Ed. note: This piece was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of New Maps.
Aside from John Michael Greer’s several deindustrial novels (Star’s Reach, Retrotopia, the Weird of Hali series), Catherine McGuire’s Lifeline is, if I am not mistaken, the first full novel to emerge into publication from the deindustrial fiction community that sprang up around Greer’s After Oil anthologies and carried over to Into the Ruins and New Maps.
Accordingly, the world that McGuire has built here is a highly, even alarmingly, plausible deindustrial version of the U.S.’s northeast, rendered in crisp and ample detail. For your first sampling of it, you can read McGuire’s story “The Hermit of 29th Street” later in this issue, which takes place in the same New York City that features in Lifeline: no simple return to an Edenic balance, but a shifting and evolving mess that manages to be both bureaucratic and anarchic, in which common people deal as best they can. The novel, however, expands greatly on this world.
It has been fifty years since the massive solar flare that took out the electrical grid of the entire U.S. and possibly the whole world (though some on the fringes have always grumbled that it was already falling apart). Martin Barrister has been delegated by the telecom company he works for to negotiate putting up cell phone towers in some small outlying towns, in order to finally create a working alternative to the failing satellite system.
Only, outside the massive Wall around New York and its client towns, things aren’t quite how the sparse, governmentally pressured reporting available in the city made them seem. To start with, it’s hard to tell anything about these outlying towns, with people so cagey and tight-lipped for no obvious reason. But behind that curtain, it seems as though the people here aren’t, as Martin had always figured, surviving only with the help of the city — the country beyond the Wall is vaster, stranger, and more independent than he ever dreamt.
Nor is Martin’s assignment quite as advertised. For one thing, there’s the morning in a small Ohio town when thugs from the city show up to kidnap him.
As Martin flees from the forces that, for no reason he can comprehend, are gunning for him, he gradually pieces together the picture of an elaborate plot in which he was meant to be a pawn. He learns unsavory truths about his beloved city home. With his talent for seeming to belong in just about any group (even though he can never quite believe the ruse is working), he finds himself suddenly in tight alliances with people from the mysterious towns he ping-pongs among. The plots and schemes are unspooling around him. People are saying there may be a war on. Old friends and enemies turn up unexpected. No one knows who to trust, or whether to trust Martin — least of all Martin himself.
Despite the abundant and tense action in this book, though, it would be a mistake to call it simply an action novel. It is also, and perhaps equally, a book about how things are done. The parts of (present) Pennsylvania and Ohio that Martin travels have political organization that’s haphazard and loose by Martin’s standards, and they may very well not be part of any nation-state. Martin, knowing nothing of how any of it works, has to learn a flurry of new ways of working with people, and groups previously isolated have to learn to work together — while what organization there is, is being stretched to and beyond its capacity by the events unfolding around it.
Likewise, this is also a novel about cultures — understanding their differences, learning, and unlearning. McGuire has given us several different cultural regions, small and neighboring yet distinct and prone to disagree. Drawing all these groups with such clear delineation is nothing easy, yet they feel natural, real — made up of people with real personalities, with their messiness and their anxieties and their missteps and awkward reconciliations. She also gives us a love story that, though sometimes apparently perfect, shows in time how petty disagreements and misunderstandings can threaten to scuttle even the best of relationships. And despite such meaty topics to chew through, the book never feels too dense or theoretical; on the contrary McGuire tells it in a tone that’s conversational, even chatty, a first-person narration from Martin, who’s frank about his own insecurities and his trouble getting past his past. (If there is one flaw I find in the book, it’s only that Martin may spend more of his time than I’d like in working through these issues.) The wit of the narration is consistently fresh; McGuire deftly and apparently effortlessly coins suggestive new words like the all-purpose insult “dumdroid” and the Spam-like vat-grown meat known simply as “pink.”
If such a potent mix sounds interesting, McGuire’s book is certainly worth picking up. With 472 pages of wide-ranging action and snappy, casual narration, it’s a good book to dip into and out of, and carries a lot to think about — a worthy accomplishment to emerge from the deindustrial fiction community.