The Stratosphere: The Birth of Nostradamus by Brian Cox is a complex sci-fi epic depicting a chilling future.
In The Stratosphere, readers are welcomed into a bleak and dangerous future where humanity’s desire for an alternate reality has led to the complete demise of organized society. The book taps directly into recent growing fears regarding technology’s rampant rise by depicting our corrupted world far in the future, turning our modern molehill anxieties into futuristic mountains of prophetic prose.
The Stratosphere is an alternate reality platform where people can live out their every fantasy, be whoever they want, become what they desire, and indulge in every pleasure; it is the ultimate escape from an otherwise disappointing reality. Decades of improvements and advancements have made it just as believable and interactive as the real world (a tip of the cap to “The Matrix” for some of the book’s foundation).
However, humanity’s devotion to this escape has destroyed the basic fabric of society – coupled with economic and environmental disaster, the world is a toxic wasteland, poisoned by its own obsession and a shadow of its former self. Katherine Wilde, one of the puppet masters and heroes of the Strat generation, is faced with a potential disaster as the state of the “real” world continues to crumble. Her empire is running out of power, and without the beloved Strat to save people from reality’s vicious truth, she fears that human extinction may be imminent.
A richly developed sci-fi world is always a pleasure to explore, and that is the most notable thing about Cox’s sprawling novel. The story includes an incredibly detailed history of technological advancement and the backstory exposition of the western world up through the middle of the 21st century. By the halfway mark of the book, there aren’t many plot holes left to fill and it is easy to believe the premise; complete immersion in this fascinating and dark world is inevitable.
Aside from such masterful world building, Cox stretches the story out slowly, introducing other characters in brief vignettes, luring readers forward to see how each will fit within the larger drama. Various sub-plots have romance and action, while others revolve around intrigue and deceit, and the fluidity with which the author moves between them is impressive. At times, it can feel like reading different books by different authors set in the same world, so the enjoyment of reading this novel comes from the knowledge that soon, these well-crafted characters will collide. And collide they do, as the battle for the Earth’s future – both physical and virtual – begins.
For such a meticulously penned book, there were a number of grammatical and editorial errors that could have been easily remedied by a final polish, but that was hardly enough to distract from the fast-paced, unpredictable plot. The philosophical questions alone are enough to engage a diverse audience, while the relevance of the topic – what modern existence could look like in a few decades – makes the book even more memorable… and occasionally disturbing.
Without giving away any spoilers, the close of the book could be called revelatory, and a call to arms for readers to open their eyes, look up from their screens, and live in the real world from time to time. Beneath the intricate plot twists, hidden motives, mysterious characters and epic battle scenes, there is a strong heartbeat of revolution that drives this novel from the very start. As far as sci-fi epics go, Stratosphere is one for the ages.