Gleam, by Tom Fletcher
I have a soft spot for post-industrial urban wastelands. It’s why I enjoy roaming the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, or why some of my favourite bits of the Mass Effect series are the ones on Tuchanka. It’s also why I found Lud to be the most vivid and immediate of the places visited in the Dark Tower saga. I also like ontological mysteries – you know, those sorts of stories where you either wake up somewhere strange or where you have a bizarre world whose origin and nature are a puzzle.
So it’s no wonder that this book caught my eye.
The titular Gleam is a vast, half-ruined urban wasteland, emerging from a swamp. It’s located somewhere else – the night sky isn’t ours, containing two moons and a globular cluster-like formation referred to as ‘the Battle’. Whether that somewhere else is another planet or another universe entirely is unclear. However the inhabitants of Gleam are (mostly) human. The elite of Gleam live within a structure called the Pyramid, which is located right at the centre of the wasteland. The surrounding area is known as the Discard. Life in the Pyramid is secure, but regimented to the extreme. Life in the Discard is freer, but dangerous.
At the start of the novel, the main character (called Alan) gets himself discarded from the Pyramid, essentially for asking too many questions. In seeking to protect his family from the fallout of his own actions, though, he rapidly finds himself tangled up in a chain of events far beyond his control, culminating in a descent to the lowest, most ruinous and swamp-infested portions of Gleam.
What I liked
First of all, the big draw of this novel is the ontological mystery surrounding Gleam itself. An in-universe theory is that it was built as a giant factory – but a factory making what, and for who? There are a couple of possible hints – the star formation called the Battle and the Pyramid’s suspiciously bioweapon-like produce seem to point in a certain direction. Also some of the societies have a regimented, hierarchical character to them. Was Gleam built as a manufactorium for someone’s war, some time in the distant past?
The descriptions in this book are loving, if also gruesome in places. Then there is the interesting sense of dislocation – to the reader, it’s obvious that the world of Gleam is post-apocalyptic. To the characters, it’s just how things are. Most of them never even stop to question the bizarrity of their surroundings.
Also the horror in this book is very well-done. The Giving Beast is downright creepy, an especially potent achievement given that we never actually see it do anything that’s overtly-bad. The broken-down nuclear reactor was a nice touch (no-one in this universe seems to know the words ‘radiation poisoning’, but Nora describes its symptoms quite well) and I also liked the implicit satire of corporatism found in Gleam’s social structure.
What I found problematic
This is a book with a lot of squick.
Eyes get gouged. Disgusting things are eaten. Strange machines guzzle blood from people’s veins. Sicknesses are described in revolting detail. There is violence, all of it graphic. In addition, none of the characters are nice people. Whilst Alan’s motivation might sound noble, there is a hypocritical aspect to it, and he uses it as a justification for many extreme actions. The other characters are hardly any better. The Map-maker Nora is the most well-informed character, but her actions verge into the bloodthirsty.
Also, this book is something of a cross-genre one. It’s somewhere between SF, horror and fantasy – there’s advanced technology and hints of a rational backstory, but there are also elements that seem distinctly supernatural. The horror aspects are, well, quite obvious, really. Personally I’m fine with this, but I know some readers can find this sort of thing disconcerting.
Also, the dialogue has a rather self-aware, almost auto-lampshading style. While no character ever quite says something like this, you do find a lot of lines like this: “I know perfectly well you’re going to betray us later, my lovely, but it’s in my short-term self-interest to let you tag along, so come with us!” This tendency did feel a bit jarring sometimes.
Read this book if you like half-mad urban wastelands and if you feel that flawed characters are more honest. However, if you have a low tolerance for fictional violence, squickiness and quirky dialogue, then you may get less out of this.