Reviewing Slattery's Lost Everything will seem rather convenient in light of Elizabeth Bear's Clarkesworld post on the doom and gloom nature of SF. How awful of me to love another work that makes us all sad and boo hoo inside! Except Lost Everything isn't terribly boo hoo, unless the only thing you pay attention to is the central premise: the United States has gone to pot -- global collapse, climate change, and civil war, along with the looming threat of an immense, monstrous storm that will supposedly destroy everything.
But underneath that dark premise is something that I think the best SF always draws out: the pure wonder of the human condition. The novel follows a diverse cast of characters from different and sometimes opposing backgrounds: Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim, who have set off together to retrieve Jim's son, Aaron, and escape the Big One (a massive, deadly storm weaving in from the west); Sergeant Foote, who has been tasked with hunting down Bauxite and Jim to determine ifthey're a threat against the military, and neutralize that threat if necessary; Faisal Jenkins, captain of the Carthage, who wants to ferry people down the river to safety and listens to the river for the day when it will consume him and his ship; and an eclectic mix of secondary characters, from a con artist to a ship's first and second mates to military men and resistance fighters, all searching for a sense of home, a sense of who they were and who they have become, and a sense of what it means to have lost everything but not the will to find it all again.
Lost Everything is about survival, of adapting to dangerous situations and finding a way to still find love, friendship, companionship, trust, and all those things that have helped us form a civilization. It's about faith, not just in a higher power, but in fellow man. There is something profoundly optimistic about finding these human elements in a time that seems to have no future. We're conditioned to assume the worst of humanity at the end of days. Our movies tell us that we can't trust anyone, that any one of them could sell us up the river. But Lost Everything reminds us of the beautiful nature of human interaction: that even in the darkest of times, the best of what makes us human springs forward. Optimism at its finest, and handled by Slattery with simple, but beautiful prose and through a narrative that collapses the past and present to show us who people were and who they have become.
Slattery's narrative structure amplifies this thematic content. Split largely between three spaces -- the house, the river, and the highway (iconic spaces in American literature from Twain to Kerouac and so on) -- Slattery moves seamlessly between a character's past and present, doing so in a way that perhaps seems tedious at first, but quickly lifts the veil to reveal the purpose. Each storyline moves towards a similar idea, albeit expressed through a variety of hopes and dreams (finding family here, discovering home there, and so on). The result is a narrative that snakes its way like a river towards an "future" that, as the narrative reminds us, has already happened, and which we're being shown so we know what kinds of people lived before, and the kinds of people that have been left behind. The structure might jar some readers, but I found it refreshing. Whereas many SF novels follow the now-traditional conventions of plot, Lost Everything evades all of that, perhaps to explore characters in ways traditional writing makes unavailable, or to simply break apart the notion that there is anything like a stable narrative when humanity's connection to place has been ruptured. Call it postmodern or literary; whatever it is, I found myself hooked not just by the characters, but by these very structural choices.
Perhaps these stylistic and narrative choices are why some have compared this novel to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, though it seems to me that the comparison rests primarily on theme. Slattery is not Cormac McCarthy. Nor is he Mark Twain. He is something else entirely -- a unique voice in genre who transcends generic tradition entirely, who pulls up the roots of the ancient and the new, plucks them from the tree of knowledge itself and weaves them into twisted creations which never forget that we are dealing with human beings in terrible situations. While Spaceman Blues adapted the Orpheus myth to the landscape of a city beset with conspiratorial sensawunda, Lost Everything draws upon a long history of river novels, river myths, and river tropes to remind us of how humanity adapts to an uncontrollable natural world and a species struggling with its compulsive nature, with its unchecked neuroses.
In other words: this is a novel that will haunt me for years to come. Its mark will never go away. For that reason alone, Lost Everything will sit at the top of my list of WISB Award hopefuls. And it will take a herculean effort of literary genius to strip this book of its place as the best novel of the year.
If you want to learn more about Brian Francis Slattery, check out his website. You can learn more about the book on this Tor page. You can also check out my old and slightly crappy review of Spaceman Blues here.