Review: Katy Barnett’s The Earth Below

Almost a century after “the Catastrophe”, a group of survivors have built a new society deep in the safety of an underground network. The earth above is mostly uninhabitable, with skeletons everywhere that are being mined for useful items through scavenger runs of the Strikeforce.

Marri – the female protagonist — knows the society’s draconian rules are there to keep its population healthy and growing, but they don’t leave much room for attraction — let alone love.

She has recently emerged from a solitary confinement that was her punishment for a crime that initially is unclear, but which went against society’s dictates and relates to one Macon.

Barnett uses Marri’s anxiety and disorientation after the solitary confinement to make the reader familiar with the underground network and the way it functions. We learn that the underground network is run by a Council and powerful Councillors whose decisions are enforced by an almighty Strikeforce. We also learn that there are two classes of citizens, the Barren ones and the Non-Barren ones, and you better be productive (i.e., produce off-spring within a tight time-frame) lest you will be moved from the latter column to the former; it quickly becomes clear that Barren ones are second-class citizens, if that.

Felix is Marri’s best friend since childhood (and also the one who taught her to read – a society that sees women’s primary role as producing babies does not need them to read.) Felix also has same-gender preferences, something that the underground society does not consider a useful input in its production function. We learn very late, on p. 148 – when Marri and Macon and Felix have made their way to a settlement on the earth above –, that Marri produced her first (of 3) offspring at the tender age of 15 and that she produced them with Macon who, as a member of the Strikeforce, has a preferential status. Now almost 19, she is currently registered as partnering with Felix; clearly, Marri and Felix do try. Not that they have much choice: Not trying does not offer enticing options in light of their society’s objective function. Marri, Felix, and Macon have escaped the earth below and have found their way – almost a century after “the Catastrophe” – through an unliveable landscape littered with ruins and skeletons to the settlement, which happens to be a model of an enlightened western democracy. The Netherlands come to mind or Scandinavian countries.

Barnett (disclosure: while we have not met in person, we are connected through Facebook and occasionally comment on each other’s posts), a professor in private law (such as remedies, contract, property, tort, and restitution) at the University of Melbourne with two non-fiction books to her credit, and also a mother of three, tells her story expertly. She narrates from the perspective of those for whom the earth below is a reality, and induces the reader one observation after the other, and one dialogue after the other, to the reality both of life on earth and below. (Barnett has attributed her obsession with dialogue to having spent almost three years as a trial judge’s associate.)

The major themes here (love conquers all, societal organization is a tricky thing) are very Le Guin and for that matter very Makoto Shinkai (e.g., Weathering with You). In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin introduced us to the Gethenians – “potentials” that during each sexual cycle might develop into a him or her. Le Guin then draws out the implications for life among such people. “It is an appalling experience for a Terran.” In The Dispossessed, Le Guin told the story of Anarres (the main protagonist’s homeland), a bleak moon settled by an anarchic utopian civilization, and Urras, a world very similar to Earth with warring nations, great poverty, and immense wealth. Shinkai, on the surface, tells a simple love story of a run-away to Tokyo who befriends a girl who is able to manipulate the weather. Tokyo drowns in rain and she is just the one to stop the drowning, sacrificing her own life. But boy is not going to let that happen. Because boy loves girl. And, well, the other way round, too.

That is not to say that Barnett’s novel is derivative. Not at all. It reminds me of Le Guin in particular since she also asked the grand questions about life. Barnett reminds us that social organization is a by-product of historic events (here: “the Catastrophe”) and that these events massively restrict the conceptualization of societies that are possible. Also, that power structures can be overthrown, even in societies that live by draconion rules, and can be usurped by even more ruthless characters than the ones that were running the show. (I am not going into detail here because I do not want to offer too many spoilers.)

Given that there is at this point a good chance that we will experience in our lifetime a serious climate catastrophe, we might well end up in circumstances that right now seem counterfactual and that might confront us with currently counterfactual but imaginable states of the world.

Also, of course, love is eternal and cannot easily be controlled. It will always be a driving and motivating force.

The book is available here.


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