Joachim Boaz and I were briefly discussed Charles Sheffield over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. After checking, I realized there were a lot of Sheffield works I’ve read but never posted about.
So, while I’m working on new stuff, you get . . .
Raw Feed (1993): Brother to Dragons, Charles Sheffield, 1992.
This book has an absurd premise: that just before the twentieth century ends the Quiebra Grande, the Great Crash, brings down the world economy. [Seems a lot less improbable after 2008, doesn’t it?]
Scientists and technologists of all sorts are locked up in concentration camps built on toxic waste dumps while the richest families, the Royal Hundred in America, preserve their status.
The cause of this economic catastrophe? Pollution, we’re told – high-sulfur coal burning, nuclear reactor meltdowns, poisoned oceans, and “quadrupled background radioactivity”, stripped topsoil, and the ever popular decaying infrastructure. [And it’s still decaying according to what I see walking about.] Exactly how these things led to economic collapse of long duration we’re never told or why things were allowed to deteriorate so far. Increased medical costs? Reduced productivity? [IQ decline? A Turchinesque collapse due to unmanageable complexity?]
But, if you allow the silly premise, this is a very exciting, fast moving novel set in a world that reminds one of a Third World country or, as a reviewer noted, a Dickens novel (orphanages, street people, the Royal Hundred).
The novel is the gripping story of protagonist Job Napleon Salk. Born deformed to a drugger mother, dying of radiation poisoning, his is a life of little happiness. We follow him as he grows, learning lessons of life from colorful street characters like a pimp who has fantasies of an old life as a sociology professor to Skip Tolson, fellow juvenile delinquent who has an utterly pragmatic self-centered view of life, to Father Bonifant aka Mister Bones.
Mister Bones is the moral authority of this novel, the ultimate person the dying Salk looks to when he decides to unleash a fertility reducing, life prolonging virus on the world.
Sheffield ties up a surprising number of thematic and symbolic elements in the final chapter. Salk must stop being a puppet like the Tandyman machines. He must decide who should run the world – the scientists of the Nebraska Tandy. (Sheffield curiously portrays scientists as hopelessly naïve about people.) Sheffield is a scientist himself and seems to know people. I believe he may have a point in regards to many scientists like Isaac Asimov – hopelessly politically naïve), and the conservatives like intelligence head Wilfred Dell (who blackmails Salk to going to the Nebraska) who know how power works in the real worldbut want that power for themselves.
Salk decides that no one can be allowed exclusive power: those who want change like the scientists (who, like most of the Tandy inhabitants, are too tainted by understandable hate to be allowed to run things) and conservatives and hangers on like Tolson all have a place in the world.
The most interesting thing to me in the book was the many instances – by Father Bonifant, the nurse who helps delivers him, Tracey the prostitute, Professor Buckler the pimp – of kindness in this grim world. (Salk also saves Ormond’s life in the Nebraska Tandy). I found this a nice change of pace for this type of story. Even the grimmest of circumstances – famine, disease epidemics, concentration camps – do not seem capable of quelling all human kindness.