Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”The sky was filled with waves of moving, blinking stars. Wheels of light rolled across the darkness over the trailer court, and streaks of yellow fire zigzagged upward into the haze that obscured the moon. Thousands upon thousands of fireflies were passing overhead like galaxies in motion, their signals forming chains of light that stretched from west to east as far as Swan could see.”
It would be pretty, right? All those missiles streaking across the midnight sky. The end of the world wrapped in the gossamer of sparkling, awe inspiring enchantment. Once the guidance system tells these glowing tubes to descend to the earth, they explode into these nearly perfect, cylindrical, fiery mushroom clouds that reach for the sky.
”It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”---R.E.M. (Oddly enough that song was released in 1987, the same year as this novel.)
Well, maybe not so fine. I’ve had debates about end of the world scenarios. People talk about what they would do to survive, but my hope is to be at ground zero. I like culture and civilisation and don’t really want to scramble about in a Mad Max world. Of course, if by some chance my book lined ivory tower were to survive, I would really appreciate it if someone would drop off a bit of food and a bottle of red wine occasionally.
Josh Hutchins, a world weary professional wrestler known as the Black Frankenstein, is on his way to Garden City, Kansas, for a match when the world decides to end. Someone would think that Kansas would be a good place to be for a post apocalyptic event, with its small population and lots of desolation. It would be my state of choice, especially for a zombie apocalypse, for those reasons and the fact that the horizon goes on forever in every direction. Line of sight, right? From my tower window I can see those lurching, slobbering brain eaters coming from miles away.
Unfortunately, there are strategic military reasons why the Russkies would want to blow up Kansas, and they have more than enough of these glowing tubes of destruction to wreak havoc in every state of the Union. Josh finds himself, after the fallout, the guardian of an orphaned nine year old girl, whose trailer trash name is Sue Wanda, but fortunately, she has been nicknamed Swan.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Well, try having an apocalyptic event, and you will find out.
Now Swan is a very special young lady, and as she grows up over the next seven years, her natural affinity for growing plants evolves into something quite spectacular. “‘Everything can think and feel, in its own way,’ she replied, and she looked up at him. The eyes in her young face were very old, Josh thought. ‘Bugs, birds, even grass—everything has its own way of speaking and knowing. Just depends on whether you can understand it or not.’”
Josh, in the midst of all this destruction and hardship, has had his own epiphany about life. ”Josh opened his fist and drew his arm back. The insect kept going, out of the light’s range and into the darkness on its purposeful journey. Who am I to kill such a thing? he asked himself. Who am I to deliver death to even the lowest form of life?”
Swan, you see, can bring apple trees back to life. She can plant corn seeds in infertile, radiated soil and make it grow. She is the most important human being on the planet, and there are people looking for her.
There is Sister Creep, well not as creepy as her name would imply, is seeing visions and knows she must find Swan to give her something she will need desperately in her coming battle against pure evil.
There is Colonel Macklin who, with the help of his teenage henchman, Ronald Croninger, has built what they call the Army of Excellence (AOE) and are marching across the midwest killing all who refuse to join them and stealing the food and supplies of everyone they encounter. Assimilate or perish.
There is one creature more insidious than Macklin and Croninger and their whole army combined. You can call him Friend, *shudder*, or The Man with the Scarlet Eye, or The Man of Many Faces, or if you want to try to think of him as something more human, you can call him Doyle Holland. He knows he has to destroy Swan because she is a beacon of hope amongst the chaos.
“‘Hope hurts me,’ he said. ‘It’s a disease, and you’re the germ that spreads it. We can’t have disease at my party. Oh, no. It won’t be allowed.’”
So what is Doyle exactly? He isn’t a man. A demon? The devil? He can shape shift, manipulate, control minds. He takes credit for all the chaos and evil in the world.
Doyle can feel the power of Swan, and she can feel his weaknesses. It is an unsettling meeting. ”He blinked uncertainly, and in his eyes Swan saw fire and savagery, a core of pain past human suffering and so furious that it almost ripped her own heart to shreds. He was a scream wrapped up in straw, a little, weak, vicious thing gnashing inside a monstrous facade. She saw what he was made of, and she knew him very well.”
Swan is also suffering a radiation inspired malady, as are many people, that is called a Job’s Mask. ”Her head was covered by gray growths that had begun as small black warts, had thickened and spread over the passage of years, had connected with gray tendrils like groping, intertwining vines. The growths had covered her skull like a knotty helmet, had enclosed her facial features and sealed them up except for a small slit at her left eye and a ragged hole over her mouth through which she breathed and ate.” They can feel their faces shifting under the growths. (view spoiler)[Once the masks come off, their true natures are revealed in their beauty or in their ugliness. (hide spoiler)]
The epic post-apocalypticThe Stand by Stephen King was published in 1978, and this novel was published in 1987. Some could say Swan Song is an ode to King; some will say it owes a lot to the King novel, and some would say they enjoyed The Stand more. I have read The Stand recently, and I must say that I enjoyed Swan Song much more. The writers chose different ways to destroy the world. It doesn’t really matter what destroys civilization the point of post-apocalyptic stories is what the writer makes of the wreckage and hopefully the redemption. King had his religious prophets, and McCammon had, for me, a much more compelling character in an earth goddess trying to lead humanity back on the path to civilization. I liked the plotting and flow of Swan Song better than the plot devised by King for The Stand.
They are both epic length novels each weighing in at around 1000 pages, but for me Swan Song was more smooth sailing than The Stand. I read Swan Song extremely quickly, in just a few days, while I lingered over The Stand for a couple of weeks. In this heavyweight bout, the winner is…Swan Song in the glowing green trunks.
May there really be an earth goddess among us waiting to save us from ourselves.
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