“Here We Are, Alive” – Thoughts on the Post-Apocalypse & a Review of Silent City

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

Silent City by Sarah Davis-Goff is a post-apocalyptic novel set in Ireland. It takes place an unspecified number of years after most of humanity was somehow infected and turned into skrake, a kind of zombie-ish undead. The book is a direct sequel to Davis-Goff’s debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive.

(Spoiler warning: I will spoil the outcome of Last Ones Left Alive in this review, though the fact that there is a sequel is probably a spoiler in itself.)

Both Last Ones Left Alive and Silent City are narrated by Orpen, a young woman who grew up on an isolated, skrake-free island off the Irish coast. There, she was raised by her mother and Maeve, her mother’s partner. From a young age, Orpen has been trained to survive and to fight, becoming especially good with knives. In Last Ones Left Alive, Orpen is 14 years old. Her mother has just died, and she has left the island where she grew up for the mainland. She is carting around Maeve, who has been bitten by a skrake and is slowly turning into one of them, in a wheelbarrow. Her goal is to reach Phoenix City, the only human settlement left in Ireland, and the place Maeve and her mother fled years ago. Orpen is driven by her longing to find other humans, a community, and a place to belong. She also dreams of joining the banshees of Phoenix City, a group of women fighters she’s only seen in faded, hand-made poster left in the ruins on the mainland.

Silent City picks up the action right after the end of Last Ones Left Alive when Orpen has finally found her way to Phoenix City and encountered a band of banshees. Once the prologue is over, we jump ahead six years. By then, Orpen has made a place for herself in the community she fought so hard to find, and has become one of the banshees. But nothing is the way she expected it to be. Phoenix City is kept safe thanks to the banshees and to the walls surrounding the city, but it is a harsh and unforgiving place. The citizens might be protected from the skrake, but they live under an oppressive regime, enduring poverty, hunger, and disease. Phoenix City is ruled by “the management,” a group of male leaders who get access to, and dole out, whatever perks are still available, while the less fortunate literally live and die in the dirt. Reading is forbidden, women are kept as breeders or recruited as banshees, and the management use and abuse the citizens in the name of keeping them safe.

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    Six years after her arrival, Orpen is deeply unhappy and disillusioned, her only solace being the companionship of the banshees and her friendship/budding romance, messy and tentative as it is, with fellow-fighter Agata. At night she dreams of her mothers, and home:

    “I dream of my mothers, their voices mingling with the shinaun, the constant wind, calling me as if they’re beckoning me home after a day’s play. I dream of being loved.

    I wake.”

     Orpen has tried to conform and fit in, but when she is forced to participate in a public execution and is promoted by management, she is drawn into the political machinations of Phoenix City, and it becomes ever more obvious to her that something has to change.

    If there’s a weakness in Silent City, it’s that the societal structure and political machinations within Phoenix City feel a bit nebulous. Partly this is because we see everything through the eyes of Orpen who, even after six years, is still an outsider, with a sometimes tenuous grasp of what goes on in the halls of power and elsewhere in the community. Orpen is awkward and uncomfortable in most social situations, something that contributes to her sense of isolation, and that outsider perspective makes her feel a bit detached from what’s going on around her.

    That said, it is Orpen’s particular and slightly off-kilter point of view, and the intimate focus on her journey, her longing for goodness and a better way of living, that makes both Silent City and Last Ones Left Alive stand out, giving the books true emotional heft and depth. There’s a sense of quiet desperation and devastation running through both books, and Davis-Goff’s Irish-tinted prose captures Orpen’s internal struggles to find her own strength and purpose with sparse, sharp, sometimes lyrical precision and beauty.

    While Silent City is a post-apocalypse story haunted by the presence of the skrake, the book is not really about the skrake. Those decaying, ravenous undead play a more significant role in Last Ones Left Alive as Orpen traverses the kind of bleak, devastated landscape we’ve come to know in The Road and The Walking Dead. The skrake are certainly present in Silent City, and Orpen, with her band of banshees, has some harrowing encounters with the undead, especially when the banshees are scavenging for supplies in the long-abandoned Dublin airport, an edge-of-your-seat sequence that ends in both disaster and glory. What Silent City is really about, at least for me, is community: how people can find a way to live together, not just survive, after the end of the world.

    Like many people, I have consumed a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction over the last several years, and the tropes and themes of the genre can sometimes wear me out when it’s relentlessly focused on gore and grimdark horror. Even so, there is something about these kinds of stories that is appealing to me both as a reader and writer. By removing society as we know it, whether it’s obliterated by zombies, catastrophic climate change, nuclear war, or something else, it leaves a canvas where we can express and explore our darkest fears and wildest nightmares.

    Lately though, the post-apocalyptic stories I find most interesting are not the ones that focus solely on horrors and cruelty. Rather, I’m drawn to stories about how people find ways to maintain and build communities, to live in the rubble. I sometimes think that writers and movie makers underestimate the resilience of communities, and the endurance (and usefulness) of empathy and cooperation even under dire circumstances. Human history is full of apocalypses and post-apocalypses—war, plague, famine, natural disasters – and in all these situations, human beings continue to find ways to live, and live together.

    Some recently published short fiction that explores post-apocalyptic community building with incisive thoughtfulness is “Building” by Marlee Jane Ward in IZ Digital, “The Field Guide for Next Time” by Rae Mariz in khōréō, and “The Year Without Sunshine” by Naomi Kritzer in Uncanny. This theme is also strongly present in Silent City where Orpen longs for, and eventually tries to fight for, a better kind of community than Phoenix City. The book doesn’t totally succeed for me when it comes to how Orpen ends up fighting the powers that be in Phoenix City (it all comes together a bit too neatly for my liking), but the story has a sharp and jagged beauty all its own, and there’s a vulnerability and tenderness to Orpen, beneath the scars and knives, that makes her an interesting protagonist.

    Many reviewers drew parallels between Last Ones Left Alive and The Road and it’s a fair comparison: there’s a starkness and quiet brutality to that book, to Orpen’s state of mind as she drags the infected Maeve around in a wheelbarrow, running into skrake, fighting for her life at every turn, that is reminiscent of The Road.

    There’s an attractive, stark simplicity to the kind of post-apocalyptic story told in both The Road and Last Ones Left Alive, where loners fight for survival and eventually realize that they need other people. In The Road, that glimpse of a possible community comes right at the very end, like a glimmer of fire in the dark, but the nature of that community is beyond the scope of the novel. Silent City is another kind of post-apocalyptic story altogether, less stark and less simple, because it’s about the nitty-gritty details of community and community building, about the challenges of living together with others in a dangerous world.

    Silent City is not a perfect book, but it is a gripping and thought-provoking take on the post-apocalyptic genre that looks beyond the death and gore and devastation of the skrake-apocalypse, daring to imagine new and better ways of living.

    “Here we are, alive, putting one foot in front of the other. We’re still moving, se we are.”

    Silent City is available now from Flatiron Books.