The thought of getting on a ship and leaving our civilization behind, with all its faults and drawbacks, may seem appealing in the current political climate. However, as Antonia Honeywell shows in her debut novel, “The Ship,” it comes with its own complications.
Sixteen-year-old Lalla lives in a dim future where global warming and the effects of climate change have ravaged the planet. The British government has fallen apart, replaced by an oppressive regime obsessed with keeping track of its citizens. Your registration is everything; without it, people aren’t entitled to food, a home, or even a place in society. To be on the streets without a registration card is to risk being shot where you stand. Lalla’s parents have shielded her from the horrors of the world she lives in, but she knows they’re out there.
There is a bright spot in all of this misery, though: the ship. All her life, Lalla has heard from her parents about the ship that will take them away from the monotony inherent in the constant fear of current existence. It’s their escape plan, their chance to start over.
Lalla isn’t sure whether the ship exists or if it’s a false myth created to give her hope. However, all of that changes on her 16th birthday. “I thought about the ship, and the promise of friends, and suddenly I needed to know, more than anything else in my limited, safe, grey world, that the ship was more than a theoretical hereafter for the hopeless,” she thinks. And so, finally, she tells her parents she’s ready to leave.
The true nature of the ship is revealed gradually over the course of the novel, and Lalla is disturbed by what she finds. Once on board, with her father as the ship’s leader, she’s moody and distrustful. Her emotions rise and fall with the waves.
“The Ship” is a thoughtful and luminous look at what happens when we get everything we thought we wanted. Lalla is safe on the ship. She has all her material needs provided for, someone to love her, shipmates to care for her. The people around her are content to forget the horrors back home, to live only in the present. Why, then, can’t she let go of the land she left behind? Why can’t she stop dreaming of the future?
It’s both illuminating and incredibly frustrating. Lalla is difficult, willful and mercurial. At times I wanted to scream through the pages at this teenage girl, ask her why she can’t appreciate what she has. Her parents have sacrificed everything so that she can be safe and warm and dry. How dare she ask for more? How dare she wallow in her unhappiness?
But Honeywell is too talented an author to leave the discussion there. Through Lalla, the reader is forced to ask: Is mere survival enough? Yes, bellies are full and there is no imminent threat of death, but is a life only defined by the material things you have worth living? Particularly when what you have is mindlessly provided to you?
These are the difficult questions that Antonia Honeywell asks through in her powerful debut novel. The stream-of-consciousness style makes it not the easiest read, and Lalla can be a frustrating window on this world. But in the end, it’s a provocative novel with difficult questions about the fundamental nature how people choose to live their lives.
Krishna writes about space science and technology for Paste Magazine and science fiction/fantasy for Syfy Wire. You can find her on Twitter @skrishna.
Orbit: 336 pp., $26