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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.
BEST OF 2020 - Publisher Weekly
“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 and The 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.
“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