Niall Bourke’s Line must have been mostly written before lockdown, certainly before lockdown had gone on so long that his imagined lifelong, multigenerational queue developed particular resonance, but it’s hard not to see a parallel.
We meet Willard, living with his mother in what first seems like a refugee camp but is a queue (refugee camps are, after all, a queue of sorts), a line of people so long that generations have been born and died in the hope of reaching the front. No one knows what they are waiting for, but the terrain around the queue is unsurvivable and the punishment for leaving is death by torture.
People live in tents, own no more than they can carry, and while marriage is allowed, the new couple fall back in the queue. At intervals barely sufficient to sustain life, there is a “drop” of food and water. Between drops, people trade tokens, dig latrines, scrabble to stay alive.
Every few months, according to no discernible pattern, the line moves forward, over mountains and across deserts. The only point of these lives is the hope that they, or their descendants, will one day reach the front and discover what they have been waiting for.
Willard has a girlfriend, Nyla, in a neighbouring tent. After his mother’s death and his discovery of a book hidden in her clothes, he persuades Nyla to leave the line with him. Although they are caught and brought back, Willard has worked out on their journey that the line is not what it appears, and that there are overlords with an interest in the wasted lives of generations of ordinary people.
Willard and Nyla leave again on a quest that takes them to Nodnol, a city which was once a great capital and is now a regional headquarters for worldwide data-gathering enterprises based in the global south. Nodnol is so built up and polluted that there is no life outside high-rise office buildings and the tunnels connecting them, and it runs on the indentured labour of people who can’t afford housing or food.
Willard sees the entire system, rising through the ranks until he is able to read the memoir of the man who invented the line. People joining a queue, he learns, “think [they are] agreeing to a set of conventions… put aside [their] selfish proclivities on the understanding that everyone else in the Line would do the same”.
The perfect line would be “one that people would wait in forever – even with only little hope of ever getting to the end”, offering a way “to control people by harnessing the power of waiting and tapping in to their most latent and primordial fears”. (How long are we waiting for vaccines again?)
As a satire of global media corporations and their world domination, the novel succeeds. The imagined scholarship on the psychology of queueing is astute and sharply funny. For some readers, the imagined political system and world-building will bring sufficient pleasure. For others, this kind of speculative fiction stands or falls by whether the narrative, dialogue and especially character development provide sufficient human interest to balance the work and suspension of disbelief required by the dystopian fantasy.
At sentence level, Bourke’s prose is spare and hard-working; the scene of a man being flayed alive is distressing without being voyeuristic and he writes well about physical pleasure and suffering. Emotion can be less well handled (“they were painted with a sadness, but a moist one”).
I would have liked deeper characters; only Willard and Nyla have personalities and those consist mostly of the courage and curiosity required for the protagonists of a quest narrative. They have no flaws, no conversations or fears or desires beyond those required to drive the plot along a route that brings few surprises.
Readers who like this kind of thing will enjoy the book for its political satire, world-building and pace. If your taste doesn’t already tend towards speculative dystopian fiction, Line is probably not the novel that will convert you.