“Under the Blue” by Oana Aristide – review

The year is 2020. A deadly virus has swept across the world with alarming speed, killing almost everyone in its path. A tiny group of survivors must set out on a race across the globe to outrun both the disease and the environmental catastrophe that threatens to follow in its wake.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but please, stay with me for a moment!!

Firstly, it’s both interesting and important to read the author’s note that accompanies the novel, in which she explains it was actually written well before the horrendous events of last year began, so any anxieties about this being a tasteless cash-in novel can be dispelled straight away. Secondly, you may be asking yourself, do I really want to read a novel about a global pandemic in the current circumstances? Well, I wouldn’t have said so either before I read this, but although on the surface it appears painfully close to reality, it actually takes a vastly different road very quickly. Likewise the themes it tackles are a world away from the ones that raise their heads on our news reports day in day out; this isn’t a debate on government action or inaction, healthcare inequalities or vaccine nationalism. Instead, it zooms in on two opposite ends of perhaps the most fundamental spectrum there is: the individual’s moral choices and the ethics of the species that is humankind.

There are only a tiny number of characters in the novel, something which, despite the worldwide nature of the events that are unfolding, gives it an intensely intimate feel. The protagonist is Harry, a loner and an artist who, apart from a few casual interactions with the neighbours, lives in his own little world without family or real friends. We know from the opening pages he is carrying a burden of guilt and sadness relating to his recently deceased nephew, but exactly why is at this point something of a mystery. When the virus hits the London he is forced, like so many millions of others, to run – the start of a harrowing and desperate journey that we will take with him throughout the course of the book. The second strand of the novel took me completely by surprise, coming as it does in complete contrast to Harry’s quest for survival. It begins in 2017, three years before the pandemic, and focuses on a pair of scientists and their attempt to develop an artificial intelligence that will ultimately, it is hoped, be able to anticipate and identify large scale threats to humanity before they happen. The training regime for the AI – named Talos – seems laborious at first, as it works through history from the earliest human times, learning about everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to the great plague of the fourteenth century in order to accumulate information that will help it predict future scenarios. However, things move on, more quickly and in a more complex direction than scientists Paul and Lisa had predicted, as they attempt to give Talos an understanding of the concept of using ethical judgement in decision making. As the AI begins to grow a mind of its own outside of the initial parameters his creators believed they had set, he (the scientists refer to Talos as having a male identity) raises increasingly challenging questions about exactly why humans hold the beliefs they do in relation to the fundamentals of right and wrong. As the time of the pandemic approaches, there seems to be more and more doubt as to whether Talos is actually prepared to be the saviour of humanity, or whether his actions will ultimately be governed by his own internal “belief” system that may in fact run counter to human interests.

I’m always very conscious not to give away spoilers if I can help it when I write a review, and because this novel is such a tense ride from beginning to end I’m going to pull up even shorter than I would normally when discussing plot and characters! I’m not going to tell you anything about what happens to Harry on his journey, or what finally becomes of Lisa and Paul’s uber-intelligent robot creation Talos. I don’t need to dangle tantalising eipsodes from the novel in front of you to get you hooked; Oana Aristide has been exceptionally clever in the way she pulls you into the story from the word go, so if you’ve got as far as picking up the book in the first place, then your investment in its characters and climax is pretty much a given. It must be tempting when you’ve created a fictional, scientific event such as the catastrophe of Under the Blue to indulge yourself by presenting the reader with all the details you’ve worked out lovingly in your head prior to writing, but the author refrains from any premature exposition – one of the novel’s great strengths. Harry, for days, even weeks, doesn’t have the full picture of what’s going on; and why would he? He’s had to pack a bag and run, with no time to go online or watch hours of rolling news bulletins, so it makes perfect sense that to start with we know very little either. The author doesn’t allow us access to any information before it comes onto the radar of her characters, and it’s that uncertainty, unease and desperation to get our heads round just what is going on that gives the story such a compelling edge. Yet Harry’s struggle isn’t just about coming to terms with the reality of current events, harrowing enough though that would be in its own right, but the realities that lie semi-buried in his own psyche: his guilt, his failings, his unfulfilled desires and the deep-seated isolation that goes beyond even being one of the last people left alive on earth. I thought he was a wonderful character – completely real, likeable in his own slightly sad way, and free from any post-apocalyptic survivor cliche.

The tension, strangely, doesn’t come (for the most part) from big, bombshell moments of high drama, but rather from the bizarre and unexpected sense of inertia surrounding Harry’s attempt to make it to safety. We get the sense that somehow, whatever decisions he makes and however many miles he travels, he is no closer to the relief of a secure and happy end. The mixture of hope, necessity of action but also futility is emotionally exhausting, for both us and the characters, mirrored and intensified by the unremitting, stifling heat of a parched and unforgiving summer. The second strand of the novel, the story of Talos the AI, is vastly different in style and provides a break from the uncomfortable, sweat-drenched narrative of Harry’s physically and mentally arduous escape attempt. Written entirely in script-like dialogue, it’s pacey and immediate, yet still manages to take its time unpacking the disquieting questions that arise when humanity is assessed objectively by something that has been created without any of the moral assumptions we take for granted. As Talos learns more about the species that built him, he puts across a new perspective on humankind’s supposed moral mastery of the world: are we actually anywhere near as inherently “good” as we believe we are? Do we really possess any innate superiority that would justify our position as judge, jury and executioner on this planet? And perhaps most importantly, what grievous damage have we done to this world that we call home while blinkered to the level of our destructive capabilities? Lisa and Paul intend their robot to be unshakably on the side of humanity, but as the story unfolds it becomes less and less clear whether or not he ultimately is. The fact that I started very quickly to think of the AI as simply another character with his own “personality” is a testament to how cleverly his dialogue is written; if this part of the novel had failed to hit the right note of authenticity it would have undermined the whole thing, but it’s entirely convincing.

We can guess, given Talos’s proposed purpose as a predictor of catastrophe, that the scientists’ story will at some point tie in with the pandemic narrative, but it is almost the end of the novel before we find out exactly how. When the two strands finally come together, it’s with an emotional heft that I can still feel weighing on me some time after reading; it’s one of those conclusions that you need to go away and think about quietly for a while afterwards. The author leaves us with a whole world of ideas still to ruminate over even after the book has ended, and there’s a real satisfaction to that as you know the novel has done its job. The events of the past year have certainly made me re-examine how I look at certain things, and in many ways I feel I was somehow emotionally primed and ready to read a novel like this and get the most out of it. As ever, I’d very much love to hear your thoughts. Happy reading x

  • Under the Blue is out in March, and I won my advance reading copy in a Twitter giveaway competition.