Explosive Decompression by John L. Sheppard is an intense, wry and wonderfully written novel.
From the very start of Explosive Decompression, author John Sheppard welcomes readers into a fantastical new world, hundreds of years into the future, and proposes a unique premise – a dystopian Earth that has experienced and persevered past the Great Collapse, a period of nuclear war, environmental disaster and global chaos. Canada, an unlikely national hero, has become one of the strongholds of humanity, and has now extended into what was once the United States of America, ravaged by soaring sea levels and rimmed by new oceanfront property.
The narrator of this grim vision of humanity’s future is Audrey Novak, a woman whose mind has traveled through time, making her something of an immortal presence in this post-modern setting, but in her most recent reincarnation, she awakens to discover that her earlier innovations have been twisted into a world she had never envisioned.
Genetically modified humans have come into power, including His Majesty George IX, ruler of Canada, Britain, the Americas and Australia. The Peerage, a powerful class of these genetically modified humans, is composed of sociopaths, which doesn’t bode well for the surviving population of Earth – a mere half-billion souls. Audrey Novak was “recreated” from her perfectly cloned mind, which was found in the same hidden military silo as the alleles of all the successful individuals from the past, along with an incredibly powerful weapon, which was also developed by Miss Novak. Yes, the story gets a bit tangled, but it’s worth the ride.
Her mind and her abilities are sought after by countless vying powers, and despite her (at times) childish temperament, Audrey 3.0 is the endearing, sassy key to the entire story. The book is partially composed as a recollection of her memories, both of her time as a physical being and as a self-aware mind locked in various mechanisms, including mobile orbs and futuristic watches. Despite the bizarre nature of the tale, the constantly evolving plot, the dozens of characters, and the confusing, slightly untrustworthy, and self-reflective tone of the narrator, the book is basically impossible to put down. It is clever and carefully crafted, with whip-smart dialogue and effortless humor. While it seems intended to be a sci-fi thriller, it is nearly farcical at times, particularly the interactions of Orlon Pledger and Audrey – who essentially lives on his wrist and survives off his energy for part of the novel.
Eventually returning to human form, Audrey leads the charge to vindicate her past creations, making this sweeping, interplanetary adventure roll like the very best moments of Douglas Adams. It is strengthened by a thoroughly developed sci-fi landscape, but is also peppered with well-timed, tongue-in-cheek references to 20th century life – “What is ranch dressing?” – making it a heartfelt and amusing novel about identity, survival and the power of leaving a legacy.
The only critique of Explosive Decompression is the occasionally childish, self-referential passages, and jumpy writing that doesn’t always flow in terms of style between one chapter and the next. Grammatically and technically, there are few issues, and it is a surprisingly fast read, despite its 400+ pages. For fans of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, or Terry Pratchett, this book does not disappoint. John Sheppard boldly proves that his ability to create an original world is only topped by his skill at filling it with fascinating and unforgettable characters.
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