Sci-fi thriller or novella-sized cautionary tale – why not both?
Adrian Tchaikovsky is no stranger to the sci-fi genre; his Arthur C. Clarke award for Children of Time in 2016 is proof enough of that. His latest outing, Firewalkers, depicts a world in which young men and women of the titular profession must venture out into the sometimes-deadly, often-times fatal scorched Earth that is now their home to fix vital systems and equipment in the hope of receiving fresh food and water from those in charge. And those people in charge? Mere puppet leaders, left in place by the rich and the elite who have long since evacuated to a spaceship in the upper atmosphere, connected only by an elevator which must be kept operational so that they can be joined by the last few straggling rich and elite.
It is here that we meet Mao, a Vietnamese nineteen-year-old who is far from his ancestral home, living at the base of this almost reverent elevator shaft out of necessity so that he can provide for his family as a Firewalker. Oh, and because everywhere else on the planet is either burning at sixty degrees Celsius or flooding under Noah’s Ark-levels of water, presumably due to the polar icecaps being no more than an urban legend at this point in the future.
On the face of it, Firewalkers sounds and even reads like the sort of cautionary tale that you might expect to find in a future-set bottle episode of Doctor Who, a comparison that is made as a compliment rather than a criticism. Due in part to both its genre as adult sci-fi and Tchaikovsky’s ruthlessness as an author, however, the tale itself is much darker than one you might find on pre-watershed BBC. In the space of the first chapter, Tchaikovsky sets the scene, the status quo, our main character’s motivations, and also the fictional history of the dystopian world we find ourselves delving into within this novella.
From very early on we feel as if we know all of the ins-and-outs of where some of the last survivors of the human race are huddled together in Ankara Achouka, a multicultural melting pot in the equatorial desert which has last seen better days a very long time ago. Tchaikovsky introduces us to our cast of characters consisting of Mao himself, as well as Lupé, an engineering prodigy, and Hotep, an albino former-elite from high above in the Grand Celeste spaceship who was cast down to Earth due to undiagnosed special needs labelling her as ‘less than’ when it comes to those who are worthy of escaping the burning rock we call home. The latter picking up her nickname due to an uncanny resemblance to a certain monster from Bubba Ho-Tep when wearing her life-saving bandages to hide from the scorching rays of the Sun (instantly earning a +1 in our assessment of the novella) is a constant reminder of the future which might lie ahead of us should climate change continue in its current downward spiral.
Tchaikovsky wastes no time with this novella; clocking in at just ten chapters spread over roughly two hundred pages, he really doesn’t have the time to do so. In a concise and often thrilling fashion, the reader is brought on an odyssey through the equatorial desert which will soon encompass the entire world, meeting the occasional straggling pocket of society along the way as a reminder that not everyone suckles at the teat of the elevator shaft for scraps from those up high – except those that don’t are the ones who are the closest to extinction. The irony of meeting a man named Bastien who is the last survivor of a protein factory which produced genetically-modified insects that now roam the skies at the grand size of three feet in length is not lost on us.
When our trio finally reach their destination, an old scientific research facility that has been leeching precious electricity from their homestead, the task of fixing it is made considerably difficult by the presence of a rogue artificial intelligence with a grudge against the elite who abandoned both it and the Earth; but mostly for the former. An ethical debate here and a daring escape from a swarm of metre-long locusts there and the team return home, a thumb drive containing a veritable kill switch for the holier-than-thou spaceship in tow, to find their town in chaos as the metaphorical ladder has been pulled up behind the last person to ascend to the Grand Celeste.
The novella ends on a sombre note. After raging against the dying of the light, our heroes give in to temptation and enact the plan proposed to them by the AI and put in motion the deaths of everyone aboard the spaceship so that the cursed down below can ascend and take their place. When we last see Mao he is weighed down by guilt over the deaths of so many innocents, but hopeful at the prospect of love with a simulated human interface he became smitten with back on Earth given human form in a cloned body by the now-benevolent AI. The very same AI which now runs the spaceship up there and is in charge of terraforming the world down here over the course of centuries so that some day humanity can once again live on the planet which we pillaged for its resources and burned to a cinder as a result.
In conclusion, Firewalkers is an incredibly-engrossing read which hits the mark in all categories. The worldbuilding is second to none, with every slang term being simultaneously alien and familiar and every futuristic invention remaining believable and feasible. The divide between the rich who receive salvation and the poor who receive damnation is a heart-wrenching status quo that is all-too-familiar to an unfortunate amount of people, as is their pained ‘grass is always greener’ mindset. The people whose lives we catch a glimpse of would and do literally kill for water in this scorched landscape, and yet half a world away another pocket of humanity drowning from another result of climate change would do the same for a patch of dry land. The simulated human who Mao falls in love with is tragically beautiful in its existence, innocent and perfect by design but lacking the self-awareness of its AI creator, perhaps signalling the end of the cycle of creation. God put humans on the Earth, who in turn created AI, which in turn created a simulation that is not capable of creation. Funny, then, that it is the AI who inherits both the Earth and the last home of humanity. Although a sequel exploring these themes even further would be welcome, Firewalkers is more than satisfying as a stand-alone novel. Sometimes it is okay for stories to be finite, just like the resources man so unforgivingly pillages from the ground beneath our feet.