This is the end of my James Gunn series.
And I’m ending on an obscure work.
Raw Feed (2003): The Millennium Blues, James E. Gunn, 1999.
This is an interesting failure from Gunn. Like Norman Spinrad’s Russian Spring, this novel, set entirely in 2000, was dated before it was published. Gunn surely must have known this novel, first published in 1999, was dated in some respect while it was published and would only have a shelf life of, at best, a year.
I saw an interview with Gunn which said he had been working on this novel for 30 years. The end was published in a variant form in 1989 as “The End-of-the-World Ball” so that time may reflect contemplation and outlining and character sketches with the original writing taking place as late as 1987 or 1988. Even in 2000, the spirit of this novel would have seem dated. 1999 didn’t see a lot of widespread anxiety and bizarre behavior — you had to look to find it in small places. (On the other hand, you could argue a lot of anxiety was channeled into worrying about Y2K.) And most people thought of 1999 as the last year in the millennium.
The other major problem is the unrealism of all the many problems, cosmic and social, reaching their unlikely crescendo on Dec. 31, 2001. Of course, you could argue that was the point of the whole novel. The seeming crescendo of apocalypse is unrealistic, the psychological projections of men like manipulative doomsayer and profiteer Paul Gentry and mathematical catastrophist Murray Ng-Smith. Gentry gets money and bed partners by preaching his popular brand of environmental doom. Murray Ng-Smith seeks to predict, via his equations, all sorts of apocalypses, social and physical.
This is a subtle novel and Gunn leaves somethings implied. Gentry’s predictions of pollution and overpopulation and environmental degradation may be correct (I think some are questionable, but I don’t think, given Gunn’s repetition of these concerns in other works, Gunn does.), but he cynically uses the predictions for profits and assumes there is no hope, that the science that fascinates Elois Hays, has no solution. The fact that his equations may have no predictive value or may not be universally applicable doesn’t occur to Ng-Smith and is not explicitly stated. However, such a view might be thematically deduced from him not seeing his wife leaving him or his sudden New Year’s Eve flirtation with homosexuality.
Most of the characters in this book flirt with the fascination of catastrophe. (The novel’s original title was to be Catastrophe!. Besides Ng-Smith and Gentry, there is CNN reporter Sally Krebs who spends the year covering new cargo cults that build fake ufos, Latin American terrorism, and a huge Middle Eastern war. (There is even a vague hint of September 11th with a mention, in Beirut, of the kamikaze technique of crashing planes into buildings.)
Barbara Shepard, hedonist, actress, philosophy doctor, and ex-gymnast, literally has an epiphany during sex and joins an apocalyptic commune and has another epiphany about its nature when its leader beats her and attempts to sodomize her. She kills him.
William Landis is a writer observing the end of millennium events, he’s mostly detached from most normal human concerns since he has no wife, girlfriend, or children. Elois Hays, even though she’s in an apocalyptic theme playe called The North Wind (the title of a James Gunn story set during a new Ice Age and self-described as a spinoff of this novel), has the most healthy attitude despite the problems she has with her husbands constant cheating with men and women. She is interested in science and welcomes its insights however disturbing.
The novel has some discussion of the purpose of human life: to simply reproduce, to develop your talents and individuality, to lose yourself in a religious faith. The novel has the same ambiguous ending as “The End-of-the-World Ball” (which here, slightly reworked, is the end of the novel), and my impression of Gunn’s point is the same as it was upon reading that story. It doesn’t matter if the disasters really occur. We must go on, live for tomorrow, and stop being fascinated with catastrophes.
That healthy behavior is exhibited by Landis’ observation, but not approval, and Elois Hays interest in the power of science. (And buried among a lot of doomsaying news reports are things like new genetically engineered crops, but the hope is ignored.) In particular, Shepard’s romantic love and faith in apocalypse is fatal.
The parts I think worked are the interesting characters, and I liked the scene where Ng-Smith is kidnapped by some rich survivalists who want to know when doomsday is coming. (Their underground arsenal was very reminiscent of that in Gunn’s “Man of the Hour” in his novel Crisis!. Gunn’s usual episodic format worked well here as he hops from character to character throughout 2001.
I also found it interesting that he uses, for the novel as a whole and every episodic chapter, the same technique: brief description of events leading up to an almost climax, backfilling exposition, and then picking up the narrative to climax. For the novel as a whole, the first part is “Postscript in the form of a Preface” which briefly talks about the End-of-the-World Ball and the final part returns to the Ball.