Not with a bang, but a whimper: thoughts on Swan Song

I thoroughly enjoy stories set in the post-apocalyptic genre. Whether it’s nuclear MAD, alien invasion, killer plagues, or any one of the many other likely triggers of the End of the World, I enjoy watching the End unfold. Plucky bands of survivalists, roving mutant beasts, radiation-blanketed wastelands–it’s all good.

And so it was that I was pleased recently to stumble across a behemoth 1980s post-apocalyptic epic that I’d somehow managed to miss–Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, a nearly 1000-page beast of a novel charting a classic Good vs. Evil struggle in the radioactive wastelands of post-WWIII America. McCammon is one of those authors who is done a severe injustice by the propensity of his publisher to adorn his novels with the sorts of cheesy-horror cover illustrations that you roll your eyes at in passing on your way through the Horror section of the bookstore. I’d previously read one novel of his–Boy’s Life, which I enjoyed and have mentioned here before.

I plunked down a few bucks for a charmingly-tattered used copy of Swan Song. I started reading it on the car ride home from the bookstore, and I finished at 2:30 am this morning.

I enjoyed it greatly, and so I’ll talk about it a bit. Swan Song came out a couple years after Stephen King’s The Stand (another 1000-page post-apocalyptic epic from the 80s) and bears quite a few similarities to King’s book; McCammon acknowledges the clear influence, but maintains that his story is a unique one. (I think he’s right.)

The setup is a classic post-apocalyptic scenario: Cold War tension culminates in a civilization-destroying nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States. The first 100 or so pages of Swan Song introduce us to the assorted characters who will survive (through luck or providence), and who will soon become the heroes and villains of the post-apocalyptic world. In “the first shall be last” fashion, McCammon chooses some unlikely Heroes to survive the nukes and save the world from evil: an insane homeless woman, a washed-out show wrestler, and the young daughter of a “trailer trash” stripper. Those destined to become Villains hail from the opposite end of society: a respected retired military officer and a middle-class teenage boy who’s creepily obsessed with a video game he’s creating.

McCammon really hits his stride once the nukes hit and the various characters of the story begin their wanderings across blasted North America. There’s a really tense and brutal fight for survival in the depths of a Moria-style wrecked survivalist bunker where the colonel and teenage kid (Colonel Macklin and Roland, respectively) found refuge when the bombs hit; McCammon charts their degeneration from civilized humans to survival-obsessed monsters well. The heroes, meanwhile, begin to slowly converge on each other, running into a slew of inspired post-apocalyptic dangers along the way–mutated animals, a band of insane-asylum refugees roving across the Midwest, nuclear winter, the ruins of New York, and many others. And as they wander, they become aware that Something Else is roaming the wasteland as well–a clearly supernatural and thoroughly evil shapechanger who preys on the survivors, sowing death and despair wherever he travels. The Man with the Scarlet Eye (as he’s known) bears obvious similarities to The Stand‘s Randall Flagg–a demonic being of unclear origins who’s up to no good. His counter is a girl named Swan (the trailer-trash daughter), who has the supernatural ability to heal and restore the land. Macklin and Roland assemble a Mad Max-style army of armored vehicles and begin rampaging across the Midwest; the Good Guys eventually meet up and begin to organize the survivors; and the Man with the Scarlet Eye sets out to kill Swan through human agents.

The stage is set for a Good vs. Evil showdown, and that’s exactly what happens. For all the horror of its setting, Swan Song plays out like a classic fantasy or fairy tale–the Good are really good, the Bad Guys are really bad, and you just know that the heroes will pull through against impossible odds in the end. (If you’re having trouble figuring out who the Bad Guys are, McCammon helps you out a few hundreds pages in by having one of the villains don an actual WW2 Nazi uniform, if that gives you an idea of the sort of moral drama we’re dealing with.)

So yeah, it’s a very fun story. Some parts were more interesting than others–the pace bogs down a bit in the third quarter of the novel as McCammon sets the stage for the final showdown–but overall it kept me turning the pages. By using nukes to destroy the world (instead of a plague, as King did), McCammon is able to play with a lot of vintage post-apocalyptic tropes; everything from full-scale battles between heavily-armed factions to two-headed mutant beasts to a band of feral gone-native teenage boys crops up at some point. And the final confrontation is pretty good, although at least one Big Plot Revelation is clear to the reader several hundred pages before it actually happens. The book’s main weakness, in my mind, is McCammon’s tendency to get melodramatic and overly sentimental at points, especially once all the Good Guys meet up and start building their Happy Friendly Community of Goodness. Some scenes are so transparently and artificially set up for maximum emotional punch that they lose their impact. And an awful lot of the friendly people (NPCs, if you will) encountered by the Good Guys seem to be repetitive and annoying variations of the same Gruff But Lovable Down-Home Country Folk template.

But who can complain too much about the minor weaknesses of a novel that gets so much right? Swan Song won’t be displacing Tolstoy anytime soon, but it’s a fun and fast-moving story that’s worth reading if you’re a fan of the genre. It’s put me in the mood to dig out a few other good post-apocalyptic tales and give them a re-read. If you’ve got any recommendations on that front, let me know; otherwise, just keep watching the skies and keep your powder dry.

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5 thoughts on “Not with a bang, but a whimper: thoughts on Swan Song

  1. Sean

    Good choice in book reading, Robert McCammon kicks ass, I put Boy’s Life and Swan Song in my top ten books of any list. His books stick to the top of your brain like peanut butter. Great review!

  2. Andy

    Brit–wow, a Fallout speed run! I really need to replay both Fallouts; they’re brilliant games.
    Sean–glad you like McCammon too. The only two books of his that I’ve read are Boy’s Life and Swan Song. Any recommendations for which book(s) of his I should check out next?

  3. Sean

    His collection of short stories Blue World is pretty good and Wolfs Hour isn’t bad either but neither compare to BL and SS. I see you read Vernor Vinge too, can’t go wrong there either:)

  4. Andy

    Thanks for the suggestions! I love a good short story collection, so I will probably check out Blue World next.
    And yeah, Vernor Vinge rules 🙂

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