"With this brilliant debut, Penner thoughtfully upends the tropes of postapocalyptic fiction" -- Publishers Weekly
Strange Labour is a powerful meditation on the meaning of humanity in a universe that is indifferent to our extinction, and a provocative re-imagining of many of the tropes and clichés that have shaped the post-apocalyptic novel. Most people have deserted the cities and towns to work themselves to death in the construction of monumental earthworks. The only adults unaffected by this mysterious obsession are a dwindling population that live in the margins of a new society they cannot understand. Isolated, in an increasingly deserted landscape, living off the material remnants of the old order, trapped in antiquated habits and assumptions, they struggle to construct a meaningful life for themselves. Miranda, a young woman who travels across what had once been the West, meets Dave, who has peculiar theories about the apocalypse.
"With this brilliant debut, Penner thoughtfully upends the tropes of postapocalyptic fiction. Miranda is working as a New York City accountant when all the world's neurotypical adults are mysteriously compelled to abandon their lives and devote themselves to the creation of massive labyrinthine earthworks called "the diggings." Only the neurodivergent are immune to the impulse, Miranda among them. Now traveling to Minnesota to find her parents, Miranda and ex-union organizer Dave, who has epilepsy, traverse a dystopian landscape marked not with violence but with frayed human relationships and abandoned children. Along the way, they encounter dementia nurses and educators struggling to adjust to the new world; an affluent, heartless Toledo commune; and the silent diggers themselves. Penner's exquisite prose illumines a wild landscape, blurring the boundaries of the natural and industrial and finding beauty in the ruins of the world. With its focus on a neurodiverse and disabled cast, probing exploration of caregiving and its tensions, and depiction of the determination to find joy and meaningful work in the aftermath of disaster, Penner's hopeful postapocalyptic vision pushes the subgenre forward.
- Publishers Weekly
"This is one of those powerful science fiction novels that is both intensely realistic and strikingly symbolic at one and the same time; a marvelous accomplishment, written so beautifully as to be etched on the eyeballs."
- Kim Stanley Robinson, author Mars Trilogy
"What a vision this novel has. It is at once startling, smart, dark, and full of ache and humour. An amazingly spot-on evocation of our times. I cannot help but use the novel's last line to say that it made me 'inexpressibly, unaccountably happy.' Brilliant."
- David Bergen, winner of the Giller Prize for The Time In Between, author of Here the Dark
"A post-apocalyptic road novel with the gnomic quality of a parable, Strange Labour shimmers with a meaning just beyond reach."
- Sofia Samatar - author of A Stranger in Olondria andThe Winged Histories, winner of the World Fantasy Award
What strange labour are care work and companionship, folklore-ing and child-rearing. How obliquely they appear in whatever it is we sometimes call SF. What is it that stops anyone from doing only this social work, only what needs to be done? Robert Penner's wonderful novel brings this work front and centre. A woman wanders the desolate US, stays at a care home, meets a man and travels with him, they briefly stay at a commune of liberal aesthetes, then make their way to a camp named Big Echo. Miranda and Dave, Dave and Miranda, Dave delivering improvisational yarns, Miranda accruing eerie topographic patternings, Dave telling stories, Miranda telling stories. Digging, getting down, they try to avoid the overtly and not so overtly fascistic remnants of what was. Where does that get them? Miranda says to Dave, at one point, that "there is nothing post-apocalyptic about violent men getting what they want". The problems, they are the same. There is nothing post-apocalyptic about this novel. And yet it devastates me."
- Robert Kiely - Poet-in-Residence at University of Surrey, Guilford, England.
In Penner's speculative fiction debut, Miranda is a young woman traveling across the U.S. in the years after a strange disaster has collapsed society: one day, people simply stood up in silence, and left home. No one knows why, and the silent are organized now, digging and operating machines to create grooves and works in the ground. The few people who were spared are not sure if they're the lucky ones, and as Miranda travels, she encounters a variety of small enclaves. A woman named Esther cares for the elders of her town, scrounging for medication and growing and gathering food for them; the Toledo Citizens Co-operative has strict, elitist rules to maintain order around an intellectual framework; Dave is a wanderer and drug user full of stories who soon becomes a companion. Miranda's story is a quiet, thoughtful meditation on dystopia, a book that provides few answers but many questions, a study through one woman's steady narration of what it all means in a universe that may be indifferent to our extinction.
-- Leah von Essen for Booklist Online
"Penner proposes an original, quiet apocalypse of labour that resists comprehension; a great metaphor for our socioeconomic predicament. But also much more than that: a bleak, beautiful, even inspiring vision of humanity's future. In what feels like an echo of our post-post-world, human industry--and the mythology around it--is driven to absurdity. This is the evolution of humans into creatures defined by their labour: a new evolutionary directive, a novel organization of the human psyche. The origin story of a new species told from the perspective of those bound for extinction.
Brilliantly, it's the diggers, the non-violent turned, the meek plagued, who are organized and efficient. At least they're building something new. The rest, the survivors, are decaying, self-destructing, clinging uselessly to their ghosts. The novel bears quiet witness to the extinction of the bourgeoisie and the strange labour of an apocalyptic proletariat."
- Natalia Theodoridou - winner of the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, 2018 Nebula Award Finalist.
Robert Penner's Strange Labour is a road novel of crystalline exuberance--populated by mindless diggers, resourceful scrabblers, evil drifters, and the heroic Miranda. In the majority are the diggers, eternally bulldozing vast earth-works: cryptic nests of grooves that fill valleys with fluid patterns. Might the diggers be an objective correlative for today's info-tech workers? Individualists tend small farms or scavenge the deserted towns. Mad-Max-style bikers roam the landscape with dog-skulls on their handlebars. Resourceful Miranda has our sympathy throughout. Penner adorns his narrative with poetic evocations of this fallen world. A sample: "The sun did not so much rise above the scene, over the dark serration of the treetops, as it formed there, a growing intricacy of light, a concentration of heat and energy drawn up from the world around it, a vortex." Strange Labour is a book to savour and to love.
- Rudy Rucker, author of The Ware Tetralogy