Thursday, September 5, 2013

Wolf and Iron: A Review

Gordon R. Dickson's Wolf and Iron is a post-apocalyptic novel set very shortly after a sudden economic collapse has led to the ruination of the primary large urban areas through rioting and looting, with the rest of the country has atomize into smaller localized clusters.

Gordon R. Dickson (1923-2001)P: Born in Edmonton, Canada, after the death of his father, he moved to Minnesota at the age of 14.  After serving in World War 2, he got a degree in Creative Writing in 1948 from the University of Minnesota.  While there he studied with such luminaries as Sinclair Lewis, Robert Penn Warren, and Poul Anderson.  As a writer, he was most famous for his Dragon-Knight (Dragon and the George) fantasy series, and the uncompleted Childe (Dorsai) Cycle series of science fiction novels: a series of novels that is very influential in the military sci fi of today.  He won numerous awards (source) including a 1965 Hugo award for Soldier, Ask Not; a 1967 Nebula award for Call Him Lord (1966); a 1975 Skylark award; a 1977 August Derleth award for The Dragon and the George ; a 1978 Jupiter award for Time Storm ; a 1981 Hugo award for Lost Dorsai; and a 1981 Hugo award for The Cloak and the Staff (1980) (complete bibliography).  Just prior to his death he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.  This novel appears to always have been planned as a stand alone work.
As the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction noted:
Dickson showed a liking, often indulged, for hinterland settings peopled by solid farming or small-town stock whose ideologies, when expressed, violate any simple, conservative-liberal polarity, though urban readers and critics have sometimes responded to them as right-wing.  As late as the Ruined Earth tale Wolf and Iron (October 1974 as "In Iron Years"; much expanded 1990) – which embodies a Survivalist plot considerably deepened by the author's detailed and compassionate attachment to the kind of hero who understands and loves the physical world – he was still mining this fertile soil.
The novel has some interesting intersections with some other published works.  Although the thread is a light touch, it has obvious precursors to the famous Isacc Asimov Foundation series:  particularly the first in Asimov's series.  Our hero and narrative reference point, Jeebbee, much like the famous Hari Seldon, is a social scientist who can use wizbang advance mathematical calculations to predict future sociological events.  The primary driving point for his wanderings is to set up a Foundation-like basis for the fast return of modern society from its collapsed state.  This gives it the sci-fi tropes needed for it to avoid being cast in with the action-adventure survivalist novels of the day.

It is also noteworthy that this novel came out just prior to when James Wesley Rawles started the online versions of what was to become the influential militia-styled Patriots.  Although Rawles threw  some other, at times discordant, ingredients into the mix, the parallels with this novels collapse method, and extended "how-to" instructional set pieces is pointed.
The story picks up in the early phases of Jeebee's (a nickname) escape from "Stoketon", Michigan, a small university town where he was working in the new research area of Quantitative  Sociodynamics (QSD).  Using these new methods his group has come to realize that the current order is due for an cascading economic collapse sparked by a series of bank runs.  Mis-timing the collapse, and under estimating how clannish the small town will become,  Jeebee has had to high tale it out of town with his small collection of escape preparations which primarily include a high tech (for the day) solar scooter.  When we meet him, he is traveling at night, trying to make it to his older brother's ranch in Montana.
Jeebee, is an innocent, and is not really up to making it in the world on his own.  Through a series of misadventures, Jeebee and the newly met, captive Wolf help each other escape from a small town where the local get dangerous.  Becoming something of a bonded bare,  the two of them have a variety of excursions and adventures.  Wolf is already adapted to this new brutal world, and as time goes on, Jeebee begins to understand, and more importantly live, the world-view needed for survival.

The novels pacing could be thought of as not so much plodding, as detailed, or alternatively, ploddingly detailed.   The author takes sufficient time to describe what is going on, and why.  Since Jeebee is a social scientist he is able to make reasonably plausible assessments of what he observes in his travels.  The author does manage some timeline progression by some soft jumps in narrative time.   The early portions have the feel of a Louis L' Amour western novel, but with more content, and the action less forced.  There is action, but it is of a more sporadic, natural pacing.  Much of it is viewed at a distant, or retrospectively by viewing burned out homes, or by third-person recounting of events.  The book has much more of a naturalist feel than the typical "prepper" style novel.   The book is taking place in the wide out open spaces, with a relatively low population density.  So nature is as dangerous as the people.
There is one little part of the story where a young lady is captured by two men to do housework.  A more sensationalist novelist would have turned this into a sexual-predation scenario.  But the scenario is not at all implausible.  Many of the women captured by the Native Americans were not sexually attacked, but were literally put to work.  The work that women did in pre-industrial society was long, difficult, and not a lot of fun.  Even in early modern times, the death of the wife in a middle class English family was a disaster.  The various cooking and cleaning tasks that we now accomplish with machinery took hours.    Bachelors often stayed at a boarding house where at least some of these tasks could be done for them.  Living by oneself, without servants, was not a pleasant idea.  I think our author here understands the dynamics.
Did I like the novel?  Yes I did.  I would warn perspective readers that it is not a particularly easy read if you don't like a lot of backwoods survival lore, and skills, enumerated in detail.  To be honest, after a while, you can sort of blur your way through all the arts-and-crafty sort of stuff, if you get anxious to find out what is going to happen to everyone.  Because you take a lot of time with them, the characters that we meet along the way are very real.  Even a few of the characters we never meet in person (the wolf-keeper for instance) we come to feel that we know.

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:  Given the level of detail, you would think that I would have no problem calling it a 7.  But to my mind, the author was a bit loose with the supply concerns, and a little bit seemed to go a long way.  Ammo was voiced as a "concern", but shoot, Geebee turned down the option of taking trapping gear with him at one point.  So I will hedge a bit and say we have a 6.

Readability:  Long and detailed versus long and plodding, toe-mae-toe, to-ma-ta, and all that good stuff.  It is slow.  You will need to be either a glutton for instruction, or patient.  There is nothing terribly difficult to understand symbolically, and no magical realism to decipher:  a 4.

No comments: