The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett

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The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: In taking one aspect of the world and twisting it, this book would appear to be sci-fi, but so compelling is the psychology and intriguing the premise that it successfully breaches its way on to the general fiction shelf.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: September 2015
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099592860

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Well, they kept this quiet – for reasons that will become obvious. A couple of years ago people in America were giving birth to problematic kids. They (the children) were soon found to be unnaturally quiet – perhaps crying with hunger or pain, but never even trying to 'ooga-wooga' their way into their parents' hearts. They were later found to be completely unable to speak, they could not read and indeed they could not understand anything said to them, or shown them, as an instruction. They were physically unable to parse anything as language, and were in a silent world of their own. But right about now they and we are combining worlds – schools are being set up, and funds are being made available, and people are coming down on the endless divide as to whether they are just problematic, disabled – or even the blessed. In a couple of years, however, the problems the virus that is causing these people to be born with will be shown to be a major problem – and that is before the kids themselves change. For they will be able to switch their mental abilities much like a blind man can hear more than the average, and will be able to comprehend body and facial language much more coherently than anyone else. Throughout this timeline, however, people will be working hard to try and study the problem, and put it right – if indeed 'right' is the correct word…

You don't need a degree in psychology to read a theme into this book from the early pages. Even before the silent societies generate communities of their own, and become enclaves of sullen and incomprehensible teenagers, you can see the book easily as about parental guilt, about the regrets and pain any mother or father has. But this is after the first third, and, being a long book, there's a lot more where that came from. Throughout, whatever it's presenting to us, it remains psychologically astute, and even with many characters it all rings true with an assuredness and authority borne out of being well thought through.

And it isn't in fact as long as a blunt page count would have you believe. This 'History' is collated from many – probably twenty all told – characters, all giving first-person testimony to some voice-recording app for a global archive, and so the book breaks down in a very friendly manner to five-minute chapters. It's a style that certainly works, and is justified. You might argue that with three authors behind them the respective voices could be a bit more different, but it doesn't take too much to keep tracks of everyone.

I can also state the case for a couple of other flaws. I found the level of comedy very poor – the future is bleak when we're told school performances are Noh adaptations of Terminator 2, and culture seems very blunt and low-brow in years to come; people will be glad to see the chapter from the coarsest (and most pretentious) mime imaginable is his only appearance. These factors are quite jarring, and take you away from the major problem the book features. It suffers, too, from being far too USA-based and biased, barely mentioning the virus as being a global problem or anything else it causes occurring elsewhere in the world. It also seems to misuse its structure – probably only one 'volume' break came at the right time for me, and there are seldom any cliff-hangers.

But there is also a lot to laud about this book. There's the way it can gather so many diverse people and their narrative strands into one time and place, then twist them apart. There's the very readable, and very well-sustained, way the book focuses on the themes and circumstances it presents, for when it boils down to it is the old sci-fi trick of taking our world, changing one factor or element, and presenting a 'what-if' – except that here the end result, with the conviction of the authors and the power of their characters, has much in common with general fiction. This leads to the biggest bonus the book has – the excellent way everything is maintained so cohesively around one major factor of life, yet seldom feels overlong in doing so. It's not purely about the woes of parents, or the travails of misunderstood youths, and in the end it's not utterly and completely about language and the lack thereof – it's about turning much cogitation on these themes into a great, enjoyable narrative. People on these pages come and people go but the mood of the piece – and a very memorable one it is, too, with a well-realised alternative near future at hand – stays with us. So – seeing as I have the opportunity – I would definitely talk positively about this book.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

A similarly bizarre North America can be had with another great sci-fi/general cross-over, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.

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