What I (re)learned from this is my memory of books I have not read in twenty-three years can be unreliable.
As related in long flashbacks told by Mary Hope decades after the apocalypse, all the extra gadgets of Next Sunday AD didn’t save millions of West Coasters from being killed and displaced by the Big Quake and the might of the federal government is unable to deal with the roving gangs preying on travelers. On the upside, the disaster and its aftermath is a welcome distraction from the environmental effects of overpopulation and the way lethal Lassa fever is ripping through populations across the world, with twenty million dead in the US alone.
Mary just wants to move to her aunt’s isolated cottage in the Pacific Northwest but after surviving a Rover ambush all she finds waiting for her is a ruin. She does manage to make friends on the way, some of whom even live, and so while she doesn’t get the bucolic life she was hoping for, she gets a bucolic life and a new best friend, Rachel Morrow.
Mary also gets to be not in Portland or any other big city when the great nations manage to make a bad situation worse when a minor crisis over trespassing fishing vessels spirals into a sudden massive exchange of nuclear weapons. In an instant, all electronic devices stop working. In the hours that follow, firestorms depopulate cities; those who survive are then confronted by fallout, an NOx-depleted ozone layer and nuclear winter.
Mary and Rachel survive mainly because of dumb luck: they’re not in a fallout zone and Rachel has enough stores to last out the nuclear winter (and her animals survive despite the two women hiding in a cellar for weeks). Emerging, they find an empty world but they are least can scratch out a living far from the deserts that used to be cities. It’s not much of a garden of Eden but it is much better than the alternatives.
The serpent comes to the garden in the form of a man named Luke, who is amiable, friendly, attractive – at least to Mary – and enticing. He’s also the emissary of a community of survivors desperate to add to their depleted numbers; they were lucky and inadvertently prepared enough to survive the war but unlike Mary and Rachel they were not spared as many of the after-effects. Although it means leaving Rachel, love-smitten Mary agrees to accompany Luke.
The catch is Luke comes from a religious commune run by a charismatic head-case called the Doctor. While some of the cultists are nice people, the Doctor always gets his way in the end. Mary tries her best to set aside the fact that she is living with with religious lunatics but in the end, she is forced to flee back to Rachel.
Years pass. Terrible tragedies of the sort one can expect in a low tech, post-apocalyptic setting thin out the cast of characters but also allow an accommodation between Mary and the remaining survivors from the commune. Over the years Mary observes with concern as a well-meaning fanatic named Miriam seizes ever greater control of the community, mainly because nobody is rude enough to say no to her. Matters finally come to a head when Miriam, resolves to destroy what she sees as the most significant reminders of sinful ways: Mary herself and Rachel’s trove of books, the last known remaining library on Earth.
The detail I completely remembered incorrectly is how the confrontation over the books plays out. [rot13ed for spoilers] V gubhtug Zvevnz znantrq gb oybj hc naq ohea gur obbx ercbfvgbel, jura va snpg fur snvyf. To make up for that, the person Miriam manages to kill is the community’s sweet simpleton, whose cognitive deficits make them the sort of person the whole community would feel protective toward.
The run up to the war is pretty standard Population Bomb married to Limits to Growth stuff, and the details of the nuclear war – the EMP, the nuclear winter – help establish when the book was written. Interestingly, the Russian – US relations don’t; this could as easily have been written in 2000 as 1990. There are a lot of late Cold War books that ended up with egg on their face when the Soviets folded but this really is not one of them.
This does add an interesting twist to the moralizing about the sins of humanity, which is that in Rachel’s view monotheism is to blame for many of the ills of civilization, as it – somehow- drove a wedge between humanity and nature. Luke and his fellow believers don’t do much to make a case that their kind is not an inherent threat, no matter how pleasant they are on an individual basis. Of course, that was entirely within the author’s control.
Speaking of things under the author’s control, I couldn’t buy into the Mary/Luke romance. It has to happen for the plot to work but it always felt forced to me.
In recent years, I’ve been sent for review a number of books I will diplomatically call “Civilization fell! Thank Goodness!” books. Varley’s Slow Apocalypse is a good example: it’s kind of sad billions of people died but at least kids are not always on the twitter anymore, community theater is coming back and women know their place again, which is birthing babies with the best of 19th century technology. Oddly, most of these books seem to be written by men of a certain age, the Heinlein juvenile demographic, if you know what I mean.
Wren takes a much darker view of the collapse of civilization; the lost world – earthquakes, plagues and all – is called the Golden Age and only a lunatic would see the world Mary now lives in as an improvement. Mary and her companions now live on the ragged edge of survival. Without modern medicine it is all too easy for a minor mishap to spiral into fatal infection. It is not at all clear if the survivors can replace themselves fast enough to avoid sliding into extinction. On the whole, I prefer Wren’s take on apocalypse to Varley’s; the end of the world not something to celebrate.