Volume 29, Number 2, Winter 2011

Directive 51

By John Barnes

Ace, 2010
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

John Barnes’s Directive 51 is a fast-paced action story that covers a dystopian apocalypse and the struggle over presidential succession in a suddenly low-tech society which suffered huge losses. It’s hard to call it libertarian, since the focus is on how the government will help people pull the country together again, but it does realistically show that the struggle for power trumps many other considerations, even when most of the survivors are fighting just to find food and shelter in an emergency.

The situation is that “Daybreak,” a leaderless underground movement, has piggybacked on the Internet (there’s a lot of that going around in SF this year, isn’t there?) to put together a coordinated attack plan to destroy modern civilization. The participants all have different reasons and different objectives, but they agree that “the system” is broken, and we’d all be better off without it. Most of them haven’t thought any deeper than that, and don’t realize just how much they’d lose. Some of the movement’s participants have invented bacteria that eat plastic and “nanoswarm” that gunks up powered machinery. Others have devised plans to ensure that these destructive agents are spread far and wide (worldwide, though the story’s focus is on the US) on the appointed day. All this, of course, results in the collapse of civilization, hundreds of millions of deaths, and nearly everyone else being reduced to fleeing refugees trying to get out of the major metropolitan areas.

All of that serves as background to the story that Barnes really wants to tell. Directive 51 is (truthfully) the latest in a sequence of Presidential Directives laying out the process for maintaining constitutional government in the aftermath of a calamity that removes the bulk of the leadership of the federal government. In this depiction, the consequences are a deadly struggle for power that seems to supersede the attention that should be paid just to getting people back on their feet.

In order to justify one faction’s claims that the nation is still under attack, the book has to enable Daybreak to conduct a continuing series of hydrogen bomb attacks after the devastation has occurred. This is both out-of-character with the rest of Daybreak, and hard to believe technically. Nearly everything else has broken down, but the bombs keep falling.

The book was nominated for the Prometheus Award, and while it’s an exciting story, and well-told, and it shows how power can corrupt even in a paramount emergency, I was disappointed that the focus of discussion of the recovery was largely on the government’s efforts. It’s clear that behind the scenes, individuals are doing most of the work independent of the government, but we’re mostly watching federal efforts to ensure that the government continues to function. You might find that outweighed by the fact that people, acting on their own are the primary source of recovered food, the primary hope for growing more, as well as the drivers of a multitude of new inventions that provide some technologies that can continue to function in the face of the proliferating nanoswarm.

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