Post-Apocalyptic Hell Can Be Beautiful

Future dystopias don't have to turn into every-man-for-himself carnage. They can be about communities banding together — and they don't even have to be about men at all, if Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army is any guide. The story of a woman who flees an oppressive society and finds a woman-only communal utopia, Carhullan just got a prestigious Clarke Award nomination. Soon to be released in the U.S. as Daughters Of The North, Sarah Hall's novel is well worth hunting down for its lyrical depictions of the post-apocalypse. Click through for spoilers.

In The Carhullan Army, England's economy and government have collapsed, and the country spends most of its resources on wars to secure overseas oil pipelines. England has become a reverse-colony of America, and people subsist on American canned food. (Insert your own joke about how this would be superior to actual British cooking here.) The main character, known only as Sister, works in a factory making water-power turbines that will never be used. To prevent overpopulation, she and other women have a brutal IUD-type device, known as the Coil, inserted, and the authorities randomly inspect women to make sure their Coils are still in place. The only way you get your Coil out is by winning a lottery to become a mother.

Sister flees, even though travel is forbidden without a special permit, and makes her way to Carhullan, a self-sufficient women's commune that lives off the land. Once there, she falls under the spell of charismatic leader (and ex-soldier) Jackie, and learns to fight and think for herself. Until Jackie decides that it's only a matter of time before the Authority which governs Britain comes to take Carhullan away from them — unless the women of Carhullan preemptively attack first.

The Carhullan Army is beautifully written and often manages to juxtapose nature and technology in jarring ways. Just look at this passage, set in the forest right after Sister has had sex with another woman for the first time:

"Look," she whispered. I directed my gaze where she pointed. An owl was flying over the grassland, sweeping down towards the ground and then up. Its white, clock-like face hovered gracefully, while its wings worked hard and silently in the air. For a second I caught a reflection in its eye, a weird flash of yellow-green, like a battery light flaring on then off again.

A lot of the time, Hall's prose adheres to the "short, choppy sentences" thing that's in vogue these days, but when she breaks out a bit, it's really lovely.

In fact, almost all of the stuff that takes place at Carhullan is beautifully depicted and inspiring. Like all utopian communities, it's nowhere near as perfect as it appears at first. There are petty politics, and the cult of personality around Jackie, the leader, becomes a bit scary at times. The debate over whether to mount a rebellion before the government can come and crush the women is fascinating. And we discover there's another side to Carhullan: the community has five "kept men," who live off in the woods in their own separate area. (The men trade with the women of Carhullan, but more importantly they're the husbands — or in one case gigolo — of the straight women who live there.) How to treat these men (and the two little boys who live with them) becomes the source of the biggest rift within the community.

The other thing Carhullan Army does really really well is to show how the ordinary people of Sister's original home town, Rith, start out opposing the rise of totalitarianism in England, but slowly become more and more complicit and cowed.

That said, the book had a couple of near-fatal problems, for me. The book takes the form of a deposition by Sister, after she's been captured by the authorities. And parts of the deposition have "[Data Lost]" written in them abruptly, as though the file is corrupted. This lets Hall get away with skipping over some of the slow parts of her story — but then she also uses it to avoid having to write some of the crucial parts as well. It feels a bit like a cheat.

Most importantly, though, I felt as though Hall failed to make the authoritarian dystopia which Sister rebels against believable. We never really got even a glimpse of the Authority, or even its propaganda, except for the doctor who installs Sister's Coil. It felt like an absence rather than a presence. We learn a lot about how bad things have gotten, and hear people saying how evil the Authority is, but the Authority itself isn't really in evidence. This makes it a lot harder to feel connected to the characters and their situation, for me.

Bottom line: The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North is worth reading for its gorgeous prose and layered depictions of the relationships among the women in a commune. But as a future dystopian narrative, it presents a few really terrifying ideas — the Coil chief among them — and then falls a bit flat.