The Amateurs. Knopf Canada
“This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”—or at least, this is the way it ends in Liz Harmer’s The Amateurs. The gripping book is Harmer’s first novel (though she has won prizes for her short fiction and non-fiction) and her first significant foray into the increasingly popular genre of speculative fiction. A post-apocalyptic story of the near-future variety, The Amateurs covers, in its speculative purview, such recognizable terrain as the implications of quickly wrought and unchecked technologies, political and economic collapse, and the challenges of starting over. Like all good speculative fiction, it also hits uncomfortably close to home.
The titular “amateurs” are a group of forty-two people left behind in a relatively urban setting (a loosely disguised Hamilton, Ontario) after the world has been mysteriously emptied. The culprit? Ports—the latest (and, incidentally, the last) device engineered by the tech company PINA, a facsimile of the Apple/Google-type megacorp that engineers phones and smart glasses (among other things), and that assumes a shimmering pineapple as its logo. Capitalizing on a generalized sense of nostalgia and ennui, PINA releases the Ports, intelligent time machines that can transport you anywhere in time and/or space. As the Ports gain worldwide traction, the earth—once filled to capacity—begins to empty, leaving those left behind to wonder whether people will, or even can, come back.
Juxtaposed with the bewildered amateurs are “the professionals”—the thousand or so employees left behind at PINA’s headquarters in Silicon Valley who, following the mass exodus, shut themselves inside their compound and spend their days doing downward dog under the watchful eye of Albrecht Doors, their charismatic leader. Doors is also the inventor of Ports and, as this part of the plot unfolds, we are encouraged to wonder how much he knows or does not know about the devices’ capacities—whether he is malicious, insane, inane, or some combination thereof.
If the subject matter seems a bit too familiar (unwitting and/or greedy scientists unleash technology that ushers in apocalypse), Harmer’s take on the near future is unexpectedly refreshing. For while the novel is marketed with references to Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, and The Walking Dead, it is hardly as dark as any of these (though The Year of the Flood is a fairly apt comparison). Harmer’s post-apocalyptic landscape is comparatively empty, but it’s hardly desolate. Nor is it truly dystopian. The communities left behind do not dissolve into chaos or violence—there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” depicted here. Instead, Harmer celebrates what she calls the “lunatic amateurishness” of human beings who are variously neighbourly, inventive, faithful, and optimistic as well as pessimistic, unsupportive, ignorant, and hapless. (Incidentally, several of these adjectives appear in Harmer’s chapter titles.) Contemplative and unobtrusively intertextual (Harmer nods to T. S. Eliot now and again, for example), the book is also funny and well paced—hardly the work of an amateur.