James Bradley is a mate so it’s certainly possible that my thoughts about The Silent Invasion are biased. Except I know that’s not the case. I didn’t love the book because James wrote it, I loved the book because it’s an intense, exciting and politically aware young adult novel about the possible end of the world – at least as we know it.
Set in the near future the human race is facing extinction as large swathes of both humans and animals have been infected by spores from space. Once infected the human, or animal, goes through a change, one that… well, it’s not made clear, at least in this book, what the end-state is, but the suggestion is that they become part of a hive-mind, an alien intelligence. When our protagonist, Callie, discovers that her sister, Gracie, has been infected by the spores she decides that she’d rather run away with Gracie than have her taken away (and probably killed and dissected) by the authorities. Their destination is the Zone, a quarantined place that has been subsumed (we believe) by the spores.
Generally, flee-capture-escape-flee type narratives bore me to tears. Bradley gets away with it partly because The Silent Invasion is a short novel, which mitigates the possibility for boredom – Bradley maintains the tension from go to woe and it’s no certain bet that any of our heroes will survive – and partly because Bradley regularly injects a dose of world-building and politics throughout the proceedings. Some of that world-building has to do with the nature of the spores and how they infect humans, but much of it has to do with changes to society, how this invasion – bereft of the usual Hollywood pyrotechnics – has made us suspicious and fearful of the people we love and specifically those from outside the community. And while it’s made clear that there’s a good reason to be afraid – these spores are transforming everything they touch – the response from the authorities, mostly supported by the populace, is to become insular, close ranks, establish rules that undermine basic freedoms rather than attempt to comprehend what’s going on. This death of wonder and discovery, replaced by panic and anxiety, is beautifully outlined by Callie in one of the books rare quieter moments:
“Sometime deep in the night the moon rose, and for a time I lay staring up at it and the great girdle of the Milky Way. Its brightness stretched from horizon to horizon, and I imagined myself falling upwards, leaving all of this behind and losing myself in its light. Once we had dreamed of travelling to the stars, of becoming explorers; now we scrabbled and fought to survive. What else lay out there, I found myself wondering. Were there other worlds, other possibilities? Or was this all there was, this chaos and fear and sense we were running from something we could not outrun? At some point I realised I was crying; surprised at myself, I tried to wipe my face, but the tears kept coming.”
We might not be facing civilisation ending spores, but that same sense of the inevitable – whether it be climate change, the rise of isolationism and the alt-right or a move away from science and rationality – has me often considering whether we’ve already lost. That’s a depressing note to end this review on, but then Bradley doesn’t sugar coat. This is young adult fiction that’s astutely honest about the world we live in. Roll on book two.