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Mr. McCammon's Opus
on August 16, 2002
The apocalyptic genre is an endearing phenomenon in fiction. Even after the collapse of the Cold War, authors are still pumping out new novels about the end of civilization. That's probably due to the fact that nuclear war isn't the only way to kill off the human race; Stephen King got a lot of mileage out of a killer virus in "The Stand." This book, by the excellent storyteller Robert McCammon, resembles King's classic novel in several respects, but McCammon sticks with the classic nuclear annihilation scenario in "Swan Song," a book written as the Cold War was winding down in the late 1980's.
"Swan Song" starts out on a bleak note, and quickly goes down hill from there. The world is in turmoil as terrorists use nuclear bombs with impunity, the U.S. and the USSR constantly engage in skirmishes around the world, and the economy does a nosedive straight into the ground. Inevitably, the bombs are launched and the world erupts in a thousand mushroom clouds. This is all within the first hundred pages or so. What follows is the real story, and McCammon pulls out all the stops introducing us to the characters that drive the story.
Just like McCammon's novel "Stinger," there are many major characters in "Swan Song." McCammon introduces us to Sister Creep, a New York bag lady fostering a horrific personal tragedy; Josh, a 7' black wrestler (known as Black Frankenstein) with a heart of gold; Colonel "Jimbo" Macklin, a former war hero with an ominous shadow dogging his every move; and Roland Croninger, a wise beyond his years child who grows into Macklin's sadistic acolyte.
This is post-apocalypse, so there is the unavoidable good vs. evil theme running through the book. The good is Swan, a young girl who has the power to renew earth's ecosystem. The bad is the man with the scarlet eye, a shape shifter who makes King's Randall Flag look like the Osmond family. The other characters revolve around these two figures as the grand finale of the novel nears.
McCammon has the ability to make his characters endearing and genuine. There are no cardboard cutouts in this book. Even tertiary characters are developed with loving care. It's relatively easy to draw evil characters because evil is easy to see. What is difficult is to craft characters on the other side of the moral coin, and McCammon does it with seeming ease. You learn to really care about these people, something that doesn't happen often in books of this genre.
The atmosphere in "Swan Song" is bleak and oppressive. McCammon has no qualms about presenting life in a post-nuclear world. Cruelty is presented as normal behavior, and characters are mutilated or killed off quite frequently. Warlords battle for control of the country while little villages try to recreate a sense of community. The endless description of a shattered world slowly instills in the reader a sense of despair. McCammon's vivid portrait of a world gone mad certainly resurrects images of the Cold War and its shrieking insanity, when the world lived under the constant shadow of agonizing death.
While "Swan Song" clocks in at a hefty 950 pages, its pages pass by like a swift summer breeze. In the final analysis, McCammon's message in this book is one of hope; no matter how badly the human race messes things up, salvation may still be within reach. That is a message that transcends any age, and that is the significance of "Swan Song."