Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) is arguably the first apocalyptic novel. It posits the destruction of humanity as a nebulous yet insidious plague ravages mankind, without any hope of a cure, redemption, or salvation. For a novel set in the distant future (2099), little has changed culturally from the eighteenth century. Established social norms remain much the same (hetero-normative family values, marriage, children, family duty, clothing). Aside from the inclusion of hot air balloons as the quickest and most effective form of travel, the world described remains science-fictively demure. The Last Man has, instead, most often been discussed as a roman à clef representing Shelley’s relationship with her husband Percy alongside the “elite” party of Lake Geneva in 1818.
Whether it holds autobiographical value, the particularly innovative nature of Shelley’s novel comes through her subtle handling of the “plague” as narrative function. As epidemics go, this plague is amorphous: there are no specific symptoms, and no particular sect is more susceptible to contagion. It is, quite simply, death. And as society falls apart in the wake of the inevitable malignancy, the futuristic breeding ground skews the (eighteenth-century) readers’ perspective. The afore-mentioned established social norms begin to seem less acceptable when viewed through the lens of the imagined future. Questions of individual and collective morality are thrown into sharp relief: when someone you love is infected, how do you act? How can one behave well when the world is falling apart? The urban becomes trite, nature becomes sublime; we finally recognise that the contribution of humankind is tiny, whittled down to the very “last man”. The same process of imagination is enacted in any form of genre fiction hoping to make a social comment. The familiar is rendered unfamiliar, strange; consequently, the implications of our accepted norms become a little bit starker. Get rid of the background, see the values for what they are.
Patrick Langley’s debut novel Arkady is a veiled vent about the housing crisis, a clever tantrum about our immediate future. It never quite situates itself in a specific year, instead remaining temporally hazy. On first reading, I understood it as our imminent apocalypse, softened to the point of credibility: a subdued economic and ecological sci-fi reminiscent of Ballard. But on second reading, it seemed to just be the world, our world: a world of dickhead men yelling at women on the streets, ice-cream trucks on hot days, and drunk party-goers spilling onto pavements. Cities, crowding, Stephen Hawking, depressed plants , neo-liberalism, avocados, rolled up trousers, other “millennial” buzzwords and tropes. So yes, our world, only – akin to The Last Man – with minor imaginative twists. “Asters”, for example. Asters are ostensibly small flying machines that flit around and watch the citizens in a violently riotous state in which counties are divided and uprisings frequent. The world of Arkady is a low-key dystopia, an easy-peel apocalypse. Because, really, who would be surprised if it came to our attention that certain aspects of our digital lives were in fact tracking our movements, or that there was ongoing underground warfare between anarcho-squatters and state powers. It’s modest to the almost, could-be, is-it real. And this is the point: the green tinge painted (filtered) on our skin only makes us more aware that we’re feeling slightly unwell.
The novel follows two brothers: Frank and Jackson.* Frank is an artist, Jackson an anarchist (theory bro, art bro). The perspective alternates between the brothers, though it is mediated predominately through Jackson: a fantasist, mappist, conspiracy theorist. He traces the city on his bicycle, positioning himself as self-ordained social critic, blessed with the cynical detachment necessary to see “through” our commonly accepted social norms and to understand the hidden systems at work beneath. The threatening channels are in this way made visual, cartographic: underground routes become physical pathways permitting us to read the structures at play.
The novel speaks through architecture: steps, floors, buildings. Commodities and constructions serve as code for restriction and constraint. Escape is possible through breaking structural boundaries: climbing beyond a certain height, freeing a boat from its mooring. This politicisation of space is made more explicit through the novel’s, and particularly Jackson’s, tendency to heighten language: the bell ringing as class ends becomes a siren, “bloody slicks of strawberry syrup” ooze down ice cream. This undertone of violence, combined with the city’s function as the physical manifestation of society’s flaws, provides a shell for the novel: a malignant urban framework through which mechanisms replace empathy.
But pain is an education. Beneath, beside, between the city’s official boundaries – its maps of space, which are maps of ownership, maps of property, maps of power – other territories and signals appear.
Architecture is effective as a metaphorical maneuver in that it works to a simple formula. If physical constraints equate to oppression, then movement and expanse equate to freedom. The sequence seems quite straightforward: here we have the problems, and – if we think cleverly – we can get the answers. The language of Arkady coercively constrains through its imposition of short and contained clauses and its flatly apocalyptic tones.
But as with anything didactic, there comes a point where story and moral collide, with one tending to outweigh the other. If this were simply a book about Jackson pissed off with a world very similar to ours, the novel would become very trying, very quickly. In fact, it’s a tender rendering of a real relationship between brothers, funny and sweet. Frank, lying on a roof, wants to tell his brother he loves him. Instead, he recites the names of the seas on the moon.
“One of them’s called The Sea of Moisture.” He waited a moment, heart pounding. “That’s a fucking weird name for a sea.”
Frank thinks visually – examples of his work are placed throughout the book. He reacts instinctively to bodies and senses. He is perpetually hungry. (Jackson is rarely hungry). Almost every section culminates in Frank sleeping. His fantasy is enshrined within the world–buildings, for a moment, become ships and sail away. Apartment blocks splinter and fragment into themselves.
Langley assuages any threat of worthiness with humour, and a meta-conscious awareness of these well-known modern tropes. Jackson teaches his brother how to “read” the news (“the central tenet being ‘don’t trust a word’”). Foucault is thrown in, and Frank is bored. We can be bored with Frank, and the ploy works. Frank becomes the Pinky to Jackson’s Brain, well-placed to simmer down his angry, earnest, scheming brother. This isn’t to imply that Frank holds lesser narrative value, or that his character lacks nuance. Rather, the brothers work in tandem with one another; their relationship is reciprocal and compelling.
In many ways (including form) the novel remains fractured. Frank doesn’t quite fit into Jackson’s world, and this is very clearly Jackson’s world. We, alongside Frank, are swept along with Jackson’s thoughts, theories, plans and journeys. The novel opens with Jackson ostensibly kidnapping Frank to find their missing mother, and this power dynamic continues throughout, up until the climactic violent uprising against the “Red Citadel”.
Arkady is a book about the intricacies of brotherly relationships in a world of semi-futuristic violence with inserted doodles, drawings and photographs. Fitzcarraldo continues to champion new writing: this is a clever and ambitious novel. The writing reflects the slow suffocation brought on by the urban: objects (structures, particularly) have presence and agency. Buildings reject their inhabitants, whether slowly or overnight, and threat is constant. The underlying motif is “do not rest easy”. In many ways, Arkady fulfils every fantasy and science fiction trope. Fantasy makes the bleak mundanity of life bearable: there is an ominous enemy, an oppressive state, the underlying threat of warfare drawing to an inevitable battle. And yet there is also a certain ambiguity that stems from the afore-mentioned familiarity of this “dystopian” world. The book seems constantly in flux between different impulses: is it a fight for good and evil, or two boys playing with toys? Successfully achieving this multi-layered, anachronistic, paratextual, yet vaguely realist sci-fi polemic is quite the feat. There are, nonetheless, some instances of narrative heavy-handedness. Some of the biblical and salvationary imagery, for instance, can be on the nose (the boat, the “Ark”ady). Similarly, the attempts to make parts of our own world seem strange can sometimes read as needlessly forced, at the cost of clarity:
They stare at the blanket of zero stars as the sky-snakes unfurl in the eastern districts: shimmers of crimson and indigo as the factories blow waste-vapours into the breeze.
“Sky-snakes” are a laboured and unnecessary metaphor for pollution. It’s similar to the “Treehouse of Horror VI” episode of the Simpsons, where Homer finds himself transported to a 3D universe: the anticipated reality is estranged, slightly uncanny, but ultimately gripping – an innovative variation on old themes. As Arkady the ship finds new ground, Arkady the book draws to a close. The narrative voice shifts to the first person (Frank). The equilibrium readjusts; Jackson’s world of aggression and combat is seemingly left behind, replaced with an edenic, sinking, “garden city”. Jackson becomes a figure scrambling towards Frank in the distance, still climbing.
* Presumably a reference to Frank Jackson, the analytic philosopher.
Sylvia Secci  is reading for an MPhil in Political Theory at the University of Oxford.