Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 25, 2014

The Ark, by Annabel Smith #BookReview

22432611Up front, I have to admit that I would never have read this most interesting book if not for the fact that Annabel Smith is one of my favourite authors.  Firstly, I don’t like reading eBooks, and secondly, I’m not fond of speculative fiction.  It’s a measure of this author’s skill that I was captivated right from the start and finished the book wishing it was longer.

The Ark doesn’t have to be read as an eBook, but (yes, I know I’m contradicting what I’ve written here many times before) I think it’s more fun, and more authentic, given its subject matter and experimental style.  The story is composed of emails and other digital forms of communication, and there are links in the text that you can explore as well.  You can, for example, explore the setting through creepy little black and white vimeos with eerie sound tracks!  I read part of it on my kindle (because I was too impatient to wait for the iPad version) and then when it was available I read the rest of it on the iPad that I otherwise only use for taking photos of student work at school.

The story begins in 2093 with Book One, titled ‘Kirk’ and a ‘report’ from The Australian: 17 people have emerged from a bunker built into Mt Kosciuszko, revealing a priceless storehouse of seed specimens previously thought to be extinct. The survivors have been there for almost half a century, their numbers dwindling from the original 26 to only four, while the other 13 are second or third-generation bunker-babies.  From this beginning, the story then travels back in time to 2041 when a seed bank called ‘Ark’ is sealed with a small group of people inside.  (A seed bank is a storage repository for seeds in case some sort of disaster destroys the world’s reserves.  There are a number of these seed banks around the world, the most famous of which is the Svalbard one in Norway.)  In The Ark the oil crisis has created havoc in the global economy and society has broken down, so the decision is taken to preserve  the seeds for whatever the precarious future might hold.

The action begins with an increasingly fractious email correspondence between Kirk Longrigg who represents the corporate owners of the seed bank, and the Ark’s charismatic director Aiden Fox.  Before long, the bemused reader must try to make sense of a campaign of vilification and PR-speak: is Aiden a crazy power-hungry anarchist acting outside his remit, or is he saving the seeds from an amoral biotech company intent on a covert plan to destroy natural seeds?

Amongst those called in to the Ark are the wives and families of the workers.  At first they are told that the Ark has been sealed for only a short time, but this is not consistent with what Aiden says elsewhere.  Is truth the first casualty, or is Aiden a benign dictator making decisions palatable in order to achieve a greater good?  Emails of one sort or another fly backwards and forwards as the characters are introduced, sometimes vacillating in their support for Aidan but always committed to the security of the seeds.

The next section introduces Ava, wife of one of the scientists.  She arcs up about the loss of fundamental freedoms in a contract signed on her behalf by her husband (!) and she demands to have a say in the decisions made about the future.  Her husband is quickly convinced that she is mentally unstable, not coping well with the confinement and lack of privacy.  Does the treatment she gets in the ‘Vitality Compact’ soothe her, or is it more Orwellian than that?  Her sister Tillie is marooned outside the ark in an increasingly dangerous world: she tries to keep in contact with Ava, but the pirate servers aren’t reliable.

The ArkThe epistolary nature of this book limits the reader’s access to the perspective of the characters that are available through the digital records of the Ark, using all kinds of communication methods.  There are three email systems varying in the level of privacy that users can rely on.  There is the illegal ‘Headless Horseman’ thought by its users to be covert and secure; there is the encrypted person-to-person ‘Gopher’ system, and there is ‘dailemail’ which is monitored by the systems within the Ark and works rather like Reply All.  There is voice recognition software called ‘Articulate’ which automatically takes minutes of meetings in The Hub, noting not only what is said but also the tone of voice that’s used, as you can see in the image I captured at right (click to enlarge it). 15 year old Rosko communicates on his blog ‘Kaos Kronikles’ in what looks like SMS – the comments box is labelled Bitchin N Moanin, and his link take you to a real Twitter account!) and then there’s a messaging system called Parlez-Vite.  Even if you are only dimly aware of government plans to monitor our communications and store our phone records, this book will certainly make you aware of the consequences of inescapable surveillance.

As is the case with most of the dystopian fiction I’ve read, it’s the moral issues that intrigue.  Aiden’s insistence on the preservation of the plants raises the question of what the cost might be. As events move towards the conclusion, the tension rises.  Human lives are in the balance, and the way the small community is manipulated becomes increasingly sinister.

This is not the first interactive book that I’ve read, but it’s the first one that actually offers more than just clicking to see a few pictures or jump to another chapter.  However I was interested to see in Ben Lever’s review at GoodReads that some readers may not like the privacy implications of using the iPad app, and may perhaps prefer to use the Ark website to access the interactive bits instead.

Do check out Annabel’s blog to see the most unusual launch!

Thanks to Annabel for the review copy:)

PS Jane Rawson, author of Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, (another speculative fiction book I expected not to like, but did, see my review) reviewed it at GoodReads.


  1. Great review Lisa. I’m looking forward to reading this interesting work. Off to download now!

    • Thanks, Julie, I bet you’ll love it, the psychological twists and turns are right up your alley:)

  2. This looks interesting. It is great to see an author exploring the ebook as a medium properly rather than treating an ebook as a facsimile of a print book. This looks very intriguing.. and we do have an ipad at home.

    • Hi Yvonne, if you do buy one for the iPad, can you let me know if there’s a way of knowing where you’re ‘up to’ when reading with it? With the Kindle, there’s a sort of progress bar that tells you what percentage of the book you’ve read, and sometimes depending on how recent the publication is and how it’s been eFormatted, even what page you’re on. But maybe because I’m a newbie at reading on the iPad, I couldn’t find a feature like that…

      • That is great feedback Lisa – as far as I know an interactive PDF doesn’t have this functionality – but it could easily be overcome simply by adding page numbers – i’ll take this into account when I have time to update to version 2. Thanks for a thoughtful review, as always

        • Thank you for writing a beaut book, as always!

      • Ok. I read Jill Roe’s Miles Franklin book on the Kindle and hated it. They didn’t include any of the illustrations in the Kindle version and the medium just lacked the personality of the physical book. However, the book version is a weighty tome and uncomfortable to read so the Kindle version was better from that point of view. I haven’t tried reading a book on an iPad.

        • I know what you mean, there was something about the gravitas of the print version of Jill Roe’s book: its weight and solidity made it somehow feel more authoritative, and yes, the photos made a difference too.
          As a general rule if I have no alternative but an eBook (which was often the case with reading the complete Comedie Humaine) I would much rather the Kindle than the iPad because I don’t like the shiny surface of the iPad and it’s awkward to hold. But for this book, created this way, it somehow worked for me. especially when you get to the links to the extras: the videos of the Ark’s interiors work perfectly on the iPad.

          • I agree about the problem of holding the iPad. That is another reason that if I bought my own tablet it would not be an iPad.

            • The iPad mini is better. And it’s handbag friendly. (The Spouse has the big one). (iPad, that is, not a handbag).

  3. Fabulous review, Lisa. I wouldn’t normally reach for a book of speculative fiction, either, but I was hooked from the moment Annabel began to talk about The Ark, and I think she’s produced something innovative and fascinating. I’m so glad you took the leap. :-)

    • Already I’m finding that it’s a book I’m talking about, to people who aren’t readers. It’s because the ideas about communication and surveillance and how they’re used and abused are so pertinent to contemporary events.
      And the IT behind it is really impressive.

  4. Great review Lisa. As you know, I’m not a fan of reading anything that is on a screen (give me good old fashioned paper any day) but I was reading some info about this latest work of Annabel’s and I tip my hat to her for embracing this new medium. It will appeal greatly to young readers who are comfortable with their gadgets and used to interaction. I have mentioned the work to a number of friends who are rushing to check it out.

    • Trust me, Karenlee, if LoTech Lisa could transcend her distaste for reading onscreen and enjoy it, you will have no trouble at all!
      (But you can buy the book in print, I haven’t added availability details to the post because I couldn’t find the publishing details, but I’m sure it will be in bookshops soon).

  5. Haha, Lisa, fancy you reading speculative fiction in e-version! Coincidentally I just bought this for my iPad earlier in the week … But now have to find time to read it. I don’t like reading on the iPad much so it will be a challenge but I’m intrigued and love that Annabel has done this.

    • *chuckle* yes, I know, I know, all those declarations about how I won’t read eBooks and I don’t like spec fic, I have well-and-truly sabotaged myself, eh?

      • You have … don’t expect us loyal readers to believe you again!!!

        • Ha, I’ll just have to be more curmudgeonly than ever now!

  6. Great review of a great book Lisa, and let me just join in the chorus of applause for embracing a genre and format you don’t enjoy. I too thought The Ark was great, and such an impressive venture.

  7. I loved this for all the reasons you did, and I’m not a Sci-Fi reader either. I also wrote a review, although mine wasn’t as detailed as yours, and went to the fabulous launch!

    Annabel’s created something truly innovative with this book and I’ve noticed it’s getting a lot of Twitter time from male readers—go girl!

    • Lucky you going to the launch!

      • It was so much fun! Queuing up, being asked if we were claustrophobic, then signing our waiver. Once inside the bunker, Aiden himself addressed us. He told us the time-delay locks had been activated and we were there for sixty days. I wouldn’t have minded, so long as they had sixty days of champagne for us!

        • Oh, I would have been doing ‘an Ava’, that’s for sure! I’m not very claustrophobic, but I can’t cope with not being able to get out if I want to.
          I once went to a conference that was held in the old Castlemaine Gaol that had been turned into a motel, and I couldn’t make myself shut the ‘cell’ door!

  8. […] I must start by thanking Western Australian short story writer Glen Hunting* for recommending Annabel Smith’s The Ark in his comment on a recent Monday Musings post. Hunting wrote that it “is self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has its own interactive website”. I was intrigued so checked it out. My initial reaction was “hmm, is this for me?” But, I’ve wanted to read Smith for a while, so decided where better to start than with this innovative project? I bought the iPad app version and was entertained from the first page. Lisa (ANZLitLovers), who reviewed it just after I started reading it, felt the same. […]

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