Will the world end in fire? In ice? Or grey goop?
A review of The End of All Our Labours by Potassium Cockburn.
I am, on the issue of humankind’s near future, an optimist. As humans we have a historic tendency to predict the worst, and yet our history has been one of steady progress. But there are without doubt more horrifying future scenarios for us to fixate our doom mongering imaginations on than ever before. Climate change of course, and the population shifts and resource wars associated with it. New weapons of mass destruction that make atom bombs look like pea shooters. An almost infinite array of biological terrors, bacterial horrors and viral nastiness all stemming from garage kit genetic engineering. The End of All Our Labours, a near future science fiction novel by the pseudonymous Potassium Cockburn, makes this shopping list of familiar apocalyptic possibities its starting point and, with great imagination, conjures a few hundred new ones.
Manoushka “Manny” Duval is a neuter, a gender and sex identity still hard to hold even in the war and poverty ravaged near future Cockburn depicts. But Manny is among the fortunate. Well educated, implanted with the sensory augmentations neccesary for high level work, born of immigrants who escaped the refugee camps and favellas to which most people are condemned. Manny worked those camps, saw the death and disease up close, but now lives in the towers and dome communities of the upper classes.
However, The End of All Our Labours introduces us to Manny when their life has been literally torn apart. From a tiny cell Manny relates the story into a speakeasy recorder, addressing interogator Mr Deebs. The reader learns of a seeming terrorist plot to break through the walls between dimensions, and the utter chaos of a world where every apocalypse scenario has arrived at once is hinted at. But Manny can remember very little; Manny’s augments have been programmed to block all knowledge of the “Proprietary” research which they were contacted to undertake.
The nature of that programme mutates throughout The End of All Our Labours. A byzantine recruitment programme, that satirises today’s corporate culture of non-disclosure agreements and proprietary intellectual property, lands Manny a highly paid job with the Gardiner corporation on a project lead by Mr Gardiner himself. But what begins as a scientific effort to save a doomed humanity soon shifts as plots within plots enmesh Manny in a far more radical scheme. The programme shifts again as the augmented reality the researchers work within becomes central to the story, and we begn to suspect that far from being a mere researcher, Manny has been drafted as the unwitting research subject.
The End of All Our Labours is clear on one thing. The real threat facing humankind is humankind itself, and the twisted knot that is human consciousness. Cockburn neatly subverts one of the key tropes of the apocalypse story, where the rational mind of the scientist ultimately triumphs over the irrationality of humankind by, for instance, engineering the cure for the killer virus, or switching off the rogue AI. The End of All Our Labours presents scientific reason as just another layer of self deception and delusion fuelling human chaos. Around this thesis the novel plunges into a tumult of multiplying realities and overlaid dimensions.
Like much of the most interesting science fiction, The End of All Our Labours is part thesis, part fiction. Cockburn’s style is dense and challenging, weaving essay and argument through the thoughts and observations of its main protagonist, often sacrificing character and story for ideas and philosophy as it pursues its central obsession – can our world be saved? The author makes very few compromises in chasing the answer through a maze of human madness. That makes The End of All Labours, particularly in its opening sequence and densely self referential final third, a challenging read. Readers who step up to Cockburn’s challenge to match the author step for step will get much from the argument they together unfold.
This review was written as part of my paid review programme. You can find more information here.