A Review of The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray
Reviewed by Katie McIvor
The word ‘thriller’ appears so many times on the cover and endorsement blurbs for this book that it seems almost unfair of me to review it for a science fiction and fantasy magazine. Despite its clear sci-fi concept (the Earth has stopped spinning, leading to ecological disaster), Andrew Hunter Murray’s debut novel doesn’t see itself as science fiction. Because science fiction is for nerds, right guys? The marketing strategy seems to have worked, in any case, as the book was a Sunday Times bestseller in the UK.
So, the year is 2059, and the world has stopped turning. No more day and night, no more sunrise and sunset. One side of the planet is frozen solid, populated by the corpses of those who didn’t escape in time. The other is a sun-blasted wasteland whose few remaining inhabitants have been driven below ground by the constant heat. Our story is set, of course, in the boring bit in between, the narrow habitable region at the edge of the Hot Zone. Britain is now a permanently sunny agricultural powerhouse, cooled by handy new North Sea currents and ruled by a dodgy authoritarian government hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.
Our protagonist, ocean scientist Ellen Hopper, works on an Atlantic rig “frozen in a permanent autumn morning”. Her job involves lassoing icebergs and scuppering the numerous ships full of corpses which are drifting around the ocean. So far, so interesting. Sadly, though, we don’t get to spend much time on the rig. Hopper’s former Oxford tutor, Edward Thorne, is dying, and he has something important he wants to tell her. Hopper is whisked back to London by some mysterious government types who appear to be suspiciously interested in Thorne and his secret. Wary of provoking the authorities, Hopper nevertheless decides to try and decipher Thorne’s final message. She enlists the help of her ex-husband, David, whose charm seems at odds with his cavemannish behaviour during their marriage (he wanted a child, and she didn’t – because why bother having a female protagonist if you can’t throw in a bit of unnecessary drama about her reproductive decisions?). Together, the ex-couple sets out on a dangerous mission to defy the government.
After this promising set-up, the novel’s pace is almost completely strangled by the vast amounts of info-dumping which Murray employs to outline the setting. The world-building indulges in some British imperial fantasy: “humbled” Americans have fled the New World to set up a survivors’ colony in the southwest of England, trading the remnants of their navy for habitable land, and Britain has taken control of Europe. The Brexit metaphor is at times heavy-handed, with isolationist Britain having created a “Tidal Defence Zone” to keep out desperate migrants, and the few European refugees in London “tolerated as serfs and kept uncertain about their status”. Hopper blunders around London in a haze of relentless exposition. Things finally start to pick up around page 200, when a couple of actual clues begin to point her in the right direction.
Thankfully, the premise behind this story is just about interesting enough to salvage it from the drudging plot and occasionally asinine writing (“She drank the whisky. It tasted good”). What would it be like to have no seasons, no days, no sunsets? What would happen if GPS just stopped working suddenly, thrown out of synch by the lengthening days? What would it feel like to live through six months of night? The novel is at its best when inviting us to imagine the myriad small ways we take our planet for granted.
On the whole, then, I’d say science fiction fans should give The Last Day a try. If you like big concepts, rebellious characters and a slow-burning plot, then this really isn’t all that bad… for a thriller.
You can find Katie on Twitter at @_McKatie_