Friday, November 16, 2012
65. The Hamelin Plague by A. Bertram Chandler
Tim Barrett, first mate on a merchant marine ship playing the waters around Australia, comes home to a frigid post-miscarriage wife. This is his burden. More interestingly, the news on land is the increasingly aggressive behaviour of rats across Australia. This hits close to home when, in an effectively horrific scene, a neighbour's baby has a portion of its face chewed away in the crib. This incident, plus the dead dog in the street and one of his car tires being chewed off were not quite warning enough and Barrett heads back out on another run. All the men are nervous on this trip, worried about their various situations back home. The news gets worse and worse and weirder. There are unexplained fires and planes falling out of the sky. We piece together that this is more than just rats being aggressive, but a seemingly organized attack against all of humanity. There are sightings of mutant rats, that stand on their hind legs and resemble small, nasty kangaroos.
When they do come back to Sydney, the entire city is burning. Ignoring the usual protocol, they come back to port and rush off to find their loved ones. At this point, all of Australia is in total chaos. Barrett makes it back to the ship with his wife and a few crew members and they push off from the dock just in time. With limited resources and information, they become a floating outpost in a ruined world, with Barrett as their captain. Their first run-in is with a small cruise ship, led by a retired admiral. This brings a bunch of civilians on board, as well as two conflicts in the form of the admiral versus Barrett in a power struggle and the Admiral's hot and motivated young niece who does all the things Barrett's lame, depressed and bitter wife doesn't (like serving him hot tea while his wife spends the whole time sleeping in the cabin).
The Hamelin Plague has real promise, especially in the first two-thirds, but it never quite reaches its potential. There are not enough actual encounters with the rats. After the brief escape from the burning city, all the action takes place at sea and the rats are doing their damage on the land. The intra-human conflict also gets resolved quite easily, though there is a pretty good fight with some fishermen turned pirate. It's the ending that really undermines the book though, coming way too fast and easily, involving a nudist colony and the goofiest, yet thematically appropriate solution to the problem (can you guess? Hint, look at the title and think of the story it refers to). Even lamer is the way the sexual conflict for Barrett is resolved, a complete cop-out all around, where his lame wife gets motivated by the sounds of crying children on an island (where the rats were breeding them for food in another nicely horrific touch). She goes rushing off to save them and Barrett than has to save her and this rekindles their love. The young floozy, who is hot and single, easily moves on. So everybody retains their moral wholesomeness. Weak sauce, A. Bertram! But hey it kept me turning the pages.