Three hundred years from now things aren’t going well for us humans. In Ottawa-native Benoit Chartier’s debut novel, Red Nexus, Wen Harkwell is one of these unfortunates. He lives on the 150th level of a futuristic Japan climbing over itself to escape a mysterious environmental disaster. Shining towers adorn the city’s top, but the ground is buried under rolling garbage mountains that spit fire. In the book’s opening, Wen lives somewhere in the middle, trying to create a life for himself and Sammy, his 13-year-old brother.
During the day, Wen works at a factory, watching over machines that get by just fine without him. Each night he joins a group of fellow scavengers to illegally scour the ground level for scrap. This environment is so hostile that each teammate has to wear a breathing mask while staying ahead of the constantly shifting ground and hovering submarine-like sentry bots.
Eventually, Wen’s group stumbles upon something they probably shouldn’t have, and Wen takes a piece of it home to Sammy, who is quickly kidnapped while trying to pawn it off. The book moves at a blistering pace after that, with Wen racing between all three levels to find his brother before Sammy disappears for good.
The speed that things move along is one of Red Nexus’ strengths, although it occasionally means that important elements are left in the dust. This is especially true for Sammy, who we don’t learn that much about. The main villain has the same issue. I found it impossible to hate him as much as I was supposed to, considering I barely had any sense of who he was.
Of the book’s three environments, I found the middle-city, Wen’s home, the most engaging. This section is safe from the poisonous ground, but it’s so buried under high-class Japan that the sun only comes through in tiny cracks.
Chartier wrote Red Nexus while living in Japan, and the Japanese influence really comes out in these levels. The area is perpetually bustling, with voices and the smell of a hundred different foods assaulting the reader from every side. It also has a depth to it that the other levels lack. In one early scene, Wen and Sammy visit a secluded alley where monks memorialize thousands of missing men and women from the upper levels, likely victims of the all-powerful corporations they once worked for.
Compared to the other sections, however, the upper city is disappointingly dull, especially since many of the lower city dwellers spend the first third of the book talking about how great it is. This attributes to a second half that is much less engaging than the book’s first 100 pages. The secondary characters have little personality above ground, and each one becomes a road sign on Wen’s journey, serving only to point him in one direction or the other.
One of the book’s only female characters appears in this area, a young woman named Jenna who seemed to only exist to smile a lot and agree with Wen, giving Red Nexus some romantic friction that I don’t think it needed. Chartier promises more strong female characters in the sequel, Blue Node, which he plans to release in 2016. I’m looking forward to seeing if he delivers.
Chartier’s book is highly readable throughout, and although the writing isn’t always beautiful, there are some rich sections, especially where the setting is concerned.
Overall, Red Nexus is a strong first outing for Chartier. It deals with today’s issues amplified by 300 years. It’s easy to imagine our garbage islands and changing climate becoming Tokyo’s unlivable floor, and the city’s higher levels are a pessimistic take on the financial inequality growing around us.
Compelling, local and with the right amount of explosions, Red Nexus makes a happy addition to any Ottawa sci-fi lover’s bookshelf.