In Knocking on Heaven’s Door Sharman Apt Russell is a thoughtful examination of the idea of utopia and a look at humans’ relationship with the rest of the world. Russell builds her plot slowly, piece by piece, drawing readers in to the more relaxed lifestyle and into the questions surrounding the new society built after an engineered virus killed most of the world’s human population. The remainder took advantage of long-distance communication to plan out the ideal society, one which has remained stable for the 150 years since. Most believe that they live in the best of all possible worlds. But have they become too complacent?
One of the strengths of the book is that Russel had built a utopia readers can imagine living in. It is a place of abundance and one that is largely at peace. Yet, it is still a place where accidents can happen—someone might be killed by a hunter, or someone might simply skin a knee. More, it is a place full of ordinary people. Jon is brilliant and contributes to the overall welfare of the people around him; he’s also irritable, proud, and irritating. Clare is a pleasant person and a teacher struggling to figure out how best to reach her students. People still have all the irritating and endearing quirks that we know from today.
Russell has also avoided the technology vs. nature dichotomy that pervades so many tales of the future. The survivors of the long-ago disaster have opted to give up large cities and mechanical transports, but they have chosen to keep computers. Ultimately, it is technology and nature working together that moves the world in its new direction.
One drawback to the book is the romantic entanglements: In neither case is it easy to picture the couple finding one another satisfying over the long-term, or even thinking so. This is complicated by the fact that most of the turn from casual friendship to romantic pairing happens off the page.
On the other hand, there are a number of other rich and satisfying relationships in the book. Jon and the dire wolf, the dire wolf and the saber-tooth, Dog and Lucia/Luke and the many webs of friendship and trust around them are as complex and nuanced as any reader could want. The additional new relationships only enrich the book.
The ideal new world in Knocking on Heaven’s Door is one where people and animals share not only the world but one another. The Paleolithic animals cloned just before the virus wiped out most of humanity are telepathic, and most people can sense their feelings, giving them a wider sense of the world and of desires and awareness they don’t possess on their own.
The book strongly advocates for a respect for the world and its creatures. It also quite evidently favors an animistic approach, one woven deeply into the fabric of the novel. Most of the characters take this for granted, many expressing the belief that humans are “the universe aware of itself,” and the book developing the idea to a well-earned climax.
Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a thoughtful, complex book that welcomes immersion into its world and concepts. It is not a book to pick up while in the mood for swashbuckling and explosions, but a good one for quiet reading in the evenings and for discussing afterward with friends.
Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A Novel is available now. To order from Amazo, click the link in the title.