BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A first-person dystopian science fiction novel about lost love, AI trucks and the search for meaning in a post-apocalyptic Australia.
PROS: Inventive, strong point of view gives a tight focus on the world around the protagonist.
CONS: First-person narration sometimes works against it; some elements not fleshed out sufficiently; dialect and slang may put off casual, non-Australians readers.
BOTTOM LINE: A unique and fresh post-apocalyptic novel.
Australia after the apocalypse is a hell of a place in Andrew Macrae’s debut novel Trucksong. The great metropolises (Gigacities in the parlance of the book) have all fallen, leaving a remnant population of humans, and things more and less than human. That last includes semi-trucks, with artificial intelligence, the ability to symbiotically bond with humans, and the seemingly dominant species left in Australia. Above it all, an ancient satellite named The Watcher sends cryptic messages to those who can hear them, including a young man determined to free the girl he loves, and break the power of the strongest truck on the roads, The Brumby King.
The world of Trucksong is amazingly inventive. The novel is written in a future Australian slang and dialect. The textual use of this reminds me of the phonetic language in Iain Banks’ Feersum Endjinn. With the broken post-apocalyptic world, with AI-dominated trucks that can be wrangled to bond with humans (complete with a drip of psychotropic drugs), the ruins of the Lie Bury, a culture of wandering survivors, a strange phantasmagorical figure called “The Crow”, and more, the novel feels like the aforementioned Banks novel, fused with Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter novels, and Michael Swanwick’s Darger and Surplus stories mixed in for good measure. The backdrop of AIs, possibly supernatural powers, and a hardscrabble life do not make for most grim post-apocalypse, but neither is it an easy world to live in. It feels more like Apocalypse World than Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog.
The first person point of view means readers stay completely in Jon-Ra’s head, seeing how he reacts to the revelations and world around him. The novel dives deeply into his head. He’s a relatively naive, if straightforward, protagonist, and that leads to an interesting narrative tension since an alert reader often has a better handle on events and the situation than Jon himself does. However, for all of his flaws and lack of perception, we understand his actions and motivations very well.
Some first-novel weaknesses mar the experience, however, and are mostly the flip side of the positive elements. The first-person narration can play against the reader who only has Jon Ra’s point of view to work with while exploring the fantastic world Macrae has created. Also, there is a learning curve for non-Australian readers regarding the thick dialect-ridden speech that does serve as a positive, engrossing experience. A little googling can go a long way here (for example, what a “brumby” is). Some of the plotting and elements are not fleshed out sufficiently. The brisk pace sometimes comes off more like a whirlwind, especially once the protagonist is full-on with his quest.
Is Trucksong worth the effort it takes to read it, then? Overall, yes, especially for those American and British readers curious about Australian SF and willing to engage with it. I suspect Australian readers are already well familiar with Macrae’s other work, and need little prodding to pick up this volume. In addition, as a musician, Macrae has composed a soundtrack for the novel. The music is an excellent compliment as one reads of Jon’s journey across the south of Australia in search of his lost love.