Monday, 6 October 2014

The Ark by Annabel Smith

The Ark by Annabel Smith is the author's third novel but the first book of hers I've read. It's an epistolary novel (or, as I've seen someone call this style, the novel version of a found-footage movie), told in emails, transcripts, a few news clippings and related materials.
The year is 2041. As rapidly dwindling oil supplies wreak havoc worldwide a team of scientists and their families abandon their homes and retreat into a bunker known as The Ark, alongside five billion plant seeds that hold the key to the future of life on Earth. But The Ark’s sanctuary comes at a price.

When their charismatic leader’s hidden agenda is revealed it becomes impossible to know who to trust. Those locked out of The Ark become increasingly desperate to enter, while those within begin to yearn for escape.
I'm always a bit trepidatious, picking up a science fictional book by an author whose previous books have been non-genre. Sometimes those books can seem like genre tourists, not quite understanding the trope they're using (or not using). But I need not have worried in this case. The Ark is a solid science fiction book, with well thought through worldbuilding, a convincing premise and reasonable technological developments.

The Ark tells the story of the community living in a sealed seed vault. The why and how their community became sealed is most central to the story, while other personal relationships and the story of the unrest outside the vault are part of the background tapestry. I quite liked the way in which the external unrest was conveyed. Most of it came across in a series of emails between a couple in the vault and the wife's sister on the outside. We got glimpses but never a full picture, which gave us enough information to draw our own conclusions and make assumptions about the conditions outside.

The Ark is a quick read, surprisingly so given its apparent length. The formatting of the various documents (some more than others) makes the text sparser than in most books, so I was turning pages more quickly. That said, it's still a complete story with a proper plot (but I will say it wasn't obvious where the plot would go until it did). I would be interested to read more set in the same world because I think there are a lot more areas of her world Smith could explore if she chose to.

On the other hand, I found that the story-telling format and the way sections of the book focussed closely on different characters made it harder to become attached to said characters. For example, in the first section following the correspondences of a couple with the wife's sister, I never really warmed to the wife, even though I cared about what was happening to all three of them. And the second section was about a teenage boy (whose mother was a scentist), which gave us interesting worldbuilding information, but I didn't really care about the character, even when I should probably have been cheering for him later on. I enjoyed the story, but my one main criticism is that I would have liked more focus on character.

I should also comment on the interactive portion of the book. I read the ebook version, which exists (only?) as a PDF to preserve the unusual formatting that distinguishes different forms of communication. (It was a perfectly adequate reading experience on the iPad, if you're wondering, unlike some PDFs — ARCs mostly — which seem to exist only to make me annoyed with them.) There is a companion website — also available as an app, which I was advised was designed for phones while the website was better for iPad — with background content. There are sort of mood-setting short films of the bunker and what I found most useful: a slang dictionary for the teen-speak section. There is also a space to upload and peruse fan fiction, if that's your sort of thing. The book stands alone perfectly well (even with the slang), but for those wanting more, the website is an interesting place to poke around. I did, however, find that the setting clips made more sense after I'd finished reading because not everything is obvious from the start.

I recommend The Ark to SF fans, particularly fans of apocalyptic fiction. In particular, readers interested in an Australian flavour should definitely have a look. It was an enjoyable read that I just about inhaled in one sitting. There aren't too many epistolary SFF novels around (I can think of one off the top of my head and that's not coming out until next year), so it's a novel take on the apocalypse genre. 

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, self-published
Series: Don't think so.
Format read: Review copy of finished PDF ebook
Source: Courtesy of the author
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading

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