ONE reviewed in LOCUS

By Tim Pratt, November 2009

It should come as no surprise to admirers of Conrad Williams that his latest novel One – which is half postapocalyptic road trip and half decidedly un-cozy catastrophe – is a bleak and harrowing thing, as Williams specializes in such scenarios. More impressive is the power of the narrative engine, especially in the first half, which drives the story relentlessly forward. The novel as a whole is balanced on a thin edge between impossible hope and hopeless despair, a feat of dynamic equilibrium that seems more admirable the longer I think about it.

One begins with Richard Jane, a deep-sea welder repairing an oil platform in the harsh sea off the coast of England. Jane is an instantly likable, practical man who (we soon learn) has an estranged wife and a beloved young son named Stanley. Jane’s introduction is followed swiftly by disaster: there is a shock wave in the water, communications with the surface are lost, and soon shoals of dead fish drift by. Jane and his fellow divers make it back to the storm-ravaged surface, though conditions are so harsh that soon Jane is the only one on the rig left alive.

He escapes in a lifeboat to the coast of England, only to find a landscape mysteriously scorched and poisoned, everyone and everything dead, the Earth coated with a strange glittery dust. He sets off on an impossibly difficult journey toward London, determined to find his son, desperately hoping the boy is alive – though Williams is clear-eyed about the realism of that scenario:

‘[Jane] walked on, developing his rhythm. He started chanting Stanley’s name, and his own, and Cherry’s too. A triumvirate to spur him on, even though he knew there were only ever likely to be limited permutations of the three by the time he found them. But you never knew… a national disaster, a child in peril, estranged parents reunited. It happened all the time in Hollywood.’

Still, as motivations go, the search for a lost son is a powerful one, and Jane’s all-consuming love for Stanley – and the depiction of even an impossible hope as the last bulwark against despair – is moving and convincing. Jane meets other survivors (despite the title, this isn’t a last-man-on-Earth story), but they do more to hinder his cause than to help it. He is also pursued by a mysterious person or persons who leave him occasional inscrutable gifts and sometimes intervene to save his life. But, for the most part, Jane is alone – except for the constant mental presence of his son.

Comparisons to that other postapocalyptic father-and-son road trip, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, are almost inevitable, but late in the book Williams conjures horrors that make McCarthy’s ‘‘baby roasting on a spit’’ seem tame. Moreover, McCarthy’s hero hasn’t lost everything – he still has his son, while Jane has only memories, imaginings, and occasional hallucinations about Stanley, which grow more heartbreaking as the book progresses.

The cause of the disaster is never explained (though there’s a hint about its nature on the acknowledgments page), but it seems to be astronomical in origin, global in scope, and universally catastrophic, blighting the land and poisoning the air and sea. Jane does eventually make it to London… and there Part One ends, with an interregnum of a decade or so before the story resumes in Part Two.

In the second half of the book, Jane is part of a small group of survivors in London desperately fighting for their lives against a second-order effect of the disaster: the Skinners, apparently alien beings brought to Earth in a deadly panspermia. Something in the air – spores? eggs? – leads to the growth of these eyeless creatures, which reach maturity inside an animal host, and go on wearing that animal’s body like a suit. There are human-shaped skinners, and animal ones, including dogs, and a tiger that takes a particular interest in Jane. They prey on humans for food, but there’s also the ever-present danger of incubating one of the creatures inside yourself. Not to mention the fact that Skinners kill men, but abduct women, for reasons unknown. How much more horrific can it get?

And yet, even in this shattered world, there’s still hope – for escape, for peace on another shore, for love, for triumph… even for family reunited. Despite the bleakness and absence of easy resolutions here, Jane’s hope is never extinguished, suggesting that the death of hope might be the one true catastrophe, the fate which must be avoided if humankind has any chance of going on.