I had never even heard of C. L. Moore’s 1957 novel Doomsday Morning until an ebook version showed up in my inbox. It would have made a fine election day review, if only I had read it a bit earlier. Oh, well.
President Raleigh rebuilt America after the Five Days War and a grateful electorate has re-elected him five times. Of course, the electorate might have been nudged in that direction by one of the tools Raleigh created to rebuild America: Communications US aka Comus. Constant monitoring and finely targeted media control allow the government to nudge Americans in the direction of the most sensible decisions.
Now Raleigh is dying. Someone will have to replace him. Comus boss Tom Nye is determined to be that someone … but there’s a hitch. Which I will explain later. Tom schemes to remove the hitch with the aid of an old friend, the once great actor1 Howard Rohan …
who surrendered to despair and abandoned the stage after his wife—and the lover he had never suspected existed—were killed in a car accident. Rohan joined the legion of Croppers (unskilled workers) Croppers are paid, in part, in cheap booze, and Rohan needs booze to dull his pain. Rohan has no interest in returning to acting, but when the chief of Comus comes calling, Rohan has no choice but to agree.
The assignment is baffling: join a troupe of traveling players in California. Modern technology long rendered such entertainments hopelessly obsolete, deader than radio. How it could serve Comus’ goals to have a small group of actors performing in obscure venues in the Golden State is unclear.
To his surprise, Rohan discovers that Comus has withdrawn from California. Somehow the Californians have somehow managed something at which the other forty-nine states have failed. In fact, the Anti-Comus organizers are on the verge of something even greater: they have the means to break Comus’ hold over all of America, if only they can buy enough time.
Rohan has a baffling intuition that that he knew all this and more. long before he was briefed by Nye and sent off to California. How and why are mysteries. It is just as unclear which side he will back when push comes to shove: Comus and stagnant stability? Anti-Comus and chaotic, dangerous freedom? Or just whatever best serves Rohan?
Unlike certain books I could mention, this is explicitly not a snowglobe setting. Rohan notes that the troupe’s route offers the opportunity to escape to Mexico. There’s still an external world; it’s just that Americans are discouraged from thinking or caring about it. For that matter, they’re encouraged to focus on their own home states and ignore the rest of the US. Comus believes that ignorant, divided Americans are easier to control.
Doomsday Morning is noteworthy for a number of reasons.
One is that Comus’ methods are fairly atypical for the usual dystopian novel. Comus depends more on (surprisingly modern) targeted media manipulation rather than midnight police raids. Also, Comus’ rule isn’t all bad. It’s true that the US is slowly declining (a side-effect of their policies), but the average American has a life that is just good enough, stable enough, not to want to risk rocking the boat trying for something better. It is less fear that keeps people in line than indifference.
It’s also interesting that until the rise of Anti-Comus, the real challenge facing Comus was the long term effect of their own policies. In the short run, keeping people isolated and ignorant has served Comus well, but the cost is the slow erosion of every profession dependent on education. The Comus-run US is a virtual hermit state, so the average citizen has no idea that America is not doing well, compared to other countries … but things are getting to the point that the Comus-caused problems cannot be ignored. It’s not just that the US is running low on engineers and doctors and suchlike; Comus itself is short on competent Comus candidates.
Moreover, the Anti-Comus side isn’t all shiny and good. Their rise in California has sparked civil disorder and allowed roving bandit gangs. Their grand plan to overthrow Comus involves something like EMPing the rest of America. Yeah, the lights will come back on … eventually, but a lot of people will die before that happens. (It might take a while, as the nation is short of the scientists, engineers, and techs needed to fix things.) Even granting that Comus has to go, it’s not clear that Anti-Comus is the answer.
Having just read Double Star, I was amused to encounter another novel about an actor drawn into large scale politics. Yet, while there are some parallels between Rohan and Double Star’s Smythe, the two men are more different than alike. For one thing, Rohan was a less than ideal husband, but at least he was able to commit. Smythe values women as tension relief and has never had a long-term relationship (unless he played a loving husband in a long-running play).
Another nuance I did not expect: characters, even minor characters, in this novel are more than cardboard cutouts. They have other dimensions. For example, one Comus agent fails because they are sent to kill someone they know in private life, someone they treat as a child.
I’ve read a fair number of Dystopian Post-Atomigeddon2 America novels. Moore does raise some issues I could have done without3, but on the whole this was a surprisingly engaging short novel. I was surprised, even though I generally enjoy Moore’s books.
Doomsday Morning is available from Diversion Books.
1: Just how many stories about actors caught up in momentous political events who are also engaging in a journey of self-discovery are there, anyway?
2: Not that it’s clear that the Five Day War was atomic.
3: In particular, the hint that the Anti-Comus Secret Weapon just might blow California off the map. I thought that was a little over the top; the planned EMP would be bad enough.