Annabel Smith’s epistolary third novel, following Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe, takes place in the years 2041-43, with the occasional flash forward and back. In The Ark the world is collapsing in the wake of “the post-peak oil crisis” – first the economy, then society and the environment. Related entirely through 327 documents – emails, minutes of meetings, news articles, and transcripts of recorded conversations and instant messaging services, all formatted with different typefaces and layouts – we follow a group of 26 people who have retreated into a bunker inside Mount Kosciuszko, alongside a vault of seeds that will be used to repopulate the planet’s flora when it is safe to do so. “The Chaos” reigns outside, with armed teenage militants supervising the allocation of resources, but inside the bunker the situation is not much better as a sinister surveillance-happy cult leader quietly attempts to take control.
The nonstop action, especially at the story’s end, might have held some thrills if Smith hadn’t instead chosen to reveal in the opening pages the fates of the characters. It’s a big risk in a plot-reliant novel. Yet the writing is solid, even though the reader is bashed over the head with its message – most painstakingly in the imagined future-speak of 15-year-old Roscoe (or r0sk0): “Planetz gonna b sum kinda toxic waste dump. Srsly could our parents hav fukt things up any mo thorough?”
The real strength lies in the detail. Speculative fiction is fatally wounded by poor imagination, but Smith creates a believable world, with strange and inventive product names, political plot lines and language.
Although marketed as an interactive e-book and app, The Ark fails to deliver meaningful interactivity. The app’s hyperlinked text opens the accompanying website – where extra content includes characters’ blog entries with scope for leaving comments, artist renderings of the book’s settings, deleted scenes, a hub for fan fiction, and some soporific audio files of dialogue. This is little different to books with corresponding websites that have existed for years. The story itself needs none of this bonus subject matter. A truly interactive text would have the reader’s active engagement integral to understanding and enjoyment of the story. It won’t be long before readers are treated to refreshingly immersive and responsive digital books – The Ark, though, falls short of this aim. TW
Self-published, 220pp, $9.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Annabel Smith, The Ark". Subscribe here.