Review: Sunshine State, by James Miller


(Little, Brown, 978-140-870184-3)

(Review first published in ASIM 47, August 2010)

James Miller’s first novel, Lost Boys, explored adolescent disaffection and Western privilege against the backdrop of a changing world order. Lost Boys skirted speculative fiction’s borders through its incorporation of a sequence of apparitions, the mysterious youths of its title. Miller’s second book, Sunshine State, largely omits the teenage rebellion, but Western privilege and the changing world order are again important elements. The speculative component, this time, is science fictional: Sunshine State employs a near-future setting.

Mark Burrows is a reluctant expert in the field of espionage. He’s seen, and been involved in, enough atrocity to last him a lifetime. But the ghosts of his past aren’t ready to give him up, because Mark’s mentor, guerilla-warfare specialist Charlie Ashe, is not as ‘missing, presumed dead’ as he’s supposed to be.

Florida is a mess. Battered repeatedly by ever-more-aggressive tropical storms, laid waste by hurricanes for which Katrina can be seen as merely a dry run. Across much of peninsular Florida, law is something that exists at the barrel of a gun; order, unless you’re hunkered down with the military, is a thing of the past. Across what’s known as the Storm Zone, anything goes. Militants; hippies; rebels of every stripe; weaponry. And somewhere within the storm-wracked southeastern tip of the continental U.S., Charlie Ashe has resurfaced, bearing a new name and a new, strangely messianic demeanour.

The Powers-That-Be need to find out what Ashe has become, which necessitates that they send someone to retrieve him. Burrows isn’t their first choice for such a mission. But everyone else they’ve sent after Ashe has ended up dead …

Sunshine State is a better book than its predecessor. It displays a solidity and an assuredness in its description, its plotting, its characterisation. If the fey elements of Lost Boys at times felt misplaced, the futurism of Sunshine State, its admixture of gritty realpolitik and burgeoning climate catastrophe, is absorbing and convincing. The book is stronger, too, for avoiding the more experimental leanings of Miller’s earlier book. Sunshine State focusses almost exclusively on the point-of-view of one character—Burrows—and by seeing the world through his eyes, we get a more vivid picture. I’m impressed, too, that Miller has succeeded in producing a scenario which plausibly blends a region of Mad Max-style anarchism with a wider world which is still on the cusp, and within which control might still be possible. In so doing, Miller spares his readers the worst excesses of much apocalyptic fiction, while still serving up something which rides like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with the added menace of a ‘Dueling Banjos’ soundtrack.

That’s a recommendation, by the way. (In fact, if you’ll excuse the appropriated cultural reference, I’d say it’s Miller time …)


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