‘The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop.
The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED. Now, twenty years after the Rising, bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives—the dark conspiracy behind the infected.
The truth will get out, even if it kills them. ‘
Blurb from the 2010 Orbit paperback edition
“My mother once told me that no woman is naked when she comes equipped with a bad mood and a steady glare.”
As much as I enjoyed reading this it’s one of those books that should never have ended up almost winning a Hugo award. It’s a sign of the times I guess. I am aware that there have been issues in recent years with block voting in the Hugo Awards, assuring a vocal minority that their beloved book will be at least listed as a nominee. The way to check this is to look at the Nebula Award nominees, which is voted on by The Science Fiction Writers of America, whereas the Hugos are decided by anyone who has a ticket to the Worldcon. Grant is nowhere to be seen in the Nebula nominees. It’s the price we pay for democracy and eerily reflective – given the background situation of ‘Feed’- of the surprising and alarming voting results in both America and the UK in 2016.
This does not of course mean that ‘Feed’ is a bad novel. I don’t believe it is, but it does have major flaws.
Other reviewers have pointed out the two-dimensional nature of some of the characters. There is also an issue with what is clearly a very simplistic plot.
Bloggers Buffy, Shaun and Georgia, who already have a reputation for reporting from the front line in a zombie-infested America, are invited to cover the Presidential campaign of one Senator Ryman.
Following a zombie incursion at one of the events, the bloggers discover some of the security motion sensors to have been disabled.
Ryman then chooses the sinister Governor Tate, an old school ‘Make America Great Again’ Republican, as his running mate. It’s surprising that Grant chose to have a male duo as the prospective POTUS and VP. One would have imagined that society might have moved on a bit by 2040 and that one or both of these candidates might have been a woman. It would for one thing have created a more interesting dynamic in the relationships.
Indeed, apart from technological developments not a lot seems to have changed in thirty years. Had Grant given some thought to how society would have adapted to what was a very major change in day to day living there might have been some very interesting stuff here.
Further attacks are carried out, and Georgia and Shaun begin to piece together evidence showing who is behind this bid to destroy Ryman’s bid for President.
It’s not difficult to work out who that is. It’s Governor Tate. That’s not even a spoiler. Grant makes it easier for us by not providing any other suspects. Tate (rather like the Rev Belinas in Zoltan Istvan’s ‘The Transhumanist Wager‘) has no redeeming features whatsoever. I am aware that right wing Republicans at this level seldom do have redeeming features, but surely he could at least have pretended to have some. It’s what they do, after all.
It would have worked a lot better if suspicion were thrown on the obvious suspect, only for the bloggers to discover at the final moment that they had been misdirected and it was actually someone else. As it is, there is no surprise, and the denouement comes as something of an anticlimax.
One also has to ask why no one else seemed interested in investigating the various attacks. The police and the security services don’t seem at all bothered.
Having said all that though, it wasn’t a bad read. It’s not Hugo Award material but it passed the time away in a fairly pleasant manner.
The one thing that did vex me somewhat is an excerpt from Georgia’s blog in the coda where Georgia asks herself if she believes in God.
‘I don’t know. I’d like to be able to say ‘Yes, of course’ almost as much as I’d like to be able to say ‘Absolutely not,’ but there’s evidence on both sides of the fence.’
This is a feisty, highly intelligent, rational reporter who has spent the entire novel talking about the importance of facts and truth. She has shown no sign of any religious belief. Indeed, she pointed out that she and her brother were atheists when they were subjected to Senator Ryman saying grace before a meal.
That’s not it though. An atheist reporter would know there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the existence or non-existence of God on either side of the fence.
It’s a lazy and unnecessary cop-out which undermines the integrity of the main character and to a certain extent completely ruins her raison d’etre.
If you’ve written an atheist heroine then be consistent rather than wimping out at the end with this ‘Oh… I might be wrong’ disclaimer at the end.
A little disappointing.
Vinge has created a marvellous galactic culture here, much like Brin’s Uplift universe, where humanity are relative newcomers to a galactic civilisation billions of years old. Indeed, the concept of Uplift is employed as a plot device discovered later in the novel.
Vinge takes the unusual premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of Thought with somewhat fluid boundaries. Intelligence and technology thrive better in those zones closest to intergalactic space, the Transcend, and some races and AIs have become transcendent ‘Powers’. In the slow zones, high level technology has problems and ships’ drives are reduced to a sublight crawl.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and one offshoot, the Straumli Realm, has discovered a cache of billion year old data and technology. They do not realise until too late that they have awakened an ancient and vicious AI. One ship manages to escape with, unbeknown to the humans, a possible solution to dealing with The Blight, as the AI becomes subsequently known. The Blight begins to infect the galaxy while searching for the escaped ship.
The ship lands on a medieval era planet populated by swan-necked doglike creatures, the Tines, who have evolved into gestalt packs who each share a single consciousness, communicating by tympanic membranes in the shoulder area.
Meanwhile, a human librarian, a man – reconstructed Frankenstein fashion by an ‘Old Power’ – and a pair of cyborg sentient vegetables who live in symbiosis with robotic mobility buggies realise that the lost ship may hold the secret to defeating the Blight. They therefore set off into the Slow Zone on a desperate mission.
This is a wonderful if somewhat lengthy piece of Nineties Space Opera, fast paced and filled with well-embellished locations and societies, wit and suspense.
Doorstop novels were a big thing (literally) in the Nineties and ranged from six hundred pages (Vinge’s book is in the lower bracket) to Peter F Hamilton’s fifteen hundred page epics. Not a word wasted with either of these authors it has to be said, although many of the others may have benefited from some trimming.
One tends to wonder if this might be a book which falls somewhere between a novel and a trilogy. It would have been interesting to have seen an expanded version over two or more (shorter) volumes with perhaps a side story set in the areas controlled by The Blight.
I tend not to approve of mixing hitech societies with the medieval, mainly because it is often done badly. Peter F Hamilton’s Void novels employed this extensively with the result that the sections set in a medieval human society, albeit within an SF setting, were far less interesting than the contrasting galaxy of AIs, wormholes, human immortals and weird aliens.
Here however Vinge has set the weird aliens within a pre-industrial culture and it’s a well thought out joy of a thing.
The plot is incredibly basic. Major threat to the Galaxy. A small band set out against all odds to get to the-thing-that-can-save-or-destroy-the-cosmos before the major threat does.
Indiana Jones. Star Trek Beyond. It’s a tried and trusted formula.
Vinge takes the basic ingredients though and whisks us up this rich and detailed souffle.
If I have any criticism at all it would be that Vinge has maybe over-anthropomorphised the Tines whose personalities – albeit shared among several individuals – are all too human in their culture and lifestyle. One would expect more specific cultural mores to reflect their pack-centric lifestyles. What is interesting – and not really explored enough – is the concept of identity within the Tines which changes as older members die and are replaced.
On the whole though this is excellent; well-written, compelling, colourful gung-ho Space Opera.
Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.
The second of Willis’ excursions into the past via Mr Dunworthy’s Time Travel lab sees the entire team in a frazzle. Lady Schrapnell (an American tyrant) has employed all of Mr Dunworthy’s resources in an attempt to locate ‘the Bishop’s bird stump’ in order that it can be in its proper place for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.
Meanwhile, one of the team, Verity, has accidentally brought something back from the 19th Century that should never have been brought back.
Ned Henry, who is suffering from time-lag, is sent by Mr Dunworthy back to 1888 to convalesce.
Thus begins a complex farce of manners and causality. Ned is approached by Verity as she fears that Ned’s arrival has pushed two people together who should never have been together, a pairing which may affect the outcome of World War II.
It is clearly a precursor to Willis’ much longer and more serious ‘Blackout’ and ‘All Clear’ which again features worries over increased slippage of time-travel arrival times.
On the whole this is a far more satisfying novel. There are mysteries to be solved, temporal wrongs to be righted, fake spiritualists to be dealt with, dueling professors, a cat, a dog and a pond full of fish.
Willis references Agatha Christie as she does in ‘Blackout’ where Agatha actually appears at one point, effectively showing her face briefly before disappearing.
In essence here, Willis distracts the reader by telling them they’re being wrongfooted, whilst neatly wrongfooting the reader in the process.
Willis throws in some curveball mysteries of her own. Some time in the future St Paul’s Cathedral is destroyed by a pinhead bomb and, due to a completely unrelated feline pandemic, domestic cats have become extinct.
The title of course is part of the title of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of The Dog)’, another work which is quoted and referenced and is possibly the source for the style of the novel which is a lighthearted comedy of manners and errors.
There is a certain stereotyping, such as in the characters of Professor Peddick and the Colonel. This extends into the future Oxford where the Rottweiller-esque Lady Schrapnell is bullying everyone into her service. Willis rather missed a trick by not keeping Lady Schrapnell off the page as they do with the ‘unseen character’ TV archetype, whom everyone talks about but the audience never sees such as Niles’ wife Meryl in ‘Frasier’ or Mrs Mainwaring in ‘Dad’s Army’. One suspects that Willis was initially employing a literary version of this device with Lady Schrapnell – a tyrannical do-gooder US Socialite – until she appears in the denouement, after we have heard everyone’s tales of her terrifying demeanour. Her entry into the sightline of the reader therefore becomes something of an anticlimax.
Fortunately this is the only criticism I can offer. It’s a delightful novel which leaves one feeling quite joyous.
This is the sequel to ‘Blackout’ which follows three of Mr Dunworthy’s historians from an Oxford of the 2060s who have travelled back to various periods of World War II to observe the lives of the British, mainly in London.
Something is wrong, however, as the ‘drops’ (where the travellers go to return to their own time) are not opening, and the historians are concerned that they are interfering too much with the past and may have altered the course of the war.
It has to be said that Willis’ research appears to be impeccable and she creates a wartime London that fairly rings with veracity. She does stretch credulity a tad by having her protagonists meet Agatha Christie (who worked in St Barts Hospital dispensary), General Patton, the Queen (the late Queen Mother of Elizabeth II) and Alan Turing, although to give Willis credit, the characters had very good reason to be in the right place at the right time.
In some ways Willis has become the master of the dramatic farce and, if I am honest, it does get a little wearing as we have already had one large volume of people looking for other people and arriving just as they left, or seeing them in a crowd and being thwarted by jostling members of that crowd and just missing the person they needed to talk to.
As it turns out there is method in Willis’ madness and all becomes clear in All Clear at the denouement.
Comparisons have to be made with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 since both novels take the premise of someone returning to the scene of historical events. In both cases also, despite the SF framework, they are very much portraits of the time and place in question. Willis’ vision is, however, a much cosier, romanticised place despite the excellent depiction of loss, tragedy and heroism in the London she recreates.
We get to be taken to St Pauls Cathedral during the blitz, to a devastated East End, to Bletchley Park where Turing and the rest of the boffins were hard at work on breaking the enigma code, and to a plethora of Tube stations which served as air raid shelters and, it appears, impromptu theatres where people put on plays and shows to keep up morale.
We see the everyday lives of women, working in Department stores or driving ambulances, sharing rooms in substandard lodgings and coping with the deprivations of rationing and the ever present threat of bombs.
The actual practicalities of Time Travel science are not gone into, and the logistics of it do not bear close scrutiny. Mr Dunworthy talks a lot about chaotic systems, but there is little in the way of an explanation as to how Time Travel actually works and why, for instance, it transports them, their clothing and any accessories without taking bits of whatever surface they happen to be standing on. It’s also a problem for two people to occupy the same timeline, which is why it is a race against time (no pun intended) for Polly – who has already visited WWII once – to return to the future from 1941 before her past self arrives in 1943. It’s not clear why this would be such an issue, although it does appear that the space-time continuum has ways of defending itself against alteration of the timeline and paradox. In essence, the scientific aspects have been rendered merely devices within what could ultimately be deemed a complex Romantic drama.
It’s far more than that though. Willis has a formidable talent for creating fully-rounded characters, and there is something slightly Dickensian about the range of incidental characters who interact with the protagonists, many of them women. If nothing else, she has to be commended for pushing the women to the forefront and demonstrating what enormous contributions and sacrifices women of World War II made.
Agatha Christie is seen briefly, and her books are mentioned and discussed several times, which is possibly why Willis throws in a Christie-esque mystery right at the end. Polly looks at her rescuer and realises something about him which is only hinted at. Are the clues, in true Agatha Christie style, all within the text for us to decipher? If so, it’s the best trick played on an SF reader in a long time, and I for one, feel royally had.
Mind you, if I had to be royally had by anyone, I’m glad it’s Connie Willis. It’s a pleasure, Connie.
Based upon Anderson’s short story “To Outlive Eternity” (Galaxy 1967), this is a marvellous exercise in exploring the concepts of Einsteinian physics, and one which surprisingly is for the most part character based. The interstellar ship ‘Leonora Christine’ is carrying a cargo of colonists and scientists to Beta Virginis. Anderson does a marvellous job of describing the ship which uses the Bussard Ramjet principle of capturing loose hydrogen atoms in flights and converting them to energy, gradually increasing acceleration toward the speed of light.
Not long into the flight, however, the crew discover that a cloud of interstellar gas has drifted between the ship and its destination. The ship is moving too fast to change course and must therefore risk damaging or destroying itself by flying through.
The ship survives but the crew soon discover that the deceleration unit has been crippled, which means that the ship and its passengers will continue to accelerate toward the speed of light.
Anderson manages to balance the mind-numbing complexities of the science with the human dramas being played out inside the ship. There the effects of time dilation mean that time is passing increasingly faster in the outside Universe than for the humans in the tin can.
Some of the characters such as Lindgren, are Scandinavian, since Poul – although born in the US – was of Scandinavian parentage. He also spent some time in Denmark it seems and employs his background to good effect here. Refreshingly, the crew are multinational, including Japanese, Russians, Canadians and one particularly obnoxious American, although it’s not known if this reflected Anderson’s personal views on the country of his birth.
There is an interesting situation on Earth at the outset, where Sweden, who were in charge of a worldwide nuclear disarmament programme, have become effectively rulers of a worldwide Swedish Empire.
It is interesting to note that current American SF, particularly the mainstream novels, tend to be somewhat insular, what I have elsewhere described as Americocentric. Jack McDevitt, Geoffrey A Landis and to a certain extent Greg Bear (coincidentally Poul Anderson’s son-in-law) to name but three, tend to write SF which postulates a future seemingly dominated by American culture or a near future in which everything happens in the US and the rest of the world is not really considered. Anderson was never that lazy.
For its time it’s an amazing piece of Hard SF in which the backdrop – measured by time and space – expands exponentially throughout the novel as the small dramas of the crew are acted out.
The denouement – which probably wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny today, if indeed it was able to in Nineteen-Seventy – is an uplifting joyful moment and brings the book to a satisfying if somewhat improbable conclusion.
I do like those novels which are hard to classify. Despite being on the genre award lists this is certainly not SF and it is perhaps only borderline Fantasy. It is however, a wonderfully written piece full of poetic imagery and metaphor.
Martha is a middle-aged musician, a classically trained violinist who – for various reasons – now tours the country with a ceili band. She has come to San Francisco having received a worrying invitation from her daughter Liz who has booked her into an expensive hotel on the coast.
At the bar, the barman introduces her to an intriguing oriental guest, Mayland Long, who invites her to take tea with him. There she explains that her daughter has gone missing, while being absently fascinated by Mayland’s extraordinarily long fingers.
Mayland is much taken with Martha, since it seems that she embodies something he has been searching for.
We soon learn that Mayland has not always been human and was once a Chinese Imperial Black dragon. Why and how Mayland became human is not important but is revealed later in the novel.
Mayland offers to help Martha search for her daughter and thus begins a brief but marvellous adventure which combines Buddhist philosophy, tea, computer science, crooked businessman, hi tech fraud and love.
MacAvoy has a very individual style and in this novel at least there is a keen sense of the visual. When Mayland discovers Martha’s daughter we are treated to his view of her taste in décor and furnishings which seems to change from room to room.
‘Liz Macnamara’s home was sharp angled, glacial pale. The walls were neither ecru, dove nor cream but a white so pure as to shimmer with blue. On the bare, bleached oak floor were scattered cobalt Rya rugs, like holes in smooth ice, On a table in the dining ell rested a tray of Swedish glass, glinting smooth and colorless.’ (Chapter 6)
I have often criticised short novels for containing more characters than the word count can comfortably support. This however is a masterclass in how to deploy characters. There are probably no more than eight characters in the entire book and every one (even those that appear briefly) are deftly painted.
It’s an unusual novel which no doubt contains additional symbolism that one may not pick up on a first reading. Highly recommended.
Priest has created a compelling alternate history steampunk world where the basic premise is that in Seattle in the early days of the American Civil War, Leviticus Blue, a renowned inventor, created a revolutionary new drilling machine. This is the Boneshaker, designed to drill into the hardest permafrost in a bid to strike gold in the frozen wilds. One day, seemingly for no reason, Blue takes the machine on a rampage beneath the city which not only collapses cellars and buildings but releases a deadly mist from the Earth.
Seattle is evacuated and a great wall built around the city to confine the gas, known as The Bight. During the somewhat hurried exodus, Blue’s father-in-law, Maynard Wilkes, releases prisoners from a local jail who would otherwise have been left to die.
Fifteen years later, Blue’s widow, Briar, is coping with bringing up her son Ezekiel while working at a gruelling job where all her colleagues object to the widow of Levi Blue working with them.
Zeke, as he is known, is obsessed with discovering the truth behind his father’s actions. Having discovered that there are still people living within the walls – albeit in sealed off tunnels or buildings supplied with air by ceaseless pumping mechanisms – he runs off to try and enter the city and return to his parents’ house.
Briar, having discovered his note, has no choice but to go after him and attempt to get him out alive. There are worse things to worry about than the deadly gas itself it appears as one of its properties is to animate the dead, converting them to ravening flesh-eating zombies or ‘rotters’ as they are known here.
Priest, to her credit, does an excellent job of combining steampunk, alternate history and zombies in what is – given the bald synopsis above – a bit of a far-fetched notion.
However, it all works remarkably well, structured in a dual narrative following Zeke and Briar alternately as they roam the rotter-infested ruins of Seattle where the inventions of Levi Blue have been adapted to produce various instruments of defence and survival.
There’s a cast of extraordinary characters such as Lucy, a low-tech cyborg bar owner who has had her arms replaced with functioning mechanical replacements (thinking about it, it would have been a neat touch to call her bar ‘The Clockwork Arms’) and the sinister Captain Nemo-esque Dr Minnericht who never removes his mask and runs a small empire from his marble and brass underground headquarters.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that Priest does not explore the mutant birds further, since the blackbirds in the city seem to have evolved some form of gestalt consciousness. They are mentioned in passing, but nothing more is made of them, at least in this novel.
There are sequels so maybe we may learn more of these strange denizens of Seattle.
As of the time of posting, ‘Boneshaker’ has been optioned by Hammer for a movie adaptation and a screenplay is underway.
‘All lines of cosmic force met in their hands…
Lew Alton was returning to Darkover – returning at the command of men who had once been all too glad to see him leave. For Lew, a Darkovan on his father’s side, and a Terran on his mother’s, had always walked between two worlds, accused by each of belonging to the other, and trusted by neither. Yet Lew alone had the power to understand both worlds and to save them from each other’s unknown forces. That was the reason he had returned at last – armed with the legendary sword of the Sharra matrix, whose destiny was to cross forces with the equally mystic Sword of Aldones in one mighty battle that would decide Darkover’s fate . . .’
Blurb from the 1962 F-153 Ace Doubles Edition
In this ‘Darkover’ novel, Lew Alton – half-Terran, half-Darkovan – has returned from exile to take his place in the Cormyn, which is a kind of House of Lords of the Darkovan folk. He has brought with him a Darkovan relic, The Sword of Sharra. The sword contains a ‘matrix’ which had previously unleashed a power onto the planet, and Lew hopes to use the matrix to now shut the power down. All well and good so far.
Sadly, the narrative is initially bogged down by both a surfeit of largely unnecessary characters and some serious infodumping regarding Lew’s past actions with the Sharra crowd.
Essentially, Bradley has attempted to cover all manner of plot twists and bits of action involving a cast of thousands into an Ace Double ration of pages, and it all ends up as a bit of a mess.
There’s a recurring theme of duality, beginning with Lew meeting a double of Linnell, one of his relations and then mistaking his cousin for his long-unseen younger brother whom he has not seen for several years.
Lew has lost one of his hands by the way, which one suspected may have led to some plot or character development, but ends up making more or less no difference to anything. He also acquires a daughter of which he had no previous knowledge.
An evil relative steals the sword and becomes a threat to the entire planet. It’s up to Lew to find someone who can bond with him telepathically and steal another artefact, the Sword of Andones, in order to save the world.
However, the story gets annoyingly tangled in the actions of far too many people culminating in a scene where Alton, having been attacked, wakes up in a Terran official’s office. Most of the other characters wander in and out, explaining themselves. Lew’s mortal enemy declares himself no longer a mortal enemy but a best friend for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense.
It would appear that Bradley rewrote this to far better effect later under the title ‘Sharra’s Exile’ in 1981.
It’s interesting stylistically as it falls into the Romantic subgenre of the Science Fantasists. To all intents and purposes, this is a fantasy novel, complete with a feudal society, swords with fantastic powers, demon goddesses and arcane laws and rituals. There are, however, no supernatural elements, as everything is explainable (within the internal logic of the book) scientifically.
‘Davy is set in the far future if our world, in the fourth century after the collapse of what we describe as twentieth-century civilisation. In a land turned upside-down and backwards by the results of scientific unwisdom, Davy and his fellow Ramblers are carefree outcasts, whose bawdy, joyous adventures among the dead ashes of Old-Time culture make a novel which has been hailed as “a frightening, ribald, poignant look at an imaginary future,” as “this chilling and fascinating book,” as “superb entertainment… unique,” as “so unusual as to make it both refreshing and thought-provoking.”’
Blurb from the 1976 Star Books paperback edition.
Several hundred years after nuclear war, Davy begins to write the story of his life.
After accidentally killing one of the guards in the village compound in which he grew up, Davy flees, narrowly avoiding getting involved in a territorial war, and joins up with various travellers – including a mutant, a man who claims to be his father, a travelling carnivale and finally some seafaring wanderers with whom he finally settles on an island in the Azores.
Initially illiterate, Davy is taught to read and write by an old lady in the travelling circus, and thus defies the controlling Church’s prohibition on reading texts from before the Apocalypse.
In some ways this is a nostalgic look at an America in pioneering times, since society has regressed to that level, and confines itself to an area between Philadelphia and the Catskill mountains. The leader of the group that Davy joins makes some of his living by selling a universal panacea, ‘Mother Spinkton’s Home Remedy’, which is claimed to cure more or less everything.
The Church is portrayed as a restrictive and anachronistic force and there are signs that its power and influence are in decline.
Although not as powerful and original as ‘A Mirror For Observers’ this is a thoughtful and idiosyncratic work, very redolent of Simak in its yearning for a pastoral America, but at the same time critical of religious political control.
Overall it is a compelling portrait of a teenager’s passage into adulthood and his changing attitude as he learns and experiences conceptual breakthroughs.
It is to be noted that the human mutations in this work are simply that. Refreshingly the ‘Mues’ that are encountered show no signs of fantastic powers but are merely severely brain-damaged and/or physically deformed.
It is perhaps too romantic a vision of a post-nuclear world, but then, the novel is not about that. It is about characters and their lives, all of which are beautifully portrayed.