McCammon’s “Swan Song” — Apocalypse Then

Colliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down.

Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take Imagethe Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated.

I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it.  McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs. One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain. There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans go down. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King‘s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything.

It’s hard to say who the protagonist is.

I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants and it is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand‘s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.” The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies. I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone? Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place.

This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit-and-nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots.

The battle scenes were detailed and endless. In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.

I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.

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3 thoughts on “McCammon’s “Swan Song” — Apocalypse Then

  1. I read this just out of high school and recall considering it a poorly realized Stand knockoff. I was vaguely disappointed and resented the addition of the pseudo-magical mark of Cain mask and mystical green thumb, a contrivance that seemed tacked on as if, having so completely wrecked the planet, the author must invent some manner to reconstitute it.

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  2. You’re right; McCammon did such a thorough job of nuking the earth that options were limited so he reached into the supernatural solution grab-bag, came up with assorted devices and decided to use them all. I knew we were in trouble when the old guy–eyeless PawPaw–gasps “Save the child” before he goes to that great storyline in the sky. More like save this story and let the “just plain folks” (the farmers and the humble professors and librarians) win.

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