Summer of the Apocalypse by Van Pelt, James, 2006

Summer of the Apocalypse by Van Pelt, James - Book cover from

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I have spent most of this summer, the summer of 2010, to be exact, reading as much apocalyptic fiction as I could lay my hands on. With several hundred in used book store credit and a brand new Amazon Kindle to my name, it has not been difficult at all to load up on the subject. Allow me to remind you that I have not exactly been moved much by that which I have acquired. To be more specific, I have learned that over the last several years the apocalyptic fiction market has been glutted with right-wing and/or Christian symbology; two ideologies which I grew weary of long before last summer began. I suppose that there is a logical reason for this phenomena. Mainstream right-wing (unfortunately these days, "radical" has become synonymous with "mainstream," - and don't argue with me about that, because I know I'm correct) and Christian ideologies feed ravenously on the fear of their own adherents, and apocalyptic fiction pushes all of those buttons. Plus, the authors are given great opportunities to send up their favorite Satans, which, if not actually devils are usually middle easterners. It's just two great tastes that taste great together. Summer of the Apocalypse is a welcome respite from all of that. This book has a lot of heart and it's main character has a truly moderate and empathetic outlook. There is just so much humane warmth to this story that it's easy to forget that everyone's dead and all that we have built is either lost or on its way out permanently.

Eric was a 75 year old man, and the only survivor from the "Gone Times," the years before a virulent plague just about everyone. He was pushed by his son and fellow villagers in Littleton, Colorado to take over the mantle of "wise old man" left vacant by the death of the only other survivor. He did not relish the thought of being made into a medicine man, which he viewed as being sidelined from his real life's work of teaching the young. He felt relegated to an unnecessary ceremonial position that would require him to deal with everyone else's aches and pains and gripes. Eric did worry about the increasing number of stillbirths and sterility in his community. He was also tired of fighting with his son, Troy, about the value of knowledge. Eric wanted to teach the young of Littleton to cultivate their knowledge of the Gone Times, and to use the technology left behind to help them survive. Troy worried only about getting the crop into the ground and harvested at the right time. One day - fed up with it all - Eric set off from Littleton to Boulder, Colorado, to rediscover the University library there, and to take back some agricultural books to prove to Troy that not all the knowledge of the Gone Times was bad. Summer of the Apocalypse, tells the story of Eric's journey, as well as the tale of another journey that Eric made 60 years before, as our world went through its violent death throes.

Van Pelt takes the reader through Eric's slow, painful and trudging journey on foot through some eye opening situations. As Eric, his grandson and a friend slowly worked their way towards Boulder the reader is shown the state of the world sixty years after a cataclysmic event. We see the decayed remnants of our culture and are treated to a glimpse of several new aboriginal cultures that had only recently been born. As Eric walked across the state of Colorado he realized not only that he was the last bastion of knowledge of the past, he was the only one who had any experience of the American culture that he came from. In a very real sense he was his civilization's sole survivor. At the same time, and interspersed chapter-for-chapter, Van Pelt showed the the quest of 15 year old Eric as he tried to find his father. Eric was a boy in this part of the tale, but he grew up extremely fast. His parents took him to a mountain cave after they learned the cataclysmic scope of the plague. After watching his mother die of the sickness, Eric's dad set out for an ambulance so that they could bury her in their garden at home. He never returned, so Eric set out on foot to find him. Along the way he ran into perverts, looters and madmen, then found Leda, the older woman who would become his wife and the mother of his son, Troy. Under her gaze, and in the shadow of his father, Eric realized that he was the only member of his family who survived, and that if he was to go on, he would have to do so as a man.

The two stories were blended together superbly. One was the mirror image of the other, in that Eric not only experienced many of the same things on each, but they were traveling opposite each other on the same path. In one touching part of the book the old Eric and the young spied each other through the years at the wreckage of the bombed-out tunnel that kept Eric's dad from returning to the cave with the ambulance. The things that Eric learned along the road were also opposite images of the truth of his world. As a boy Eric was under constant threat of harm or death. Very few of the people that he met cared at all for others. They were hostile and oppressive, and though some of them were driven by the plague to commit acts that they normally would not have done, they were all still aggregations of modern culture archetypes. Every one of them wanted something from Eric. His cave, or his bike, or his blood. They all wanted something material from him, or they wanted to prevent him from getting something that he might have needed. Something that they could not get on their own because it was scarce in the world. Contrarily, the persons that Eric met on the road 60 years later wanted nothing. Actually, they all wanted to share with him, because the things that they decided were their resources - the knowledge that they had acquired on their own from their observations of the world - were plentiful, and lent themselves to being shared with strangers. In showing the different world of the future Van Pelt preyed upon my assumptions. Every time Eric met up with a member of some strange new culture I kept waiting for the hammer to fall; for something bad to happen. For the most party nothing bad happened at all. At least until Eric came across a culture what meant to be identical to our own. The way that Eric and Van Pelt dealt with that society was inspired. But the clear message here is that humanity may move forward, but only by abandoning the social structures and cultural imperatives that drive us. If we can do that humanity may come into perfect harmony with nature and the Earth. Otherwise, were dead.

I think actually that is what this book is about. Eric is given two passes at coming-of-age. As a young man Eric's passage into manhood was defined by fear and violent competition for scarce resources. Later, when he became a father, he dedicated himself to preservation of knowledge for the future. Then as an old man Eric met the librarians in Boulder. After a conflict arose there Eric realized that he had to decide between the vibrant and open yet technologically unsophisticated cultures that were developing in Colorado, or the cache of knowledge that created and sustained the lives that we all live now. Eric is given the chance to decide not only whether ignorance is a shelter, but if ignorance of technology really is ignorance worthy of correction. Part of the impetus for the decision that Eric came to might have been the notion that the only survivors in the entire world were in a narrow band of land in the Rockies (if there were no other outside competitors, then abandoning a technologically superior paradigm would not be as risky as if there were other cultures out there), but even if that had not been the case, I'm not sure that I would have decided differently then Eric. This book gives one lots of food for thought. For a first novel, it is excellent. There were a few problems with jumpiness in the early part of the story; Van Pelt missed a few glaring opportunities for plot and character development, but all of those opportunities were buttoned up tight by the end of chapter four or so. Other than that, the publisher gave us a few typos. I have rated this author low before for some problems that I had with his short fiction, but I am starting to think that the editor whose anthology I read must have given me a middle story from a connected bunch. This novel had none of those problems.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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