Robie Macauley’s 1979 A Secret History of Time to Come is a stand-alone post-holocaust novel.
It took surprisingly little time for American to divide itself into white suburbs and black (and other non-white groups) cities and to embrace increasingly extremist politics. The situation is unstable. By the 1980s, a gleefully genocidal civil war distracts the US from global affairs. Whereas the Soviets and Chinese could sit back and enjoy their new global dominance, neither is inclined to share. Across the planet, nuclear explosions begin to bloom.
Centuries later, the former United States is a very empty land.
Here and there, small villages survive, preserving such technology as tiny communities can create or repair with their meagre resources. History has been abandoned in favor of vague folklore about long vanished Forefathers. There are vast ruins prudent people avoid. Indeed, most people never venture out of their home villages.
Haunted by visions of an enigmatic past, armed with a map of obscure origin — who was this ESSO, exactly? — Kinkaid sets out to explore the unknown world. The roads on his map barely survive, the vast cities are rubble, when they can be reached at all. Nevertheless, there is a connection between the world as depicted on the map and the world as Kinkaid finds it, even if he cannot work out what that connection might be.
Far to the south, New Mefis has a never-ending appetite for slaves. Expeditions march north. Communities unlucky enough to be in their path find their members kidnapped, their homes burned behind them. Those who survive the march south are enslaved.
Scarcely has Kinkaid befriended the people of Haven Place than raiders sweep through the region. Many die, including Kinkaid’s lover. Many more, like Glyn, are carried off as prisoners. Some escape (or were elsewhere when the raiders came) and from their numbers a rescue party is assembled. Kinkaid is among them.
Glyn is marched south with her fellow prisoners. Her endless schemes to escape are slow to come to fruition. Behind her, the rescue party pursues, slow to catch up with the New Mefis expedition. Will Glyn escape? Will she be rescued? Or will she live out her days as a slave?
This is yet another example of a book I own because I was slow to return the SFBC order card. Odd coincidence: Secret History was a SFBC selection the month after last week’s Juniper Time. In fact, I didn’t plan to review it at all — Plan A was to review The Sheriff of Purgatory—but I happened to encounter Macauley’s Wikipedia entry and was curious if the novel (about which I remembered nothing) lived up to its creator. In a word, no.
The 20th century portion of Secret History is an example of a once-thriving SF subgenre, American Race War fiction. Macauley paints an unflattering view of American society, as composed of factions eager to attack each other. White Americans prevail only because they are more numerous than the African Americans. However, nothing suggests the whites are superior in any other sense than numerically. Indeed, the 20th century whites delight in displaying their crimes against humanity. As for their descendants, “horrifyingly inbred (or possibly radiation-blighted) yokels” is a term that came to mind on a number of occasions.
It seems relevant that the author helped liberate Flossenbürg concentration camp, and therefore had an informed view about the worst of human behavior. While the New Mefis culture may be the antagonists, none of their vices are unique to them. Americans may have forgotten their history, but slavery is alive and well in the ruins of the United States.
Secret History is, alas, something of a curate’s egg. The 20th century and post-collapse stories are linked by visions that Kinkaid and an African American revolutionary share. Lacking context, understanding is impossible — Kinkaid is astonished to discover folklore about dark skinned people might be based in reality — which may underline the degree to which the people of Macauley’s future have forgotten their past1. However, beyond that, this thread really doesn’t go anywhere.
Otherwise, this is an intermittently interesting, competently written adventure tale, in which achievements fall far short of the characters’ lofty goals. Indeed, the more conventional the plot becomes, the less it holds attention. Robie Macauley had a fascinating career but unfortunately this novel is less interesting than its creator.
A Secret History of Time to Come is out of print.
1: A forgotten past figures in a secret connection between New Mefis and Haven Place. There’s a reason the raiders chose to target that specific Michigan community, one unknown to all but one character, who never shares his motivation.