This review of The End Of Science Fiction by Sam Smith, was written in 2004 for the website SFSite.com.
BeWrite Books, 2004, £8.00, 207pp, ISBN 1-904492-70-3
See also my review of We Need Madmen, also by Sam Smith.
As a title The End Of Science Fiction might seem a tad self-obsessed for a novel about the end of the universe. Yes, the end of the universe will sadly mean the end of science fiction, but surely that’s the least of our worries?
Then you realise that the end of science fiction means the closing down of the future, that all those glorious robots and spaceships and ray-guns and gleaming silver cities – all the potential of the future – has been lost. Unlike any other literature, science fiction is nominally about becoming rather than being or having been.
That, I suspect, is what author Sam Smith is driving at here: the future still-born.
The End Of Science Fiction starts as it means to go on, promptly and efficiently. We join the great and the good to hear some very bad news before meeting Detective Inspector Herbie Watkins, who has been called out to investigate the brutal murder of a young woman in central London.
At the same time it becomes common knowledge that the end of the world is nigh – six days nigh, in fact – and not merely the world: the entire universe has been discovered to have played something of a cosmic trick upon us and is collapsing at breakneck speed back into a Big Crunch.
Hearing the news, Watkins carries on with his job as a policeman, spending his last few days investigating the murder. He isn’t insane or the ‘obsessed cop’ so beloved of Hollywood; neither is he so dull as to be unaware of the time limit upon his investigations. Watkins has a wife and a daughter, he is not an unhappy man; he’s settled and he’s tidy, and… well, what else is there to do?
Ask yourself: what would you do if you heard this news? You and everyone alive have six days to live. Everything you have ever been or done, seen or heard, everything will be destroyed as though it had never been. Nothing matters any more. Which, for Watkins, means that everything matters because it’s all that is left.
I found it a surprisingly sobering concept: the absolute negation of our existence. Science fiction has often dealt with the end of the world, with Armageddon, with cosmic catastrophe, but this wanton destruction usually has a purpose; some sort of moral can be found or imposed upon it, usually involving a chastened humanity’s skin-of-the-teeth survival.
It’s a story at least as old as that of Noah in the Bible. But The End Of Science Fiction shows us an entire world looking into the depths of an Existential chasm, a life entirely without meaning except that which we choose to give it.
If I’ve made this book sound rather dry and philosophical then I apologise, because it’s a superbly paced and expertly judged novel, very much in the vein of John Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophes’, but with a great deal more heart. That said, anyone expecting fire and brimstone may be disappointed by the perfectly English reserve and suppressed emotion here, all the more poignant and affecting for being used so sparingly. In particular, Watkins’ final words on the telephone to his daughter brought me to a halt for a good few minutes – ‘You need never apologise to me,’ he says (p.204).
Even the few, small examples of civilisation’s breakdown that we see are mischievous rather than threatening or shocking (but I suppose six days barely gives people time to grasp the concept of the end of the world, let alone break the habits of a lifetime and respond to it). The detective story is well handled, never sensationalised. Watkins’ quiet, if seemingly misplaced, devotion to his duty seems entirely proper, and very very human.
If I absolutely had to point out any fault – ‘had to,’ you understand – then it would be that the fictional quotes at the start of each chapter are unnecessary and tend towards pretentiousness, but it’s a single misjudgement in an otherwise outstanding read.
If The End Of Science Fiction were to be filmed then its director would be Ken Loach; and I say that as no small praise, for this book is a triumph of the small people in the world – people forging a path of their own in a supremely uncaring universe.
It’s a triumph for Sam Smith, who has written an understated novel about humanity and our place in the cosmos; an engaging, thoughtful and deeply moving story to make you stop and think about yourself, your life and how you live it.
I can think of no higher recommendation.