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Annabel Smith, The Ark (Review)

October 12, 2014

SmithArkSelfPubI must start by thanking Western Australian short story writer Glen Hunting* for recommending Annabel Smith’s The Ark in his comment on a recent Monday Musings post. Hunting wrote that it “is self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has its own interactive website”. I was intrigued so checked it out. My initial reaction was “hmm, is this for me?” But, I’ve wanted to read Smith for a while, so decided where better to start than with this innovative project? I bought the iPad app version and was entertained from the first page. Lisa (ANZLitLovers), who reviewed it just after I started reading it, felt the same.

The Ark is, for want of a better description, dystopian speculative fiction presented in the form of a modern epistolary novel with interactive options. I say “modern” epistolary because the story is told through a variety of textual communications – emails, a blog, memos, reports, minutes of meetings, and news articles. It is divided into two books, of which the first is told, sequentially, through four characters, one on the outside followed by three inhabitants – Kirk Longrigg, CEO of SynBioTec Australia which established the Ark; Ava, a wife, mother and deferred PhD student-expert on despots; Roscoe, the 15-year old son of futurologist Mia; and Pilot, a botanist. At different points in the book we are invited to investigate the Ark via links though which we can tour the bunker, hear the inhabitants, add our own contributions or fan-fiction. I liked the graphics used to depict the Ark, but didn’t spend a lot of time exploring these interactive elements. I suspect different readers, depending on their interests, will behave very differently in this regard. Perhaps game-players will engage more with the interactive features? The good thing is that the book is flexible. It’s not necessary to engage in these digressions, but it can, I’m sure, enhance your enjoyment if you are so inclined.

Roscoe's Blog

Roscoe’s Blog

Not surprisingly, an important element of the book is its design. Each different type of communication has its own visual style – the “dailemails”, the more private person-to-person “Gopher”, the supposedly secure “Headless Horseman”, Roscoe’s “Kaos Kronikles” blog, BLiPPs, and so on. Once these become familiar, they signpost the context in which each communication is occurring. As I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking what fun Smith must have had coming up with all the names and acronyms (like GARDEN, the Growth Apparatus for Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment) used in the Ark.

But please, I hear you asking by now, what is it all about? The story is set between 2041 and 2043, but commences with a brief newspaper report in 2093 announcing that:

Seventeen people have been recovered from a bunker built into Mount Kosciuszko in south-east Australia, where they have been living in total isolation for almost five decades, since the government collapse in the wake of the post-peak oil chaos in 2041.

There is more to the Ark than that though. It was not principally about saving people – as the presence of the botanist may clue you into. The Ark was in fact a seed bank or “National Arboreal Protection Facility” aimed at preserving seeds for an uncertain future. This aspect of the novel reflects Smith’s concern about climate change, something that is reinforced when we discover that the Mount Kosciuszko area in Australia’s high snow country is now rife with sandstorms! But, there is another theme to this novel, besides this specific climate change one. It’s a more universal one to do with charismatic-cum-despotic leaders. Consequently, it is Ava, the expert in despots, who is the first of the inhabitants to carry the story after Kirk’s opening section which concerns a disagreement between him and the Ark’s project manager, Aidan Fox, regarding Aidan’s unauthorised lockdown of the site for security reasons. For some time, we don’t know who to believe. Smith complicates the issue by Ava’s possibly being unreliable due to having suffered mental problems in the past.

Anyhow, the plot thickens. There’s adultery, a few deaths, and some excursions outside. As more things start to go wrong, conflicts arise regarding freedom and human rights versus security… It’s clever, but believable, and fits comfortably with other dystopian novels about people trapped in isolated locations or in alien futures, and it also draws on what we know about the experience of people in religious cults.

This is a plot and ideas-driven novel rather than a character-based one, which is partly due to Smith’s goals and the genre she is working in, and partly a factor of the multi-voice epistolary form which does not lend itself to in-depth characterisation. I say this, though, not as a criticism. It’s a good read, and doesn’t suffer for this lack of character focus, much as I love character-driven novels. It’s just that the characters are generally more “types” than fully realised individuals – the conniving henchman, the willing nurturer, the trusting hardworking followers, the loyal but open-minded offsider. There is, too, an opening for a sequel that could explore, for example, how the seventeen members engage with the world they enter (or reenter) in 2093.

As regular readers know, I’m not a keen e-Book reader. I’ve read a few books on my Kindle, but this was the first complete book I have read on my iPad. It was fine, partly because the form did not mean pages of dense text to confront on a glary screen, but I was disappointed that although I could bookmark pages of interest, I could not make notes on the text as I can on the Kindle or on “regular” books on the iPad. I do like my marginalia, but I guess it’s dependent on how the content is generated. Oh well.

Have I told you enough? I hope so. It’s well worth a read if you like dystopian fiction and/or if you are interested in experiencing different ways of telling stories in our digital world. I’d never want straight prose novels to disappear – and I don’t believe they will – but the arts should also be about experimenting and playing with boundaries, and this is what Smith has done here. Good for her.

awwchallenge2014Annabel Smith
The Ark
Self-published, 2014
ISBN: 9780646923109

* Glen Hunting’s story “Martha and the Lesters” appeared in Knitting and other stories, which I reviewed a few months ago.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2014 12:17 pm

    Sounds intriguing. I’ll have to add it to my list.

  2. October 12, 2014 3:50 pm

    Isn’t Annabel clever to have broken through our defences with this book! All the things I say I don’t like (eBooks, dystopian, self-published) and I liked it anyway.
    Its one flaw, as I mentioned in my review, is that I wanted it to be longer, specifically to have explored what happened in the time lapse between the first few years and the final ones. Who were the parents of those born-in-the-bank babies, eh?
    Maybe the answer is in the interactive bits we didn’t explore enough…

    • October 12, 2014 6:57 pm

      Haha Lisa … exactly. It’s good to be open-minded.

      As for when it finished, I agree but I reckon she’s left that story for a potential sequel?

  3. sharkell permalink
    October 12, 2014 8:47 pm

    I loved Whisky Charlie Foxtrot so have already added this to my wishlist. I will probably get the ipad app at some stage in the near future.

    • October 12, 2014 8:49 pm

      Great Sharkell …. the iPad app is great to read — it looks long but actually is very quick. Let us know what you think when you do get to read it.

  4. Glen Hunting permalink
    October 13, 2014 12:09 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it… 🙂

  5. October 13, 2014 2:48 pm

    I share your feeling about reading on the iPad. Further, I feel like it’s so piecemeal, with just one single page in front of you, can’t look back to what you’ve read (much harder to find the page), like isolated reading, cold, uninviting, digital data. And, on another note, I saw the movie Tracks on my iPad, adaptation from Robyn Davidson’s book about her journey walking 1,700 miles across West Australia. I was totally absorbed by Mia Wasikowska as Robyn. I saw the trailer on the large screen, but the film never came to my city. I found it on Netflix. I’m sure in Australia, the movie must have been a hit. Have you seen it? It’s captivating.

    • October 13, 2014 3:18 pm

      Oh yes, I have seen it Arti … somehow I haven’t reviewed Aussie films for a while. The movie-review spirit hasn’t moved me, and in this case I hadn’t read the book. But yes, I thought it was a fascinating film – and yes, captivating as you say. Wasikowska did a great job of playing Davidson from what I know and have seen of her.

  6. October 14, 2014 4:55 am

    Interesting concept and really interesting format. With all the interactive things and what sounds like diversions of sorts, do you feel like you’ve read a complete book?

    • October 14, 2014 8:00 am

      Good question, Stefanie. Yes, I think I did because the story is sustained, but it was different. I must say I didn’t spend a long time interacting injustice checked out a couple of options each time to check. I am a textual person!

  7. annabelsmith permalink
    October 16, 2014 5:30 pm

    Thanks for a great, thoughtful review Sue. I hear your point about the inability to highlight text & makes notes. I had to make some compromises to maintain the design elements but I too am a note-maker so I understand your frustration.

    • October 16, 2014 5:41 pm

      Thanks Annabel … And thanks for explaining re the notes. I thoroughly enjoyed the book … Fun but with some strong ideas there too.

Trackbacks

  1. October Speculative Fiction Reviews | Australian Women Writers Challenge
  2. Speculative fiction in 2014 | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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