Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
Pocket Books, 6th printing, 1987
Genre: horror, post-apocalyptic fiction
Synopsis & Review: At the height of the Cold War, in a world already torn by nuclear warfare, the United States and the USSR are both poised to make First Strike. Their deadly game of cat and mouse comes to a head on July 17th, and nothing is ever the same again. From the charred ruin of America a few survivors rise: Sister Creep, once a New York baglady, now the bearer of a mystical glass ring in search of the people and places it shows her. Josh Hutchins, formerly a pro-football player and the wrestler Black Frankenstein, now recast as a protector. Col Jim Macklin, who escaped a pit in Vietnam only to sink into a pit of his own making after the holocaust. Roland Croninger, a young boy entranced by the trappings of power. The man with the scarlet eye, an ancient evil roaming the earth. And Swan, a nine-year-old girl with a powerful gift, one that could save humanity … the gift of life itself.
I somehow missed out on all the Cold War nuclear anxiety, and didn’t develop any of my own until I was in intermediate school. (That’s middle school to you Mainland people.) After reading The Stand and On the Beach in sixth grade, I was hooked on post-apocalyptic scenarios. Z for Zachariah, The Postman and the Barbara & Scott Siegel Firebrats series were my favorite nuclear holocaust scenarios–until seventh grade, when I discovered Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. To this day I am not entirely sure what sparked my fascination with a nuclear apocalypse; while I still love a good post-apocalyptic scenario, I like all kinds these days. I suspect it had a lot to do with my early adolescent anxieties: getting my period, changing schools, moving, dealing with childhood trauma, and growing up–or at least, trying to. The dangers and frights of a post-nuclear holocaust world, where just eating and drinking, the basics of survival, were so dangerous, dwarfed my angst about fitting in and making do. But anyways … Swan Song. I don’t know how or where I came across it, but it made the trip to Kauai in early 1992, and I read it all through that trip. I even have a photo somewhere of me reading it on a Kauai beach, intent on the conclusion. Actually, I think I’ve also got a picture of me reading it in a hot tub during my junior year of high school. Swan Song just might be my most photographed book. Weird.
Swan Song is divided into two parts: the events just following July 17, and then seven years later and an epic battle between good and evil. Or humanity and evil. Something. As an adult, I find the details of survival far more compelling than the latter half of the novel, which devolves into overwrought symbolism and a not especially satisfying conclusion. The first half, however, is a doozy. From the morality play overtones–80s America is drug-addled, violent, hypersexual; a place in dire need of cleansing–to the details of nuclear winter, keloids, and tainted food and water, it is engrossing. The character development, so promising in the first half, sags terribly in the second, however. Actually, the whole second half really drags, however; first it dawdles along leaving readers wondering when–if ever–something will happen, and then it transforms into a juggernaut, blowing through an epic battle, only to peter out again for a lackadaisical ending.
McCammon is a bit too heavy-handed with his moralism: anyone who has sex or indulges in drugs or alcohol is baaaaaaaaaaaaad. They will suffer until they repent their ways–even in a post-apocalyptic horror-show world in which everyone is miserable. He’s best when he sticks to the nitty-gritty of societal collapse, and how humanity copes–or doesn’t–with the sudden cessation of life as they know it. When McCammon adds the supernatural, it quickly turns schmaltzy. Characters enter briefly (then then usually die) in order to say something sage, or provide something important to the main characters before conveniently stepping offstage again. Combined with the ultra heavy-handed symbolism, and the cookie-cutter secondary characters (the heavy at the camp on the Great Salt Lake is basically Comic Book Guy, but a fat, gay pedophile with a gun store instead of a comicbook store; a hooker with a heart of gold), the book turns into a massive cliche. Even Swan–ostensibly the most important character–is a vacuous, dull character.
And then there’s the finale. I know the adage goes, “It ends not with a bang, but with a whimper,” but pushing a button? (Okay, they actually enter a code, but you know what I mean.) But after they defeat the evil, the sun comes out, basically negating Swan’s gift, which is to bring life even out of the tainted, radioactive dead soil. What was the point of the skies clearing suddenly? Slowly, I can see, because we know that nuclear winter will eventually end, but that was ridiculous. The only bit I liked was how the ancient enemy (Christopher Pike, yo!) was still around, lurking, waiting to take advantage of the darkness in human hearts.
Verdict? I loved it as a teenager. And I still do enjoy the first half. And it does move very quickly, making it fun for a long trip or relaxing. But don’t read it expecting something life-changing or mind-bottling. It is a fun revistitation of Cold War-era nuclear paranoia.
Read also: The Stand by Stephen King, The Postman by David Brin, Firebrats by Barbara and Scott Siegel, Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien, On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Cover: Holy crap, I hated this cover when I was twelve. I actually tore the front cover off my copy, then used a black crayon to color over the picture on the spine because I hated that evil face so much. So, I guess it was effective.
With the detonation of that bomb, a Pandora’s box of terrors had been opened.
On the fourteenth of March, India had attacked Pakistan with chemical weapons. Pakistan retaliated by a missile strike on the city of Jaipur. Three Indian nuclear missiles had leveled Karachi, and the war was deadlocked in the wastes of the Thar Desert. On the second of April, Iran had unleashed a rain of Soviet-supplied nuclear missiles on Iraq, and American forces had been sucked into the maelstrom as they fought to hold back the Iranians. Soviet and American jets had battled over the Persian Gulf, and the entire region was primed to blow.
21 September – 23 September