‘A Brilliant and Stunning Saga Begins…
Two millennia from now, there is no more electricity, wind-engines are leading-edge technology, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, steam power is banned by every major religion, and a mysterious siren ‘Call’ lures people to their watery graves. Nevertheless a brilliant and ruthless leader intends to start an improbable war: a war against inconceivably ancient nuclear battlestations orbiting Earth.
However, the greatest threat to humanity is not these ancient weapons but a determined and implacable enemy who has resurrected an obscene and evil concept from the distant past.’
Blurb from the 2002 Tor paperback edition
In McMullen’s future Australia, society has been rebuilt following a nuclear war 2000 years before. Australia has fractured into a jigsaw of independent states, divided by culture and religion. In the library of the University of Libris, the Alexandria of its age, the Highliber Zarvora has re-invented the computer using mathematical human components chained to desks and connected to each other by ropes and pulleys. Entering data into this system is done by way of a harpsichord keyboard.
The world is surrounded by AI guided satellites (strangely, still functional after 2000 years) which are programmed to fire upon any sign of technological activity.
More ominously, the Mirrorsun – a band constructed in orbit around the Earth, is widening itself, in order to cool down a world that is no longer suffering from global warming.
This is the first in a trilogy from McMullen which, although immensely enjoyable, occasionally collapses under the weight of the cast, no mean feat for a novel with not an enormous number of central figures.
The problem seems to be that McMullen does not give equal weight to his characters, and there is a fair amount of jumping about from place to place without the author giving time to establish the characters in a physical context. There is little sense of change of atmosphere between far-flung locations, and a lack of suspense. Also, disappointingly, the first chapter or two contains an infodump overload, telling us more or less what happened over the last two thousand years with emphasis on the last century.
It is interesting that McMullen’s protagonists are a balanced mixture of sexes, although it has to be said that although the women are almost exclusively strong, intelligent and in charge of their own lives, they are, for the most part, busty, leather-clad, gun-toting babes.
There are two characters, Glasken and Lemorel whose story is laced through the novel. Glasken, a rogue and reprobate, dedicated to seducing women, originally has an affair with and betrays Lemorel. Lemorel, a highly trained fighter and Dragon Librarian, takes her revenge. Their destinies hereafter cause them to, in a sense, change position, since Glasken becomes a hero of the War which transpires, while Lemorel, for reasons which are not fully explained, ends up becoming the Supreme Commander of the enemy army.
McMullen did not exploit this dual transformation enough, mainly because, one feels, of the distraction of other characters whose love-lives were equally as complicated, but not as interesting.
Having said that, McMullen scores highly in terms of readability and extrapolated scientific development in a society where steam and electricity are banned.
The Calculor – as the human gestalt computer is named – is the most fascinating aspect of the novel, and even its legal and social implications are handled well. Trains are powered by a combination of wind and leg power.
There is also the phenomenon of the Call; a mental summons which causes all large mammals and humans to lose their will and walk south. In reaction to this Australian society has developed clockwork mechanisms attached to their bodies which, if not reset, are designed to clamp on to a projection, thus keeping the victim from wandering off until the Call has passed.
Interestingly, in a book that was written pre 9/11, we see that McMullen has predicted Moslem sections of Australia, and indeed, one of the minor characters is a Moslem, press-ganged into service within the Calculor. However, although McMullen has introduced the Gentheists, who believe that the Call is the will of God, there seems not to have been any religious evolution or change since the apocalypse, which after 2000 years of isolation and near-barbarism, seems absurd.
As this is the first in a set of three it may be that McMullen may explore the characters further in the sequels which would certainly enhance an enjoyable, yet slightly colourless, tale.
You will recall that our heroes left Earth in ‘When Worlds Collide’ and landed on a brand new planet which has managed to move itself into (more or less) Earth orbit following the destruction of Earth and the Moon by a wandering rogue gas giant.
This novel follows what happens next and jolly interesting and exciting it is too (as Lady Cynthia would say).
Professor Hendron, the brilliant, if wildly verbose, scientist who masterminded the flight to Bronson Beta has been exhausted by the stress of leadership but attempts to continue.
The colonists (composed almost entirely of White American good breeding stock) begin to set up a colony and sow crops. For a while their worries are minor, the worst of which being that one of the ladies became hysterical because she couldn’t have olives with her lunch.
Some of the team discover a vast domed alien city, and shortly afterward their camp is attacked. It does not take them long to discover that their enemy is not the long-dead humanoid race who once inhabited the planet, but evil Communists from Russia, Japan and Germany who had a ship of their own and also reached Bronson Beta.
Battle is of course joined for the future of Man. Will he succumb to the rule of the power-hungry godless Communists, or will Democracy prevail?
As a novel it’s still eminently readable, with a marvellous page-turning quality aided and abetted by chapter-end cliffhangers.
One really has to put the rather non-politically-correct elements in the context of an America in 1934 in the middle of a depression. There are few US movies of the time which did not feature an exclusively white cast with maybe some comedy foreigners in cameo roles.
‘We both watched the incredible death working its way towards us…’
America and Russia both explode H-bombs simultaneously. The tests go wrong, cracking the seabed, rupturing continents and engulfing cities, The Thames flattens into a flood plain, London is drowned.
Now comes cosmic retribution – giant wasps, monstrous and deadly, directed by a supernal intelligence, invade a reeling world. In England, isolated guerrillas fight on…’
Blurb from the 1966 Pan paperback edition
Roberts is at the literary end of the SF writers’ spectrum and can be spoken of with the same air of reverence which one reserves for Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, M John Harrison and indeed, John Wyndham with whose ‘Day of The Triffids’ this has to be inevitably compared.
Wyndham combined a biological menace with a worldwide human disaster. Triffids, already extant in the world, were controlled by human numbers and technology. Rendering 99.99% of the population blind allowed the triffids an evolutionary advantage.
Here, worldwide earthquakes caused by nuclear tests give the chance for giant wasps to move in and take over.
As in ‘Triffids’ there is a male narrator, Bill Sampson, whose name is very similar to that of Wyndham’s hero. He joins up with a group of people, hiding in caves and engaging in guerrilla raids against the giant wasps’ nests in which some humans have been captured and are working with, and for, The Furies, as the deadly creatures have become known.
Also, as in ‘Triffids’ the hero becomes involved with a woman with a past. Initially he and his Great Dane, Sekhmet, were in hiding with an independent upper-class schoolgirl, although our hero later puts her on a boat bound for The Isle of Wight, since the wasps can’t travel far over water.
Having been later captured by The Furies and escaping, he becomes drawn to another woman, known as Pete, one with a past of abuse and prostitution. Again, there are parallels with Wyndham’s Josella Playton and her rather more prim ‘skeleton in the closet’ of having written a book called ‘Sex is My Adventure’.
These parallels are superficial, however. Although one of Roberts’ early works, there are indications of the powerful writer he was to become.
He paints a portrait of English society very well although one that seems to reflect Wyndham’s Nineteen Fifties, rather than Nineteen Sixty Six. It doesn’t have the depth and complexity of his later work but is nonetheless a solid and enjoyable example of the British catastrophe novel. Is it cosy? One would have to say yes, since one would suspect that human society would revert far more to individual survival strategies with a good streak of vicious selfishness under such circumstances, although maybe that is a Twenty-First Century perspective.
Carter’s post apocalyptic fantasy is one of the novels listed in Pringle’s ‘100 Greatest SF Novels’ and has been well-received by critics, academics and readers since its first publication.
Carter’s own desire for this novel was to create a gothic novel, albeit set in the future.
Structurally it is pretty standard fare. the Campbell model holds up well here. Marianne is a young girl, living in a post-nuclear disaster America in an enclave of academics. Outside the fence, tribes of feral humans lead nomadic lives, while Marianne’s life is fairly comfortable, punctuated by occasional attempted raids by the tribes.
One day, having been punished for some minor transgression by being locked out on a balcony of the enclave’s tower, she witnesses a raid by outsiders and sees her brother killed by a wild boy around the same age as herself. At this point their eyes meet and the boy flees.
Some time later a servant goes mad and murders her father, the professor, and when another raid is in progress, she hides one of the raiders and later escapes with him to live the nomadic life.
One must invite comparisons with, for instance, ‘Riddley Walker’, Edgar Pangborn’s ‘Davey’ and Stewart’s ‘Earth Abides’
This novel concentrates on the relationship between Marianne and Jewel, her kidnapper-cum-rescuer, and their relationship with some archetypal figures within the tribal community.
This, like ‘Riddley Walker’ is a dense and literary work, about which much has been written on the style, structure and the archetypal figures which the characters represent, but the novel at its heart is a complex love story. The central relationship begins and ends with death and has a fair degree of drama inbetween.
From my point of view it seems that many of the characters exist in insular worlds, unwilling or unable to engage in listening to, or taking advice from, others.
The ‘mystic’ figure in the tribe is isolated by personal choice, since he is the Spiritual leader of the tribe and can conjure ‘magic’ so a certain distance would be more or less expected.
The overall effect is one of bleak poignancy. Other post-apocalyptic novels tend to give some kind of hope for the future but here there is a pervading sense of nihilism. The tribe move from deserted ruin to deserted ruin, littering the building with detritus and human waste, before destroying the building and moving on. Perhaps this, if anything, is the metaphor for humanity within the novel.
‘In a world devastated by nuclear holocaust, Snake is a healer. One of an elite band dedicated to caring for sick humanity, she goes wherever her skills are needed.
With her she takes the three deadly reptiles through which her cures are accomplished: a cobra, a rattlesnake, and a snake called Grass – a creature with the power to induce benign dreams, to smooth the path between life and death.
rare and valuable is the dreamsnake. When Grass is wantonly slain, Snake must journey across perilous landscapes to find another to take its place…’
Blurb from the 1979 Pan paperback edition
In a future America, society has regressed to a pre-technological level following a nuclear war. the one place where life appears to continue as normal is the City, a sealed environment which apparently still has contact with other worlds.
Snake is a Healer, a member of an order of dedicated people who travel the country offering their services. Snake employs some unusual practices since her tools are snakes, an albino cobra and a rattlesnake which have been (it is inferred) genetically engineered so that when they have consumed certain substances their venom is transformed into various compounds which can cure. The last of her arsenal of tools is a tiny green snake called Grass, a rare, possibly alien creature whose venom can act as an anaesthetic and which also produces extraordinary dreams. In extreme cases Grass’ bite can aid a terminal patient’s passing via a comfortable death.
When Snake is treating a young child of a remote tribe, the confused father thinks Grass is attacking the young girl and chops the snake in two. Snake, afraid to return to the Healers having lost one of their precious Dreamsnakes, decides to go to the City to petition them for more Dreamsnakes from their mysterious alien contacts.
Although at basis a simple quest novel, there is far more to this novel than can be gleaned from a brief synopsis.
Much of the narrative centres around relationships and responsibilities. Snake meets up with a three-fold couple, one of whom is, cleverly, never referred to as he or she, so the decision as to whether this set-up male/male/female or male/female/female is left up to the reader, many of whom I am sure weren’t aware that they were actually making a choice.
The overtly female member of the group is suffering from radiation poisoning and Snake is unwillingly forced to help her die. Her family live in the City and have disowned her for choosing a life outside.
Further on, McIntyre investigates more family politics in a town where Snake treats the Mayor who is suffering from gangrene, and has to disown his son for complex local political issues. McIntyre somehow makes this world very real, partly through the aspects of the society which we do not see, such as the City.
To put it in context, ‘Dreamsnake’ owes something to the post-apocalyptic worlds of Delany, Moorcock and M John Harrison, but only stylistically. There is a very individual voice here, combining Science Fantasy and Science Fiction in a character-driven narrative that leaves one wanting more.
‘1981. A peaceful summer’s morning – until a mad physicist triggers off the bomb…
In the nuclear aftermath strange mutants evolve in a fragmented world. Only Dangerfield, the lost astronaut, endlessly orbiting the earth with a million miles of tape, can see and hear the consequences.
And then one of the mutants decides to destroy the last link with the Old World. ‘
Blurb to the 1997 Arrow edition.
Once more Dick manages to flout the conventions of Science Fiction while exploiting its clichés in an original and personal way. This is an ensemble cast novel set in a 1981 (seen from the perspective of 1965) in which a group of disparate people are brought together following a world-wide nuclear bombing.
The Dr Bloodmoney of the title is Bruno Bluthgeld (Bloodmoney), an atomic scientist responsible for a nuclear disaster in 1972 which dumped large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and created a generation of ‘funny people’.
Stuart McConchie is a black TV salesman, insecure and reliant on others to make his decisions for him.
On the day that Stuart – while sweeping the street outside the TV shop – sees Bluthgeld going into the offices of the psychiatrist, Dr Stockstill, the bombs start falling and a world-wide nuclear war begins.
Walt Dangerfield, on his way to Mars with his wife, is trapped in Earth orbit, and eventually finds himself, following his wife’s suicide, as a kind of cosmic DJ transmitting cheesy music and messages to the scattered post-apocalyptic communities that later develop.
Initially the novel jumps back and forth in time between pre- and post-bombing before leaping ahead seven years to the community which has grown up around the Keller house in West Marin, California.
In typical Dick style the post-nuclear world is unrealistic. It could be described, in a phrase coined by Brian Aldiss, as a ‘cosy catastrophe’. The survivors have settled into a rural lifestyle where horses are strapped to the front of cars while others drive wood-burning trucks. Cats, dogs and rats have developed a level of sapience. Some dogs, at least, can talk.
Hoppy Harrington is a ‘phoce’, predating Bluthgeld’s accident, he was a victim of thalidomide, but finds that the loss of his limbs is balanced by a gift of psionic powers and a talent for mechanics. Hoppy, who previously belonged to an underclass of mutants, now commands real status as a ‘Handyman’, riding about in a cart equipped with ingenious robotic manipulation devices which have become Cyborg extensions of his body.
Of all of them Hoppy is the one best suited to survive in this new environment. He has grown stronger and his Cyborg attachments and telekinetic powers are well able to protect him from any danger.. and he has plans.
But along with his fearlessness Hoppy develops a certain megalomania, evinced by his attempted humiliation of Bonny Keller’s daughter, Edie.
Dr Bluthgeld, still fearful of pursuit by his communist enemies is living in the community under the name of Jack Tree, his real identity known only to his friend Bonny Keller and Doctor Stockstill.
Dick’s subtle ironies are sometimes hard to spot, but then there’s always so much going on in a good PK Dick novel. This isn’t one of Dick’s best, but there’s some complex characterisations, the usual ambivalent reality angle and some amusing, ironic and surreal moments.
Doctor Stockstill, the psychiatrist whom Bluthgeld visits is forced to analyse his own feelings toward the man whom many consider to be a mass-murderer, and in rejecting Bluthgeld’s paranoid fantasies of a communist enemy determined to kill him, finds himself unable to believe in a real enemy when the bombs begin falling.
Dangerfield’s ship has become a kind of telephone exchange through which information bounced between the settlements, while Dangerfield himself is reduced to providing readings from ‘Of Human Bondage’ to the people below and playing requests such as ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the WWII songs of the Andrews Sisters.
In a sense, it’s as if the survivors had moved into the aftermath of World War II, as the community seems to have adopted that very homely and nostalgic neighbourliness.
It’s a novel about people, about American society and a society that doesn’t seem to change even though the infrastructure of their civilisation has disappeared.
One could look at this book as a portrait of a community unbound by moral restraint. Thus they feel free to execute Mr Austurias, a former colleague of Bluthgeld’s, for ‘lying’ in that they believed his reasons for joining the community were to seek out – and presumably kill – Bluthgeld (or, as they know him, ‘Jack Tree’).
Before the disaster, Hoppy Harrington uses alcohol to induce visions of what he calls ‘the after-life’, which turns out to be the life after (the bombings).
The life-after is, as we have mentioned, is somewhat idyllic and pastoral, at least for the residents of West Marin, but this could be due in part to the psychic efforts of Bluthgeld himself. In his psychosis during the attack, Bluthgeld attempts to heal the world, to make right the damage the bombs have done.
Given that other characters show evidence of freakish mental talents, it’s possible that Bluthgeld actually could have reduced the damage the bombs were meant to have done. Later, Bluthgeld, forced back into a psychotic attack by the arrival of Stuart McConchie, is thought to have caused further explosions, witnessed by Edie, and by Walt Dangerfield, orbiting high above the planet.
These explosions of course, could have been easily produced by Hoppy Harrington, as an excuse for him to kill Bluthgeld – which he subsequently does – and proclaim himself a hero.
Bonny Keller, the wife of George Keller and mother of Edie and her internal twin brother, uses her post-disaster freedom-from-restraint to indulge in a series of extra-marital affairs, eventually abandoning any responsibility for her husband and children, and indeed for Bluthgeld, whose identity she had long-protected.
Stuart McConchie, the lone black character (and surprisingly well-portrayed for its time) is one of the few people to profit positively from E-Day (as the day of the attack is called).
Initially insecure, with tendency to follow sheepishly where others lead, he finds a new confidence in his skills as a salesman and uses uncharacteristic initiative in travelling from the ruined city (where has found work with a vermin-trap manufacturer) to West Marin, with a proposition for hand-rolled-cigarette manufacturer, Andrew Gill.
Dick achieves much of the surreality of his settings by juxtaposition of the fantastic with the bland and mundane. The local diner for instance, ‘Fred’s Fine Foods’, is the venue for the pre-disaster Hoppy Harrington to experience his visions of the afterlife, and there’s the legless veteran’s tale of his pet mutant rat who used to play the nose-flute.
It isn’t a brilliant novel, but it shows Dick attempting more experimentation in structure and in characterisation, while at the same time exploring his old favourite themes of reality and madness.
EARTH ABIDES is one of the few SF novels to break the barriers of SF readership and reach a huge and universal audience. Winner of the International Fantasy Award and First Choice of the Science Fiction Book Club, it tells of the death of civilisation and of the brave new race that emerges – stronger, self-reliant, primitive…
It is the story of Isherwood Williams and a small handful like him, who rise from the ashes of a destroyed world and begin again…’
Blurb from the 1974 Corgi SF Collector’s Library Edition.
In many ways this is what Brian Aldiss describes a ‘cosy catastrophe’. Isherwood Williams, alone in a US mountain cabin is bitten by a rattlesnake and despite treating himself in time is seriously weakened and lies in a fever for days. Upon recovering he discovers that a plague has swept the world, leaving very few survivors. The novel is the story of the development of a new human tribe around him, but more importantly for Stewart, one feels, the return of the natural world to its mastery over the planet.
The human story, although captivating, is rather too romantic in that Stewart avoids some of the more gruesome consequences of a plague of such proportions. The dead are very notable by their absence. Also, no major medical problems arise as the tribe grows. No-one breaks an arm or a leg (although Ish himself suffers a minor leg injury after being mauled by a mountain lion) and the problems of the appendix or dentistry are glossed over.
The tribe does suffer setbacks and people do die, but from today’s perspective, the tribe’s rather idyllic existence is not what one would imagine society to be like when one’s life is dependent on what can be scavenged, or caught and eaten.
The book’s major strength, however, lies in Nature which, surrounding the territory of the tribe, reasserts itself, making the Earth itself an additional and major character in the drama.
Indeed, the strongest elements of the novel – those which hang in the memory longest – are those in which Ish, a self-confessed distanced observer of change and the passage of time, describes the gradual changing of the world such as when as an old man he once more sees the Golden gate bridge, solid but red with rust, its upper sections encrusted with the guano of generations of gulls.
There are also some intermittent passages in which the author, acting as an omnipotent observer, looks at the world – or rather, it has to be said, just America – from a wider perspective, examining the rise and fall of a plethora of species and the rapid enforced evolution of various domestic or agricultural livestock.
As catastrophes go, it’s one of the cosiest, but that does not in any way detract from its place as one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of the Twentieth Century.