A Novel of Daybreak
by John Barnes
John Barnes’ Directive 51 is the latest in the slew of post-apocalyptic fiction novels in my repertoire, but unlike most of the others I’ve read, it is not a product of Cold War propaganda, but rather a modern day take on the apocalypse, in that it hits us where it counts—technology. Directive 51 is the first in a trilogy of novels (titled the Daybreak trilogy) detailing an attack on the world using bio-terrorism that targets all mechanical and plastic materials, effectively reducing us to pre-industrial-revolution times.
Let’s start with what exactly Directive 51 is. It’s real, for starters, a term coined under the Bush administration, but existing, in some form, under some other title, for a couple decades, according to the afterword by Barnes. It’s the rule that states what happens when the president is found unfit to lead the country, and that is precisely what happens when Daybreak—the name for the underground eco-terrorist movement—is unleashed on the planet. The search for a fitting president in the crisis loosely provides the basis for the first installment in this trilogy... and it’s exactly as boring as it sounds.
Directive 51 is fundamentally an ensemble story, but indispensable government agent, Heather O’Grainne, often takes center stage. Heather works for the department of 'Future Threat Assessment’, a group meant to anticipate crimes and prevent them, and since the story picks up on the very morning that Daybreak (a worldwide coordinated event amongst thousands of different groups and millions of participants) is unleashed, I think it’s safe to say that Heather is probably terrible at her job. But we’re supposed to see her as the smartest person in the room, so it’s probably a good idea to adopt a ‘Just shut up and go with it’ attitude from the start.
A lot of the characters in this story have the potential to be interesting. A lot of the first part follows various ‘Daybreakers’ as they deposit their instruments of destruction around the U.S. and a couple of them are mentioned later, but for the most part, they are dropped without ceremony or just plain presented as brainless, selfish hippies. If Barnes was intending for their cause to be sympathetic, he failed miserably, but I don’t think he was; I think he had every intention of bashing young eco-crusaders for the dirty hippies he thinks they are.
Barnes isn’t very transparent in general. Despite the fact that two party politics really have nothing to do with the conflict, it is repeatedly stressed that the acting president when Daybreak occurs is Democratic, and when he suffers an untimely mental breakdown, his replacement—another Democrat—quickly turns tyrant and stages a coup, actually succeeding in murdering the first president so he can’t reclaim power. The new president is a Republican who had been planning to run in the upcoming election anyway. It is mentioned that he leans towards religious fundamentalism, leading me to suspect that this president will also be problematic when he tries to sneakily impose his beliefs on the American people, vulnerable in this time of crisis... but that entire thread is dropped and it turns out this president is, like, the best prez evah and exactly what America NEEDS... until he gets martyred in a nuclear attack. His replacement? Another Democrat who lets power go to his head... of course. Very subtle, Barnes.
Dropping story threads is something else I have issues with. I understand that this is a trilogy and this is only book one, but nothing really happens. There are a small handful of actions scenes interspersed in a 500 page book, and the rest is all talking, and not even fun or interesting talk at that. Lots of talk is forgivable if the reader is enjoying themselves, but Barnes’ dialogue is forced and his characters are too bland. All of them are either no-nonsense government officials who were too stupid to do anything right or dirty hippies who only thought of themselves. I didn’t find myself rooting for any of them and any of those I thought could be interesting were dropped halfway through. So much for that.
But Directive 51’s biggest problem is in the subversion of its genre. The reason I love reading post-apocalypse stories is to see how ordinary people adapt and survive, but none of Directive 51’s characters are regular people; they are the most important people in the country, literally, and as such they don’t really get to experience the full realm of Daybreak firsthand. They get showers and electricity and access to the last working forms of transportation where others do not, because they are that important. The full depth of human struggle of Daybreak—the starvation, the riots, the ravages of disease—are not felt and these characters are not relatable.
I will give Barnes one thing though—his ratio of female to male characters is impressive and his women are strong and smart and not totally lacking in a couple spare dimensions... The only time I raised an eyebrow was when Heather—our lead hero and at one point, somehow the only voice of reason and stability in the entire government—decided that the best idea, in the wake of a worldwide attack kickstarting the end of the world as we know it, was to get pregnant immediately with her sure-to-not-survive-the-apocalypse handicapped boyfriend.
This foolhardy logic aside, Heather did a great job as lead and I’m sure she and all the other characters introduced in Directive 51 continue to grow and have adventures in the next two novels in Barnes’ trilogy... but I’m clearly not the target audience for them.