New Atlantis is a beautiful novella by Lavie Tidhar that makes visual poetry out of the detritus of our own lost civilization in a future earth reshaped by vast climatic changes and disasters. It is the story of a journey by a young Mai, as told to us by her aged self. Like Tidhar’s Central Station, there is much in New Atlantis about story-telling, memory, loss and making life meaningful in the midst of a fragmentary world.
One day after a winter of restlessness, Mai finds purpose and determination when she receives a mysterious message. Delivered by a wild drone that has been nursed back to health by her salvager friend Mowgai, it tells her to meet someone at a distant way-station. But long journeys are full of peril in the world of New Atlantis. Most machinery has been destroyed except for a few surviving clusters that form the only type of wildlife still left after many cataclysms.
All the petroleum-fed “travel-pods” have long since been destroyed. There are remains of ancient broken roads, littered with often dangerous debris. Remnants of bombs and missiles litter the land, giant monster robots are rumored, and there is the danger of every traveler’s nightmare: burial in a sudden storm of plastic refuse that can hit at any time.
Journeys across the “Blasted Plains” call for walking or sail-skating, and for travel in great caravans if they can be found.
These caravans consist of travelers who have bonded together for safety from attacks by wild robots and other dangers. They form tightly knit communities that reflect the deep change that has come over human life. They do not kill other animal species unless they are compelled for lack of food, and then they must face their prey naked, without weapons or tools of any kind.
Humans have renounced the ethic of ruling the world and forcing all its life forms and resources to serve its needs. People live by salvaging, trading or like Mai searching through surviving records to reconstruct the past. It is Mai’s work to tell the stories of the dead. “That is what makes us human.” she says at one point. And it is the motivation that drives her on a journey into the unknown.
Since this is a short work, it is hard to describe the many marvels she encounters without giving away the story. Suffice it to say that she heads across the Blasted Plains to the seaport of Tyr, “a city still engaged with the past, a city in which the present and the future are dim and tenebrous things.” From there she sets out in a sailing vessel across the middle sea.
She encounters at every turn the wreckage of the age of “great excess” which produced machines that became sentient and could repair themselves. Their mostly useless remains are everywhere, yet there are ceremonies recalling an earlier time. One is the Joining of the Cables, a gesture toward the long-forgotten time when the world was connected through a system of live cables. For a moment, she is lost in a daydream of a world “where you were always present as a node on an ever-shifting, never-silent spun-silk cobweb that enveloped the planet.”
There are floating islands that reproduce themselves, a shipwreck that strands her on the shores of “Francia”, a land covered with dense jungle. Every story of an epic journey brings to mind The Odyssey, and this one does too but interspersed with hints of Lewis Carrol and strange shifts of perspective that enable Mai to experience worlds that have been long abandoned and drowned.
New Atlantis is one of those rare books, short as it is, that I wished would never end. It offers a vision of a dystopian future with hope that humans can adapt to form an emerging civilization that is more peaceful and restrained in its ambitions. It’s a small gem, not to be missed.