Book Review: A Rose for Armageddon, Hilbert Schenck (1982)

(Don Maitz’s cover for the 1982 edition)

2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)

Hilbert Schenck’s A Rose for Armageddon (1982) postulates that in the near future a complex computer program (“Archmorph”) will be able to predict political and social trends as “conflict was [and will be] pattern-determined” (26). Filled with references to the turbulent 1970s (Vietnam protests, campus unrest, the 1979 energy crisis) and the fear the decade generated, Schenck suggests that a cataclysmic possibility looms.

A Rose for Armageddon treads intriguing grounds in part because it centers on two non-standard individuals (it’s rare to have elderly main characters!): Dr. Elsa Adams, the Louis Agassiz Professor of Analytic Zoology and Dr. Jake Stinson, the Joint Professor of Archaeology and Computer Science. In addition, the third—but admittedly, secondary—character is a young African-American historian, Dr. Robby Bates.  From Jake and Elsa’s perspectives, the novel recounts the discovery and development of the Archmorph program and the allure of the increasingly mysterious place its predictive powers manifest, Hawkins Island.

 Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

The world of the near future—clues suggest the novel takes place in the mid-1980s—is a deeply unsettled and increasingly violent one. At the nameless state university where Elsa, Jake, and Robby work, classes are disrupted by riots and students deck out their fraternity houses with Confederate flags and giant purple swastikas (84).

Part I unfurls from Elsa’s perspective. She, a self-described “unpredictable bitch” (25), reflects from a current state of “uncontrollable terror” (9), on the previous four years in which Archmorph was tested. Elsa has far more distant memories of her co-worker Jake, whom she loves yet characterizes as “a weak [man]” (13), which he does not remember. The testing of the computer program and the memories of a love affair between two younger versions of themselves all link back to Hawkins Island.

Why Hawkins Island with its rich history? Both Jake and Elsa decide that the only way to program Archmorph is to select an isolated but occupied location in order to enter an entire spectrum of data: zoological, historical, biological, geological, etc.  Most importantly, the island’s history before the Revolutionary War (Dr. Bate’s purvey) shows remarkable interracial harmony. Once programmed, Archmorph might be able to detect patterns of intra-human interactions, interactions between humans and nature, and the connections between individual historical figures and larger networks. Jake and Elsa believe that the morphology of the island will indicate patterns of conflict applicable to the larger world.

Lo and behold, it works! Not only does the computer program identify historical mysteries of the island itself but indicates a growing world-wide apocalyptical furor.

Part II, from Jake’s perspective, continues with some overlap chronologically from the events in the first section. Jake can put the necessary words together to tell the confused reader what Archmorph actually does: “human conflict involves patterns–discoverable, interactive networks” (89).

With increasing metaphysical shades, the plot transforms into a wild ride across an America in its death throes! Elsa and Jack, with the help of Robby, must return to the island where Archmorph took shape, an island that seems to be “signing” and “showing [Elsa] visions” (74).

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

The debilitating internal politics of academic departments and university-wide student protests form Schenck’s core social critique running throughout the book. Schenck, an academic himself, does not mince words: Elsa and Jake’s state university is described as a “huge and basically unhuman degree mill” governed by a “lordly, mindless bureaucracy” (19). For example, Adams uses the dissertation committee, whether or not to pass doctoral students on to ABD phrase, as an arena to negotiate and get her way with other faculty. The faculty too fight amongst each other as “politics had seized the school in every possible grip and the lolling on the grass was gone for good” (78). The three faculty care about their students and treat most of them fairly.

I struggled to finish the novel. I found numerous instances where identical ideas were presented with far more precision in the second half—a definition of morphological studies and what Archmorph is—than in the first half. As a result, central ideas remain nebulous for the majority of the book!

Two self-defeating problems crop up in the final third: 1) Schenk commits one of my pet peeves—the African-American professor, Dr. Bates, takes a bullet (and dies) for his white colleagues. 2) You can’t have two 64-year-old characters in love if you can’t have them (via some metaphysical idiocy) experience lots of sex as nubile young people.

I cannot give A Rose for Armageddon a solid recommendation. It might have limited appeal to SF historians interested in speculations on future computer technology.

Despite moments of promise, A Rose for Armageddon is a disappointing slog.

Note: At this point I’m not going to pick up Schenck’s other novels. However, in the early 80s he was nominated for multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for short fiction—I’ve placed his collection Wave Rider (1980) on my wishlist.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Rose for Armageddon, Hilbert Schenck (1982)”

  1. As a Timescape book, I’m sure I would have considered buying it back then. But I didn’t, for reasons lost in the past, and judging by what you say, that seems to have been the correct decision!
    Actually, looking at his output, I’m sure I had seen Waverider hanging on the shelves and failing to sell for 3 years, which probably influenced me. It continued to not sell for several years after as well!
    I have a feeling I did read Steam Bird a few years later but didn’t like it.

    1. I hold out hope that his short fiction is superior to this novel!

      I did not mention it in the review, but he has a fascinating fixation — the ocean, coastal communities, its history, etc. Most of his SF seems to focus around the ocean.

      Here are his short fiction titles nominated for the Hugos and Nebulas.

      HUGO Award
      1980, Best Novella: “The Battle of the Abaco Reefs”
      1984, Best Novella: “Hurricane Claude”
      1984, Best Short Story: “The Geometry of Narrative”
      1985, Best Novelette: “Silicon Muse”

      NEBULA award
      1980, Best Novella: “The Battle of the Abaco Reefs”
      1984, Best Short story: “The Geometry of Narrative”

  2. He wouldn’t be the first person better at short fiction than long fiction, and vice versa. This seems especially true in horror.

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