‘Radio Life’ is a wonderful piece of speculative fiction that explores a compelling central question via the actions of powerfully-rendered characters engaged in a clash of cultures that has become a struggle for survival.
As I see it, the main question of the book is this:
If you were born into a world visibly broken by your distant ancestors, living in the cracked shells of their achievement and still in the shadow of the destruction they wrought, what would you do? Work to recover their knowledge, repair the world and avoid their mistakes or develop the faith to live in the here and now, valuing the present and refusing the temptations of the kind of intellectual arrogance which killed billions of people and almost destroyed the world?
‘Radio Life’ isn’t an academic discussion. It’s an action-packed, tense struggle for survival between two groups of people the Keepers and the Commonwealth whose world views are inimical to one another.
I was hooked by the end of the first couple of chapters, swept along by the depth and the pace of the storytelling. There were no all-post-apocalyptic-stories-have-this short-cuts. This wasn’t a video-game scenario. It was a world shaped by the people who live in it and each character was given the space and time to become a person, not a video-game persona.
‘Radio Life’ was a wonderful surprise – fresh, original and exciting. The narration was excellent and I loved the way engaging characters were used to bring a whole world alive. The pacing was perfect. By the time I was halfway through the book I had I’m halfway through no idea what would happen next but I really wanted to find out.
One of the things I liked about the book was the way it made me confront my own prejudices. Having lived through a massive assault on knowledge for the past five years with the silencing experts, the denial of science, the promotion of hate-based fantasies as truth and the labelling fact-based journalists as enemies of the people, I started ‘Radio Life’ thinking, ‘What could be more relevant than a book looking at the preservation and dissemination of knowledge as a key survival trait for humanity?‘
It turned out that Derek Miller had written a more challenging book than that. As I read it, I realised that I’d defaulted to a ‘Knowledge = Curiosity-Driven Civilisation Faith = fear-Driven Superstition that was too glib to be real.
Part of the strength of ‘Radio Life’ comes from the fact that both sides of the Keeper /Commonwealth divide had a valid world view and that neither had a monopoly on the truth.
This was underlined for me by my slowly dawning recognition of how deadly and how ruthless the Commonwealth, the people my default settings had designated as the good guys by virtue of their dedication to being the repository of all human knowledge, were.
The true character of the Commonwealth, of any society perhaps, was shown not by its stated ideals but by the character of the people in it. The main characters in the Commonwealth part of the story include a lethal married couple, deeply committed to one another. and to the Commonwealth but not blind to its limitations; a genius powered as much by hate and fear as she is by curiosity; and two teenage women ready to kill and to die to do their duty and yet still light-hearted in their searching of the Internet.
As the history of the Commonwealth was revealed, I liked the way in which acts of pragmatism became institutionalised and turned into cultural artefacts. It showed how the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a people are a collective fiction, often fuelled by the lies of those in power to protect that power.
I was impressed by Derek Miller’s ability to use big ideas as the lattice that supports the growth of characters, allowing their fears and joy and hopes and blindspots to unfurl in the sun and scent the air with excitement and tension. This is Science Fiction at its best.
Part of what maintained the tension in the novel was that the conflicts were not resolved in a conventional way. It added to the drama but it also reminded me that there are always more choices, especially if you’re willing to redefine the problem as well as the solution.
The final twenty per cent or so of the book didn’t work as well for me as the rest. This wasn’t because of the ending. The ending worked. I liked the next step offered to the Commonwealth and I liked the movement of the next generation into leadership.
What pulled me out of the story a little was the change in pace. We see one of the people who was a teenager at the start of the story grow up and become a leader of a world-changing mission but we never got back inside her head. I got the ‘grand sweep of history’ view rather than ‘the story of my life view’ the book started with. The material was great but I’d have preferred a Radio Life book two to cover it.
The change in style was a minor quibble. This was an exceptional piece of Science Fiction. It filled my imagination, kick-started my thinking, blew away some of my prejudices, kept me eager to read the next page and left me hungry for more.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Radio Life’. Sarah Borges narration is first-rate. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample
Derek Miller is currently working on a sequel to ‘Radio Life’ so, if you like it, there’s more to look forward to. In the meantime, I recommend reading some of his other books. His novels never disappoint, always makes me think and frequently surprises me. I’ve given details of the one I’ve read below.
‘Quiet Time’, an audible original novella that came out this year, is ‘Quiet Derek Miller at his best giving us an engaging, I-need-to-know-what-happens-next story that is often funny and sometimes heartbreaking while still digging into topical big themes about how we live and how we define ourselves. He lets us look at those themes through the eyes of different generations with very different cultural backgrounds AND he does interesting things with the narrative form. If all that isn’t enough, the story is narrated by the wonderfully talented Bahni Turpin.
‘Norwegian By Night’ was the first book Derek Miller book to capture my imagination, back in 2015, with a young boy and an old man on the run in Norway-
With ‘The Girl In Green’ he took me somewhere quite different, the wars in the Middle-East and the mess we Westerner’s make there.
‘American By Day’ transplanted the Norwegian policewoman I’d met in ‘Norwegian By Night’ into the through-the-looking-glass experience of working with law enforcement in the United States.