She couldn’t remember when she’d last seen the stars; maybe it had been on a warm summer’s night, when she was living in a cardboard box in Central Park. Or maybe she’d stopped noticing the stars a long time before the clouds had blanked them out.
Ah, the 80’s. What with the Cold Wars and the Reagans, the Soviets and the ever present threat of nuclear holocaust. What a time to be alive!
Every decade has their “fear,” the looming bogeyman that could send us into an apocalypse. If I know my history, I think the progression goes something like this:
2010’s: The environment
2000’s: The terrorists
1990’s: Stirrup pants…?
1980’s: Nuclear holocaust (a.k.a. The Russians)
1950’s: Aliens (a.k.a. The H-bomb)
1930’s: The economy
1910’s: Anarchists again.
1900’s and everything before: Disease. Dinosaurs.
Published in 1987, Swan Song capitalizes on the decade’s fear du jour, that of Nuclear Holocaust and Soviet invasion. It asks the question: What if the guys in charge actually push the button?
The answer is terrifying.
McCammon paints a bleak picture of the United States post-nuclear holocaust. All of the major cities have been destroyed, and everything in between isn’t much better off. Mutually Assured Destruction leaves behind a world with no sunlight, no plants, and a starving, desperate population crippled by radiation poisoning and the aftermath of a world that ends in fire.
If that isn’t bad enough, there’s a sinister figure roaming around, dancing the watusi (sign of the times?) over the graveyard of North America. Evil personified, the “man of many faces” sets out to destroy a mysterious glass ring with fantastical powers and goes head to head with the best bag lady of all time, Sister Creep.
There’s also a little girl called Swan who can make things grow, a former wrestler who is sworn to protect her, and a squadron of angry, hate-filled men growing an army in a quest for dominance.
Every apocalyptic novels asks the question: What is humanity for? Why do we go on living? Why do we work so hard to survive? Genetics answer the question on a biological level, but humans have been blessed or cursed with just enough existential awareness to need more. As the sadistic Army of Excellence pillages its way across the country, the men in charge lust for power for the sake of power. There is no justifiable end. Their visions of the future are brutal, full of violence, and their power rendered empty by its ephemeral nature. Top dog can never stay top dog for long.
Instead, the answer must come from growth, new life, community. When I was younger I used to read and reread the story of Stone Soup (my version had animals) where all the poor starving heroes had to eat were stones, which they made into soup. Eventually, the parsimonious villagers chip in a carrot here, an onion there, until eventually they have a feast for the whole town. This quality echoes in manner in which the “villagers” of Swan Song labor under the revelation of community.
But like all dark apocalyptic visions, things will get much, much worse before they can get better, and the miserable brutality that permeates the novel is at times enough to DNF the whole thing. It’s best to read this on a sunny day.
Characters play into stereotypical archetypes: The wise older woman, the girl with the special gift (with all the gifts?) that can save humanity, the protector, the otherworldly evil, the merciless military man, the psychopathic torturer. Classic good vs. evil clashes abound. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is quoted to no end.
The details make it well worth the read despite some tired tropes. There is a particularly nutty sequence in a K-Mart populated by insane asylum escapees that is both horrifying and delightful. There’s also a rather literal interpretation of true faces which I can’t decide if it is clever or hokey.
We’re not out of the woods yet. There are still some very bad people in the world and some of them have some very bad weapons. If not the nuclear apocalypse, then an environmental one is slowly sneaking up on us, death by a thousand cuts of CO2 and melting ice caps. Either way, humanity is doing itself in, and humanity is the only thing that’s going to stop it. Why do we go on living?
I have my reasons. What are yours?
- This book, at 956 pages, is endlessly compared to Stephen King’s The Stand. How annoying for everyone involved.
- P.S. The movie version of The Stand has just about the best opening sequence of a movie I’ve ever seen. Don’t fear the reaper.
- “One step and then the next gets you where you’re going” Sister Creep is now one of my favorite characters. A tragedy from her past has turned her insane and living the bowers of NYC and it takes an apocalypse to drive her sane again. With clarity and purpose, she battles the worst of the worst and remains a badass to the end.
- My goal for this blog post was to write one word for every page of Swan Song. I’m still a few words shy of my goal, so I’ll just quote from The Wasteland until I reach it:
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,The lady of situations.Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,Which I am forbidden to see. I do not findThe Hanged Man. Fear death by water.