When news broke that Joe Hill’s new book was about a disease-inspired end of the world, it was hard not to think of his dad’s epic The Stand. I dismissed that as a hopelessly lazy comparison, at least to begin with (more on this later). The Fireman is a very different book in scale and mood. Civilisation may be collapsing across the world, as populations fall prey to Dragonscale, a spore that infects its victims, paints beautiful patterns on their skin, and then causes them to combust, but this book focuses entirely on New England, and the story of school nurse Harper Grayson, pregnant and infected. It’s one small story in a global catastrophe, which keeps the stakes low but very personal. Harper’s unhinged husband (wrongly) blames her for infecting him and is bent on carrying out a suicide pact he thinks they’d agreed on. She is determined to live and bear her child, and so escapes, whereupon she falls in with a small community of infected people who may have found a way to live with Dragonscale. One of these people is the titular Fireman, a mysterious fellow with an English accent and a dirty fireman’s jacket. He is notable for being able to somehow control the Dragonscale fires, and he starts a slow burning romance with Harper. Life in the colony is peaceful and safe, but there are serpents in this particular Eden, and it won’t be long before they rear their heads. Because, let’s face it, it would otherwise be a pretty boring 700 pages, wouldn’t it?
Beyond the immediate narrative, there’s plenty to get your teeth into here.The workings of the disease are not unlike social media, with strong parallels with the behaviour of Twitter mobs. It’s interesting to read the book as a fictional counterpart to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed as an examination of how people can become lost in groupthink and chasing the approval of their peers with no regard for right or wrong.
This is also a celebration of the power of story. It’s full of references to Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, Doctor Who, Fahrenheit 451 and more. A key family name throughout the book is even Storey, for heaven’s sake, which leads to the wonderful line: “All the rest of us flutter round you Storeys like moths around candles”. Of all stories though, the one that looms biggest behind this one is The Stand. As I said up above, it seems lazy to say that just because of the author’s genes, but the parallels are too many to be anything other than deliberate. A world ending disease, a deaf mute called Nick, an obnoxious teen called Harold, a quasi-religious leader going by the title Mother….I’m not quite sure what Hill means by this. Respect for his parent? A cheeky proclamation that a baton has been passed on? At any rate, it’s safe to say he has not forgotten the face of his father.
Above all, it’s a hopeful book. In the midst of disaster there are many small moments of humanity, people helping each other out, trying to form new societies and just being decent. We are a long way from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road here, as is acknowledged in another literary nod. It’s no Wyndhamesque cosy catastrophe though (and I only just twigged that the Camp Wyndham in the book must be named for John Wyndham!). There’s no flinching from the reality of mass death, the villains are pretty unpleasant and there’s some fairly graphic gore. But this is a book about engagement with the world, about love, and about the need to survive in the worst of circumstances. Hill has been well known in the genre community for a while now, but I’d love to see him break out with this one. It’s a terrific book, one which deserves to be read.