This is the Way the World Ends by Morrow, James, 1985

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I have never really been a fan of light-hearted humor in my SF reads. I personally cannot stand Terry Pratchett, for example, and even Douglas Adams sometimes pushes me to my limits. I guess I just don't see the need because I like for my SF to resonate heavily with social issues, and I think comedy really takes away from that. I really am not such a fan of comedy even in military or action pieces either, as I tend to think that inserting copious amounts of humor is just one way to cover up some other flaw. Just watch any SF movie with The Rock and you will know what I am talking about. So when I find too much humor in those works, I tend to think that something else is wrong, and I will spend so much time looking for it that I miss the plot and point of the book. Just one of my idiosyncrasies, I suppose, but only I have to live with it, and that's fine by me.

However, dark and gallows humor really does appeal to me. Perhaps its because I have a thing for end of the world stories, and most dark humor ultimately pokes fun at us for our fear of death. I also think its easily possible to write an epic masterpiece of literature that makes use of dark humor, but not light. James Morrow's This is the Way the World Ends is one of the most darkly humorous books I have ever read. This book is dark humor in the way that Dante Alighieri would have written it. It is nauseatingly honest and has a plot and is set in a world that is as absurd as they come. The characters are all high-concept archetypes that are denizens of the id, save for the main character who is one of the most sympathetic and pathetic creatures 've yet found. And its subject matter is the end of everything at the hands of man. This is a nuclear war novel published in 1986 at the height of the cold war, at a time when our president seemed to be marshaling strength to rid the world of the "Evil Empire." I cannot help but see that the Reagan policies of the era heavily influenced Morrow in the writing of this book, and in that respect it is also an interesting view of that era of our nation's history.

Nuclear deluge is just a small part of the plot of the novel. As a matter of fact, it happened within the first 100 pages. Although Morrow spent little time describing the actual attack, he held no punches back at all in showing the carnage. The plot was this: The main character was a small town New England tombstone inscriber named George Paxton who was commissioned by an old woman to carve two head stones for her recently deceased parents. The client hired Paxton to write the inscriptions as well, and after a very frank conversation with her, Paxton came up with "She was better than she knew," for the mother and "He never found out what he was doing here," for the father. As payment the woman gavve George a coupon for a child sized garment called a "Scopas Suit." Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before a nuclear war would happen. Scopas suits were being marketed by opportunistic retailers as absolute protection from a nuclear attack. George had been worrying very much about a nuclear war, and would do anything at all for a suit for his daughter. George drove to Boston to get the suit from a particular seller - one who would honor the coupon. Strangely the seller asked George to sign an agreement with the seller in which he agreed to be held personally accountable for the war if it ever broke out. On his way home from Boston, the world was destroyed. As George was on the interstate and outside of a city when the first volley of missiles struck, he was spared. However, George's entire family was vaporized. George was rescued in very short order by the military, and moved to a nuclear sub called the City of New York, which was never really described but seemed to me to be the size of a city itself. The sub was equipped with a periscope that was linked to a network of super high-tech satellites, and through the network the crew of the sub had the ability to watch any scene it wished from wherever they were in the world. Over the course of the next year George, along with five other rescued people, watched the world wither and die from the safety of the sub.

It was soon revealed to the six men who were saved that the sub was crewed by a group called "the unadmitted," which were the souls of all the people who would have been born had humanity not murdered itself. The crew was taking the six men, made up of Department of Defense policy makers, high-ranking military officers, weapons designers and sellers, clergy and George (the common man) to Antarctica to be tried for crimes against the future.

The first half of the book was about the journey to Antarctica, and in it the six characters rationalized their various positions on the policies that led to the war, while watching the world die. To call Morrow's writing style dazzling would do a great service to the meaning of that word. Every single page of this book is compelling and often heart-wrenching. Take for example the passage depicting a tropical paradise. The six had been in the sub for about a year, and were sick of being surrounded by metal and eating, literally, recycled crap, while watching their fellow man starve to death and kill each other on the surface. They searched the Earth for some kind of paradise, somewhere to dream about going, and eventually found a beautiful woman on a tropical island:

To and fro, warp and weft, the young black woman paced the shores of her private tropical paradise. The beach sparkled brilliantly, as if its sands were destined to become fine crystal goblets. The surrounding sea was a blue liquid gem.

She was about thirty. She wore no clothes. Her excellent skin had the color and vibrancy of boiling fudge. When she stopped and sucked in a large helping of air, her splendid breasts floated upward like helium balloons released in celebration of some great athletic or political victory. George thought she was the most desirable woman he had ever seen.

A length of rope was embedded in the beach near a banyan tree. The beachcomber tore it free. Sunstruck grains showered down like sparks. The woman manipulated the rope, sculpting a grim shape from it. A noose emerged in her clever and despairing hands.

George tried to pull away from the periscope, but he could not break his own grip.

The last woman on Earth walked up to the tree, tossed the rope over a branch, and, as the waves rolled in and the sun danced amid the tide pools, hanged herself by the neck. Her oscillating shadow was shaped like a star.

Morrow's skill with the written word is much bigger than simply being able to draw one picture and make the reader see another. The end of the book contains a scene with George and the ghost of his beautiful little daughter that I find incapable of description, its so moving and sorrowfully bittersweet. Morrow also uses different techniques to add greatly to the story. For example the story in this book really is being told by Nostradamus to a French youth in the sixteenth century as a description of his vision of the end of humanity. Nostradamus, in his own writings, was wont to describe cataclysmic images such "spears coming from the mouths of whales," which some modern nuts have reinterpreted to be the way that a sixteenth century man would describe missiles coming out of a sub. Make no mistake: This book is told in a modern voice, but it must be understood also that the Hieronymus Bosch-like imagery that Morrow relies on could be a brilliant way of translating something Nostradamus could have written into modern English, thus explaining internally the absurdity of the imagry in the novel. Personally I think that Nostradamus was used because Morrow wanted to show a double-absurdity. That is to say, its absurd to think that anyone who could see clearly how our world would end would not do something to divert the course of the ship of society. At the same time, how absurd is it to think that a fortune teller in sixteenth century France could do anything to avert the extinction of the race by technological means almost five hundred years later.

The second half of the book is the trial itself, and is by far the better half, even though the first is amazing too. I began this half of the book expecting to be preached to about the evils of nuclear deterrence and the insanity of mutually assured destruction, as Morrow really had made his point that even having these weapons is crazy. But Morrow surprised me and really went out of his way to have the defendants in the trial explain their position in as understandable a way as he could, and he succeeded brilliantly. This trial went down the way a lot of trials I see go down. With passion and conviction argued on one side, and logic and conviction argued on the other. I will not tell you how this book ended, but I will tell you that the general, and the arms dealer, and the policy maker and the cleric all had good reason for what they did, and that reason was to prevent a war, not feed an unstoppable machine and line their pockets. In the end, Morrow wraps up the entire book by eulogizing humanity, and pointing out that we all are better than we know, and none of us really know what we are doing here. If you haven't figured this out yet, this one is worth the effort.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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