[In our Edge of the Universe column we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Marcel Theroux’s Far North offers all of our favorite post-apocalyptic ingredients. Our protagonist, Makepeace Hatfield, recalls Stephen King’s gunslinger, Roland, and the spirit of Far North seems to be drawn from the same zeitgeist that made Cormac McCarthy’s The Road so popular. Of course, Theroux offers a few twists: please notice the wintery setting.
Far North takes place in what once was Russia. Makepeace lives carefully in an abandoned town. Like many SFF enthusiasts, I always enjoy reading about how the world ended. Frustratingly, Theroux prefers not to explain the end in detail, though we can rest assured that it had something to do with the environment. Regardless of how the world ended, it has certainly taught Makepeace one thing: when times get tough, people turn ugly.
The setting is sparse and Makepeace’s resigned, Spartan observations about the world have all the power that plump, affluent readers expect from a post-apocalyptic hero. And there’s adventure too. When a bandit steals Makepeace’s guns, Theroux highlights some particularly clever, and nasty, ways to get even. Be careful if you choose to rob the far north’s last survivors.
Unfortunately, or fortunately for fans of the genre, this setting also adds up to a daunting atmosphere. When human beings travel far enough north, things can only go south, which is certainly what has happened to humanity. It seems that Makepeace is the only person who, in spite of it all, still tries to help people rather than rob them.
I’ll admit that I tend to find novels with these conflicts reliably entertaining, but Far North does feel a bit predictable. For example, what sorts of obstacles does Makepeace face? Well, in addition to bandits, there are also bizarre societies run by corrupt zealots that have twisted religion for their own benefit. We travel through toxic wastelands, though there are sadly no mutants. Makepeace is even the last survivor of an unusual society, this time a religious colony that left America for better prospects in the far north.
All of these motifs are quite familiar, but does it matter that we’ve seen them before? Far North was marketed to the literary community, rather than the SFF community. Mundane readers unfamiliar with this genre and premise will no doubt enjoy Theroux’s account, perhaps recalling the way that they enjoyed Justin Cronin’s much longer post-apocalyptic tale, The Passage. Meanwhile, readers that are more familiar with lone-cowboy-post-apocalyptic stories may find themselves ticking off checkboxes, but perhaps are just as likely to treat these familiar gestures as comforting milestones in an oft-read journey. So, it seems safe to say that Far North will invariably please readers.
Certainly it would be wrong to label Far North both derivative and a failure. Still, it does not succeed on the same level as many of its peers. Theroux’s writing lacks the raw power of McCarthy’s stories, not to mention the wild imagination of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. I actually preferred Far North’s shorter length to Cronin’s interminable The Passage; however, the latter may well leave a stronger impression on most readers because of its detail. Ultimately, Far North should be approached (by the SFF community) as a pleasing read in a reliably exciting sub-genre.