IT has been generations since the spaceship Australia was sent into space as a fully-functioning, self-sustaining ecosystem away from a dying earth in a desperate attempt to save lives and in the hope of establishing a colony for humankind elsewhere. The ship continues to drift in space though, having been unable to find an inhabitable planet. The people still on the ship have now fallen into a chaotic, dystopic societal system, still assuming that they are the lucky ones to have survived, no matter how difficult survival actually is on Australia.
In J.P. Smythe’s first young adult novel, the first in the Australia trilogy, Way Down Dark, 17-year-old Chan Aitch must somehow survive the ship she was born on and in doing so, help the ship survive as well. For her entire life, Chan has been taught that her own survival is imperative, that it must come first over any moral decision she makes to help another. Raised by two fierce women, her mother Riadne, and Agatha, an older woman who has always also been a part of their lives, Chan has been taught to be selfish to survive at all costs. When her mother falls sick, she hatches a plan to ensure that Chan is able to take on the mantle that Riadne herself wore as a feared and respected “free” woman, and so Way Down Dark begins with the harrowing scene of Chan killing her sick mother in order to prove that she, too, is a force to be reckoned with.
Riadne was a woman who helped keep the “free people” safe from the more dangerous Lows, bottom dwellers of the ship, who have created weapons from scavenged parts of the ship and who are intent on taking over. When Riadne dies, Chan is left to fill the space, to become the one who stands against the violent Lows and continues Riadne’s reign of relative safety and defence. This isn’t something Chan is able to do because of some inherent ability or power; rather, she struggles with the burden of this inherited responsibility to protect her part of the ship because none of it comes naturally to her at all. Australia the ship and the world it contains has its own myths and its own socioeconomic structure. Whatever systems may have been in place at the start have eroded, leaving everything on the edge of collapse. But within the madness there is a method with people having slowly evolved into gangs living in certain parts of the ship. The Pale Women live in the darkness of the ship’s top floors, a cult-like group devoted to their faith and to their three Testaments with stories of ascension.
The “free people” live below them, attempting to live their lives as safely as possible, trading with the shopkeepers below and working primarily in the Arboretum, which contains a river, some fruit and crops, water and air purifiers, and even a system to convert bugs into protein. Below are the Bells, who may have once been modified soldiers but are now reduced to empty-headed violent fools, driven by impulse alone. Worst of all are the Lows, savages who stop at nothing to take what they want, scavenging from others and from the ship itself, trying to spread out from the bottom layers of the ship. With no recorded history left, the people aboard Australia are left to their own devices and to their own stories, using and reusing all they can find, cannibalising the ship in any way they can, taking what they can off the dead before dumping them into the Pit, which is quite literally a cesspit of corpses and refuse, everything that’s been thrown away for generations. The Pit contains the remains of people and their lives and worse.
In this contained, chaotic word where everything depends on how you’re perceived and what stories are told about you, Chan has to make sure there is enough talk about her that is fearsome, even if she has to use smoke pellets and trickery to make herself seem the sort of legend her mother was. But at some point, tricks aren’t enough and when faced with actual violence, Chan can’t hold back if she wants to survive.
At her first meeting with the Lows after Riadne’s death, Chan is forced to channel her mother, using the voice she used “when she spoke to people who she wanted to fear her, a put-on falsehood of rage” and when that is not enough, she has to hurt the leader of the Lows to protect her territory. This leads to a shift in power within the Lows too, and the day that Chan takes her mother’s power, the Lows gain a new Rex, a new adversary for Chan who is fiercer and more determined than the last. Both women take on a mantle after killing the one who wore it previously, both want to survive at all cost, and both are more similar than they would like to admit.
But Chan isn’t the chosen one, she isn’t a born hero. She’s not particularly strong or smart and other than the survival tactics she’s been taught, she has no power — in fact, she’s certain anyone could do what she does. Except no one does. No one makes an attempt to fight off the Lows as they encroach into others’ territories violently removing people from their homes, no one goes to rescue a little girl trapped or help a young man recruited by the Pale Women. “I’m not special” admits Chan, but that’s what makes her just so appealing. She’s just trying to survive, and she doesn’t want to do it alone. Just when you think Chan’s fight for survival and to do the right thing is what this book is about, a great big twist slaps at you, changing the game entirely. There’s more to Australia than Chan (and readers) know, much more to both its history and its future. In trying to do the right thing, Chan finds herself at the helm of a decision that will change everything for everyone.
Way Down Dark is not a mild-mannered, safe young adult book. It’s visceral and violent and unapologetic. There are no guns and quick deaths here — it’s all knives and fists, blood and pain. Smythe never panders to his readers, just as he doesn’t in his previous books for adults. With Australia, he’s created a sharp, cruel world that is just as riveting as it is harrowing. Its gangs and characters feel real and sympathetic, whether they are ‘good’ or not. Like with Smythe’s other stories, there is a steadily increasing pressure in the narrative, a slow burn of fear and intensity that doesn’t let up and leads readers firmly to a cliff-hanger ending. This is a fast-paced and smart story, exhilarating yet frightening, filled with interesting characters, each of whom have their own story to tell. As is fitting for the first in a trilogy, Way Down Dark leaves you wanting — and being afraid to discover — more.
Way Down Dark
By J.P. Smythe
Hodder & Stoughton, UK
The reviewer is a book critic & editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.