Wolfhead

Raw Feed (2002): Wolfhead, Charles L. Harness, 1978.Wolfhead

The post-apocalypse setting of this book, three thousand years after a nuclear war, is something different for Harness, but many of the themes, techniques, and plot devices of his novels show up.

As his Firebird is a sf version of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolt”, this story is a combination of Dante’s Inferno and, possibly,  the myth of Persephone.

The narrator goes on a quest for his beloved Beatra (as in Dante’s Beatrice), is kidnapped and taken to the underground city of Dis (which really stands for the District of Columbia — an underground city built thousands of years ago to house the Federal Government).  His aide is the female dire wolf Virgil.  Dire wolves are mutant wolves who are smart and can see in infrared.  The narrator swaps a portion of his brain with Virgil rendering them telepathic.

Like The Paradox Men with its corrupt Imperial America or, less so (though it still seems at least partially responsible for the extinction of man on Earth), the American government of Drunkard’s Endgame, this novel has the American government as the villain.  The constitutional offices have long since degenerated into hereditary positions.  They kidnap people from the surface.  They plan to wipe out all chordate life off the Earth and repopulate when the Vortex technology is finally unable to protect Dis from earthquakes.  Beatra is held in the Central Intelligence complex.  I suspect some post-Watergate significance in having the sympathetic rebels of Dis call themselves Democrats.

Harness’ fondness for mutants shows up by having the narrator be a rare telepath. The notion of fate shows up with the prophecies that say the narrator will destroy the gods-eye — another looming apocalypse as in The Paradox Men, The Ring of Ritornel, and Firebird (though the apocalypse does occur in all those novels}.  Here the apocalypse is limited to just Dis and, in effect, renews their corrupt culture by driving the decent underground dwellers to the surface where the re-unify with normal people and become respected members of the community.

The death of a loved one shows up here in the surprising death of Beatra after she is rescued (it fits in with Persephone not being allowed to return to the surface world full time).  I liked the obsessive ruthlessness of Jeremy Wolfhead, the narrator, and his honest statement that any one who gets in the way of his retrieving Beatra is disposable.  I liked all the clever manifestations of Wolfhead’s psychic ability to set up vortexes (and the Vortex Chamber represents, possibly, Harness’ silliest bit of pseudoscience).  The plot certainly featured more direct killings than The Paradox Men and The Ring of Ritornel, in terms of the number of people Wolfhead kills, it seems to have the highest body count of any Harness novel I’ve read.  I liked the Returner being Jeremy’s father aka Father Phaedrus.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Forgotten Science Fiction: Goslings by J. D. Beresford

James W. Harris over at his Auxiliary Memory blog (see below) started an interesting discussion on post-apocalyptic novels, a favorite subject of mine, so I’m doing something different and reblogging his post and adding a list of some of my own favorite post-apocalyptic novels.

A note on taxonomy: the science fiction subgenres of the disaster and post-apocalyptic novels often blur. I’m not going to mention novels where the old order is essentially reasserted after some convulsion be it via plague, war, asteroid impact, or nanotech disaster.

For purely sentimental reasons, I’ll start with Christopher Anvil’s The Day the Machines Stopped. This one has electrical technology grinding to a halt after some accident in the Soviet Union. To be honest, I don’t even remember how it ended, so I don’t know if qualifies as a true post-apocalyptic novel or not. I read it decades ago, in grade school, during the 1970s. I just remembered the gun battles around grocery stores, and my young brain thinking, “Why, yes, that’s how it would be if there was no more electricity.” A lifelong fascination was born.

Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer is long and goes the whole spectrum from pre-disaster, through cometary impact, and the new world after. Some issues raised: Are accountants really useful after civilization ends? How do you store books in a hoard? If you’re a feudal lord who used to be a U.S. Senator, do you really owe anything to that one time campaign contributor?

One of the characters in Lucifer’s Hammer was a postman still making his rounds because communicating with other survivors is still useful after life as we know it ends. I suspect he inspired David Brin’s The Postman. Its titular character not only helps bind communities together, but he becomes the accidental and reluctant nucleus for a revival of civilization. Yes, the novel ends with silly super-survivalists, but I still liked it.

Perhaps not a truly post-apocalyptic novel but still good and a fascinating look at the possible effects of even a limited nuclear war was Whitley Strieber (yes, the Communion guy) and James Kunetka’s War Day. Using the John Dos Passos mosaic style, it’s a trip through an America that survived in a shaken and rattled state.

Something a little different but along the same line are the first two installments of Dean Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy: Systemic Shock and Single Combat. Set in a “streamlined America” after a limited nuclear war (specifically Ing used, as his starting point, the events of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War there’s a recent look at it here), it has America under the thumb of a Mormon theocracy with its young hero, Quantrill, as a government assassin. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the plot. (Ing wrote a straight up survivalist novel called Pulling Through which featured an appendix on how to build an improvised fallout shelter in a hurry.)

John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass  aka The Death of Grass is a very good novel, another work that starts in the world before it falls apart, covers the unfraying of civilization due to the death of all grain crops, and covers the beginning of the new order.  There’s Pierre the gun store owner who is one of those memorable characters who comes into his own during the disaster. But he’s not the protagonist. The hero becomes the de facto leader of a group of survivors, and the novel ends memorably with a tragic incident that shows the loyalties and relationships of the old world now count for nothing.

For reason’s Jim covers ably in his reviews, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids are rightly regarded as classics. (I take an extended look at the tter here.)

Wyndham’s Out of the Depths is also worth a read. It’s a combination post-apocalypse and alien invasion novel. Wyndam’s interest in the practical skills needed to maintain life and society probably owe something to his unusual education at England’s Bedales School, an education which emphasized gardening and crafts besides traditional academics.

 

 

Auxiliary Memory

Goslings by J. D. Beresford , is a 1913 post-apocalyptic novel about a plague that sweeps across the world and kills mainly men.  If you follow the link from the book title you can read a 23-part serialization from HiLobrow Books, which is illustrated with period photographs.  HiLobrow also has reprinted the novel as a paperback and ebook as part of their Radium Age Science Fiction Series .  I listened to the Dreamscape edition from Audible.com that was elegantly read by Matthew Brenher who did a bang-up job narrating the British dialect – just look at this reproduction of the English edition to see how hard it would be for a modern American to read.  The book was called A World of Women when first published in America.

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Beresford was an admirer of H. G. Wells, and combined fiction with scientific philosophy in Goslings, that is part satire, part…

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After the End

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The well-done post-apocalypse story is a literary post-mortem on civilization. At its best, it looks at the wreckage of society to examine not only the workings of its physical infrastructure but the architecture of the human mind and soul.

Once upon a time, I read a fair number of these, but I sort of drifted away from it. In the last couple of years, by accident, I’ve read more than usual in the sub-genre.

Oh there’s still a lot of these stories published. But zombies have taken over the genre. Many self-published works seem to be survivalist manuals — not that anything is wrong with that.  Some of Dean Ing’s works fit in that category as does, to some extant, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. However, who knows how many of these are badly written political screeds or how to manuals?

And I have little interest in YA novels. Even when I was the target age, I usually didn’t care for teenaged protagonists.

So, hoping to see what had been going on with the theme recently, I requested Paula Guran’s After the End: Recent Apocalypses. Continue reading “After the End”