Post-apocalypses are generally a dreadful business. Nuclear holocaust stories have humanity living underground; global warming metaphors imagine massive civilizations sunk beneath the ocean; alien invasions often lead to people becoming subservient tools of exotic, technologically advanced overlords. Perhaps the worst of all is when we cause our own demise by inventing artificial intelligence strong enough to take over as the planet’s dominent species, and although this scenario is certainly where you’ll find the new novel BABYLON TWINS, M.F. Gibson’s jaunty story hardly wallows in the drudgery of its dystopia. BABYLON TWINS rises above the porridge of other post-apocalyptic scenarios by refusing to take itself too seriously.
The novel tracks the adventures of a pair of crytophasic twins, Elizabeth and Chloe Yetti, who are whisked away from collapsing civilization into the woods by their mother just in time to avoid becoming forcibly addicted to Subantoxx, a powerful drug developed as treatment against the imaginary Fimi virus and now co-opted by San Francisco’s massive A.I. hive mind, Yerba City, as an excuse to turn existing humans into slobbering dullards.
Did you catch all that?
They also have a younger brother, Dyre, and a tendency to have weird dreams and visions of talking deer, and very little patience for bullshit, as exhibited right away in their tendency to punch their classmates to the point of injury (“we’d found it easy to make sure the whole herd knew what we were about from the beginning, and that knowledge always seemed to come at the expense of a couple of boys’ faces”) and continued treatment of said brother: “‘Do not smack me,’ El warned stiffly. ‘I will scratch you. I will scratch your face off and show your evil little bloody skull to the world. And that will make you cry.’” Harsh.
This is mostly in flashback, as the book opens with El, Clo, their brother, and their mother (“Mama”) having their idyllic little cabin in the woods scenario being interrupted after ten years by a robotic Santa Claus with no feet carrying a gift bag full of Subtantoxx-laden spider robots. If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is, and best of all, the characters are in on the joke. Events are recounted with all the reverence of a late night TV skit: “These spider-machines were ugly, nasty little things programmed with a dark mission to make all of humanity into drug-addled zombies, but they were not military-grade. They were the ultimate evolution of an out-of-control pharmaceutical industry.”
Author M.F. Gibson has a background in film, which makes a lot of sense. The prose is conversational rather than poetic, which works for the subject matter, and the Sci-Fi world building is the kind of stuff that movie franchises dream of. When El and Clo go on a journey back into the robotic city that used to be San Francisco, they encounter bizarre entities that can move through walls, weiner dog-sized drones, talking cicada helicopters, and most potently, a massive city full of people who would rather be drugged out of their minds than take any kind of responsibility. BABYLON TWINS is at its best when it functions as biting satire, introducing an increasingly ridiculous parade of real and robotic characters that crank the WTF-factor up to eleven. When Clo and El get a tour of the local A.I. “treatment facility”, each new system is a kind of commentary on modern society, whether it be the overzealous diagnostic attitude of doctors (“‘I’m sure they could find something wrong with you’”) or the modern tendency to prefer staring at computer screens to actual interaction: “‘You know, some people stay in here for days… there’s a toilet in the chair so you don’t even have to get up.’”
That said, there are a few instances in which the book overexplains itself. The entire novel is written from the perspective of the twins, of course, and they refer to themselves as both individuals and “we”. This nebulous “we” is a rare but fascinating pronoun that has been used in books like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES to give autonomy to a collective while never truly revealing its source. But BABYLON TWINS breaks up the action at the beginning of the book specifically to explain why it has taken this perspective, which is an unnecessary detour during what is otherwise an intense opening act. It’s also safe to assume that most readers know the story of Babylon, and to have the twin’s father explicitly nickname Clo and El the “Babylon Twins” strikes me as overkill when the title could have just been a clever nudge at existing mythology.
The book moves briskly along thanks to its two main characters, who are perfect studies in savagery: having been raised in the woods and trained in combat and hunting since they were children, Clo and El’s impulsive interactions and propensity for threatening everything on sight is just naïve enough to be charming instead of obnoxious (with a few exceptions, like when Clo insists on asking a clearly dangerous dispensing nurse if she knows where their mother is and subsequently releases an army of drug-carrying super spiders… c’mon, Clo). BABYLON TWINS has less success when it attemps to deal with relationships. As individual characters, Clo and El are well-rounded, cheeky, and believable, but when Clo falls “in love” with a random boy just because he’s cute, and El displays all signs of being very gay until she randomly decides to hook up with a rocket-booted policeman, the story’s credibility and clockwork takes a swan dive.
Luckily, the bonkers factor of BABYLON TWINS keeps it consistently entertaining. The dialogue is sharp, and the artificial antagonists manage to maintain an uncanny creepiness (if it’s monsters you’re after, look no further than Vambi the tentacled robo-deer — a long-fanged nightmare that any CGI monster designer in Hollywood would kill to get their hands on). Above all, BABYLON TWINS is fun. It’s fun, and wild, and a little bit cocky, just like the twins themselves.
BOTTOM LINE: M.F. Gibson surely has a hit on his hands with BABYLON TWINS, which snarks its way across a computerized hellscape with just the right amount of human error to be endearing instead of messy. Its boisterous prose and laugh-out loud moments of weirdness should carry it to the top of genre fans’ reading lists.