Even though I have read only a small percentage of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s works, I can see from this limited sample that his imagination can take very different roads from one book to the next, and Firewalkers is a prime example of this.
In a not-so-distant future in which climatic changes have wrought havoc on Earth, the planet is divided between areas where floods from the melting icecaps are submerging most of the land, and areas – like the equatorial belt – where desertification and rising temperatures have transformed once lush jungles into arid wastelands. The equator is still a sought-after location, though, because it’s the place where the anchor points for space elevators have been built, bringing people to the safety and comfort of the huge ships in construction. That is, those who can afford it, which is only a privileged few. The others try to eke a meager existence by servicing the crumbling infrastructure that supports the anchor and elevator and the arrays of solar panels feeding energy to them.
In one such settlements live the three main characters of the story, young people whose job is to cross the scorching, dusty desert to service and repair the solar panels located in distant areas that were once inhabited and have now been abandoned to the encroaching sands. These Firewalkers, so called because their young bodies are better suited to withstand the broiling heat of the desert, regularly endure the extreme environmental conditions to earn the relatively higher pay such jobs can bring in, risking their lives each time to provide for themselves and their families.
Nguyēn Sun Mao is the descendant of Vietnamese refugees escaped from the floods that obliterated their country and he’s the point man of the group; Lupé is of African descent and represents the engineering genius in the team, as she is able to repair or jerry-rig practically anything; then there is Hotep, so called because she protects her fair complexion under mummy-like bandages, and she is the technical expert. The three of them have been working together for some time and forged a successful unit, so that they are often given the more difficult assignments – and the most dangerous of course.
This latest assignment brings them toward a rarely – if ever – explored area, one where what remains of the palatial mansions of the rich crumbles under heat and neglect, and where unknown dangers, and even monstrous creatures are rumored to dwell. The three Firewalkers’ journey soon evolves into the search for clues to unveil a mystery, and in the discovery that something does indeed lurk in the deep desert, but it’s nothing they would have ever imagined. The story takes on a sort of quest-like flavor, with our heroes facing known and unknown perils as we get to know their personalities and quirks, while being shown how the world we know has been changed by the damage humanity inflicted on it.
The ground crunched lifeless beneath his feet […] the sun the head of a white hot rivet driven in by some celestial smith.
The story’s main focus is on Mao, a boy in his late teens possessed with the maturity of a far older man, because the kind of life he and his crewmates lead tends to burn people away at an accelerated rate: there is little room for hope in this world, and yet we see him try to do his best in the worst of circumstances, trying to take some pride in what he does and exhibiting a natural, if laid back, quality of leadership that brings his two companions to trust him and abide by his decisions no matter how uncertain and dangerous the path. Maybe because
[…] it was Mao who had most experience walking on the surface of an alien world, even if it was Earth.
Lupé, as befitting an engineer – even one as self-taught as she is – is both efficient and business-like, never allowing dangers, either real or imagined, to get between her and the machinery she is repairing or adjusting. As the one in her family with the best-paying job, her young shoulders are burdened by the weight of keeping them as comfortable as possible, and she translates this responsibility to her traveling mates as well: there is one scene in which she keeps servicing their transport’s life support even as some problem approaches, and we see her keeping up the work with the steadiness of a much more seasoned veteran, something that is both admirable and heartbreaking.
And last, but not least, Hotep: she is the wild card of the group in that she was born in space as one of the privileged, but was sent down to Earth – literally discarded – by parents who could not bear her psychological problems and quirky, non-conformed behavior. Her prickly character, like the bandages she wears, is a way of masking the deep pain of abandonment, the resentment at the sheer, heartless injustice and betrayal she was subjected to. It’s through Hotep’s situation that we can perceive the cruel divide in Earth’s people, because if her parents hardly flinched at condemning their own daughter to a short life of hardships and suffering without a qualm, what about the few privileged that could escape from the dying planet and are living in comfort and luxury while the rest of the population slowly dies of heat, thirst and diminishing food?
The themes developed in this story are of course climate and environmental changes, and the social upheavals following them, but there are other elements that are equally intriguing, like the construction of the massive ships in Earth orbit – probably more arcologies than mere vessels – and the space elevators connecting them to the surface. What I found truly fascinating are the remains of the previous civilization – our actual civilization, I believe – and the way the protagonists observe them as though they were relics from a more distant past, and that they are unable to connect with for lack of common references. There are several instances in which Mao & Co. talk about tv shows from the past – still being aired – and how the people depicted in there, their way of life, look more alien than extraterrestrial creatures: this, more than anything else shows us readers how our world has changed from the present conditions.
Firewalkers is a dense book indeed, in the sense that it holds many concepts in a relatively small number of pages, and that’s its only flaw from my point of view: this kind of story should have deserved more space to “breathe” and fulfill its amazing potential. For this same reason, the ending felt to me somewhat abrupt and less satisfying than I would have expected from the initial buildup, but still it was an engrossing read, and a further incentive to explore Adrian Tchaikovsky’s other works.