Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Pair by Pair

In 1984, Whitley Strieber, best known as the horror novelist behind Wolfen and The Hunger, joined forces with his friend, historian James Kunetka, to produce near-future science fiction novels well-known and praised for their level of detail and world-building. Whether they intended more or not, the writing dimension of their relationship ended after two books, and Strieber subsequently started writing about his experiences with unknown beings, starting in Communion. Kunetka has since written several history books.
Strieber and Kunetka's first collaboration was the 1984 post-apocalyptic novel Warday. Set five years after a limited nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, it describes conditions around the country via journal-like entries from the authors and interviews with people representing the changed features of the post-war society.

The "limited" nature of the exchange meant that only parts of the U.S. were destroyed by missiles -- but much of the rest of the country has been devastated by fallout and economic collapse. California and the southeastern states, largely untouched by bombs, have sealed their borders and prevented immigration from other parts of the country and the federal government is too weak to prevent these steps. Strieber and Kunetka decide to make themselves the journalists in the story, exploring what America is like five years after the conflict, called "Warday" because of its brief duration. Through their interviews with people they meet, they open up life in 1988 post-Warday America, including how people deal with its shattered economy, damaged national resources and the lingering effects of radiation poisoning and possible biological warfare.

Strieber and Kunetka's choice to make themselves the protagonists of their story strengthens its voice and gives Warday a "real-life" feel. They pay a lot of attention to details that help ground their vision of the hard living that would follow even a limited nuclear conflict -- one of the first postwar cars is not just a car but is described by make and model. Even the few bombs that were used created an electromagnetic pulse that fried most electronics, so folks find themselves turning to a lot of 1950s-era technology and earlier, with vintage autos and other equipment the only kinds of things that still work.

They reason out what kind of everyday life choices people might have to make in this kind of a world. For example, the government decides that people who received a "lifetime dose" of radiation on Warday are at such great risk to develop cancer or other conditions that limited medical resources would be wasted on them. They are "triaged," to use the novel's term, and it is illegal for them to be prescribed medication or receive regular medical treatment. Strieber and Kunetka think people in that situation might turn to alternative healing techniques like herbalists or pagan nature-worshippers for their health care, and that such moves would increase the profile and acceptance of these kinds of currently fringe practices.

Warday is not a thriller, and only an episode involving escape from a California prison bus has even the faintest shades of adventure. Its strength as a statement against the idea of nuclear war comes from its matter-of-fact tone, attention to detail and avoidance of Total Annihilation!!! scenarios. To create their world, Strieber and Kunetka relied on logical extrapolation from what people knew about nuclear explosions, radiation, fallout and other matters. You're right, they might be saying to their opponents. A limited nuclear war is possible; that kind of conflict doesn't have to destroy the world. Life would be possible after one. But it would be pretty hard, and are we sure that the country we'd become in the aftermath would be the country we're trying to defend?

That limited scope made Warday a much more effective sermon against nuclear war than overkill like its contemporary, the television movie The Day After. And Strieber and Kunetka's vivid travelogue style makes it the better novel today, long after the danger against which it warned has been bypassed by events.
Nature's End came out in 1986, and offers the story of a planet in the 2020s ready for ecological collapse. The stress of too many people, too few resources and too little care taken of the Earth's environmental infrastructure has brought humanity to the brink of disaster -- and encouraged a "counter-measure" movement that will probably send it over that brink to destruction. A crusading journalist and his investigative team to go work to expose the conspiracy, only to find that their enemy has allies throughout society and will be able to turn their own technological resources against them.

Strieber and Kunetka choose not to take the lead roles in End, creating as the central protagonist the journalist John Sinclair. Sinclair is one of the few people in the world licensed to create a special computer simulation called a "conviction," which will respond to questions and interact with people as though it were the actual person being shown -- except it will tell the truth. Sinclair's team has exposed hypocrisy and unsavory character flaws in politicians that brought down two administrations in different countries. Now they have to turn their skills against Gupta Singh, the charismatic leader of the worldwide Depopulationist movement. The movement promotes a coordinated mass suicide of a third of the human race in order to relieve environmental pressure and save humanity -- and in the November 2024 elections, an overwhelming "Depop" victory in U.S. elections means the movement could steamroll to approval worldwide. This even though scientists and computer simulations warn that the actual effect of the Depop plan will be a cascade of continued death and disease that will probably wipe out everyone else.

End lacks a lot of Warday's life and energy -- "John Sinclair" and the others on his team just aren't as fully drawn and realized as the authors' own personae in the earlier book. And whereas Warday felt convincingly reasoned out from the known world of the mid-80s as it was altered by a limited nuclear war, End relies a lot more on speculation than extrapolation and simply lacks the real-world feel Warday has. Even though Strieber and Kunetka show a future world with technology based on what existed during the time they were writing -- and they nail a significant chunk of the kind of technology in use today -- the story's resolution depends on some genetic and biological developments well outside what's possible now or likely to be any time soon.

As a cautionary tale regarding environmental damage being done to the Earth, Nature's End is a miss. But rereading it today shows significant satirical elements that might or might not have been a part of the authors' original intent. For one, the actual peril Nature's End shows is not environmental collapse as much as desperate and bad ideas to either halt or reverse the collapse. Although extensive research and computer models show that the Depopulationist strategy is much more likely to end human life on Earth than save it, the mass of people reject the more complex reality in favor of a fantasy they think sounds like a solution -- sort of like building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. The people who vote Depop don't get that Jonathon Swift's "modest proposal" mocked the idea that mass slaughter of human beings can solve human problems, and that a Holocaust-by-ballot is a Holocaust just as horrible.

Sinclair is a part of the youth-worshiping Baby Boom generation, and one of Singh's first blows against him is to remove him from the records of the company providing his artificial anti-aging treatments. The monstrous Depopulationist plan, which probably would have been attacked and defeated had it come from some first-world technocrat, gains strength and support when it's propounded by a calm and wise guru from the Far East. The real danger to the world in Nature's End isn't the looming ecological collapse, because there is some secret super-tech that might save the world. The real peril comes from the ham-handed knee-jerk idea to save the world through a mass suicide, brought about by people who have thought through none of its consequences.

Whether Strieber and Kunetka intended satire to fuel much of Nature's End, it seems to have turned out that way. And seen as a satire, the flatter characters and less energetic narrative still keep it from succeeding like Warday, even if might work a little better than as a plain warning against disaster.


Stacy Dennis said...

I'm glad you write about these. Don't know if I could keep up with the book...my brain might hurt. I do enjoy your writings, though. You challenge my mind. (Gets me out of the simplistic world where I work)

Stacy Dennis said...

Love your posts. My brain needs to be in the grown up world. At work, it's very simplistic and reading this helps me remember there is still much to see, do, read and learn on my own time.