Review of Sarah Lotz’s “The Three” (SPOILERS!)

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The author, Sarah Lotz

Another South African author has landed a much-coveted six-figure publishing deal, and rightly so. Landed by Oliver Munson of Blake FriedmannThe Three continues in the most excellent speculative fiction vein that South African authors are so interestingly dominating. Consider Apocalypse Now Now, The Shining Girls, Space Race and For The Mercy of Water: it is a trend worth keeping an eye on.

So, to whit: The Three is the story of four airplanes crashing at the same time, with three survivors (or maybe four). Understandably, this throws the world into a panic, exacerbated by conspiracy, fear-mongering and Rapture-obsessed Christians. The book is styled as a collection of stories collected by a journalist called Elspeth Martin, who collates the stories of the Three (the three children who survive), the apocalypse groupies, the guardians of the Three and eyewitness accounts of the crashes. As time passes, the effects of the crashes begin to spiral completely out of control, changing the world as we understand it.

Now to the technical stuff: Sarah Lotz has an incredible gift for voices. She moves smoothly and seamlessly from voice to voice: from South African paramedic to Baptist housewife to Japanese chatroom personas – she shows a stunning flexibility of voice and research. Books often don’t reach for my eyeballs and keep them stuck to the pages, but this one absolutely did, from opening page to haunting final chapter. This is speculative fiction at its sublime best: what if a single event with no clear cause or purpose really could change the world?

[Spoilers now, you have been warned!]

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This book has a terrible menace underneath it all, a dark implication for human nature. It wasn’t the idea of the planes just dropping out of the sky, or the terrible way the victims died, immolated and separated. This may just be for me personally, but its the awful way the Christians in the book leverage this horrific event for their own purposes that gives this book such scope. These terrible, hateful people celebrate the deaths, celebrate the signs of the end times and use it to get into power. It happens in the background of the book, and ostensibly it isn’t the major plot point. But for me, as someone who keeps a chary eye on the right-wing elements of religion, this was one of the scariest implications of the book: that some people might use a horrific disaster to usher in another Bush, or even worse: a president that institutes theological law. Considering the charming statements by American politicians in 2013 alone about ‘legitimate rape‘ and abortion, this isn’t that much of a stretch. America becomes a hardcore religious state, and Rationalists are tortured and exiled. That is the kind of dystopian fiction most people are too scared to write about for fear attracting flack for it. I applaud Lotz for this unflinching thought experiment. Maybe its just me, but it is such a feat of narrative that Lotz placed this world-altering plot point in the background, giving it heft without dominating the story.

And here ends the spoilers.

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It is very much more than this one point, though. It skims off a number of places, ideas and issues: the suicide forests of Aokigahara in Japan (possible trigger warning), the self-isolation of young adults and teens online, cults, crime and corruption in Cape Town, journalism, grief, psychosis (‘Hello, Uncle Paul’) and mega-churches. This is a book that covers so much ground so swiftly and so excellently that it feels to be just the right length. I do wish the ending had been a little less obscure, but there’s apparently a sequel on the way, which I’m excited for.

It is unfair to call this book commercial, but it is commercial in that it is very accessible and easy to read, though it offers delicious food for thought for the reader who seeks more. I do so love unreliable narrators. This is a bold, brave act of storytelling and absolutely deserves your attention.

The Three will be available in South Africa this May. 

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