Apocalypse? Hugo nominee? An eleven year-old girl? A pet parrot? Friend recommendation? Sign me up!
The first part of the story was published in 1981 as a novella in Analog Magazine, followed two years later by part two. Both, I think, had well-deserved Hugo noms, and the novel itself was nominated for a Hugo and Locus when published in 1984. Quite honestly, I think I would have loved it had I found it in then or a few years after. Seriously, why on earth was I reading Piers Anthony when I could have been reading about a kick-ass girl navigating an empty world?
“Whereupon, for very first time in entire life, Candy Smith-Foster–plucky girl adventurer; most promising pre-adolescent intellect yet discovered amongst Homo post hominem population; youngest ever holder of Sixth Degree Black Belt; resourceful, unstoppable, never-say-die superkid; conquereror of unthinkable odds… Fainted.”
The story wastes no time into diving into a series of world-scale catastrophes. Candy’s father had been a highly-placed government consultant and doctor, and had the foresight to construct a very comprehensive bunker with just about every resource except hydrophonic gardens. Eventually, she decides to check on life outside and discovers everyone dead, as well as a closely-guarded secret of her neighbor and mentor.
It’s an intriguing beginning, and I might have been a little bothered by the Speshul Snowflake syndrome (Candy is truly capable of everything) except she is so direct and honest about her feelings that her stiff-upper-lip self-talk and overall competence comes off as courageous.
The narrative structure is–how do I say this–interesting, and now that I know the seeds of the story were in a novella, it makes more sense as a ‘hook.’ Candy uses a type of shorthand to write her journals, and the ‘translation’ of it comes across as quite staccato, missing it’s conjunctions and normal sentence structure. Initially, I found it annoying, but found eventually that it grew on me. Surprisingly, it still does a nice job conveying emotion, whether it’s Candy’s distress or her self-depreciating humor.
I admit, one of my favorite characters was Terry, frequently referred to as Candy’s adoptive twin brother. But I’m biased; as the owner of three parrots, I thought Palmer’s characterization was spot-on and hilarious. Terry is a beautiful hyacinth macaw whose “diet is anything within reach, but ideally consists of properly mixed seeds, assorted fruits, nuts, sprinkling of meat, etc. Hobbies include getting head and neck scratched (serious business, this), art of conversation, destruction of world.” I did wonder if the average reader would have appreciated the little throw-away notes about Terry, which captured the psittacine love of drama and propensity for destruction.
All that said, there’s some barriers here. One is the cognitive dissonance between Candy’s mature voice and immature age, although that is acceptably explained within the confines of the story. Two, there’s some parts of this that feel more than a little early 80s, particularly Candy’s characterization of Terry as her “retarded baby brother.” I remember that word being rather prevalent in adolescent vocabulary when I was younger, although even then it was undergoing cultural shift towards unacceptability. On the same note, the general structure of the apocalypse feels a little Cold War Russia-US kind of thing rather than the disseminated violence we see more often more. Third, I don’t know what the hell Palmer was thinking at about page 200 or so (Volume III–Part Two–Portents). The last ‘volume’ of the book takes a fairly significant curve in plotting and ties in opposition (a shadowy opposing agency) along with telepathic-type developments. I think I could have settled for one or the other, but both strained credulity of the world Palmer had created, that of the advanced Homo post hominem.
Overall, generally enjoyed it a great deal until page 200, at which point I was significantly less impressed. The voice is entertaining, it’s an interesting story and it generally avoids the depressing death-decay-violence we see in most apocalypse stories, focusing on self-empowerment and connections. I’d recommend it, especially to younger apocalypse fans who might be more forgiving of the end of the book.