Friday, October 21, 2011

Survivors: A review.

James Rawles’ Survivors is the follow up book to the very popular survivalist novel Patriots.  Rather then being a follow on book, or a precursor , it is set in the time place, but in a different areas of the country than the first book.  A ‘sequential’ if you will.

John Rawles  runs the very popular SurvivalBlog.   I do not generally follow his blog, but I have found him to be very supportive (and again) of other blogger-author's in the past, and cannot commend him enough for those efforts.  If I had a choice, I would rather be a good person than a good author.
As I understand the dynamics of Mr. Rawles' survival methods, they are very much the follow on of the late Mel Tappan of Survival Guns.  They involve a “bug out” to a remote location in times of peril, stocking of ammunition and equipment, and a certain amount of homesteading/gardening to extend the emergency food supplies.  Mr. Rawles has also called for like minded people to all settle in the same area of the country as he does: espousing a Christian redoubt philosophy with some similarities to the Free State libertarian movement that is going on now.
Survivors is an odd sort of book.  Some of the pre-release discussion implied the the character in the novel  are not “preppers.”  But that is true only in the matter of degrees.  These people may not have ¾” plate steel shutters on their windows, but for the most part they are far better prepared than the usual folks.
As usual, I will start with the parts of the novel I had the most trouble with. 
Mr. Rawles’ combat sequences are….odd.   He has Andy, the Afghanistan veteran trying to find his way home after being abandoned in Europe,  connecting on all sorts of interesting shots with his 9mm SIG.  At one point he has three assailants, only a few paces away, and  decides to shoot the club/stick out of one of the muggers hands:  And succeeds.  At another point, with the engagement starting at 30 yards, he has Andy, in a moving sailboat, shooting at people on a rapidly closing speed boat.  With his magic Sig, Andy hits- whereas  the assailants with their non-magical long arms (SKS), miss.
Rawles also continues his enthusiasm from Patriots for Molotov cocktails.   It is very possible that these might be effective against civilian armored cars, or old WW2 vintage armored cars, but it is not clear why they would be effective against modern models, like the Cadillac Gage Armored Car (LAV-150), that would have been built after the introduction of the weapon in Finnish-Soviet Winter War concurrent with the early stages of World War 2.
The all-welded steel hull of the LAV-150 armoured personnel carrier protects the crew from small arms fire up to 7.62 mm in calibre, overhead blast, shell splinters and Molotov cocktails.

He continues his fascination with VSTOL ultra-light airplanes.  To some degree this is excusable because the one set of characters that do overlap with Patriots is the ultra-light pilots.  I am assuming the idea comes from his interest as a hobbyist, not as a serious means of bug-out transportation.
The oddest section of the book is a whole chapter, set in the middle of the book,  where he goes back 20 years to Honduras, and has some of the (less interesting) characters go through a lengthy courtship procedure.  Again, It is set in the middle of the book, long after the collapse has set in.  Why it is even in the book is unclear.  Earlier in the book, the same couple’s daughter lives and dies in a handful of paragraphs. 
Because it is tied into Patriots, which has its gestation well back into the 1990s, the story line is still tied into the Red Dawn militia movement aspects of that book.  That is unfortunate.  A book that has its collapse scenario coming from an economic meltdown written fresh today would probably not let the Europeans off the hook.  The Europeans could not even bomb Libya without our help. 
Having just read Stephenson’s’ REAMDE, the differences in the two novels' characters, good and bad, are head spinning.  Stephenson’s characters are all unattached, super smart whiz kids. They are always doing brilliant things.  Rawles’ folks all have families, are either hyper-patriotic, or hyper-evil.  Rawle’s people tend to be very “prepared”, but their actions are often less than brilliant.  Andy, the wandering Afghan veteran, in particular likes to do all sorts of strange things that nearly get him killed.
So what is to like about the book?  The book gives the point of view of a much broader, and much more plausible range of people than the earlier Patriots.  The book brings more nuance to the characters, and the extended dossier introductions of characters are toned down.  We are not talking about highly emotive, evocative prose here, but most of the characters have a little bit more reality to them.  The widowed young lady from Louisiana, who is far from her family, and does her best to start up a little business, is a particularly strong effort.
As I noted above, sometimes the scenarios play out a little oddly, but there are a number of different scenarios presented.  It does put you in the position of:  "What would I do if?'.    If you don't think a sneak attack on a group of armored cars with petrol bombs is a good idea, you still are left with the fact that it is something you might consider.  He even brings the sailboat option into play.
The major characters are Christians.  I am not of the opinion that this is a requirement, but the extent that peoples religious convictions are often ignored in these novels is a little stunning.  I wouldn't say that there are matter of deep theological significance explored.  But at least the people want to go to church, and when they are in trouble they pray.
Along those lines, there are  no of the snivelling, cringing, mad at the world types.  I understand why authors put these people in their post-apocalyptic novels; they likely will be very prevalent.  But it is nice to take a pass on them from time-to-time.
The survival instruction manual aspects of the first book are toned down considerably. He still has his bits of quirky advice (old style camera flash cubes as early warning devices) that he likes to throw in there. His advice on storing fuel is interesting. Unlike most novels with an action genre component, most of the people hit by gunfire do take a little bit of time to die.
What is my general opinion?  It is interesting.  Excepting the 20 years past Honduran courting, it does not bog down as badly as Patriots.   The combat scenes add elements of extreme realism with outright absurdities.  The book does not really draw to a conclusion.  Some of the characters are clearly defeated (they run away to Patriots), but others are still just hanging out.  Within the relatively low literary expectations of the genre, it  is unexceptional.  If you really liked Patriots, or you really like the militia sub grouping of survival/preparedness fiction, you will probably love it.  It will be another book that people either love or hate- with my lonely self sitting somewhere in the middle leaning toward the positive end of the scale.
For our descriptive (not qualitative) ratings, I will start by giving a 4 (range of 1 to 7 with seven being high) for grittiness.   The deprivations and dangers of the situation, outside of the occasional bandit-types, are described in pretty remote terms.  All the characters are just a little too lucky.  He notes that 87% of the people in Ohio are dead, but we don’t meet anyone who is from the area.  Nobody is holding their starving baby in their arms.  The abandoned orphans are given gear, and find a job.  The bad guys are still finding enough gasoline to keep ~50 heavy vehicles operation well into the second year of the disaster.  In a world where nobody will send a ship to the United States, the U.N. is somehow sending troops to occupy the U.S. -  I thought their insurance companies wouldn’t let them?  Where did they get the transports?
For literary content (ease of reading), I am going to put it at a 4.  It is clumsy at points, and you have to take off a point for the non-sequential inconsequential Honduran courting chapter.  There is an extensive use of pointless military acronyms.    But the story is a simple one, and it moves along most of the time.  There is no disguised symbolism found within; any symbolism  is going to be hammered home with a mallet.

As far as its place on our cosy/cozy list, it is going to have more-or-less the same ratings as Patriots, except that the preparation category would be a qualified "No" (N*).  This would put it in the cozy category.  Any novel where the otherwise marginally prepared, become prepared through the  past activities of a deceased family member (it's always Dad) is very likely to wind up in this category.  Since  some of the best selling books within the category are cozies, that is not necessarily a bad thing.


PioneerPreppy said...

As we discussed earlier I really think JWR has an estranged daughter who is possibly in a multi-racial relationship.

I found it interesting that after our brief discussion JWR also had a minor rant on his blog about "racist bringing his rating down" on the book. You will remember I had mentioned I did not find his race pandering particularly unpalatable although it was still obvious in "survivors".

I still think these quirks are connected.

Good review.

russell1200 said...

I didn't remember the discussion, and don't follow his blog closely, so I missed the rant. There are some pretty "xenophobic" people out their in the electrical wonderland known as the net. I wouldn't think any rant like that would be directed toward our musings.

I presume that because he esposes a Christian Fortress doctrine in a relatively "white" portion of the country, that he is sensitive to accusations of racism himself, and is trying to dipel that notion in his novels. ? Maybe ? The point you bring up might also play into this area.

I thought the acusation of tokenism could probably be more fairly leveled at the first book. But his style (or lack of) makes it hard to really say if the intent is pandering, or if it is simply another implausible character setup. His "people of color" who are good guys are no less saintly then his nordic folks. For some reason I liked the story of the lady with her Grandma and her seed store.