In the weeks leading up to my departure from Seattle, I made a habit of stopping by Opheila’s Books, which was about a 10 minute walk from my apartment, almost every day. It smelled of old books, and was staffed by a funky, lovely lady and her friendly cat, which would loudly meow if you stopped rubbing him behind the ears. It dealt primarily in used books, so there ended up being a relatively regular rotation of titles coming through. One day, giddy with excitement, the lady informed me that she scored a great collection of old pulp sci-fi novels from the late 60s through the late 70s. Based on the covers alone, I selected three. Among these was Mark S. Geston’s Out of the Mouth of the Dragon, predominantly because its cover reminded me of a darker version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The adage regarding books, their covers, and judgements was appropriate, it seems. Because this book was nothing like Nausicaa, which is not a bad thing. I had something of an inkling that I was in for something dark when I read the back cover of the book:
“There had been other Armageddons, false ones, so Amon believed, in the lifetimes of his father and his grandfather before him. But when Amon looked at the ruined world around him, at the lost technologies, the vestiges of dying cultures, the warped rays of the sun, he knew he must answer the call to this last Armageddon, in which Creation would either be renewed or finally be let to end.”
That probably gives you a sufficient idea of the overall content of the tale. A world that, in all practical terms, has already ended, in which “The Last Battle” continues to take place over and again, fought by men who simply want the world to actually end. The tale follows the journey of young Amon VanRoark who, inspired by a traveling prophet, journeys to the fabled Meadows, where the Wars take place. On the way we see a desolate, destroyed world that for thousands of years has gotten progressively worse, and somehow limps on. There are great battleships, old bombers, and the beauty of the (somehow) unharmed ocean on the way, but the characters are all either restless to get to the Wars so they can finally end the world, or listless and miserable, and not terribly particular about when or how they finally get to die. One of the more surreal visuals presented to the reader as VanRoark is at sea is the night sky, which is no longer helpful in navigation, because of the (presumed) damage to the atmosphere continuously warping the tapestry of stars.
Finally, they reach a staging ground for a massive army, and Amon is struck with an odd crisis of faith. He is unsure if he’s on the side of good or evil. His first traveling companion, a drunk veteran of a previous cataclysm, informs him that it makes absolutely no difference. Then the friend is viciously and gorily murdered in front of him, and all hell brakes loose. The army is torn apart by unseen forces and one another, and Amon is wounded very badly, and hopes dearly that he can finally die.
But he wakes up a cyborg, with an artificial eye and arm, being cared for by a lone survivor of the Rim Nations, descendants of human colonists who, hearing the call for armageddon, left their planets and returned to Earth to finish off humanity.
See where this is going? It’s a very bleak picture. The writing was, for the most part, excellent, if it did occasionally get a bit ridiculous. It’s fascinating to see the context in which the novel was released, though. I’ve only read a few other science fiction releases from the 60s (Dune, Dune Messiah, Lord of Light, Destination: Void,) and many of them paint a fairly bleak picture of the future. World War II was only 15-20 years gone, and the Cold War was in full swing, culminating in the moon landing in ’69. I imagine that for many people, it seemed like the world was quickly going to be immolated in nuclear fire. Science Fiction as a genre — seldom utopian — seems primarily to be composed of tales of hubris leading to ruin. We get gritty, cyberpunk worlds with corporate greed destroying human civilization, or the literal destruction of humanity by warmongering nations. We see experiments gone terribly wrong, and political conflict taken to extremes. I love the genre, don’t get me wrong, but it can be a challenge to read a lot of dystopian fiction back-to-back. I was just given a gift of some 54+ books, most of which are science fiction. I think I’m up to the challenge. I hope you’ll join me. It’s going to be an interesting ride.