Paused takes an idea that has been ruminated on and crafted in many ways and extrapolates it in an entirely different vein. The premise of man’s ‘eventual’ extinction and the determining factor has long been the stuff of nightmares. It is no surprise this event is a prevalent trope in the sci-fi and horror genres. The human race’s demise as the result of an alien invasion, technology, disease, environmental disaster, or the zombie apocalypse has become more prevalent within the last couple of years. Humans walking the tightrope of pandemic survival is what made this novella scarier. Over a few weeks, the plot follows a small group of scientists in the UK as they attempt to determine the cause of a new pandemic that effectively renders humans inanimate. They cope with the growing knowledge that they, too, may eventually succumb.
This compact plot is laden with themes. The primary cause of the affliction is linked to a worldwide technological system implemented to improve connectivity. What starts as a boon soon develops into a bane. Using well placed, intentioned, and precise paragraphs, Ellis proffered the pros and cons of technological advancement. Without testifying one way or the other, she presented technology as the story’s villain and possible hero. Linked to the major thematic exploration of technology as the root cause of the affliction is the subtheme of egomania and entitlement evident in those responsible for the threatening technology.
While this theme isn’t fully explored, its presence in the prose gave ‘a cause for pause,’ and while you can be viewed as biased, it is realistic. People in positions of power and privilege often seek to exert and dictate their agenda on a wider population by convincing them that a course of action is to their benefit when it only benefits the few. I will concur that some may view this as conspiracy theorizing, but an overview of contemporary society will reflect the reality of this premise. Stemming from this subtheme of egomania and entitlement is the theme of bullying and abuse. One cannot speak of one without veering into the other as they are inextricably linked.
Ellis subtly and overtly explores this theme through the minor characters Nic and Sian. This subtheme is a challenging one, but it is relatable. When the scenes occur, they ground the plot and infuse a realism that breeds authenticity and increases fear. There are trigger warnings attached to the book, but Ellis was careful and left much to the readers’ imagination.
Paused is a plot driven and extremely well-researched piece. This is evident in the descriptions used for the technological and scientific fields but also in the construction industry. Ellis showed great knowledge in each field, and her talent for painting visuals with exacting words engages the reader and immerses them in this alternate yet scarily realistic dimension. Although I prefer character-driven pieces, I was not too disappointed by the lack of character arcs. The main characters were well described and showed changing emotions with each new hurdle and reveal, but there wasn’t much depth developed even though they presented as two-dimensional. This may have been an artistic choice to not pull the plot’s focus and maintain the novella’s length.
That said, I would have liked more depth, especially for the main protagonist, so I could connect to him as a character. Oddly enough, the lack of character depth that inhibited me, as the reader, from connecting to the characters is a vehicle for the theme of human connection. We exist in a time where we may be aware of each other, but it’s largely superficial. Many of us rarely have more meaningful connections, even within our families. Ellis’ choice to not fully ‘clothe’ her characters, and keep them two-dimensional is a very clever exposition on contemporary society. This commentary also circles back to the ‘cause’ of the affliction and the book’s main theme.
One thing that confused me was the murkiness of the timeline. The passage of time didn’t have clear distinctions, which was confusing early on. That said, I believe applying a loosely structured timeline could very well have been intentional.
Early in the pandemic, days became fluid. I lost time, as I am sure many did, especially those in the medical community. They operated and lived in enclosed buildings and rooms and rarely seen outside apart from what was broadcast on television or discussed through word of mouth. The disorientation that blossomed from this inability to distinguish when one day ended and another started was succinctly captured and showed Ellis’ ingenuity. As a plot device, the loosely constructed timeline added to the readers’ discomfort and confusion. On that level, it enabled the reader to fully submit to the story.
That said, this plot device can still be perceived as a con early in the book before the setting location becomes fixed, and to be honest, I only really appreciated it as a device some time after completing the book.
While Paused is a story full of fear, it is also embedded with latent hope. Early in the story, that hope is alluded to in passing and is personified in the minor character, Mathilde. Though devastating, the story’s conclusion carries a kernel of hope with it, and it is that kernel that lifts the story from the very depth it plunges the reader into. Much like our reality, it is hope that enables humanity to carry on and survive. Paused is a complex, evocative, and insightful commentary on the pandemic shown through the prism of fiction. With mentions of COVID filtered throughout the novella, it is not a challenge to make the connection. Timely, scary, and hopeful, Paused is perfect for this spooky season! Simply brilliant!
- Well researched
- Plot driven
- Loose timeline – fantastic plot device
- Relevant themes
- The structure of the plot’s timeline is murky and can lead to confusion
- Lack of character development (though this may have been intentional to focus on plot and maintain novella length)
- Mathilde – symbol of hope and the next generation
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