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Stepping Into The Heart of Darkness: A Post-Apocalyptic View Into a Possible Tomorrow



Canadian author Robert G Penner, now living in Pennsylvania, is the founder and editor of Big Echo, a free online journal of critical science fiction (‘science fiction that provides the interested reader with a considered assessment of the social and cultural circumstances in which it was produced’): in that role he uses his pseudonym William Squirrell. And that note of background most assuredly applies to the content of this book. His many stories (as William Squirrell) appear in anthologies and the novel LET THE BASTARDS BURN. STRANGE LABOUR is his debut novel under the name Robert G Penner.

STRANGE LABOUR is a novel, yes, a story, yes, an introspective experience – hopefully for every reader. In a completely unique manner of composing a dystopian tale, Penner has managed to make his characters and plot so contemporary that we enter his strange world, somehow familiar with it – the bizarre manner in which we humans decide what is important and what is unimportant. Pretenses, prejudices, proclivities, predilections – and antipathies. In composing his compelling story, Penner holds the proverbial mirror up to his readers: it is up to the individual to discover the relevance.

As one observer from Booklist describes the plot, ‘Miranda is working as a New York City accountant when all the world's neurotypical adults are mysteriously compelled to abandon their lives and devote themselves to the creation of massive labyrinthine earthworks called "the diggings." Only the neurodivergent are immune to the impulse, Miranda among them. Now traveling to Minnesota to find her parents, Miranda and ex-union organizer Dave, who has epilepsy, traverse a dystopian landscape marked not with violence, but with frayed human relationships and abandoned children. Along the way, they encounter dementia nurses and educators struggling to adjust to the new world; an affluent, heartless Toledo commune; and the silent diggers themselves.’

Or as the book cover distills the plot, ‘Strange Labour is a powerful meditation on the meaning of humanity in a universe that is indifferent to our extinction, and a provocative re-imagining of many of the tropes and clichés that have shaped the post-apocalypticnovel. Most people have deserted the cities and towns to workthemselves to death in the construction of monumental earthworks. Theonly adults unaffected by this mysterious obsession are a dwindlingpopulation that live in the margins of a new society they cannotunderstand. Isolated, in an increasingly deserted landscape, living off the material remnants of the old order, trapped in antiquated habits and assumptions, they struggle to construct a meaningful life for themselves. Miranda, a young woman who travels across what had once been the West, meets Dave, who has peculiar theories about the apocalypse.’

Both involving and immensely entertaining, this novel captures our current status like a motion sensor we place at our front doors. Paranoia,? no, but anxiously curious, possibly, the way this story seeps into us. Brilliant debut novel; gifted artist! Bravo!

~Grady Harp