Friday, August 23, 2013

Since Tomorrow: A Review

Morgan Nyberg's Since Tomorrow (Amazon, Amazon.UK) is a post-apocalyptic novel (with in-progress flashbacks) set within the picked over remnants and small farming communities in Vancouver, Canada forty years from present.  The causes of collapse are listed as being everything from climate change to pandemic, to economic collapse and earthquake.

Morgan Nyberg (1944- )  was born in Ontario, but now lives on one of the Vancouver Islands noted in the story.  Graduating from the University of British Columbia, he never the less spent most of his younger years working as a laborer.  Thirty years on he became a much traveled English teacher. He has written 2 children's books, and this is his third adult novel. He has won a number of awards, his highest honor likely being the CBC literary competition for his memoir Mark.

We start ~40 years from now, in a greatly declined Vancouver, Canada.  Vancouver is on the western coast of Canada in British Columbia.   It is less than 20 miles from the border of the United States, but the path down to Seattle is a relatively rugged one, and at this point in time, there is no Federal Canadian, provincial British Columbian, or even City of Vancouver government around.  The area to the south doesn't appear to be in any better shape, so the locals are pretty well left to resolve their own issues.
There is a scattering of farm groupings around the area, and a large grouping of indigent scavenger types who wander in trying to sell their dwindling finds at the local market in return for food.  It is a little like a series of impoverished Irish clan chieftains somewhere in the Middle Ages.   At this stage, there are still a handful of people who have been around long enough to know what some of the old technology was about, and how it works.  But a lack of viable fishing (global warming) nixes the viability of a seaborne life.  If you look at the map below, you will see that the city (or remnants in this case) lie on a lowland delta, broken up by waterways.  So without much boating, the remnant bridges dominate the geography and group interactions.
The novel is an odd mix.  There is a group that has managed to grow opium, and are slowly trying to take over the area by addicting those they can, and overwhelming those they cannot.  Using that popular post-apocalyptic weapon, the automobile leaf spring crossbow, they have gained a technology edge over their competition.  The entire town appears to only have one firearm, a .22LR plinker, to its name.  As Jeebee, in Wolf and Iron, noted, crossbows are bleed out weapons, rather than crushing weapons like firearms, they don't tend to kill real quickly.  So they are an imperfect super weapon.  In any case, these are the evil in every way bad guys.   Given the authors background, and times he lived in, I expect he has lost some friends to addiction.  The cannibals in The Road arguably get a more sympathetic rendering.
In any case, the novel centers around the escalation violence between the drug lord farmers, and the independent groupings of people in the area.  The main good guys are a pointedly United Colors of Benetton grouping of people.  To my mind, finding running a relatively inclusive group, that makes the best use of the talents available, is a perfectly reasonable strategy.  As portrayed here, it is more because the main leader, Frost, is a "better" person, with somewhat hippie-like, secular, kumbaya aspirations.  There is a somewhat allied group that is Christian, but they are the mean spirited non-inclusive, use the "N" word (Noah and his curse on Ham and all that), type of Christians.  So we know they won't be taking the lead in the anti-bad guy proceedings.
And this is where we get back to the odd mix.  Alright, you have a pandemic in the mix, and that wipes out enough people that the people with no survival skills, and a lot of luck, have been able to glom off of the left over salvage.  Those people are at the end of their tether, and are easy prey for the drug dealers.  But why are all the other groups so pathetic?  You have an empty land, and not a lot of people.  They have potatoes, and vegetable gardens.  Rabbits are running wild.  Yet the introduction of the crossbow (with a blunt tip, a very effective small game hunting weapon) is viewed as some sort of extreme measure.   The good guys like to use large guard dogs, and they are viewed as some sort of canine supper soldiers.   I have chased off an awful lot of big dogs with a long  piece of rebar, and I am not a medieval foot soldier.  The good guys are just shocked, shocked!, at the evil bad guys behaving like ... evil bad guys.  What is almost the normal course of event in apocalyptic (post or otherwise) novels is viewed as beyond the pale here.
Now in our (real) world today, there are a very large group of people that do see some sort of "falling away" from our modern industrial society as being highly probable.  They just like to view the future as a less traumatic, less violent, more sustainable sort of downturn.  They buy into the idea of a collapse, they just don't think it has to turn into some sort of Road Warrior armed camp scenario.  I can appreciate that outlook.  Most of them are smarter than average people, so it is not even really my place to say that they are definitively wrong.  But the tension here is between that sort of future downsizing, and the type of downsizing portrayed in this novel.  The author has a going to hell in hand basket apocalypse, but is trying to combine it with an ethics from a more gradual downturn. It doesn't really work that well.  Based on the author's assessment of post-apocalyptic Vancouverites, good guys or bad guys, they are prime pickings for any sort of outside aggressive group.  I would give your typical largish suburbanite Taekwondo school armed with sparring weapons and pads even odds against the bad guys; Against the good guys not so much, because the kids will want to stop and pet the dogs. 
So did I like the novel?  It was interesting at points.  If it didn't have much tension within the physical violence and bullying, it did a surprisingly good job of having a lot more skullduggery, and betrayal within the small groups.   Somewhere along the way, they find a copy of Clausewitz's On War and Frost's young son becomes a Clausewitz-spouting military advisor of sorts: completely hilarious.
So I will give a qualified positive recommendation.  I think people who are looking for something a little different than the typical isolated survivor story might find it interesting.  The main good guys are a likeable bunch, but it is definitely an exercise in herding cats to get any sort of action out of the larger group.  That people in dire times might be inordinately drawn into substance abuse, and that those doing the providing these means might become inordinately influential, are a very good point.  The novel has its failings, its not a home run, but there is enough of to the story, even in a survival craft sense, to merit attention. If I were reading it on a Kindle, where flipping back and forth can be an effort,  you may  want to find some method of noting who the many character are as they come up, if you want to follow all the group dynamics.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high.  Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting.  Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation.  Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is a little tough.  The author's realism is not a fully "realistic" reality from my own personal worldview.  But it is a rational one.  It is not as if we are traveling  the magical realism route and everything is all fuzzy on us.  If he thinks that people in the post apocalyptic world won't heavily rearm themselves once the firearms run out of ammunition, that is not a completely impossible outcome.  They do worry about supplies, they do worry about the bad guys, remnant modern bridges become major strategic choke points.   It is a little too far in the future to have a complete sense of immediacy with our world today, so I will call it a 6.
Readability is fairly straightforward.  There are moments of tension, but it is not intended as a page turner.  The group interactions, and difficulties in group cohesiveness are major points to the story. Which means that there is a lot of complex group interactions to work through, and a rather large cast of characters to try and remember if you want to understand all of the points being made.  There is not a lot of hidden symbolism that needs to be worked through.  It is pretty much where a book of this type should be: a 4.

Vancouver settlement map (from here)


Stephen said...

You write a fine review, Russell. Again, you've just saved me money.

russell1200 said...

Stephen: Thanks. Yes it is a very qualified recommendation.