In his new foray into the near-future world of the techno-thriller, longtime science-fiction author John Barnes suffers from both a lack of focus and too specific a focus. Directive 51 features a nifty kickoff for what’s going to be a trilogy of post-apocalyptic tales, featuring apocalypse via a small group of people essentially committed to making modern civilization kill itself. Sadly, Barnes mostly squanders that intriguing premise in favor of preachy polemics and scenes that don’t take a wide enough view of the decaying world.
Barnes’ central idea is irresistible. A small collection of teams and individuals works swiftly to spread biologically engineered microbes and nanites that tear apart the world’s infrastructure, starting with electricity and plastic and working their way up. At the same time, a terrorist organization steals the vice president’s plane, and him with it. Are the two events connected? Need you even ask?
The problem comes as Barnes tries to keep all his plates spinning. He cuts freely from the plane to Washington D.C.—where the top staff of something called the “Department Of The Future” is trying to alert the government that it may already be too late to save the world—to scenes from the descent into chaos. Barnes follows characters for long portions of the narrative, then simply seems to forget they exist. When things intensify, rather than dramatize events, he has his characters react to strained monologues about how, say, a major city is burning down. Just when he should be zooming out, he’s zooming too far in, and when a tight focus on a single event seems necessary, Barnes is cutting madly between five or six locations.
Directive 51 arrived with a fair amount of hype about how it shows a frighteningly plausible way the world could fall apart. And to be fair, the early passages of the book—scattered though they are—have a nail-biting sense of docu-fiction, as though Barnes actually made a trip to 15 years in the future and came back to let us all know how it ends. But the longer the book goes on, the more Barnes squanders this advantage in favor of increasingly implausible gadgets and sequences.
All this might be acceptable, however, if not for the book’s strained politics. The novel’s centerpiece is about a dispute over who controls the U.S. government after the cataclysm, and Barnes has to work so hard to justify having this argument that he pushes characters into positions that seem inorganic based on who they were even 20 pages prior. His desire to keep readers guessing also invents a handful of stereotypes who would be president. The worst is a Democratic senator who, upon being thrust into the limelight, morphs into a weird combination of all of the worst things about Jimmy Carter, Richard J. Daley, and Markos Moulitsas. (The Republicans don’t fare any better.)
Barnes almost pulls this together for a capable ending that evokes a world struggling to rebuild, but the vast majority of the book is a collection of unfocused vignettes, barely sketched-in stereotypes, and loose ends that he apparently just forgot about. At least until book two.