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Monday, August 22, 2011
Survivor #2: The Nightmare Begins by Jerry Ahern
I admit this at the expense of dating myself badly, but I grew up during the end of the Cold War. From the age of seven or so, when a sibling informed me that the world could be annihilated at the push of a button, I lived with the threat of nuclear holocaust looming in the back of my mind. In fact, the very first time I heard the beeping of a phone left off the hook too long (I think I was 12 or 13), my very first thought was, "Oh, no. This is it!" Not having seen the previous generation's "Duck and Cover" films, I just assumed there was no possibility of surviving such a conflict.
A few years later, I saw The Road Warrior. That film influenced me in a few different ways. I'll mention two of those ways: 1) It caused me to consider the possibility that a nuclear exchange did not necessarily guarantee the obliteration of all human life on the planet. 2) Despite my fear of a nuclear war that could set the skies on fire at any moment, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much that I've had an affinity for the post-apocalypse genre ever since. Back in the day, I couldn't wait for the next Doomsday Warrior or Last Ranger to be published. Yet somehow, I missed Jerry Ahern's Survivalist series.*
I've recently corrected that oversight. I now have one Survivalist under my belt* and am hungry for more.
The series' title character is John Rourke, a former CIA operative who was on a civilian flight at the hour the missiles struck. His sidekick in this book was Paul Rubenstein, a former white collar geek type with a good heart, and a mental toughness allowing him to cope and adapt well to the new world, under Rourke's hands-on tutelage. Rubenstein was on the same flight, which crashed out West. The story picks up as the pair are making their way through Texas for the eastern seaboard, where Rourke hopes to find his wife and kids still alive somehow, and Rubenstein plans to turn south into Florida to look for his parents. They're traveling on motorcycles (Rourke in style--his is a Harly).
This series has most of what you would hope to find in a post-apocalyptic yarn: A smart, skilled, resourceful hero who is up to the extraordinary task of surviving in such a world; a wide-open Wild-West type landscape of dangerous wilderness and ghost towns; and a rogue's gallery of brigands and Soviets to ensure Rourke's quest is no radioactive milk run. And yet Ahern avoided some of the cliches...er, conventions I've come to expect in the genre. There were no human mutants, for instance. Our heroes did encounter a group of infected teenagers, but the author made it clear they were living on borrowed time--not transforming into vampires or Marvel supervillains. And though there was some sexual tension here and there, there was no prose-porn.
What about gun porn? From what I've read, Ahern has a reputation for this. Maybe I still don't understand where the threshold is defined between describing a weapon/its use and descending into "gun porn," but in my opinion the author's treatment of firearms in this book was the former, and not the latter. Rubenstein's primary weapon (a WWII German submachinegun, MP40) is so interesting that I now am tempted to seek out the first issue just to find out how it was acquired. Rourke's signature side armament are twin Detonics Combat Masters, and his use of them at one point (though nothing flamboyant enough for a John Woo movie) actually had me break reading silence and sound off with a hearty "ooh-rah!" For long range, he carries a CAR-15, arguably the father of the M-4 carbine in such wide use today in US troop deployments.
I have a prejudice against the entire M16/AR15 family of weapons. The 82nd Airborne Division was usually one of the first units to get new toys (the Kevlar helmet, the M249 SAW, etc.), and I did get to plink with some M16A2s when they were still brand new. Their accuracy was pretty good, I'll admit, and they were far more dependable than the A1s I had used in OSUT. Yet I was apalled by their tendency to malfunction in spite of diligent cleaning. Especially in sandy environments. Yet the AR15 and its derivatives are still the most popular assault/battle rifle with the Pentagon and in men's fiction. There's a chance I may be able to present an interview with Jerry Ahern here on the 2-Fisted Blog soon, and this is one of the details I'm hoping he'll share his thoughts on. There are some other choices he made I'm curious about, too, so I'm hoping this interview deal pans out.
The bad guys in Nightmare Begins were also a breath of fresh air. No "B" movie Nazis here--even the KGB honcho. And his wife/agent Natalia is surprisingly complex. (Rourke recognizes her, BTW, from one of his spook missions in Central America.) In addition to the knowledgeable depictions of weaponcraft, I appreciated thoughtful details like the difficulty of finding gasoline after a nuclear war. A very popular author in the genre fails to address this issue honestly. Another author in the genre, many of whose books I personally like, had his protagonist once use Federal Reserve notes to pay for something in the post-nuke economy...and they were accepted! Rourke and Rubenstein find it necessary to forage (though they make an effort to deal fairly and honestly with others). This is a far more sober speculation, IMO.
Nightmare Begins has left me with the impression that at this point in the continuity, the series is just hitting its stride. I certainly plan to read the other Survivalist book I picked up, and will be on the lookout for others. Based on this reading, I recommend The Survivalist as an intelligent, well-written TEOTWAWKI series with plenty of action to keep us turning pages.
*From what I've read about the series, I remember reading a book many years ago that may have been a much later installment in this series. But I can't swear yes or no.