Wednesday, February 27, 2008

8. The World in Winter by John Christopher

The World in Winter picture

I went through a lot of mild ups and downs with this book. I think that I approached it believing I had Christopher pegged and I think that was a mistake. The premise of this post-apocalyptic book is that the world gets colder and colder until the previously powerful northern countries crumble and the equatorial nations become the new powerhouses. But I'm already getting ahead of myself, because the first section of the book is much more personal and limited in scope. It's about a tv producer and his relationship with another couple (of which the husband has an affair with the protagonist's wife). It's here that I felt like we were going to be spending a lot of time in that weird 60s british guy sexual anxiety zone.

Fortunately, the book veers off and ends up going in a lot of interesting directions. It proceeds to show the life of expat europeans in Africa who have suddenly become second-class citizens (that's putting it mildly; they are actually desperate refugees, forced to begging, prostitution and servitude). This is really fascinating and I would love to see a longer and more in-depth treatment of this kind of reversal of class and power in the world.

The third section than becomes an adventure, where a team of Nigerians try to go back to frozen London and claim it for themselves. They take hovercrafts and follow a similar route across the English Channel that the hero of a Wrinkle in the Skin took on foot when it was waterless.

Because of the three-part structure, a World in Winter is less focused than a Wrinkle in the Skin and you get less detail of the kind us PA fanatics look for. But it also keeps the book moving along and the reader intrigued. I was very satisfied in the end.

Here's MtBenson's take (with a good storyline summary).

Here's a link with some other cool editions of the paperback.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

7. After the Rain by John Bowen

After the Rain picture

After the Rain picture

[For you paperback geeks out there, the image on the top is the version I found, a reprint from '65. The one on the bottom I found at the Fantastic Fiction page for the book and I suspect is the original cover. I find it interesting how thematically close they are, almost identical, yet they hired an artist to redo it. Why? And where are all these artists today?]

From the back cover:

The British are a hardy island people. At least two aspects of this country are world-renowned - the astonishing number of high calibre writers they produce, and their climate. AFTER THE RAIN is an impressive combination of both. In fact, Angus Wilson says: "If you like cataclysmic novels John Bowen's AFTER THE RAIN is as exciting as any deluge you can hope to find: but if you think deluges are too trivial, John Bowen has a surprise for you: his novel turns out to be satire of the first order."

I share this blurb with you, dear readers, because I found it gives an interesting peek into the marketing and mindset around this kind of sci-fi when it was published. The paperback I found is a reprint from 1965 (the book was originally published in 1959). I guess even back then the british authors had a certain reputation for writing "cataclysmic novels" (the latter is also an interesting term; I wonder when "post-apocalyptic" came about?).

If you haven't figured it out already, the cataclysm in this case is a non-stop, worldwide rainfall that soon floods the entire planet. The incessant rain and society's reaction to it is over quite quickly and most of the story takes place on a raft. Here the hero and a young girl he had met before join up with another group who have a full stock of Glub, an all-purpose food substitute. They are led by a guy called Arthur who first is the only one to demonstrate will and leadership. He then decides to become a god, then the head priest of that god. There is a lot of anxiety over the young girl hooking up with the simple bodybuilder guy on the boat (again with the 60s british sexual inadequacy; what was up with these guys!?).

As you can perhaps sense, After the Rain, falls into the allegorical category of PA literature. It takes a little while to get there and there is some humour and tragedy along the way (and a very good and disturbing scene of a mountaintop refugee camp from the rain), but the primary mission of the book seems to be about society and religion and how man may start over. Once again, this book made me think of Earth Abides. It skims along very similar themes. I kind of got into the book, in the end, because the characters were interesting and I wanted to see where it would all go. It also has a good sense of humour. I would have preffered a truly gritty and detailed look at what would happen to our world if it never stopped raining. We have enough allegory in the world today. When it comes to the end of it, I want details!

I did very much agree with the ending, which had the seemingly dull-witted bodybuilder kill the Arthur-god for going too far. It was a triumph of practicality and simple morality over excessive theorizing. Too bad the author didn't make the same choice at the beginning.

Here, I found a quote by him, where he admits as much, "My second novel, After the Rain, began as an attempt to do for science fiction what Michael Innes had done for the detective story: I failed in this attempt because I soon became more interested in the ideas with which I was dealing than in the form, and anyway made many scientific errors."

He had a fairly prolific career in television, including writing a screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's A Dog's Ransom! I would love to get my hands on that. His biography can be found here (and it's where I found his quote as well).

Here's Lantzvillager's review, with a very different and cool cover.

Monday, February 11, 2008

6. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Alas, Bablyon pictureOne more classic in the PA genre, Alas, Babylon falls into the short-term category, where the novel follows the events of the cataclysm itself and the immediate aftermath. In this case, it is a very realistic Cold War nuclear exchange. In some ways, Alas, Babylon is more of a Cold War novel than a true Post-Apocalyptic novel. Though in content it is in every way an "after" novel and a really good one, I suspect that the primary goal of the writer was to address what many considered a very real possibility of the time rather than to explore an alternate future of our collapsed society.

It all takes place in a very small town in Florida. The protagonist is a young lawyer and Korean War vet from an old local and upper class family. He is a bit down and unmotivated, taking out a lot of women and drinking bourbon in his coffee every morning. His brother is a high-ranking intelligence officer and he sends him a coded message that basically says the shit is going to hit the fan. Within a day, the hero in a disorganized scramble tries to prepare for the oncoming nuclear war. He also must take in his brother's wife and two kids.

The preparations and the small town's reaction to his change in behaviour are portrayed in some detail. The theme is this guy trying to get his head around what he has to do and realizing how much of his life and the lives of those around him is totally dependent on the civilized technological infrastructure. The town is portrayed as being even more clueless than him. A black family lives on his land and they are shown to be the most resourceful because they have been kept at such a low level relative to the white society. They know how to fish, farm, get clean water from the aquafer, cook local flora and fauna.

When the bombs do hit, it's quite exciting and really well done. You see it all from the protagonist's eyes, from a distance because there are no direct hits near the town. This isn't a case of total and sudden chaos, because the town stays intact. But radio and television service stops as do incoming deliveries. The first thing to really go is the local economy. I will stop going into geeky detail here, because a lot of the pleasure of the book is watching it all come apart. It really is very thoughtfully done.

Of all the other PA books I've read, Alas, Babylon makes me think of Earth Abides the most. Both are from an American perspective, from very similar times. The major difference is the timescales. But they are saying similar things. Our society rests on a very large and fragile framework. Though this book has greater faith in our human and American traditions, suggesting that with work and organization we can bring them back.

There was one thing that struck me was how incredibly removed from nature the people of this town in Florida are. They sound worse than we are today. For example: "Before The Day, except in hunting, or in war, a five- or ten-mile walk would have been unthinkable." Really? I find that surprising. Also, a woman says that they are going to have to go back to the "old-fashioned" way of feeding babies, breastfeeding. I know that they were insane about their doctors in the 50s, but I assumed most people still breast fed.

An excellent book. I strongly recommend it.

Here is Mt. Benson's better written review. We look at it with very similar perspectives, but I think his point that Pat Frank "doesn't question whether a codified society will survive; he wants to assure us that it will take a firm hand to guide us there" is well made and does differentiate Alas, Babylon from the more final Earth Abides.

5. Pendulum by John Christopher

Pendulum picture

I was about 3/4 of the way through another book that I lost while visiting Buzby for a weekend. He kindly lent me Pendulum by John Christopher (in a beautiful first edition hardback), who is warming up to be the author of the 1st quarter of '08 among our group of bloggers. I was trying to avoid reading the same genre, or author without a break in between, but I realize now I had no significant reason for doing so. I'm feeling pretty post-apocalytpic and feeling pretty John Christopher these days, so I may well start the White Mountain trilogy after this.

Pendulum is really a classic example of early 60s english apocalyptic anxiety. It has the great combo of the fear of social chaos and sexual violation. The apocalypse is gradual here, economic collapse combined with an overly powerful youth culture. As England falls apart, the youth grow stronger and stronger. It starts out with student protests, but accelerates as the "yobs", working class youth, turn to violence and robbery. In time, civil infrastructure collapses entirely and cities and towns are controlled locally by gangs on motorcycles and scooters.

The protagonists are a family living outside a university town. The book focuses particularly on the patriarch, a succesful developer and his sister-in-law, who is having an affair with a pretentious professor and supporter of the students. Christopher emphasizes her psychological development, particularly in regards to men. It's all done through the lens of the early 60s, and Britain and I can't tell if the portrayal is true. It is interesting and though she is annoyingly forgiving, the men around her are portrayed quite critically through her eyes.

It's too early for me to say if this is an obsession with Christopher, but one of the strong themes in Pendulum that also shows up in A Wrinkle in the Skin is rape and how women are subject to sexual violation once the protective structures of society are gone. This threat is always hovering around in Pendulum, subtle but very disturbing and it creates a lot of tension as things go bad. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, because you sense that Christopher may lack some distance himself from the issue. It seems to threaten him as a man, perhaps.

Another thing that I think is worth discussing in Post-Apocalyptic literature is how the time frame is handled. Does the book deal with the disaster and immediate aftermath or does it go for the longer view, like Earth Abides. At first, I thought Pendulum was going to be very immediate, but it actually leaps ahead several times. It made the novel deeper for me and it allowed Christopher to take the social degradation to a very interesting place. The youths and their wild behaviour is portrayed through the eyes of educated, upper-middle class males for the most part and thus gives the book a very conservative tone. But the way the story develops moves the book beyond just being a caution against youth left idle and too strong.

A really interesting book and an excellent addition to the stable.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

4. Conquistador by S.M. Stirling

Conquistador pictureMt. Benson turned me on to this author. I suspect he has a contingency of nerdy fans who like his combo of cool ideas, detailed technical specifications and manly action. Conquistador is about a WWII vet who accidently opens a gate to another dimension in the basement of his Oakland phone in the late '40s. He goes through it. 70 years later, in a near-future bay area, a forest ranger discovers an impossible california condor in a bust on some endangered species smugglers. He follows up on the case, eventually discovering a complex conspiracy. It turns out the vet has discovered an alternate dimension where colonization never took place. He slowly builds up an empire there. His empire is having it's own political problems and they are spilling back out into our world. The alternate dimension is an ecological paradise, never having been touched by progress. The forest ranger, who is the protagonist gets caught up in their war.

The set-up is cool because the whole thing takes place in northern California, in both worlds. And Stirling has done his research. So you get stinky, crowded, polluted, modern Bay Area juxtaposed with the untouched version. It's not totally untouched, though, as the newcomers bring with them the same kind of diseases the original colonists brought, with the same effect on the native populations. They also have an old-school white male mentality and maintain a society that reflects that. It's hard to tell where Stirling stands on this issue. Sometimes you get the sense he is being critical of it, but other times there is a conservatism there that one often finds in the nerd world.

And speaking of nerdy, this book is definitely for the geeks. There is an excessive attention to detail and an exaggerated emphasis on the main hero's manliness. The two paragraph, detailed description of his weightlifting routine was a great example of where the author was trying desperately to let us know that he knows all about weightlifting by telling us about things that a real weightlifter doesn't even pay attention to. But hey, I'm a geek myself and I mostly appreciated the attention to detail. I'm getting older, though, and I have less time. Stirling is just pushing it. I imagine if the details went a little longer, I might not have had the patience to make it through the end.

As it was, though, it was an enjoyable read with a really cool setup. I think I'll probably get around to his post-apocalyptic trilogy because if he applies the same kind of attention to a world without engines, it could be quite interesting.