NOD is based on the premise that overnight the vast majority of Earth’s population lose the ability to sleep. Like most good stories, the concept is simple. Firmly in the disaster or apocalypse genre, Barnes’ tale develops the impact that sleep-deprivation has on society. It was perhaps quite fitting that I went from reading STATION ELEVEN by Mandel to Barnes’ NOD, because he presents insomnia in an plague-like fashion: with insomnia causing many of the consequences we’ve seen in epidemic-based disaster films and movies. Within days, society crumbles and collapses, just as though humanity had been afflicted with a deadly virus or disease. Perhaps more frightening is that this affliction is almost universal; save for a small number of children, and an even smaller number of adults, everyone is effected. Essential services are suspended. People turn on each other. Reality warps and twists for those left behind. The new society that arises from the ashes of the old is on a deathclock – as the narrator Paul recognises, after a month everyone will be dead as a result of the debilitating effects of sleep-deprivation.
The central relationship in NOD is that between Paul and his partner Tanya, and what starts as a fairly mundane and conservatively happy relationship soon becomes something darker. You see, Tanya loses the ability to sleep but Paul doesn’t. Early in the novel Paul has to watch Tanya unravelling, dealing with the knowledge that Tanya’s time is now limited. Paul attempts to protect Tanya in this new world, and fails, but very soon Paul is the one requiring protection from the Awakened: his status as a Sleeper marking him as endangered. Barnes has a predilection for discussing topics (and using language) that some readers may find unpalatable (for example, references to bodily functions!), but this does serve to put into context the very harrowing situation Paul finds himself in. Sex, love and body horror are explored in the context of a relationship that is crashing just as fast as the surrounding world.
It was a shame Barnes didn’t focus more on the Paul/Tanya dynamic, however, and by the midway point of the book the story shifts attention to Charles (the self-styled “Admiral of the Blue”) and his Thousand followers. Strange insomnia-induced concepts used as Cat Sleepers are introduced; Paul has (what I interpreted as) a psychotic break; a warship launches a nuclear strike on a nearby city. The edge to these events, though, is blunted by the knowledge that everything and everyone will be gone in less than a month: the chapters are even based on a daily countdown towards oblivion. For me, this undermined some of the dramatic tension – there is no effort to understand why no one can sleep anymore, and we know that there will be no reprieve for the Awakened. Although Paul is a Sleeper, his own sanity takes a bashing as well, and at some points in the novel I actually wondered whether Paul was one of the Awakened, and that he just couldn’t accept it.
Whilst this sense of impending catastrophe is common in many post-apocalyptic scenarios (WALKING DEAD being a prime example), NOD needed an objective – a goal towards which at least Paul could strive – in my view. Once we lose Tanya, Paul’s objective in life is less clear (and his sanity continues to spiral like the non-sleepers around him). Latterly, the novel moves to considering Zoe (a child that Paul and Tanya find and temporarily adopt as their own), but the “children in the park” subplot is never sufficiently explored.
The central concept of NOD is an interesting one. Barne’s prose and use of language are certainly engaging; and at 250-odd pages it’s not a novel that outstays its welcome. The SF elements – the post-apoc setting and insomnia – are very muted; and in some ways I’d describe it as more of a thriller. If you’re after a more plot-driven SF piece, NOD is not that book.
My edition included an essay by Adrian Barnes on his diagnosis with cancer, during the publication process of NOD. I’ve not seen any other material on his condition, but I wish him well whatever has happened since this essay. It made for distressing reading, and reminds us all that sometimes life can be very cruel.