The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack
Abaddon Books, 10 August 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via Netgalley.
Schneider Wrack wakes in hell.
Then he revises his opinions; he’s on a factory ship.
Then he re-revises – this is Hell, and he’s not out of it. He is dead, and has been reborn as a zombie, condemned to work until he rots, Wrack is part of an undead workforce, slaving to carve up the great sea creatures of the planet Ocean to feed his native city, Lipos-Tholos. On decks slick with blubber, in the driving rail, they toil ceaselessly until, too decomposed to work, too cursed to die, they are left stacked in charnel heaps. All this takes place on the great ship, the Tavuto. Lipos-Tholos has been besieged for generations and depends on the sea - and especially the Tavuto - for food.
In this far future, there has been time for humanity to spread across the planets, to form a civilization ("the lemniscatus") which is now in decay, but, in its prime, opened gates between far locations - gates forgotten to worlds forgotten, gates and worlds rediscovered and lost again. So the great whale-like creatures that Tavuto (a "nightmare in steel, floodlights and scale") hunts, disassembles and renders, flow back through the gate to whatever world that city's on - while the zombies and their human handlers face the horrors of Ocean: they have "lips like salted dogs" and experience "the piercing, ammoniac stench of a sharkmonger's stall at midsummer".
It's a very vivid, stark novel, the sights, sounds and - especially - smells being rendered viscerally. You can taste the salt, smell the decaying blubber, the fraying flesh of the zombies, feel their despair as they sink into the dark dreams that keep them under control.
But Wrack wakes from these dreams, and the first part of the story is then about how he finds himself again, striking up an improbable friendship with a woman, Mouana. There are limits to this friendship ("no point in holding hands like lovers; we're both far too rotted in the funbits to care about that") - but what they do both have an appetite for, is fighting.
So the story proceeds with Wrack's and Mouana's revolt against the powers that zombified them. It's a long road and it takes a great number of twists and turns, bringing in both Wrack's past (he may have been one of the rebels - the Pipers - who oppose Lipos-Tholos's government. Or he may be an innocent bystander) and Mouana's (spoilers!) All around are the hints of an older, higher technology – like the zombifying process – which present-day societies are clumsily trying to use.
All this leads, after many adventures, betrayals and revelations, to another world entirely, a jungle world - Grand Amazon itself, where the zombies are eaten dead by bugs and fragments of an even older civilization - the hulk of a burned out starship, a city of lizard people - loom and are then forgotten.
Only at the end of this quest, in High Sarawak, will the pair find what they need.
This book is in three parts - The Sea Hates a Coward, Fisheries and Justice and Grand Amazon - which have previously been published separately (do bear this in mind if you've read, or especially bought, them separately). I hadn't read those books so I don't know if Crowley has reworked the material at all to bring the stories together but they do read very much as a single narrative, with puzzles and mysteries from the earlier parts (such as what happened to Wrack to get him on Tavuto) explained in good time. It's an intense read, very sensual as I noted above, but also very distinctive in style, both evoking great adventure stories by writers like Rider-Haggard, Conan Doyle and, of course, in the Ocean sections, Melville and also adding a distinct sense of darkness, of unease.
All that, and this is a "zombie uprising" story told from the perspective of the zombies themselves... and it makes them sympathetic (and at times funny). It is also, though, a ruthless book, with innocent blood poured out in torrents and, for a long time, seemingly no moral centre. But do hang in there.
I don't know whether I should call this SF, fantasy, adventure, or a combination of these, or something entirely different. For me it read as very new, very different and I'd strongly recommend it.
For more info about the book, and links to buy, see here.