The Brief History of the Dead
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|Cover artist||Archie Ferguson|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|Pages||252 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||0-375-42369-9 (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3602.R63 B75 2006|
The story takes place in two realms concurrently in the middle of the 21st century: On earth in the United States and Antarctica, and in a place beyond death called The City. The people in The City are there only as long as someone who remembers them is still alive on earth. They arrive, usually with the realization that they have died, and become members of the community there in ways similar to when they were alive. The City itself expands and contracts to accommodate the recently dead or the death of the last people to remember them.
On earth things have continued on the trajectories predicted at the beginning of the century: The polar ice caps are melting and biological terrorism is a major societal concern. However, the Coca-Cola Company is trying to make the best of both developments by planning to use water from Antarctica in its soft drink; they use publicity stunts which exploit people's fears in order to build brand interest. As part of their latest publicity stunt, they send a team of scientists to Antarctica to research the feasibility of using the "freshest water on earth", thus isolating their product from the regular water supply (which is assumed to be under constant threat of contamination at the hands of biological terrorists). A lethal virus is indeed released and as the global death toll mounts, the population of The City begins to fluctuate alarmingly. At first The City expands - entire buildings and blocks materialize to accommodate the new arrivals, but then, as the living who remember the departed also die, people in The City suddenly vanish and so do entire buildings and blocks.
There is no direct communication between the two realms. Those still alive know nothing of The City. Those in The City can only learn of events on earth by interviewing new arrivals, and indirectly through speculation on the reasons for the growth and decline of The City.
The story is set partly in the City and partly in the realm of the living, where Laura Byrd is stranded in Antarctica. The City segments focus on several different people in The City; as the book progresses, increasing numbers of the City's residents seem to just disappear, leaving friends and their relatives in mystery. The lethal virus slowly kills off each person in the living realm which results in the abrupt fluctuation in The City - each day, more and more people miraculously disappear (and areas of the City itself also begin to vanish) until the only remaining residents are those who were known to Laura Byrd.
Chapters set in The City alternate with chapters dealing with Laura's struggle for survival in the Antarctic and her gradual realization that she may be the last person left alive on Earth.
Although the exact group that spread the virus or their motives remain an unanswered mystery, the characters are eventually able to figure out how it was spread. The entire reason that the Coca-Cola Company wanted to use water from Antarctica's melting ice in its soda was because of the pervasive danger of bio-terrorism contaminating the water supply. The Coca-Cola Company saw an opportunity to profit from the population's fears, by selling them drinks from the guaranteed safe source of isolated polar ice. In truth, however, whoever spread the virus went right to the source, by infecting the syrup in the Coca-Cola bottling plants themselves. As the outbreak spread, many tried to save themselves by avoiding allegedly tainted tapwater and drinking nothing but Coca-Cola - which ironically guaranteed that they would be infected. Laura Byrd survived because, in addition to her isolated location, despite working for the Coca-Cola Company she actually had a strong aversion against drinking its products.
- Laura Byrd
- Luka Sims
- Minny Rings
- The Blind Man
- Coleman Kinzler
- Phillip & Marion Byrd
- Michael Puckett
- Robert Joyce
Allusions/references to other works
The author quotes James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me at the beginning of the book. The quote describes the belief of many African tribes that humans can be divided into three categories: Those still alive on earth, the recently departed (sasha), and the dead (zamani). When people die they are sasha while people are still alive who remember them. When the last person remembering them dies, they go to the zamani and are then revered and recalled by name only.
A brief afterword to the novel acknowledges a debt to Apsley Cherry-Garrard's Antarctic memoir, The Worst Journey in the World. Laura Byrd's surname also recalls another Antarctic explorer, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, whose memoir Alone has a similar setting and theme to the book's even-numbered chapters.
The City of the dead bears a similarity to the city described by C. S. Lewis in his novel The Great Divorce. However, while the City which Lewis describes is a sort of purgatory where souls not ready to accept heaven await the return of Jesus Christ, The City in this novel is a form of limbo dependent on the memories of the living.
Many ancient cultures believe that birds are harbingers of death or foreshadow the coming of a deity. Birds are used symbolically in the novel and feature prominently in the symbolic nether world of The City. Also, the main living protagonist of the novel is named Laura Byrd, the reference to birds and their portents made more explicit by the naming of the birds in The City "Laura Birds."
A reference is made to the Wandering Jew, a legend from medieval Christian folklore. As the legend has it, after mocking Jesus Christ during the crucifixion this man was condemned by Christ to roam the earth until the Second Coming. One character, who believes this legend, speculates about what the emptying of The City could mean in light of this story.
This novel takes place during the mid-to-late 21st century, where current concerns such as global warming and terrorism have become acute crises. The polar ice caps are melting at a dangerous (and irreversible) rate and the people of the United States live in constant fear of biological terrorism attacks.
The ultimate source of the global virus in the novel is unknown; however, it is implied that the source of the virus was involved in one way or another in the inflamed war on terrorism. Though it is left ambiguous, it is possible that the ultimate source of the virus may have even been the United States government: this hypothesis is supported by an early epicenter of the virus being in the Middle East, which when considered with the virus' distribution method is suspicious; this is further supported by the inordinate knowledge of the virus had by officials from the US government.
Though the novel does not explicitly say so, it is implied that globalism has caused many problems. Large multinational corporations have become increasingly socially irresponsible. The Coca-Cola corporation is used as a stand-in for these corporations and it is their irresponsible decisions and the resulting consequences, both intended and unintended, which drive the plot of the novel. A corporate executive is shown propagating a cover up even after he has died and in The City.
Equally, the novel describes most large mammalian species (elephants, whales, gorillas, etc.) as having gone extinct. The last large mammalian species left is man, who is also now under threat of extinction as well. Population growth, irresponsible hunting and global climate change have affected the Antarctic ecosystem in the novel: for example, penguins have been thriving after the extinction of whales and are beginning to grow to be hundreds of pounds (with the potential of evolving further to fill the niche left by the extinct whales).