Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels

“They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.”

Couldn’t resist starting the review with that first line! It’s one of my favorites, along with the first line of 1984.

No, despite what lurid conclusions many modern readers may leap, nay, pole vault into, Horty was caught eating ants. The primary story arc begins as Horty flees his adoptive parents’ house, taking only a handmade jack-in-the-box called Junky1, after the husband smashes Horty’s hand in a door frame, severing three fingers. (The Bluetts took him in rather as a publicity stunt during the husband’s failed run for office.) With more luck than he realizes, Horty is taken in by carnies, members of the sideshows of Pierre Monetre’s traveling circus. One of the midgets, Zena, takes him under her wing, and he travels with them for ten years, posing as Zena’s kid cousin2.

In this first portion of the book, there are clearly dark elements largely pertaining to Monetre’s antipathy to humans, but we have to wait until about halfway through the book to learn the underlying cause: on this planet, there are thousands, perhaps millions of alien lifeforms, which resemble, at least to humans’ limited perception, clear crystals. These ‘jewels’ dream, and when a single jewel dreams, it creates a duplicate of a living thing, flawed to varying degrees: a tree that is stunted, a cat with two legs, a man with no limbs or sweatglands…a midget. When two jewels mate, their combined dream pervades a living creature, and recreates it as something more than what it ought to be. Monetre has traveled the country, collecting ‘one jewel’ creatures, and planting plagues and infestations throughout, seeded by a jewel; he is constantly searching for a two-jewel human which he can control to wreak vengeance on humanity.

Horty.

Well, it would have been Horty if Zena hadn’t gotten to him first.

Outdated a bit—how many carnivals are there today of the sort Sturgeon is describing? Stilted, more than slightly; the characters seem to spend most of the last third of the book explaining things to one another about the jewels, and as an editor and librarian, I lost track of the number of places I’d flag as “Show, don’t tell.” And yet I keep reading it! Because Sturgeon is arguably in the top 20% of science fiction writers—I’m not committing myself to higher than that because (and I’ll be the first to admit this) quite simply…tastes vary. But the characters are memorable, though the backstory of the jewels is a bit awkward, due to all that ‘telling’ I mentioned. Coming back to it again, I can feel the clamminess of Armand Bluett’s hands, recoil at Monetre’s venom.

As for what to read next, I’m going to assume you’ve come to Sturgeon after having read the Classic Three Authors, Heinlein, Clark and Asimov. Not necessarily liking them, mind—as I mentioned above, tastes vary—but that you’re at least familiar with them. Once you’ve worked your way through Sturgeon’s work—he wrote quite a bit—try Bradbury, and Henry Kuttner/C.L. Moore, both singly and in combination.

Oh, and the ants? The process of being altered by a pair of mated jewels creates a craving for formic acid.

1Keep an eye on that jack-in-the-box.
2Bear with Sturgeon; he does explain both how a boy can pose as a woman for ten years and why Horty was eating ants in the first place.

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

The short summary of 11/22/63 is probably self-evident upon sight of the cover and the title; the front of the U.S. edition is a faux newspaper article about JFK’s assassination, and the back an equally invented article about his surviving Oswald’s attempted assassination…and yes, that is basically the point: our protagonist travels back through time in order to prevent JFK’s death that day in Dealy Plaza.

But should he? Well, fans of various time travel and alternate history genres have been debating that since not so very long after the death that’s pivotal to this novel.

Jake, an English teacher at the local high school, is drifting through life after his divorce from his first wife, a recovering alcoholic; he doesn’t mind his job but has been doing it long enough that he’s beginning to find it a bit repetitive. The central story arc begins when Al, owner of the local diner, asks Jake to help him with a project. Appalled at Al’s apparently sudden ageing of some ten years (and concomitant fatal lung cancer), Jake agrees if only to get Al to sit down. Here’s where it gets interesting: there’s a “rabbit hole” into the past, a time tunnel leading from the supply closet of Al’s diner to the parking lot of a weaving mill in 1958. Take the tunnel as often as you want, and spend as long as you like (allowing for the natural aging process while there!); upon your return, you’ve only been gone two minutes, and when you go through the hole again, pop! you’re returned to the exact same moment in 1958.

Al, dying, begs Jake to go back to 1958 and track down Lee Harvey Oswald in order to kill him before he offs Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas. Jake agrees, but tests the waters first with a test “historical alteration”: he goes through in order to prevent the father of the disabled high school janitor from attacking his family forty years before, during which attack, all but the janitor himself died. This is successful, more or less, and Jake goes back through the rabbit hole, armed with several thousand dollars of period-appropriate money, a false identity and a notebook full of information about the period and Oswald’s movements. He settles in and creates a life for himself, there in 1958, to wait the five years until the events for which he is there actually take place.

Before I get into the analysis part, let me just point out that, as with Dan Simmons’ two books, The Terror and Drood, I finished this book in a thoroughly rapt 24 hours….and yes, this is fast reading, even for me. I mean the kind of rapt that has me wandering, Magoo-like, with the book crammed up to my face, bumping into light posts and telephone poles with no more than an absent apology. I do have a couple of criticisms, but keep this paragraph in perspective, when I say that 11/22/63 kind of fails in terms of the alternative history and the time travel standpoints…but I don’t think that’s really the point. Or at least that’s not why I enjoyed it.

The alternative history is weak, in comparison to, say Kingley Amis’ The Alteration or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, because we don’t find out much, relative to the length of the book, about this dystopia resulting from Kennedy’s not only surviving his first term but being reelected for a second. To compound the problem, I don’t quite buy that so many of the societal shifts and legal innovations in the sixties rested on the shoulders of one man, or rather the absence of same. Just as an example, Johnson was influential in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to say the least, in his role as President…but it was Kennedy’s idea to begin with.

The time travel wasn’t much explained either; all we get is a glimpse of it through the “green card man” who replaces the “yellow card” man. There are a few touches I like: how do you support yourself if your credentials are forty years in the future? never mind all your technical skills. “Bet on sporting events to which you already know the outcome” seems plausible enough, at least until our protagonist runs afoul of the local mob, which quite rightly guesses that he has advance knowledge of an event which has not yet occurred, though they’re wrong about the source. I do, however, appreciate the difficulty with which Al and Jake encounter in their attempts to change even minor events in the past. Flat tires, dead batteries, traffic jams. Stomach flu, migraines, beatings. The pre-existing timeline throws all manner of delays in the way.

This skimming over the underlying explanations does allow King get on to the meat of the book: is it possible to change history, and would we want to even if we could? Even when they are successful, the ‘butterfly effect’ ensures that the result isn’t necessarily what they’d hoped for. Jake’s first attempt at altering history on a small scale shows that clearly: when he returns, he finds out that Harry was killed in Vietnam…forty years prior to his death in the baseline time stream. I’ll avoid giving away the real ending for those who haven’t read the book, but it’s similar. Think “The Monkey’s Paw”.

What is the book about? I’ve always thought that one of King’s strengths as a writer is his ability to create such thoroughly ordinary settings. This highlights the horror and/or supernatural elements in his other novels; getting trapped in a supermarket by giant mutant spiders? Gah! Still gives me nightmares. Here the ordinariness is the growing relationship between Jake/George and Sadie, and it’s a real and loving one. If this were the book, leaving out the attempt to prevent Kennedy’s assassination, I would have adored it wholeheartedly. What would you do to save your loved one? Bring them somewhere from which they could not return? Sacrifice your own life? What?

Might this have been improved by shortening it? Yes; I found Jake’s first attempt at changing history much more touching than the central one, because it was more personal to the protagonist; he knows Harry, and has a much more intimate knowledge of the janitor’s past. It meant more to Jake, and therefore to me, and so therefore therefore might have worked as the pivotal plot point. (It’s a nice touch, though, that King refers to the antagonist as “Lee”. Think about it.) The ending seemed rushed, and overly simplistic; it’s all too obvious that Jake must go back through the rabbit hole and reset events—the changes wrought in the timeline as a result of Kennedy’s surviving Dealy Plaza do not counterbalance the loss of his own personal lady love.

If you liked Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time, you might like this; Finney’s novels touch on the very ordinariness of life as well. If you like compare-and-contrast time travel and alternate history stories, this might be fun too.

Reviews:
New York Times
Washington Post
Los Angeles Times
1almost a necessity, if you don’t want to meet yourself

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Two narrative threads in this book converge inevitably and somewhat ponderously, that of a young woman and young man who fell in love when they were in grade school, but were separated by circumstance shortly after the fateful hand holding. She is now a trainer/massage therapist and occasional assassin, on behalf of an older woman, of men who do not deserve to live as the result of being horrid to the ladies in their lives. He is a gifted though not brilliant mathematician, now teaching part-time at a cram school and writing in his free time. They have never forgotten each other but, having lost touch so thoroughly and so long ago, they have no idea that the love of their life has not only not forgotten them, but is living so very close by. Aomame (green bean in Japanese) is on her way to one of her assassination assignments when she is stuck in an unexpected traffic jam on an expressway; in a hurry to get to her as yet unspecified job, she takes the taxi driver up on his suggestion that she simply get out of the cab and climb down the nearby escape stairway ladder. In the course of doing so, she somehow shifts from the “normal” world of 1984 to the alternate reality of 1Q84; at first things seem normal, but she begins noticing differences. It begins with subtly altered police uniforms, and more powerful sidearms following events a few years previously that Aomame has no memory of: a showdown between the police and a militant arm of a local personality cult, Sakigake. She becomes more closely embroiled with this religious group when she is called upon to assassinate the leader of a strange cult; he has been having carnal knowledge of underage girls living in the reclusive group’s commune residence, which leaves them “internally ravaged”. It is only when she arrives at the hotel suite of the man whom she is to kill that she realizes there is something strange going on. Tengo’s thread begins when his publisher asks him to work a rough manuscript into shape for publication; the novel, Air Chrysalis, is by a reclusive and more than slightly peculiar seventeen-year-old, Fuka-Eri. He is reluctant, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me1, but agrees anyway. As he works, he becomes drawn into Air Chrysalis, a sort of chicklit urban fantasy about a girl growing up in a strange religious commune, who is visited by the little people, who spin strange tales about doppelgangers. I’ll stop there, except to add that yes: Tengo and Aomame do finally find each other and return to the 1984 timeline. There are some books that need to be nine hundred pages. I’m not sure this is one of them; when a novice editor starts thinking “Could have cut this, would have cut that, should have rephrased something else.” the book needs editing. In fairness, there are several reasons why I might find this book awkward at times and at others unnecessarily circumlocutory. For one thing, it’s been translated from a non-Indo-European language, and translating from very similar languages often requires fine judgement about how far the translator may go in changing the text to fit the new language without changing the author’s intent. It’s also possible that current trends in Japanese literature are more verbose than those in American writing. Another issue I personally had with the book is that, despite that length and repetition, I feel that Murakami skimmed too quickly over several of his multiple sub-plots and minimized characterization to the extent that I couldn’t really tell the secondary characters apart. What are the maza and the dohta? What is the air chrysalis? How did Aomame become an assassin? What was the deal with the two moons? Were there differences between the two time lines other than the differences in police uniforms? How about the rifts in Sakigake (the religious cult)? The repetition and recursive text might be explained by the fact that this was originally three books…but not when both occur within a single passage, page or chapter. And so on. There’s a place and time for every book, and this would have been great for a trans-Atlantic flight. It takes a loooonnnnggg book to keep me occupied for eight hours in a plane. In fairness, too, several of the reviews over on Goodreads point out that this is not the reviewers’ favorite Murakami novel; which one is their favorite varies, but readers interested in magical realism or modern Japanese fiction might consider starting with one of his earlier works. 1this might be due to differences between Japanese and United States’ publishing practices and norms?

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Now before anyone gets excited, no: this book has nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m also going to apologize for what may be a somewhat confusing review; the book has the same lighting jumping from detail to detail of Fforde’s Thursday Next series, but is much denser. Other science fiction writers would do well to take a look at the amount of world-building included here!

The basic plot device is a post-catastrophe dystopia, in which people can see only one naturally occurring color1, and society is stratified according to the color one can see through the visible light spectrum, from purple and ultraviolet at the top to Red at the bottom, with the completely color-blind, or “Greys”, in a sub-class. Some five centuries before the events in Shades of Grey, an event occurred to which the society refers simply as “Something that Happened”, and the people who lived at the time are called the “Previous”. The government controls information with “deFacting” and technology with “LeapBacking”; curiously spoons are in short supply to the point that those lucky enough to have this utensil get only one for their lifetime, and that one is marked with their barcode.

Shadows of Orwell, as the government of Shades of Grey has enacted rules governing even so fine a detail as how men’s ties are knotted and the line of women’s skirts. Transportation is by steam locomotive drawn trains. Houses are timbered and plastered. Lighting is by mirrors reflecting down into the house. Shades (forgive the pun!) of Brave New World, as there’s more than a few hints that people in the world of Shades of Grey are not quite as we, the readers, are. Just a touch of Flatland, with the genetic heritability of color vision and the blending of two visual capabilities to produce a range of colors and positioning along the saturation spectrum. In addition to the limitation on what colors are visible, we find out partway through the book that the residents of this future England have limited night vision; they cannot see the stars at night and the moon is barely visible. Given Fforde’s convolutedly whimsical writing style, his future comes across as simply amusing, at least until you stop to think about it.

Eddie Russett has been sent from Jade-under-Lime, in the well-mannered and -ordered center of the new society, out to East Carmine in the fringes, for a variety of reasons, not least because he lacks humility. The Powers that Be have decided he must do a Chair Census in the area, as the residents may be falling below the requisite 1.8 chairs per resident. His father is serving as holiday substitute for the town’s Swatchman, the society’s equivalent to a doctor using colors rather than drugs for treatment; his predecessor, Ochre, officially died of the Mildew (pretty much exactly what it sounds like), but scuttlebutt has it that he was fatally selfmisdiagnosed.

There are the usual problems ensuing from settling into a new house in any new environment, getting to know your neighbors and the local real power stratification. Additionally, there is an Apocryphal living in their house. The Rules, though extensive and all-controlling, do not cover everything; the only solution to things not covered in the Rules is pretend the thing not covered isn’t there…meaning the Apocryphal has the protection of false invisibility to do what he pleases. Eddie, though hoping he’ll get a good score on his Ishihara test, in this world a method of testing precisely where the young person falls on the color vision spectrum and thus their place in society, and return to his beloved Connie Oxblood, heiress to a string factory, finds himself sucked ever deeper into the world of his servant, Jane Grey.

I’ll stop there before I confuse the people who aren’t going to read this, and before I inadvertently include spoilers for the people who will.

Unlike The Eyre Affair, this is clearly intended to have sequels; the book begins with Our Protagonist in a thoroughly untenable position, but ends with his safe return to East Carmine—while it’s possible Fforde’s enough of a money maker that his publisher’s willing to skip the editing process entirely, I’d hope that he was too conscientious a writer to commit such a flub…or it’s a hook for sequels, in other words. Unlike The Eyre Affair, sequels have been slow to follow; there’s a prequel slated (sorry! but I had to include the pun) for 2015, but two years in the life of a writer is a long time. In fairness to Fforde, however, I as a reader and a fan would much rather he took his time over novels than forced an inspiration that does not exist. That’s the surest way to lose me—I can think of several authors who should have stopped several novels earlier in their series….Fforde included.

Reviews:
The Guardian
Los Angeles Times

1artificial dyes are visible to those not of your own color-class

The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson

It’s rare that the title of a book so exactly describes the book—all too often, authors (or rather their publicists) feel they have to come up with an intriguingly catchy title—but here the book is exactly as the title describes: a man, shrinking by 1/7″ per day, has to deal with the psychological and then physical effects of shrinking away to nothing.

It’s a simple enough plot to describe: Scott Carey is exposed to pesticides, and shortly thereafter, radioactive spray. The combination causes him to start shrinking; he gets shorter at a rate of 1/7″ per day, being reduced proportionately in his other dimensions at the same time. At first, he and his wife are no more than normally concerned, but as medical science fails to find any way to stop the process, the Careys become increasingly concerned. How are they going to support themselves after he becomes first too notorious, then simply too small to work? How will he manage to get about in a world designed for…well…human-sized humans? And in the end, when he shrinks below the size at which he can attract his family’s attention by calling to them, then what?

Structurally, the book is not a literary straight line following Scott Carey’s diminution. The framing story is his last week, when at less than an inch, he’s faced with purely pragmatic problems. Being pursued by a spider now larger than he, breaking off crumbs from a forgotten cracker under the stairs, trying (and eventually failing) to overcome the surface tension of water absorbed by a sponge for something to drink…and of course wondering what happens when the last day comes and he loses that last seventh of an inch? These chapters alternate with the weeks leading up to this predicament, during which he and the family realize what is wrong, try (and fail) to stop the shrinking and come to terms with his growing inability to deal physically (and psychologically) with the world around him. The chapter in which his wife buys him a dollhouse in which he may stay, as a structure now more suited to his stature, makes me shudder; the practical issues of dealing with a house that actually isn’t meant to be lived in–no fourth wall, the appliances do not work, and the furniture isn’t meant to be sat or slept on, is, for me, worse than trying to understand his fretting about his wife working.

At 57 years old or thereabouts, the book’s showing its age a bit stylistically–writing styles have changed a bit since then–and it never was terribly complicated or introspective to begin with. Indeed, now the concerns the Careys have date the book to the point of setting many modern readers’ teeth on edge; Scott Carey—he finds his inability to work among the hardest things to deal with, at least in the intermediate stages of his shrinking. He feels unmanned by the fact that his wife is supporting the family and he’s forced to stay home and care for their daughter. I’m glad I found a copy of it though, as it’s still one of the Titles in science fiction. I think.

If you like simpler plots, and older science fiction, you’ll probably like this one. If you want long introspective interior monologues from a psychologically tormented character, keep looking.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Computers can sort vast amounts of data into a specified order far faster and more efficiently than any human ever could, but they can’t take the next leap into understanding what that order means…and they’re incapable of sorting the data without a program. A program which is designed by a human and entered into the computer by a human.

I hope.

As Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore begins, our protagonist, Clay Jannon, has begun working at a very odd bookstore–as the title suggests, the business is named “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore”. It’s a very odd store. For one thing, it really is open (physically) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. For another, its primary business doesn’t actually seem to be selling the sort of book that one usually finds in a modern bookstore. Oh, it has a few paltry shelves of recent books up at the front of the store, but rather the bulk of the activity comes from a smattering of obscurely eccentric bibliophiles who come in to borrow the impossibly obscure old tomes which form the bulk of the store’s collection. He must note down in a ledger what each of these bibliophiles does, how they appear, how they behave, and so on.

After a few weeks of idling through the quiet night shifts, Clay becomes curious as to the real purpose of these customers and this business; surely it can’t be taking in enough money to pay the rent on a storefront in San Francisco, much less purchase new stock and pay two clerks? He “borrows” one of the old ledgers chronicling the mysterious book borrowers’ visits and has his techie friends scan it, page by page, and decode the text within using the high-speed capacity of Google’s main-frames. The constellation of data points creates…a face.

When Clay brings this up to Mr. Penumbra the next day1, Mr. Penumbra becomes excited that Clay has figured out in a day what takes novices years to decipher, but does not explain further…and indeed, when Clay comes to work the next day, he discovers that the bookstore is closed and Mr. Penumbra gone. A customer reveals the true nature of his “bookstore”: it serves as the San Francisco research center for a bibliophile group, the fellowship of the Unbroken Spine. The other bookstore clerk figures out that Mr. Penumbra has taken the train1 to the New York headquarters of this cult…

…and the race is on: to discover the real purpose of this cryptic cult, to prevent the nefarious plotting of the power-hungry head of the cult, to decipher the centuries-old riddles contained within the tomes using the newest technology of computing power, to go on a quest for the originals of the Gerritzoon typeface, and so on to a more or less happy ending.

There’s a huge amount of fantasy here, both obvious and a bit subtler–no real-world bookstore’s going to stay open 24/7 on only three employees, even with so little traffic as this one obviously gets…but then this isn’t a real bookstore. Or rather, selling books isn’t the point of the operation. It’s a fun read and a fast one, but not a terribly deep one, just well-detailed. Overall, I’d call this a great read for advanced teenagers, who’ve not quite grasped why us old fuddy-duddies still like those musty old bound books–so twentieth-century!

What to read next? For the first time in a LONG while, I’ve got several suggestions. For those who love fast-reading adventure books about conspiracy theories, try Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. For those who love books but found this too flippant, try Umberto Eco or Jorge Luis Borges. For those who couldn’t pinpoint any particular plot point as a favorite but like the general tone of the novel and the main character, (don’t laugh!) try Ready Player One

New York Times
NPR

1he having already realized that Clay had borrowed the ledger, as he smelled the coffee used to artificially age the fakeout replacement
1what else would an elderly bibliophile do?

Go-go girls of the apocalypse by Victor Gischler

When the end comes, chances are it’s going to be a series of events; no one thing is quite enough to destroy the structure of society completely. The collapse of the world as we know it today will bring about a great many changes, and here the possibilities are wide enough to boggle even the wildest of science fiction authors. Go-go Girls of the Apocalypse doesn’t stint in either category.

Mortimer Tate has spent the last nine years holed up on his own in a cabin/cave well hidden in a state park. He didn’t intend to stay quite that long—just long enough for his almost but not quite ex-wife to give up hunting for him in order to get his signature on the divorce papers. Instead, the Earth-destroying apocalypse came, a combination of natural and man-made disasters. “The Big One” hit the West Coast of the United States, producing the expected destruction to the land and tsunamis to the sea; the combined effects of the earthquake cut off the seaports on the West Coast, and with them much of the supplies shipped through these ports: food, gasoline, machine parts, you name it. The resulting panic caused Wall Street to crash, taking down much of the world economic activity with it. To cap things off, a Saudi terrorist detonated a powerful bomb on the steps of the Federal Capitol Building in Washington, taking out the President, his cabinet and most of the House and Senate. The Secretary of the Interior, as the highest ranking official left, is sworn in…which doesn’t sit too well with a four-star general. Civil war ensues in the U.S. and unrest spreads to the rest of the world…

Fortunately, Tate had recognized the seeds of the world society’s destruction for what they were, and maxes out three credit cards in the course of supplying his hideout. He does run out of a few things, not realizing he’s going to be spending nine years in the place—the coffee and batteries run out in the first year—but he is left with a goodly supply of first aid equipment and that best of trading goods in a lawless world: liquor. And lots of it.

He realizes the time has come for him to rejoin what remains of the rest of the world when, in his ninth winter in the hidey hole, three men stumble across his cabin. He kills them in self-defense but realizes where some have come, more may follow, and he packs up a sled load of supplies he thinks likely to have trade value or be in short supply in the outside world and heads down the mountain before the snow melts enough to make sledging difficult. He emerges into a world not only not quite what he was expecting but not entirely like that the readers of more conventional post-apocalypse literature may be expecting.

The standard things have happened, resulting from the collapse of what most readers would consider ‘society’, not to mention law-abiding behavior. With no gasoline, cars are useless, as are any other transport vehicles which similarly use petroleum products. With mass starvation rampant in the first years, post-collapse, the majority of edible animals have been eaten, meaning there are no longer any horses, mules, oxen, donkeys, llamas or any of the other animals used for draft purposes, pre-apocalypse. With the death or flight of many technicians from this crumbled culture, not to mention the physical damage resulting from the earthquake, power generating facilities and the grid to ‘transport’ electricity’ have vanished too. It’s people power or nothing. With the collapse of the world banking system, printed paper money is useless. When the factories closed, many consumer goods, from clothes to liquor, washing machines to train couplings, have long been used up or disintegrated from lack of maintenance.

People being what they are, some things have been reinstated. Liquor, for starters; there’s a mysterious “Freddie” who produces several lines of whimsically named alcohols, from wine to vodka, though distribution is something of an issue. Or rather, ensuring that enough of it gets to its final destination after the decimations of brigands en route. Perhaps most importantly, there is a chain of “Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go” franchises, which combine strip club, bar, restaurant and hotel rooms after a fashion; Motel 6 has nothing to fear from these, but in a world devoid of any of the comforts available today, even Freddie’s Panther Piss and hot running water begins to look pretty good. Not to mention the fact that the guards are armed more heavily than your average Marine: these venues are an oasis of safety compared to the outside world.

Tate’s stockpile brings him 7,000 “Armageddon dollars” and a lifetime platinum membership in the Joey Armageddon chain. With this money and membership, and two companions, Buffalo Bill who is at heart a cowboy and Sheila who was only a child when the apocalypse came and thus knows no other world than the present one, Tate sets off to find his wife, purported to be at a branch of Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go in Atlanta. They find, not a wife who needs the protection of her Man, but rather a woman who’s quite happy on her own after nine years and doesn’t even want divorce papers any more. Who needs them now?

…and they find a battle with the mysterious Czar. The book has a happy ending of sorts, in that the three main characters survive, and as the book ends, they’re planning a trip down to the coffee-producing regions of South America to see what they can bring back. Coffee’s at $300 a pound with the collapse of international commerce, and Hawaii quite out of reach with the collapse of mechanized transport as we know it today, so travelling hundreds of miles through war torn countries isn’t quite as implausible as one might think.

No soothing post-apocalypse book, this. Perhaps the fact that Mort spends a fair bit of time vomiting in reaction to the horrors he’s seen may serve as a warning for the queasier readers out there. The collapse of a society as a result of a multi-part apocalypse will bring about a great many unpleasant things. Substantial increases in violence, and that often of the sick-making variety, is a more than plausible result of the removal of law and order as we regard it here and now. Using human power to generate electricity is not unreasonable. Definitely an adult post-apocalypse tale, given the nature of the pre-eminent businesses; somehow it doesn’t surprise me that the two most successful enterprises, post-apocalypse, would be strip clubs and liquor distilleries; Jack Daniels is one of the few businesses that survives the apocalypse intact.

What to read next? Oddly, I’d suggest Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide ‘trilogy’, if you liked the irreverent nature of this one, though the humor is a bit different. If you didn’t like that lampooning tone, try one of the more serious Post-Apocalypse Works, such as Margaret Atwood’s books Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale.