Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Star's Reach: A Review

John Michael Greer's Star's Reach is a post-apocalyptic set in the neo-mediaeval mid-west of about 550 years into our future, and about 400 years after the collapse of the "old world".

John Michael Greer is (based on blog blurb) is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and the author of more than thirty books on a wide range of subjects, including hermetic magical systems,  peak oil and the future of industrial society. He is best know here for his blog The Archdruid Report, and he recently started a slightly more philosophic blog: Well of Galabes which is stated to cover Druidry, magic, and occult philosophy with heavy doses of cyclical world systems as well.
The story takes the form of a memoir written by a professional scavenger (belonging to the Ruinmen's Guild) who has found a clue to the location of the legendary Star's Reach facility.  Star's Reach being a higher tech (remember the collapse was in our future) version of the Seti Project and its search for alien life.  In a sense the memoir tracks this Ruinman from Chattanooga (Shanuga) in his journey to look for this facility.   The journey itself has a number of twists and turns, which is simultaneously complicated by the jumpy time frame (back and forth in time) of the narration, and relieved of much of its narrative tension by the author's propensity for narrative plot spoilers.  Before we are to the halfway point, we know the general outcome of the search, who will attempt to betray the mission, and that betrayal will be unsuccessful.
So if we know much of what is going to happen, only lacking details, what is filling up 366 pages?  A few plot twists to be sure.  But mostly it is a rumination by Mr. Greer on his idea of what a far future society, with some remnant ideas of technology, but denied access to fossil fuels, and living in an environmentally damaged environment, would be like. And what would it be like?
Well it would be similar to a (very) low magic fantasy setting where their is a certain amount of religious tolerance (there are a few Christians hanging around), but dominated by a matriarchal Earth Goddess Cult.  Mexico, apparently not bothered by the global warming is the main world power. Washington D.C. and most of the East Coast megalopolis is underwater, and the isolated Midwestern U.S. is a usually female president for life elected by the ruling classes, and a variety of disabling mutations caused by left over radiation and toxins.  The author shows his allegiance to the old game, Gamma World, by having his ruins set with all sorts of impractical and implausible traps. Traps that seem to have no purpose other than to kill unwary scavengers of the future.  Granted there are no tentacle monsters or giant spiders in the mix, but it does come off more like a dungeon adventure than a archeological dig.  Apparently there is no AIDs anymore as three are a number of very loose, free love style, sexual practices noted in a few locations.
As a the storyline moves into the second portion of the novel, the plotline begins to channel Forest Gump, in so far as our hero's ability to run into all sorts of semi-legendary folks, key political instigators, and even a visit with the President for life.  The coincidences become staggering.  Since the novel does have a few magical elements to it, I am not sure if this "luck" is caused by some sort of Karmic powers, or simply forced story telling.  Our hero, as I suppose is appropriate for a story with a fantasy element, tends to be capable beyond what is plausible.  Competent street fighters armed with crowbars wouldn't normally be expected to take on nearly invisible super assassins: but they do here.  By the end of the story, our Ruinman has major seismic events coinciding with his quest.
If the social/cultural elements are pushed a bit hard, the story does work at doing a fare amount of analysis of the what a post-carbon, post-globally warmed, successor culture might look like, particularly one that is self limiting due to its efforts not to repeat past mistakes. Although the narrator, being part of it,  doesn't sense it, much of it is rather squalid and rough.
So does it work?  Not really.  The Druidic version of a PC history pushes a little bit too much into wish making, and with much of these revelations being parallel to rather than part of the storyline, it all seems forced.  Our Ruinman is a decent enough fellow, but is a rather detached sort.  He has friends and companions, but doesn't seem to really miss their company when they are not around.  The mystical element, particularly the dream sequences, are reasonably well done.  But the novelistic arguments for a more "magical" basis for reality are perfunctory once we get past the dream sequences.  He pushes for a too overt magic, while at the same time, not making the "magic" particularly credible.

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.

We are in too far of the future to allow for much immediacy to the realism.  The "magic" has a little more of a tacked on feel than that  of an immersive magical-realism approach, so I am not going to make a huge deduction there.  I think it is safest to put it at the midpoint and call it a 4.

Readability is a little tough. The journal approach, particularly with all the plot spoilers tends to take away much in the way of possibilities for a page turner.  Much of the activity seems to be more centered around displaying the author's view of a future post-carbon reality, than to driving the plot line.  I kept running out of steam, and putting the book down, coming back to it more out of a sense of obligation than desire.  Still, the storyline isn't that hard to follow.  It is a 3.


James M Dakin said...

I found it a rather decent read, but just. And, really nothing to do with the post-apoc genre. I got my monies worth for a Kindle book- so it didn't treat me as shabbily as a lot of the militia porn does.

russell1200 said...

James: I don't know about the "nothing to do with PA." It is in a collapsed world and does have some retrospectives on how it came about. I think to some degree, I may have dammed it with too high expectations.