Monday, November 11, 2013

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Amazon did one of their various author spotlight sales for the kindle e-books on Robert R. McCammon, a horror author. I'd heard of the author from friends over twenty years ago in high school when people who had read Swan Song complained to me of how terrible it was that Stephen King's novel, The Stand, seemed to be the only thing fans of the genre were talking about. My mother, a voracious reader of many genres, was also a big fan of Robert and of Swan Song in particular.

When I saw the sale, I figured at worse, mom would be able to refresh her recollection of the books. It had been quite a while since she had read them and well, the old gray mare ain't what she used to be.

Strangely enough then, months, if not years later, I wound up reading Swan Song. I think it was because after reading the Shining and Doctor Sleep, both by Stephen King, I wanted to read something that had been compared to King's works, but not by the author proper if that makes sense.

Swansong has a lot of great moments to it in terms of how it flows. It's also a very dated book. People think I'm cynical and pessimistic and well, a bit of a downer. I read this book and I see a lot of that still goes back to the 80's and the fear, the very real fear a lot of people had of the nukes flying at any time.

I know things todays are more strained it feels like, but I'm honestly not worried about Russia declaring nuclear war on us. One crazy holy roller taking out a city on the other hand? Yeah, real thing. Getting killed at random when seeing a movie on opening night by some nut job? Real thing. Being nuked back to the stone age? Not so much anymore.

Anyway, I've drifted off the topic. Swan Song is a good post apocalyptic novel in the ruins of earth after a nuclear war. Like many tales with a touch of the supernatural in it, there are no explanations for the 'weird' bits in it. Why is there a supernatural creature? Why is there a magical crown? Why is there a prodigy of the land that can cause vegetation to grow when it's dead. But if you have to have those things, you're reading the wrong book. I won't mind some more internal acknowledgement of it, some questioning of it by scientists, but that gets into that hard science and well, I'm a big fan of not pushing the genre.

By that I mean don't take something into a place it's not meant to go.  A good example of that would be "The Deal", a fan made Batman and Joker end all scenario. It's not that it's bad or I don't think it's good, but it's something that anyone could write if they want to break the standards. For example, it'd be easy to have Spider Man die with a few well placed grenades but it doesn't happen because that's against the genre. Ditto for most of the X-Men. Heck, most super heroes who actually aren't bullet proof. It's why Fury doesn't have a clone eye or a cybernetic eye or take that stupid amulet from Doctor Strange and put it in his skull. The genre works, and it doesn't even necessarily have to have internal consistency with itself, much less 'how' things might work out.

The same thing is true here. There are enough bits that make it a good read that you want to see what happens. Robert does a good job of planting story seeds early that have eventual payoffs even if those payoffs may be visible in their final revelation. For example, the whole 'Jacob's Mask' bit? That was pretty clear to people who were paying attention to the writing and tone of certain character voices aka foreshadowing at the time.

Swan Song is a good story for those looking for a post apocalyptic horror story. It's good in that unlike some stories, it's ending is open enough that Robert could write a sequel to it that would be able to pick up many of the threads and see where they go from that point.

But what about in gaming? Is there anything worth looking at there? I'll be hitting some specific spoilers next so if you'd rather avoid them, read no further.

Jacob's Mask: What starts off as a series of warts, apparently caused by radiation poisoning, forms into a harden bark like mask over the user's face that eventually cracks off revealing the person's inner character for the world to see. While this works great for people like Sister and Swan and Josh, those who haven't been so kind? Well, monster city. In a fantasy environment, such a disease could be caused by a variety of things ranging from strange spoors and fungus, to curses and hexes. In a fantasy game, instead of changing your face, it could change your race, perhaps your entire identity. It would be a quick way of adding new races to the campaign.

Sunlight: After the nuclear war, there's a long nuclear winter. No sunlight. In Chicago, when the winter hits, we have little sunlight, some days are gray. It's an oppressive feeling at time. If you can capture the long term effects of that, you've got at the very least, a campaign element to hit the players with every not and again.

Civilization's Fall: Robert does a fair job of showing how quickly everything goes to hell in a hand basket without the toys. Given the limits of technology at the time of the book's writing and when the war occurred, it'd be even worse given how interconnected things are today. The collapse might be quicker and harder as people long used to shopping at three or six grocery stores discover that variety doesn't mean anything without the means to produce and transport said goods. Even in fantasy settings that try to put the 'grim' into the setting, one of the ways this is done is with the destruction of the highways and byways of the land. Without roads, trade becomes a very dangerous and treacherous thing. Without fuel, vehicles become scenery. Without maintenance, buildings become deathtraps. Without upkeep, bridges collapse and cities burn.

Time Skip: While I'm not always fond of a time skip, especially one like between Forgotten Realms 3rd edition to Forgotten Realms 4th edition, some odd 100 years I believe, when doing smaller ones, like the 2 year skip in Girl Genius or the nearly ten year skip done here, it allows the author to keep a lot of the old toys intact while still keeping the majority of the setting in tune with what has gone before.

New Artifacts: One thing I've harped on time and time again is how boring it is for the 'old ways' to just completely dominate the new. Don't get me wrong, in my own fantasy writing I've done I've fallen into that trap in terms of ancient swords but Robert doesn't. He crafts a crown of class and gems and melted precious metals that has a unique power whose full extent is never showcased in the novel. Messing with a setting allows new things to come to the fore front as well as showcase old things failing.

Swan Song provides a lot of fuel for the imagination's fire.

In terms of other Robert R McCammon books, anyone have any recommendations? I have quite a few of them but the one I heard the most buzz outside of Swan Song was probably Boy's Life although I have Stinger and a few others as well. Recommend away!