Trekscribbler's Reviews > Directive 51

Directive 51 by John Barnes
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Mar 31, 2011

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We, as human beings, share a certain inescapable curiosity when it comes to “end times” fiction, and I think this is largely because we’ve always shared the ability to ponder such a fundamentally simple premise as “What if …?” We could be considering almost anything – much like George Bailey did when he wondered what life would’ve been like for others if he’d never been born in the movie, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – and it’s a universal experience to apply the same filter to our lives in times of stress and tumult.

John Barnes’ novel, DIRECTIVE 51, probes the depths of the ‘what if’ scenario as it applies to throwing civilization culturally and technologically back about 100 years in development. In short, Daybreakers – a kind of faceless cult born of zealots tired of civilization’s progress – launch a series of world-wide terror attacks (airborne toxins that break down plastics and other materials) with hopes of throwing mankind back into the Stone Age. However, their game-plan gets notched up a few pegs on the terrorism headboard when real terrorists seize upon the opportunity to also detonate nuclear fusion bombs around the world, further exacerbating any government’s ability to mount a suitable defense. Before you can say “Jack Bauer,” America – the principle setting for DIRECTIVE 51 – is in chaos with Washington DC destroyed, citizens looting in the streets, and average folks fighting for their very survival against even the most basic elements of Mother Nature. Unable to fend for themselves, entire cities burn to the ground, police and tactical units fall into disarray, and the outlook is, indeed, nothing but grim.

And THAT’s only the Daybreakers’ first attack!

DIRECTIVE 51 is serious stuff, probably not intended for the lightweight or casual science fiction reader. It isn’t about any type of Biblical prophecy coming to fruition so much as it is a parable for contemporary disenfranchisement with man’s tremulous position within the world of technology overload … or is that overkill? The “Directive 51” (referenced in the title) is the factual Presidential order that sets procedures in place for dealing with continuity-of-government at a time when the functioning ‘head’ (so to speak) has been decapitated. That’s where this novel works best … not so much as a scientific thriller (though I’ve no doubt that Barnes knows his stuff so far as the technology presented here goes) but moreso as a political ‘what if’ postulating how a nation state adjusts to circumstances further crippling the ability to maintain order. Some of these moments in political posturing perhaps don’t play out as well as they could have, but such is the nature of events in a tightly constructed world of fiction; in DIRECTIVE 51, events spur folks to action – not such much their core values, which may need to be comprised for the greater good – and I found some of the developments little more than political posturing on the part of a non-politician. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t happen. Just didn’t seem to mesh with what I particularly believe could’ve happened. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s one that impacted my ability to fully enjoy the tale.

Regardless of the meaty subject matter, I found entire sections of DIRECTIVE 51 difficult reading, but this was for all of the wrong reasons. Sadly, I failed to connect with most of these characters, and it seems like there are, literally, hundreds of them. Granted, some of them are more incidental and not necessarily tied to the main plot, but it quickly became a daunting challenge to keep all of them straight because, if anything, there’s an overload of people, places, and things in DIRECTIVE but not very much characterization. A few of the players – politicians, mainly – appear little more than stereotypes, such as the government scientist with a “heart of gold” and the religion-pandering Presidential candidate who immediately succumbs to seizing “ultimate power,” and, despite Barnes’ best efforts, these people just don’t seem to fit within the world of greater complexity the rest of the novel details. In my opinion, very few of these characters take the time to either (a) break down emotionally against the overwhelming odds or (b) depict the natural gamut of emotions one might expect to see in such a daunting set of circumstances. Very few of them seemed ‘real’ to me – rather, they seemed much more like boats against the tide – and, as such, that challenged me greatly to accept some of the events Barnes punctuates their lives with. However, I’m willing to concede that some of that frustration might be because Barnes takes so much time to set up this world – I’ve no doubt it’s very clear inside his head – and the natural consequence is that there’s very little time and energy left for smaller moments that elevate people – instead of events – off the page. Doesn’t make it a bad story. Only makes it one that another author may’ve told differently.

Don’t despair because there’s hope in the end. (After all, a sequel is already on the way.) Life will go on. People will unite. Undoubtedly, nations will rise again. It may not be for the immediate future, but methinks that’s the point of DIRECTIVE 51. Nothing comes easy – except, perchance, man’s ability to engineer his own swift demise.
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