Sunday, June 14, 2009
Libros del Awesome : Some Will Not Die
Welcome again to Libros del Awesome, my own thing where I showcase books I found in the bargain bin that are pretty damn good. Today I'm reviewing Some Will Not Die by Algis Budrys.
I found this at the Book Nook a little ways down the road from my house. I had previously only been there after dark and never gotten to go through the bins out in front, and as I suspected that was where all the real gold was. While the interior is populated mostly by what you'd expect - i.e. nothing top-shelf, lots of midlist stuff I don't know enough about to know if it's any good, leftover fad books - the bargain bins are full of all the "junk" paperbacks etc. that they can't get rid of. I left with a pile of books that were weather-beaten and had silverfish running around in them, but they were still mostly in good condition.
I was intrigued by the cover art, which I think you can agree is pretty awesome. I also noticed that it had been based on a short story from the fifties, which is a little earlier than you typically think of post-apoc scifi coming from, I guess just because of all the big apocalypse movies in the seventies. Really, though, some of the most famous works in that genre are from around that time. Budrys' work I think stands up pretty well with those.
SWND has your basic post-apoc scenario - a mysterious plague wipes out something like 90% of the world's population. Chaos and hilarity ensue, yadda yadda. Even though Budrys was writing this at the dawn of the nuclear age when this idea was still new, there won't be a lot that's unfamiliar here just because so much has been done with this type of story. Give the man props for being one of the first, though.
Aside from the kinda lame title - I think it's too passive - my only other problem with the book was how it jumps around in time. Half of the book starts right after the plague and attempts to follow the attempt to rebuild society, so we start out with Matt Garvin as a young man stepping out into the street after waking up from surviving the plague, then we skip forward and he's got kids, then we skip forward ... Budrys is trying to tell a huge story and he doesn't have a lot of room to work in. Fortunately there aren't many characters but it's still a bit taxing to try to remember that this current character was so-and-so's kid in the last chapter.
The other half is set in what you might loosely call the "present", dealing with what's going on in America a few generations after the plague. It centers around a guy named Joe Custis who hires out his nuclear battlewagon for jobs, lately he's searching for Theodore Berendtsen, legendary founder of the Second American Republic, who is supposed to be dead but whom people still fear as an evil military dictator. A lot of this stuff is good but unfortunately struck me as irrelevant until the "backstory" starts filling in gaps that are referenced in the "present-day" storyline. Even at the end, when Budrys tries to tie the two storylines together by finally getting the "backstory" current with the "present", you can already see how damn confusing this is getting and the book just kind of ends.
I guess you could make the old argument that "there are no endings in real life" or whatever. All I can say to that is, yes, that's true. That's why I'm reading a goddamn book. To me real life is mostly irrelevant to fiction in the sense of trying to accurately capture actual real-life experiences. Real life, like war, is long stretches of boredom liberally broken up with brief moments of stress, fear, excitement and challenge. Real life is not fun, it's grindingly hard and there aren't many people about whom you'd really be interested in reading the story of their life.
I know if my life were a book I'm not sure I'd want to read it. I heard someone tell me this once as an admonishment to get out there, and, I dunno, climb a mountain or something. Really, though, if my life were a book I'd want it to be something more like, say, Bruce Campbell's Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way, which is loosely based on real-life events but also fictionalized to make it way more interesting.
I'm getting off track here because those little statements about "real life" as it relates to fiction really bug me. At some point I'll get drunk and post a whole essay on the topic. All I'm saying now is at the end of this book, I think Budrys' intended resolution - the signs that civilization really is returning to the world (at least North America) and things are going to be okay - gets muddled by the "present day" storyline. While awesome, it never really did anything for me. It felt more like extra material grafted onto the "backstory", which was the story I really wanted to read. Honestly I think you could have cut all the "present-day" stuff out and not lost much.
Well, that was a lot more of the downsides of the book than I thought I had to say. So I guess the book is a mixed bag. But I also thought it was overall a hell of a good read, and it manages to blend political philosophy along with survivalism in a way that's not annoying; this is especially helped because I don't think Budrys picks a side until towards the end when you see what he thinks two competing philosophies of how to set up a society after an event like this end up playing out. One, Berendtsen's way, is bloody and terrible but ends up being what ultimately bands people together as a society. The other ends up in sort of a cultural dead-end that is obviously supposed to be like the antebellum South (even though it's in New Jersey). This was part of the reason I wished he would have just dropped the whole plotline with Custis and just stuck with what I kept thinking of as the main one, the story of the Garvin family - that was already a huge story and he just ran out of space and time to really stretch out and tell it. There was so much more to explore, and maybe with that extra space he would've had time to get more into it.
Budrys, if you read his bio on Wikipedia, only technically served in the military and was the son of a diplomat, so I don't know what actual military experience he had. But the whole book has a strong military flavor to it that feels right. Helpfully, Budrys stays focused on the characters for the most part. As Berendtsen's army sweeps across the Eastern seaboard we are treated to some large-unit tactics and other military stuff, but fortunately there's not so much of it that we get bogged down in something like a history book instead of a good story. Hard-core military fiction fans might be a little disappointed by this but I think it was the right choice. Even Glen Cook, who is usually mentioned in discussions regarding military fiction, doesn't do this sort of thing (at least based on what I've read of his books so far). Unless you are a hardcore mil-nerd, stories about human characters are much more interesting.
Another thing to note is that I really liked the fifties cultural notes that you wouldn't see today. Put me in mind of the "Fallout" games, except not done for comedic effect. If the world had ended in the fifties it would have been something like this, people getting married and having kids, Matt Garvin's wife needing clothes for the baby so he has to go out and cap some dudes at Macy's, women as the underpinnings of civilization that make it work instead of being action-girls going around shooting shit up. Might be too politically incorrect for some readers, and I only mention that because those people are so damn sensitive. If you're reading this blog for anything past the first time I think you'll enjoy it rather than be offended by it, hell, usually when someone says something is "politically incorrect" that makes me more interested and I think my readers are the same way.
Bottom line is, this book was pretty damn good despite my problems with it. Hence it is now inducted into the LdA series as a worthy read.