Seasons Crying No Despair

Northern Tier — David Axel Kurtz

Northern Tier

2017’s Northern Tier is a standalone post-apocalyptic novel by David Axel Kurtz.

Two centuries after nuclear war and the collapse of petroleum-based civilization, North America is divided between several nations: Nova Scotia et Hibernia, Minnetonka, Central, Two Crowns, and others. Trade between nations has become slow and difficult, creating a niche for couriers who are willing to brave the dangers of the open road to deliver small, valuable packages quickly. The cycers, bicycle couriers like Slip, fill this niche.

Slip is a survivor, smart and cautious enough to survive a lifestyle that kills most cycers young. But this time, one moment of bad judgment on her part may doom not just Slip, but the entire cycer way of life.

It’s only after she heads out to deliver the seemingly innocuous package that Slip takes the time to examine it more closely. To her alarm, she discovers that the package’s metal container is made out of lead. This suggests that the contents are radioisotopes, materials not seen in North America since the collapse of the oil-based economy.

Slip can make an educated guess as to the origin of the radioisotopes. Tales have been circulating about a “plague ship,” its crew found dead, the condition of the ship so alarming it was taken back out to sea and sunk. Presumably, the sailors discovered some relic of the nuclear era out on the continental shelf and made the mistake of trying to salvage it. Their mistake doomed the sailors … but someone else was more canny.

The material could be the key to rekindling an era of cheap electricity. It could also grant ambitious states like Minnetonka city-killing weapons not seen on Earth in two hundred years. Even nations with no interest in nuclear power or nuclear weapons are highly motivated to keep the treasure out of other countries’ hands.

It does not take long for Slip to discover that someone somewhere let slip information best kept secret. Across North America, authorities are looking for a cycer with a very valuable package. Which cycer in particular has the hot potato isn’t known. No worries: all the states need do is hunt down and detain or kill every cycer on the continent….


Best not to examine the background assumptions of this setting too closely. Questions like “where did solar power and hydroelectric power go?” are unlikely to have satisfactory answers. Nor are questions like “how likely is it, even in the context of a limited nuclear war, that the nations of Earth would actually dispose of all their nuclear materials, given the looming energy shortage and the advantages of defecting from the agreement?” The reader has to grant the author those gimmees for the story to work.

I did wonder about the lifespan of petroleum-era roads. There are functioning states maintaining the roads within their borders, as states traditionally do but it seems as though most of modern roads have decayed into unusability by the 23rd century. This has significant implications for the plot since there are only so many routes Slip can use.

Unlike a lot of post-Collapse novels I could mention, the world outside North America has not mysteriously vanished. Nova Scotia still maintains contact with the ruins of Europe, limited less by technology and more by the fact a lot of it is still radioactive. Presumably there’s still trans-Pacific trade as well. There are certainly ships still plying the Caribbean, because heavily armed representatives of at least one Caribbean power arrive to help look for the radioisotopes.

What this book needed was at least one more pass from an energetic editor than it got [Editor’s note: yay editors!] particularly where the ending is concerned. The author wrote Slip into a corner and then had to get her out; the escape he chose is both abrupt and unexpected. There was no gun on the mantelpiece.

I might also add that I found the novel’s short and choppy style a bit distracting, although I grew more accustomed to it as I read. Still …

Those reservations aside, I got drawn into Slip’s story, which is saying a lot when you consider how very much I dislike bicyclists as a group. Having been run over on numerous occasions by scofflaw bicyclists, I live for a future in which the use of bicycles is limited to the Marianas Trench, the Lunar farside, and the surface of the Sun, places I do not plan to visit any time soon. I am not the target market for thrilling tales of bicyclists and the increasingly vast armies who stalk them. Nevertheless, Slip won me over; she persisted.

 Northern Tier is available here (Amazon). It does not appear to be available via Chapters-Indigo.


  • John Reiher

    Most modern roads are built to last one or two election cycles. Look at any road that's been abandoned for more than a decade and they are turning into gravel and potholes. Unless they are being maintained, and that means asphalt and asphalt means petroleum... Oops, that's gone isn't it? Are they running clinker plants to make cement for concrete roads? Clinker furnaces use oil... oh, yeah, that's gone. In two centuries you have dirt and gravel trails with the rare occasional patches of native macadam...

    • Robert Carnegie

      What turns roads into wrecks is heavy motor traffic. This setting doesn't have that any more. Allegedly there is an insane power law of vehicle weight to damage to the road; ask, um, a cyclist.

      Britain's genuine Roman roads survived only with upkeep, and if necessary weeding, but I gather that only relatively recently did Italy restrict motor traffic on the Appian Way. There's probably maintenance done there as well...

      Now, roads are being made with waste plastic; yes, that will be harder to find as well in a future without an oil industry, but maybe they're collecting the plastic out of the sea...

      • Robert Sneddon

        Road traffic over asphalt prevents roots, weeds etc. from breaking through the surface and destroying it by flexing the surface and gluing cracks back together again. Too much road traffic will wear out the surface though. Too much sun, freeze-thaw cycles etc. will destroy concrete unless it's very thick and well-supported, not an option for practical road surfaces.

        One of those poems we were beat around the head with at school left a phrase stuck in the resulting skull fracture -- "battering thistle-down". Almighty Google says:

        "Build, build the ramparts of your giant town; Yet they shall crumble to the dust before The battering thistle-down." (F. L. Lucas).

  • Lynn McGuire

    Jack McDevitt wrote an excellent book about a future after civilization has fallen, Eternity Road.

    "The Roadmakers left only ruins behind -- but what magnificent ruins! Their concrete highways still cross the continent. Their cups, combs and jewelry are found in every Illyrian home. They left behind a legend,too -- a hidden sanctuary called Haven, where even now the secrets of their civilization might still be found."

    "Chaka's brother was one of those who sought to find Haven and never returned. But now Chaka has inherited a rare Roadmaker artifact -- a book called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court -- which has inspired her to follow in his footsteps. Gathering an unlikely band of companions around her, Chaka embarks upon a journey where she will encounter bloodthirsty river pirates, electronic ghosts who mourn their lost civilization and machines that skim over the ground and air. Ultimately, the group will learn the truth about their own mysterious past."

    • Tavella

      I'm quite fond of Eternity Road, even though I think it's got some serious flaws. McDevitt has a real gift for sketching resonant bits of back history, A Talent For War also does this well. The lonely AI, the abandoned star-search facility that has carefully tallied up potential neighbors for people who no long exist...

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