This is the seventh of thirteen Dover "Doomsday Classics" I've read—adding another each time their
slot rolls around on my Home Page rotation. Some I've liked, others not so much, but I do not regret the time I'm putting into reading them because every
single one has stretched my mind. These are not easy topics to write a novel upon—dystopian, apocalyptic, alternate reality, and the contents of all of
these stories has no choice but to be a unique viewpoint of the author. Nor can one expect them to be pleasant. Most of them have been downright disturbing,
even really gross.
The previous ones I read were purely fiction—even fantasy, sort of, for the most part with little background knowledge required to understand the story. This one, however, is based on real events and places. Swanwick apparently assumes everyone knows all about them, so little explanation is included. After I finished the book, when I began this review, I spent some extra time with Google. To get that part out of the way, and transfer all those bookmarked pages to this review, I will begin with background info. And I also want to mention that the blurbs on the back cover of this Dover edition helped me to fill in some blanks.
The book is about Three Mile Island. OK, so I knew it was a nuclear disaster, but that was about it. Here is more from Wikipedia, and I have to admit, I'm still confused. Three Mile Island is located on the Susquehanna River just south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in Dauphin County. In 1979, several factors contributed to the accident that caused a partial core meltdown.
The accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve in the primary system. This allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant's user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release.
Anything dealing with nuclear anything or radiation is dangerous. Period. But compared to Chernobyl and Fukushima, this one did not come close. Here is another Wikipedia page for the station itself. Please note the maps on these links, because that will help make sense out of the book. The map on this page shows the relationship between Three Mile Island and Philadelphia, where the story begins, and impacts the rest of the book. The photo below shows it from Goldsboro, PA, in 2013. The reactor shown on the left was shut down after the accident, then came back online in 1985. The accident only damaged the one on the right. However, the one in operation was shut down in 2019, as have many others for different reasons, this one because it was no longer financially profitable for Exelon, the company that owned it. One has to wonder, first with safety concerns, then profitability, why these reactors are still being built. I would certainly not consent to having one in my back yard.
Now allow me to jump ahead, concerning Swanwick's writing and the opinions of the Good Readers at
Goodreads. It did not get particularly great ratings, and many of the negative comments I agreed with. The beginning was
exciting, although I didn't understand a lot. (More on that in a bit.) But I could not put it down. As it progressed, however, it became more confusing and
as others point out, difficult to tie it all together. Characters appeared, years passed, wars were going on, all which required time to sort out, and
needed better explanation which was not supplied in the text. The last chapter was the worst—a surreal blend of psychic vision and a questionable reality,
which made it increasingly difficult to discern which was which, or if they were the same. I really do not understand the ending, but I know how I chose to
interpret it. I won't share that. This was Swanwick's first novel, so we can give him a break. The little bit Wikipedia has on him is
right here, with nothing on this book. Apparently his other books are much more popular and well known.
Just a couple more links, then I'll provide a summary of the story. Here's a bit about Philadelphia, because that city has become an important and powerful hub in the now dystopian nightmare that surrounds it. It is now governed and policed by the Mummers. Yes, the Mummers. Now, when I read that, I thought, "These are real, aren't they??" They certainly are, down to the individual clubs mentioned in the book. They are NOT currently, however, nor were they ever the "organized power" in Philadelphia!! Here's the Wikipedia page, and here's the Mummer site. And now, on to the story, which, by the way, was published in 1985, the year the undamaged reactor came back online at Three Mile Island.
The novel begins one hundred years after the disaster that, in this version was a complete meltdown that poisoned a huge chunk of Pennsylvania. America is no longer a United States; the Northeast has become the Greenstate Alliance. The area contaminated with radiation is known as the Drift, and has spawned all kinds of plant, animal, and human mutants. The area is avoided by everyone else, and its inhabitants are treated as lepers. If a mutant is born or found in the Philadelphia area, it is killed. The former United States has devolved into a third-world nation.
It is the day before Mummer's Eve (New Year's Eve). Keith Piotrowicz is in the Italian Market when the dead Janus (a child with two faces) is proudly paraded on two poles. Gambiosi pulls him aside and chides him for being a nobody, when he could be a Mummer. Keith isn't really interested. The next morning he goes to his job, which is hauling away and dumping contaminated waste from the Drift in a tanker. His partner is an old Black man named Jimmy Bowles. They all wear masks, by the way, called nucleospores.
On their way back, Jimmy is driving. There is a woman on a dirt bike coming at them just as the tires hit a patch of ice, and catch the bike, throwing the woman. She is knocked out, but alive and otherwise uninjured. They pick her up and put her in the truck. Jimmy goes through her stuff. She is a reporter named Suzette Fletcher, called Fletch. When she regains consciousness soon after they reenter Philadelphia, she tells them she was researching records in Souderton.
That evening, New Year's Eve, the Mummers go to everyone's residence for a donation that insures they will be protected for another year. Fletch is staying with Keith, and she is indiscrete about her agenda to one of the Mummers. The next day, everyone must watch the parade, and they are assigned a space. However, something terrible happens that Fletch doesn't understand. One of the Mummers comes into the crowd, and kisses both her and Keith. Keith, in terror, pulls her away and they run. The Mummer's Kiss means they are targeted for killing, as Judas did. They manage to escape Philadelphia, but the pursuit actually does not stop there. They find refuge at a secret cabin owned by one of Fletch's friends who turns out to be a lover called Bear. They provide arms for Keith, then sneak off to escape. In the story, the technology is way antiquated, except for the firearms. Keith has no idea what he's doing, and ends up starting the cabin on fire.
Fletch and Bear do not get very far, and the Mummers advance. The shooting starts. Bear is shot, then Keith accidentally kills Fletch. Tony, Gambiosi's idiot son is one of the Mummer gang. When he sees Keith, he smiles. But Keith holds a gun to his head. However, Keith doesn't shoot him. Instead, he instructs him to go back and tell the others that it was he, Keith, who shot the enemy, Fletch. Meanwhile Keith has discovered a deadly secret—what Fletch knew and the reason the Mummers wanted her dead. He decides to become a Mummer, because it is the only way to deal with this problem— to be in a position of power. The chapter ends a year later, when he is tagged at the Mummer's Parade the following year as a candidate.
I want to quote one paragraph from this chapter concerning the Mummer's Kiss, which I found interesting, especially in the current situation we are in now on planet earth.
The Kiss began as a way of flensing mutants and carriers of genetic disease from the population, and the Hunt was initiated only reluctantly, after it became clear that public ostracism was not always enough. It was extended to include those who refused vaccination, when the epidemics began. Finally its potential as a political tool was realized, and no reasons were given.
The three long chapters are separated by brief, transitional ones. We next see Keith as a high-ranking
officer in the Mummers. Jimmy Bowles, his Black friend, now old, dies.
But it is the next lengthy chapter that takes us into a whole new landscape. We meet a young woman named Samantha. She has been in detention for having a genetic problem—SBS, or "short bowel syndrome." She is a vampire. No food except egg whites and blood nourish her. She doesn't go around biting people then climb into a coffin at night. She is completely alive, and drinks the blood of animals. But the train trip is killing her. She is weak—starving. She finds herself in a hospital bed being cared for by a dwarf with a huge head. His name is Robert Esterhaszy. He is not exactly a doctor, but an educated healer. Throughout the entire book, these are probably the only two characters that are truly likable. They both give of themselves, and want to do what is right for their people. The mutants, that is. Those who live in the Drift.
As I mentioned in one of my other recent reviews, I keep running into similar scenarios, such as characters that are forced to wear masks, and humans with some kind of physical defect who are gifted psychics. That is what Sam is. She can see the radiations lines. She knows where the air and land is clean. She also reads people, and can tell them what they will die of, and when. The average life-expectancy of Drift residents is 23 years.
Keith is one of the people who comes to see her. Though much older, he is so handsome, and she falls in love with him. But as it turns out, he is not the gentle benevolent man we left in the first chapter. Now he is just as bad as the others in power. He promises he will return Sam to her father, who leads the Greenstate Alliance settlement, Honkeytonk. They have cleaned up the land and created livable conditions. Their food is grown in massive greenhouses. But they are taking people from the Drift to use as their slaves. Keith is in charge of resettlements in the Drift. So when Samantha is well enough, they take off in a caravan. It is nothing short of a war. Samantha eventually learns that Keith has been using her as a bargaining chip. But it is too late. She is pregnant.
Sam goes to live with Robert and his wife, who is a tall blond. She delivers the baby girl, Victoria. Robert and his wife become her "aunt and uncle" after Sam dies. Victoria is not likable at all. She is also a vampire, and has the "vision." But she likes the taste of human blood. She is course and crude, where Sam was loving and gentle.
Believe me, this is really a condensed synopsis. I hope I didn't give too much away. There is a lot of action taking place, and a complexity of socio-political issues, along with the obvious health-related ones. There were parts of this novel that were confusing, but on the whole, I really did enjoy reading it. I think making the choice to read this set this particular year was the right one, as we are ending the old paradigm that is all the modern human race has ever known. Good riddance. Let us all open our minds to what is possible in an alternate reality. We must know for certain where we want to go and definitely where we don't want to go. I would not want to go to any of these Dover Doomsday Classic scenarios, that's for certain! You may read all my Dover Doomsday Classic reviews on the Futuristic, Apocalyptic, Time Travel Index Page.
Before I end this review, I want to add a statement about science fiction in general, which includes these Doomsday, dystopian novels. I've often said that sci-fi is the science of the future, and I suspect most apocalyptic novels also contain elements of truth, or scenarios that could conceivable happen. OK, so Three Mile Island was not the catastrophe it could have been, but Fukushima certainly was and still is, though the bulk of the sleeping population thinks it has all been cleaned up and everything is well and good. Technology, you know. It can fix anything.
But the fact is, the core at Fukushima will continue to burn and produce radioactive contamination long after life on planet earth has become extinct, which is between now and 2025, on our current trajectory. The Japanese government has built storage buildings to hold the contaminated water, but there is so much that they have been, or will soon be, dumping it into the ocean.
But even that is surpassed by the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history—the one at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, which has once again begun to smolder. Dane mentioned this in this morning's Global Alert News hour. In addition, which he has frequently said as he spells out clearly all the irresponsible and destructive activities human beings have used to assault the planet, that because of the ongoing catastrophic effects of climate engineering, the ozone is disappearing at a beyond-alarming rate. Thus, if there is a coronal mass ejection, that is, before everything else kills us off, there would be little to protect the planet, and it could shut down the global grid. With nothing to cool these hundreds and hundreds of nuclear power plants still in operation, we risk a Global Chernobyl, because there is no way to shut them down. We didn't consider that before we built them, did we? Thus, In the Drift would begin to look like a comparative Disneyland.
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