising and intellectually provocative: this is an extraordinarily prescient and vital work of fiction – an apocalyptic road novel to frighten and thrill.
Under the Blue is an intriguing post-apocalyptic novel although it’s one that may feel a little close to home for some readers as it features a pandemic (not COVID) that devastates Earth’s population in 2020.
It’s a novel that features dual timelines. In 2017, we see two scientists developing an AI program called Talos XI, the first ten iterations having not quite delivered. They provide data to Talos, and ask it (I can’t quite bear to refer to an AI as he, even though the blurb does so) to predict what comes next, based upon its observations and knowledge. The idea is that Talos will eventually have caught up to the present day and that it’s understanding of history and human behaviour will enable it to predict what comes next for the human race in terms of potential threats and issues and that – with some forewarning – disasters might be averted. I found this aspect of the novel absolutely fascinating. I love the idea of calibrating the AI by testing out its knowledge on the events of the past, and I personally would have liked to see this element of the novel explored further. I did also enjoy the more philosophical debates that occur between Talos and Dr Dahlen later in the novel as she tries to convey her assumptions and the logic that should govern Talos’s behaviour, only to have these questioned and ultimately rejected by Talos.
The second timeline is set in 2020, showing the aftermath of a pandemic that seems to have killed almost everyone. The virus isn’t COVID and isn’t given a name, although it does bear some similarities to COVID in that it appears to be a respiratory illness. It proves to be far more deadly, however, and leaves very few people alive. Harry is a reclusive artist, and manages to completely miss the virus and the events occurring outside his London flat as he remains focussed on his current project purely by chance. When he does emerge, it’s to a city in which he appears to be one of the few left alive and – following some gut instinct – he abandons London to head to a cottage in Devon where he is eventually joined by his neighbour, Ash, and her sister, Jessie.
Harry seems particularly ill-suited to surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. He’s practical enough, yet beyond rationing and tracking his supplies, he seems to be waiting for someone to step in and tell him that it’s all over, that’s everything is under control, and that things will soon return to normal. He is either optimistic or naïve depending on your viewpoint, and can’t quite seem to accept that he’s now living in a lawless world and that other people may not have his best interests at heart despite a few close calls on his journey to Devon. Jessie and Ash at least understand what’s happened and what’s at stake, and Jessie and Harry clash continuously as they refuse to accept each other’s point of view. Jessie at least is a doctor, and her knowledge puts them in a must stronger position than they might be otherwise.
For me, Under the Blue is a novel of two halves. Harry’s escape from London and his journey to Devon is interesting in that it shares a view of England that is both familiar and alien, but once there, nothing much happens, even when Ash and Jessie join him. The second half of the novel sees them leave Devon and seek out the safety of Africa. Their journey is difficult, but the change of scene and the difficulties they experience on their journey do make the second half more engaging as they must obtain food, replenish their water supplies, and obtain fuel for their vehicle. Despite this, I do have a couple of issues with the later part of the novel. Firstly, I don’t entirely buy into their logic for leaving Devon to go to Africa. It just doesn’t seem entirely plausible to me, but I won’t go into it for obvious reasons. Secondly, I just couldn’t understand the route that they took after leaving the UK. They find a boat to cross the channel easily enough, so surely the easiest route to Africa is to travel through France and Spain to Gibraltar with the hope of finding another boat there. But no, they decide to drive south and east from France to Turkey. Yes, there’s a land route that way, but it’s a long and time-consuming trip when speed is apparently of the essence.
So, Under the Blue was something of a mixed bag for me. I like the concept and the writing, but I would have liked to have seen the Talos element explored more thoroughly, and I had a couple of niggles with how the novel progressed. One point in the novel’s favour is that I was expecting something of a twist, but when it came, it wasn’t at all what I’d been expecting. All in all, Under the Blue was an enjoyable read that didn’t quite live up to my expectations but which shows a lot of potential for the author – I’m intrigued to see what they do next.
Under the Blue is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available in paperback and eBook formats.