Nod by Adrian Barnes

Adrian Barnes
Titan, 272 pages
Review: Noel Chidwick

“All the old words are waking up and rubbing their eyes!”

Adrian Barnes has a slick way with words. His turns of phrase, his sharply focussed imagery means Nod is a treat to read.

The premise of Nod is fiendishly simple: Paul is a writer living in Vancouver. One morning he wakes up to find that no-one else slept; they literally did not sleep a wink. Quickly it becomes clear this is a world wide event, and Paul is one of only a handful of people who can sleep.

On day one people continue in a facsimile of normality, but after a second night of sleeplessness, the reality ‘dawns’ and Paul’s world slowly dissolves. two sides emerge, the ‘Awakened’ and the ‘Sleepers’, the Awakened are the majority, the living zombies. Paul’s girlfriend, Tanya, can’t sleep and she becomes jealous of Paul. It’s clear early on that Paul needs to keep his normality hidden from those, who, after only a couple of days are suffering the hell of sleeplessness.

It’s estimated that without sleep you would certainly die within around four weeks: Paul’s aim, in the end is to survive those four weeks.

Adrian Barnes forensically examines this new Vancouver and its people. The first, and last, response from the authorities is to implement the International Communication Ban, to “bring down the wall of static… and see if we could unclench our brains and snooze in the resulting stillness.” The power is cut. The city has a few days of food stored on its shelves, then there is nothing. People are desperate to sleep, but can’t. Paul and Tanya try to pick their way through this waking nightmare:

“Everybody I’d seen since leaving home looked like they were carrying an invisible case of nitro-glycerine in their shaking hands. Both dangerous and in danger”

Another layer of civilisation peels away, as Paul crushes the skull of an Awakened chasing a child Sleeper.

The question of whether a prophet, false or otherwise, would emerge from the chaos of dystopia every time is a theory we hope won’t be tested, but we meet Charles, an Awakened who sees himself as a kind of prophet in this new world. Barnes raises the question of whether a prophet believes his own words, hides in them, or uses them as a way to keep himself alive and sane. But now it is too late; he has to keep talking.

We also meet Dave: clean-cut, organised and heading a quasi-military group who deny their sleeplessness. Their compound is hidden in the Dome of Science World. So normalised to the new world has Paul become when he arrives there he asks Dave what he calls this place.

“‘Science World, Paul. What are you on, man? It’s called Science World. Quebec Street. Vancouver, British Columbia. Holy fuck, has everyone in the world gone crazy?’”

There’s an acknowledgment of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. The Chrysalids, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, 1984:

“Despairing visions. Every high school had taught these books. Every teen had been injected with them. What had possessed us?”

Throughout Nod, Barnes plays with language and words, and you can sense that he has to keep his lighter side in check for the sake of his story, for as Paul says:

“Humour had been the first casualty… and a humourless world seemed somehow even more tragic than one filled with pain and suffering.”

Nod is an exhilarating and thoughtful read.

Originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 5.