Any reviewer would be hard pressed to classify M. T. Hill’s latest foray into an imagined near-future dystopian Britain as an “easy read”. Zero Bomb presents its complex and layered story through a variety of different lenses, as the lives of protagonists and their observers are drawn together through the strands of an intricate and far-reaching conspiracy.
Set in the UK a few years on from the present, the imagined contention of Zero Bomb is that ever-faster technological innovation has constrained the lives of those not in control of its impact; people and social groups who experience disruptive social and economic change as anything but empowering. Hill is keen to explore the relationship between machines and the human condition as well as the frontier between technology and the natural world.
The first fifty or so pages tell the difficult life story of the grief-stricken Remi, who has disappeared from his old life in the north of England, following agonising personal losses, to become a courier rider in London’s precarious grey economy. A series of unexpected events open Remi’s eyes to the existence of a different subterranean country where those opposed to the rise of the machines plot to overthrow the tech-driven new order, inspired by the aims of an unlikely text. It’s a cause which offers new convert Remi the chance of a redemption he never thought possible.
As it brings to life the realities of this new England, the opening section is the most immediately engaging, but also the most deceptive. Hill then takes the story through a series of abrupt left turns as the book’s locus shifts to become a book within a book, and then a surveillance report, before turning to document the lives of new characters living a freer (if still conflicted) lifestyle in the rural fringes of Birmingham. These story elements partly intersect in a high-stakes finale, before another new voice delivers a coda which expands the intimate vista to offer a broader social sense of battles yet to come.
Hill’s plot is meticulously constructed, with ideas and key events anticipated and later referenced back across the separate timelines of different narrators. It’s a confident form of storytelling, but in the context of the deliberately disjointed chronology and the shifting perspective (and reliability) of different witnesses in the book, it’s not the easiest to follow. You might find yourself flicking back to find the first reference to an obscure event or character previously only mentioned in passing. Hill’s prose is direct and unfussy and adopts the changing narrative styles very effectively, but the frequent flips in focus (the book is effectively a series of linked components) make it harder to establish a sense of ongoing connection with any of the figures in play.
Hills’ England is an intriguing and plausibly realised place, and Zero Bomb offers imaginative and unpredictable drama. But a vision so self-consciously oblique risks obscuring more than it illuminates.
ZERO BOMB / AUTHOR: M. T. HILL / PUBLISHER: TITAN BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 19TH