Friday, 24 June 2011

‘Outpost’ – Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)

Another day, another apocalypse on ‘Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review’... Actually, that makes the blog sound a lot more exciting than it has any right to, time for a little clarification I think...
The Apocalypse seems to be a really big deal in fiction at the moment. If you’re not one of those people who were secretly quite pleased that the Rapture didn’t happen (but are already brooding over that Mayan prophecy) then it’s likely that you’re someone who thinks that zombies are cool and can’t get enough of their questionable eating habits. Either way (Post) Apocalyptic fiction has got you covered, offering you the chance to get involved in some of the worst disasters that humanity could go through... and then put the book down for a breather if things get a little too fraught. And that’s where I come in.

Long term readers of the blog will know that I can’t get enough of this little sub-genre as it offers a real insight into just what people are capable of when the chips are down (especially when they don’t realise what they are capable of). I love reading this stuff and will more often than not put whatever I’m reading to one side if I have a chance to read ‘in-genre’. And that’s where ‘Outpost’ comes in.
It was totally by chance that I saw a copy of ‘Outpost’ on the Hodder & Stoughton website and thought I’d check it out. I’m really glad that I did, I think you’ll be very hard pressed to find a post-apocalyptic novel that’s better...

Kasker Rampart is a derelict oil platform moored in the Arctic Ocean, waiting either to be put into service again or decommissioned and scrapped. In the meantime, its skeleton crew keep things ticking over and wait for the next relief ship to take them home. The thing is though; there won’t be another relief boat. Not ever.
Out there in the world, something terrible is happening; a global pandemic that sees people fall on each other in the streets and whole cities laid waste. What is worst, seeing this all take place on television or that moment when the last TV station falls silent (leaving nothing but static behind)...?
The Rampart crew are marooned and must survive the long Arctic Winter before they can even think of making their way home. The potential for starvation and hypothermia are great, the odds of falling out amongst themselves even greater. These dangers are about to fall into insignificance though, the contagion that has devastated the world is now headed their way...

I’ve been reading a lot of books, just recently, that I knew I’d enjoy so the phrase ‘couldn’t put it down’ has probably been bandied about a little more than it perhaps should have been. The bottom line though is that there are very few books, for me anyway, that are truly ‘un-putdownable’. There are loads of books that I can put down very easily, I’ll tell you about them sometime soon.
‘Outpost’ though...? I really couldn’t put it down for a whole number of reasons, to the extent that I didn’t want to talk to people until I’d finished it. I finished it, put the book down and thought, ‘bloody hell...’ In the best possible way that is, any book that can put me through the wringer like that more than deserves praise.

The book isn’t without some very minor flaws but Baker does everything else just right. No gaping issues here, Baker is a man very much in control of his plot (for the most part) and steers it with the deftest of touches to a conclusion that is raw and powerful. You could say it’s predictable even (the remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ springs to mind as an example) but the way in which Baker builds up his characters means this won’t occur to you for a long while afterwards, certainly long enough for you to revel in the sheer power and raw emotion of those last few pages.

Baker shows us how powerful his vision of the apocalypse is by cutting his cast off from it almost entirely (well, for the first part of the book anyway) and isolating them in the depths of the Arctic. They’re dealing with a pretty apocalyptic scenario anyway (enough to drive the main character to attempt suicide within the first few pages) and Baker ramps up the pressure on them by removing their only chance of human contact through events taking place in the wider world. This approach happens slowly but surely and before you know it, the crew of Kasker Rampart are facing up to something that is off the scale in terms of magnitude. Well, that’s what you think...

Baker doesn’t give his cast time to breathe before bringing the true force of the apocalypse down on their heads. All that business of trying to survive on the oil rig is just incidental, this is where it gets really personal. What I really enjoyed here is the fact that Baker never actually tells you why things have gone down the way they have; the crew of the rig don’t know so why should you? What you get instead are the results and its inevitable spread; the complete lack of explanation means that you really feel the crew’s terror at the strangeness of what is facing them. It is strange and it is terrifying, believe me, especially when set against a landscape that is out to kill our cast just as much as the contagion is.

All the while, we get to see how individuals cope with the ongoing situation and the rollercoaster ride that people go through as potential salvation is constantly ripped from their grasp. Baker takes us through the whole range of human response and this results in a book where there is always something different to focus on and keep those pages turning. The journey into insanity is the most interesting of these, especially when set against the backdrop of the whole continent of Europe burning...

Funnily enough though, it was this insanity in a particular character that lead to my one and only real (again, minor) issue with the book. The finale is jam packed full of action and I’ll happily admit that this fast pace may have meant that I missed an important technical detail along the way. What I didn’t get though was how a certain character was able to sidestep the dangers of the contagion in the way that she did. I’m positive that a re-read will clear this up but this question did pull me out of the flow at a time when I really didn’t want to be pulled out...

Like I said though, a very minor issue. ‘Outpost’ is a gloriously bleak read that offers you everything that a good apocalypse should and then proceeds to go one better in every area. You should read it, you really should.

Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten

1 comment:

Carmen Wing said...

Just finished it this morning. I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it. Thought my favourite character was home and dry! Then at the last moment. Boom! Agree with everything you've said here. One of my favourite reads this year!