Dazzling. That’s the best word to describe this introduction to an extensive dystopian sci-fi saga. The first book in a series of five, ‘Jubilee’ sets the scene and themes in a complex, carefully crafted future history. It’s a world of contradictions and contrasts, saturated in vibrant technicolour throughout. The author uses a glittering palette to paint brilliantly vivid word pictures of almost-immortal telepathic transhumans, imprisoned within the earth by their own technology which sustains them underground but – in the form of a catastrophically virulent viral bioweapon – has rendered the surface uninhabitable.
It’s a vast, sprawling vision, and it takes a bit of getting used to.
Happily, this opening episode gently leads us through the divided society, explaining the basics of transhuman development, the staggering scope (and limitations) of technological achievement, and the dictatorial government which has spawned a ragtag rebellion. We meet the scientists struggling to combat the virus; at risk themselves from contamination but also operating under the threat of mortal censure should they fail.
Inevitably, the ‘Phantom of the Earth’ saga incorporates echoes from earlier science fiction and speculative fantasy. In ‘Jubilee’, the populations are oppressed by Marstone which monitors their thoughts – a mere sidestep from the Big Brother viewscreens in 1984. Yet author Raeden Zen deftly avoids fulfilling too many expectations. While Winston Smith’s world was one of grinding, grey misery, emotionally stunted and physically deprived, the compliant citizens in ‘Jubilee’ enjoy utter abundance and unimaginable luxury.
Similarly, most writers who placed their civilisation underground would have made it a dark place, dimly lit, suffocating and claustrophobic. Raeden Zen has instead built a spectacular edifice full of shining light, diamond-edged and dazzling… and all the more effective in its oppression of the human spirit thanks to its utter artificiality. These people have almost everything, yet they yearn for simple sunlight and fresh air. Their existence is all about contradictions: the title of the book refers to a great celebration, a massive street party… but one with the most sinister implications.
The scientific content is also a credit to the author and his advisors. You’re never drowned in the detail, but it’s obvious that there are firm foundations to the biology (especially the struggle to manipulate the immune system to combat a virus which mirror-switches its genetic material) and to the technological hardware. The use of familiar bacteria to deliver gene-altering tech is particularly nifty…
‘Jubilee’ is a relatively short book. It contains a complete story arc, but it is only the tip of the overall tale. If you find yourself intrigued by the characters (I especially like the violet-haired huntress, Lady Isabelle Lutetia; deadly, cruel, but complicated) and the unfolding multiple scenarios, then you’ll want to hop straight on to the next in the series, The Gambit With Perfection. The saga is perfect for readers who want an extended, immersive, inventive experience. If you’re looking for short-term immediate satisfaction, then you’re less likely to enjoy ‘Jubilee’. It asks many questions and starts many plots threads – most of them ‘to be continued’ as this episode draws to a close.
Please note, I was delighted to read an early version of the ‘Phantom’ series, and to provide feedback on it. I’m even more delighted that some of my suggestions made it to the published version – but that doesn’t affect my review, which is as unbiased as I make it. I was knocked out by this series at my first acquaintance, and still am…