Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Caravan: A Review

Stephen Goldin's Caravan is an apocalypse-in-progress set in the middle of a slow worldwide economic  collapse.  In this case the economic collapse spurred by an oil shortage, but in a more global sense caused by world overpopulation.  The novel takes place in California and the Southwest United States, in what was then the future of the mid-1980s,
The modern "e" -cover
Stephen Goldin (1947- ) originally worked as a civilian space scientist for the U.S. Navy. The writing bug took over and his next job was working as the editor of a pornographic newspaper, The Ball, in San Francisco. He has co written works with both of his wives, and today is an advocate of atheism.  Within the novel, his religious views come across as being loosely progressive with an earnest commitment to tolerance and open-mindedness rather than being rabidly anti-clerical or anti-religious.

Written in 1975, Caravan is the eighth book in the Laser Book series put out by Harlequin books- a publisher better known for their romance novels.  The novel, written in 1975, has been reissued in a number of e-formats - although I am reading the original mass market paperback.  As the author notes at his website, "while it was originally intended as an "if this goes on" story...well, the world went on, but not quite in that direction. You can think of it now as an alternate-world story". A free sample of the novel is available here.
It is a world slowly collapsing.  The slide has been seven years.  People no longer have lawns, as all available space is used to raise food.  When traveling along the interstate in Los Angelos, you would see maybe two cars in an entire hour: gasoline is very dear.  It is noted that the Los Angelos' water supply is still holding out - barely - but that situation is not likely to last too much longer. When the water stops, trouble and a final collapse can be expected.  Other cities, in even less viable climates- Tucson for example, are already wastelands, picked over by a few dangerous remnants.

The primary observer/hero of the book is Paul Stone.  He is the Casandra of this collapsed world who warned of the coming collapse.  As an author, he warned of what was to come just before the everything fell apart.  And Naturally, people hate him for it.  The book is laced with his mutterings about the coming collapse:
The future is all about contraction.  We could navigate our way into it but we don't want to.  We want to stay right where we are with all our stuff and no need to make new arrangements and we are trying every last trick to do that.
This quote is a trick, it is not one of "Mr. Stone's,  but rather from his more modern twin, Mr. Kunstler here.  As we see, "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

There are a couple layers of irony.  One is the intended irony of Mr. Stone's writings from the past of the novel about the coming collapse, a collapse that he is living in the novel, but has not yet lived at the time of his writing.  There is also the unintended irony of writing a collapse novel set ten years in the future, based on extrapolations of the known facts of the mid-1970s, and it being almost 30 years now since the time of the story with no collapse, as described, yet in site.  And of course, as Mr. Kunstler's quote indicates, we are still being warned of the coming collapse.  The devil is in the timing.
This is a travel story. The purpose of the "caravan" is to seek out recruites for the building and eventual launch of a spaceship ark to a nearby star with what looks like a habital planet.  At the point our story begins, the caravan has made it to the extent of its outbound leg from the secret headquarters, and has picked up a variety of people who have volunteered.  So you have a muli-cultural mismash of people in a small column of vehicles trying to make their way from the suburbs of Los Angelos to an area out in the desert where the "monastary" , the name of the starship production facility, is based.  There exact destination is not clear until the end, but they travel mostly along Interstate 10 through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Not being able to carry enough fuel for their vehicles, they are forced to steal fuel from small little remnanat villages that still have a small supply on hand.  The bandit-like nature of their activities does not go unoticed by some of the recruits and there is a fair amount of discussion about what is moral and just in a society which otherwise has no rules.

To keep the groups soundly on the side of the angels, the caravan also tangles with a variety of bad guys, and helps a few people along the way.  There is a sad scene where one of the caravan recruits stops by their mothers house, and finds it abandoned with only a large blood stain in the master bedroom to indicate that mother may not be with us anymore.

I will wrap up our discussion of the plot here.  No point going too far into the details, and spoiling all the surprises.  I do want to note that regardless of what the books blurb states, it is not a book about a starship, but a book about traveling through a collapsing society.

Did I like the book?  It was O. K.  Good, but not great.  Some of the observations about the possiblities of a collapsed society were interesting.  Some of the action scenes were more cinomatic than realistic.  The nature of the collapse itself is handled in a very dry, rather impersonal manner.  Mr. Stone is a rather icey individual.  We get an outline of  Mr. Stone's  pre-collapse corrective suggestions:
Civilization was doomed in just  in just a couple of years unless radical steps were taken immediately...mandatory euthanasia, mandatory birth control, immediate redistribution of wealth immediate decentralization of society, and end to single family dwellings, and end to raising non-food animals as pets, forced movements of people  to equize population distribution, strict rationing of food and water, complete government takeover of industry and labor, complete government control of transportation, and a multi-billion dollar (real money back then) crash program for farming and colonizing sea beds.
At various times, these themes were all explored by the literature of the day.  But they were usually dystopian futures:  Soylant Green in particular comes to mind.

The author is very tolerant in his novel of all sorts of people.  He has one character, a useful one, who is homosexual.  And unlike the more recently written novels, he doesn't make him into a super hero, and than kill him off to make a martyre of him.  He is around.  The permisablity of homsexuals within the caravan is argued, and then the story moves on.

However, what is implied by all this discussion is that the tolerance comes with the condition that the person be "useful."  One person is usefule because they can do "this" (make pottery), another person is useful because they can do "that" (design fusion space engines).  And of course, the nararator presumes, as an author who is a 'rocket scientist' would, that he will not only be one of the useful people, but may even get to decide who is useful.  And of course if you are a clever enough person to be reading this author's book, you too must be useful.  It reminds me of the Thomas the Tank Engine Stories: all engines must prove their worth through usefulness.

The mixed up muddle of correctives suggested by Mr. Stone, sounds like some sort of odd libertarian fascism - do as you will, as long as your usefulness to the state purposes is demonstrated.  Thus it is decided that it is O.K. to steal fuel from the small towns, because the rocket scientists will use it to a higher purpose.  They don't steal because they are desperate, they steal because they can.

So yes, as I already said, it is an O.K. book.  There is some interesting discussions, and it is not entirely coldhearted, but the very chilly start makes it hard to really become emotionally attached to the story line.  Most  All of the action is driven by the male characters - not very surprising for 1970s fiction whose primary target audience would have been male.  In looking at my Encylopedia of Science Fiction,  the author's entry notes that he is a competant writer, one you would expect to move a story along, but not one who would break open new ground.  I think this novel, prettty well demonstrates that sumation.

For our descriptive ratings:  Realism and readability [ 1 to 7 with seven being high.

Realism, sometimes refered to as grittiness, is a little tough.  You are very much an observer to the here and now activities of a group trying to make its way through a dangerous landscape.   This would normally imply a high level of immediacy.  However, there is a tendency for the author to pull back and talk tactics, when he should be desribing activity.  Given that this author, along with most writing in the genre, has a rather thin grasp of tactical reality, that is a mistake.  In the scenes were we stay in the moment, the writing gets much more gripping.  I will say that it is above average at a 5.

Readability is fairly straightforward.  He can produce some good lines of prose.  Here we have a young lady, visiting the hometown that she left just before the main collapse:
Risa stared around her. Sights she had seen else-where had not made their full impact on her because she had not known them when they were alive and vibrant. This was different.  She had grwon up here, had seen this shopping center filled with people, mving about, laughing, talking, living.  Now it was all still - all that moved was trash before the wind.  "What ...what happended?" whe whispered.
Peter put his hands gently on her shoulders. "The people moved away."...
I would not go so far as to call it a page turner, but it is not too long and it reads well.  Let us call it a 6.
The original cover


Anonymous said...

sorry you dropped off my blog. thought I pissed you off but figured out I hadn't joined yours back or posted a link. I wasn't trying to snub you I just didn't know that much about blogging back then. Sure would like to have you back. I miss some of the conversations that used to happen at Bisons. the rat

russell1200 said...

MR: Wasn't upset. I replied at your location.