Note: My read but “waiting to be reviewed pile” is growing. Short rumination/tangents are a way to get through the stack before my memory and will fades. Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.
1. The Chrysalids (variant title: Re-Birth), John Wyndham (1955)
John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955), my first exposure to his science fiction, transpires in a standard post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe scenario with a deeply emotional core. The narrative follows David’s childhood in the backwater territories of Labrador, Canada hundreds of years after a nuclear war. The Church, inspired by Nicholson’s Repentances—which along with the Bible are only surviving books–imposes a draconian theology that “only God produces perfection” (51). Mutations, a visual sign of diabolical influence, must be destroyed. David, the son of the local strongman and preacher, discovers a young girl with a terrifying secret–she has six toes. David starts to accumulate secrets including his own mysterious telepathic abilities and recurrent dreams of a city in a world without cities. He shares them with his sympathetic Uncle Axel, who attempts to protect him from the forces narrowing in.
There are some nice touches throughout. Uncle Axel recounts his travels and knowledge of the world as a seaman and the effects is that of a medieval map, filled with pseudo-legendary beings, historical fragments, and “real” flora and fauna that, at first glance, seems too fantastic to exist (54-57).
I found the telepathy elements uninteresting and a bit off-putting as the accidental mutation creates a subset of people that are naturally superior to others (is the new world better than the old? Is that Wyndham’s point?). And the end, let’s not talk about the end. This is standard rural (primitive) vs. urban (civilized) fare that, despite the solid storytelling, did not resonate with me.*
Ultimately, I felt the overall Leigh Brackett’s message in the far more ambivalent The Long Tomorrow (1955) appeals to my sensibilities.
2. Captain Blackman, John A. Williams (1972)
John A. Williams spins a fever dream of an injured black Vietnam War soldier hurled via hallucinatory time-travel into all of America’s conflicts. While hospitalized, Abraham Blackman, who teaches a military seminar to his troops, plays the archetypal role of black soldier from the Revolutionary War to a near-future Cold War conflict. In each conflict, white men preach the promise of freedom. And when black soldiers join up, they are subjected to racism, violence, and the promises are forgotten in the battlefields—from skirmishes in the Buffalo War to The Battle of the Crater–along with their countless shattered bodies.
Like our main character, Captain Blackman is deeply immersed in American history. As a historian myself, the historical details in which Abraham interacts forms a rich tapestry, The most intriguing moments include Williams’ take on the black WWII deserters in the forest of Tombolo, Italy and the executed victims of the Houston Riot in WWI. An intensely circumscribed cyclicality dominates the pages. The disturbing experiences, sacrifices, lost dreams, and broken promises replay and replay. But what will happen in the next conflict when the pattern breaks?
John A. Williams’ Captain Blackman (1972) might be worth reading in conjunction with Octavia E. Butler’s fellow time-travel story that explores African American history– Kindred (1979). In Butler’s novel, her protagonist is “shunted in time” between her contemporary world of 1976 and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. While Butler’s Kindred is the superior novel, I recommend Captain Blackman for fans of mainstream takes on time travel, race in SF, and experimental fiction.
3. The Descent, Gina Berriault (1960)
The year is 1964. The Cold War rages. In a world terrified by massive retaliation, the American populace finds solace in dreams of the descent into the fallout shelter and nebulous concepts of rebirth. Written just before JFK’s push (1961) for personal family fallout shelters, Berriault envisages vast communal warrens. The president appoints Arnold T. Elkins, a history professor at DeVelbiss College Iowa, to the newly created Secretary for Humanity position. Supposedly the position will “assure humanity that the first missile may never be fired, that the bombs may never fall” and the benefits of a Nuclear Age will be reaped by all (6-7).
A satire unfolds centered around the ironic phrase: “the peace is preserved within the Defense Department” (19). Elkins, despite his grandiose vision, finds himself a political pawn of the President’s re-election campaign and the machinations of his boss, the Secretary of Defense. And the second he isn’t lock step with the administration–for example, after a cringeworthy sequence where he must give a speech in Japan to the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing—forces narrow in on him. The status quo and America’ nuclear supremacy must be maintained. Everything else is just empty rhetoric.
I found the most effective sequence explore trauma in children subjected to the rhetoric of the Cold War. Elkins; child “she saw a movie about an H-bomb war by accident and she’s been worried ever since” (12). The Defense Secretary Jim Eversledge’s children know all the details of the missiles in America’s arsenal: “an Atlas, a Jupiter, an Honest John” (12). In addition, Berriault lays bare the hilarious pop culture around the fallout shelter and nuclear panic. In one sequence, Miss Massive Retaliation sings a song conflating sexual conquest with nuclear domination:
“Blow my heart to little bits,
Never, never call it quits
Mister, send your missile my way
Conflagrate me, oh please do,
The man on top’s got to be you.
Mister, send your missile my way.
That mushroomy cloud is me,
It’s only me in ecstasy.
Mister, send your missile my way! (59-60)
Berriault positions Cold War terror as self-generating and self-perpetuating. Disarmament cannot be an option when the nuclear bomb as necessity has infiltrated all elements of our existence. And of course, the fallout shelters proliferating like boils, become symbolic of America’s destructive tendencies and perverse desire to press the button.
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