Another in the James Gunn series while I work on some new stuff.
Raw Feed (2003): Crisis!, James Gunn, 1986.
I seem to recall that Analog‘s reviewer (all the stories in this novel first appeared in Analog), Thomas Easton, suggested that Gunn was assuming the role of guru as elderly sf writers are wont to do. Perhaps he was right.
I don’t know what Gunn’s motives were. If Gunn was trying to seriously address what he saw as the world’s most pressing problems, he succeeded neither in producing realistic solutions (with the possible exception of the pay-to-pollute scheme of “Will-of-the-Wisp — but that same story talks unrealistically about the benefits of massive recycling) or a work of much literary merit.
This novel’s origins go back to at least 1978 with the publication of the novel’s second episode, “Child of the Sun” which concerns itself with the 70s’ concern over energy shortages. And the rest of the book is typical of apocalyptic concerns of the late 70s to mid-80s (most of the stories were published in 1985). “End of the World” deals with the threat of nuclear war. “Man of the Hour“, probably the best story of the bunch, is somewhat atypical in dealing with the threat of dictatorship via a business magnate who offers job, business sense, and hope in a depressed America. “Touch of the Match” is about terrorism. “Woman of the Year” is about overpopulation. “Will-of-the-Wisp” is about pollution.
But the book has a very dated feeling about it. It is debatable how many of these problems still threaten humanity. The end of cheap energy seems a ways away yet — though I’m not as blithe as many about the validity of this eventually being a problem and the market finding a timely solution. Pollution is not as threatening now. The seriousness of overpopulation is probably more debatable now than in 1985 though, again, I’m not as sanguine about it not being a problem as the disciples of Julian Simon are.
“Man of the Hour” probably seems like the best story over all because, despite its generally predictable arc, it speaks to a peculiar weakness in American thought that reveres businessmen as automatically good governors; thus, the story hasn’t dated as much. The solutions Gunn gives for the problems are unconvincing. His protagonist saves the future inventor of a fusion generator in “Child of the Sun” (then, again, you can’t expect him to detail the workings of an actual fusion generator). Similarly, the person who talks the world into reducing its population is saved in “Woman of the Year”.
Story-wise, there’s nothing wrong, in an sf sense, with these plots, they just lack much drama being, in flavor, versions of time travel stories where a time traveler goes back to save the world by saving a life. In fact, this novel is a time travel novel of just that sort. 1984’s “End of the World” suffers by comparison with two other tales from the earlier 1980s about computer networks and hackers: Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” (1981) and John Varley’s “Press Enter” (1984). In Gunn’s story, a teenage hacker, fresh out of jail, subverts Russian and American computers so that the two countries can negotiate a back down to nuclear war.
“Touch of the Match” relies on the popular post-O’Neill cliche about space habitats being specially constructed to house specific ethnic, political, or religious groups. Here, space colonies are proposed to house the Palestinians. In some ways, this is the most dated story in its depiction, particularly to a reader after September 11th, of future terrorism. Its depiction of terrorism is both less and more extreme than reality has turned out to be. Terrorism is still relegated to hijackings (less extreme) and new security devices have been designed to detonate explosives remotely (more extreme). Also, I found it improbable that a man threatening to hijack a plane is told to just sit down and shut up after its found he’s unarmed.
The book violates the sf aesthetic by violating logic. For instance, “End of the World” features a world rich enough to have several computer stores and nary a hint of depression or pollution. Yet, by “Man of the Hour” (episodes one and three, respectively), America is impoverished. Episode four, “Touch of the Match”, again shows no extensive economic depression. Episode six, “Will-of-the-Wisp”, again veers back to a polluted, impoverished America. Though the protagonist has his memory of the future wiped with every success he feels in solving a dire future problem, he encounters, in “Will-of-the-Wisp”, a character from “End of the World”. Her memories are not altered so the end of each episode does not mark the protagonist skirting over to another time track.
However, there are two things good about the book.
The first is the nature of the protagonist, his fear that his resolve will be weakened by getting intimate with any of the obligatory beautiful women that fill each episode. He can’t get intimate with them anyway, as the final episode shows, since his memories of his past are constantly vanishing. I also liked how, in the last episode, he began to question the sanity and rationality of the messages he leaves for himself at the end of each episode and that are repeated to his freshly amnesiac self in the beginning of the episodes. Gunn’s style fits his theme in that it’s often abstract, not spending a lot of time on scientific and technological specifics but rather the philosophical questions they evoke and imply.
Second, I’ve always found Gunn the rare sf writer that I can remember specific lines from: “We lived/We worked/We built/And we are gone.”, part of the alien message in Gunn’s The Listeners, and, from his The Immortals, “It wasn’t merely that he was dying — we all are. With him, it was imminent.” In this novel, I liked this “. . . he was kind, as everyone must be kind who knows that the future holds bereavement, disappointment, disillusion, and death.” I also liked that protagonist Bill Johnson, the most common name in the phone book as one of those beautiful women remarks, alters the future by argument and reasoning and never violence even though one episode, “Child of the Sun”, ends with the suicide of one man. In “Woman of the Year”, he prevents a rape through talking.
Still, this is definitely a weaker effort from Gunn.