If Barricade had been a little less hyped by its publicist then I might have enjoyed it more. Instead, the sketchy characters and derivative plot struggled to live up to the publisher’s promise of a ‘cold-blooded yet magnetic’ genetically-engineered artificial anti-hero to rival Takeshi Kovacs. That comparison with Richard Morgan’s brilliant Altered Carbon series did Barricade no favours, in fact…
Leaving aside the hype, Barricade is an unremarkable post-apocalyptic road movie, heading south from Scotland in an armour-plated Land Rover. The protagonist is a Ficial, Kenstibec, a biological conscious and thinking entity – more like a Replicant from Blade Runner than a C3PO android – who has been optimised for working in construction under human masters in the pre-collapse civilisation. Like all Ficials, he’s not burdened by feelings or irrational desires, and his nanos rapidly repair any damage to his physical structure.
The humans, however, are falling apart at the seams; beset by famine, malnutrition, radiation sickness and interesting new infections. Even so, they’re still resisting the Ficials’ instruction to ‘report for culling.’ A ferocious form of trench warfare between the two sides has developed, with the Ficials maintaining semi-civilisation behind their barricades while the humans revert to savagery in the wilderness. Both sides still watch trashy TV, apparently. There’s a lot here which doesn’t quite add up and stays unresolved throughout.
But Barricade is written in an easily-accessible style and the opening chapters scramble along from one violent encounter to the next, swapping between here-and-now action and flashback sequences which explain how society collapsed. We meet a female pleasure model who instantly converts any human male into a dribbling sex-crazed loon (just a tiny bit unlikely in the circumstance) and a no-hoper human who acts as a guide through the badlands. The unlikely trio travel deep into trouble and – at roughly the halfway point – the purpose of their journey starts to reveal itself.
The result is a reasonably enjoyable romp. There’s heaps of action, plenty of gunplay and physical violence. In fact, it seems absurd how much punishment the humans seems to be able to take and how they kinda line up to be gunned down by the efficient Ficials. But the extended fight sequences become much like the rest of the novel; a dreary trudge through a muddy wasteland. They can’t match the razor-edge tension or black humour of Richard Morgan’s ruthless futuristic killer.
Similarly, I struggled to really engage with Kenstibec, and actively disliked the irritating female Ficial – Paolo Bacigalupi created an infinitely more interesting bio-engineered sex slave in The Windup Girl. Compared to the subtlety and sophistication of the bio-punk dystopias of Bacigalupi, or something like Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, then Barricade is a blunt instrument indeed. Its social and moral commentary is pretty one-dimensional, so don’t expect the dazzling complexity of character, the engaging AI intelligences or social commentary and interpretation you find in McDonald’s imagined India. The future in Barricade is much more of a shoot ’em up (and if that fails, then just get a bigger bomb).
Barricade draws to a close with a finale that suggests a follow-up might be possible. Although this was an entertaining read, it neither grabbed me with eye-popping action nor inspired me with its creativity, so I’d give any sequel a miss.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Barricade by Jon Wallace is available from Amazon as an ebook or paperback.