I’ve just read Jack Womack’s second and third novels (both of books set in his “Dryco” series) back-to-back. Longtime readers will note that I lauded the first novel in the series (in terms of series timeline) with lavish praise back in 2012. I also read the Womack’s first novel, Ambient, and it made a strong impression on me at the time, but that was years and years ago, and I’m due for a reread since I’m apparently trying to read all the Dryco books this year.
(Actually, when I read Ambient, I wanted nothing more than to read everything else in print, but timing foiled me: I left for Korea a month or so later, where it was very hard to get books ordered at the time, and I never got back around to Womack’s work even though I managed to accumulate a lot of it over the years.)
Anyway, I’ve finally given both Heathern and Terraplane a read, and here are my thoughts. Oh, and given the age of these books, I shouldn’t have to say this, but, er, yes, I do discuss the plot to some degree. So don’t cry spoilers!!! in the comments. If you haven’t read them, go do that, though. This post will still be here.
The Dryco world is brutal, horrendous, but not exactly alien to us: it’s sort of like America, but America reduced to a state somewhat like how Americans think Colombia must be like. Going in, you need to know that, and have your stomach ready for some nasty sights.
Heathern is pretty clearly an earlier work. You can feel Womack hitting his stride in the much later novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, about which I posted almost two years ago. (Note: Random Acts is later in terms of when it was written, not in terms of series order.)
But it must be frustrating when people compare everything you’ve ever written to that one book that blew their minds, so I’ll focus on what I thought about Heathern itself.
I actually picked this book soon after finishing Random Acts of Senseless Violence. I think I ended up putting it down simply because of the sheer crush of work. I put it into a trunk to bring to Saigon when we moved here in 2013, but that was the trunk that got left behind. (Well, repacked into boxes and left behind.) So it’s taken me till now to have a copy on hand to read.
I am kicking myself for delaying it this long. Sure, there’s all kinds of books I want to read, that I ought to read: The Iliad, Ulysses is another, the second half of Don Quixote (I finished the first half in India almost exactly a decade ago). But Womack’s books are short, they’re punchy, and they’re always fascinating, so I don’t know what took me so long.
It’s funny how a character like Dryden seems science-fictional to us, given the fact that people like Lee Christmas have walked the earth… and pretty much done in places like Honduras what Womack depicts happening in America. When I was a student, I saw the President of a very small Caribbean Island speak at my university: he’d participated in an infamous student protest there decades before. A few weeks after we saw him speak, he “died of a heart attack,” which I took at face value, but a friend of mine who’d spent a lot of time in East Africa laughed and said, “It’s always a heart attack.” She had heard the line so many times, she knew better than to take it for granted. That’s what Dryco is: it’s developing-world politics and brutality, except in America.
Womack has said he wasn’t cyberpunk, and there’s certainly not much cyber in his books, but it’s understandable why people would lump him in with the cyberpunks. There was always an element of that in cyberpunk, at least in the examples of the subgenre set in our world. (Some of Bruce Sterling’s early stuff–like Involution Ocean and The Artificial Kid–was set on distant worlds, and Schismatrix isn’t really set on Earth either.) The burnt-out, rusted-through urban hell of tomorrow was kind of part of cyberpunk all the way back to Neuromancer and Blade Runner,or even the proto-cyberpunk of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, where the cities are crammed and people (called “muckers,” because they run amok) explode into violence on a regular basis just from the stress.
While I came to cyberpunk years after its founders declared the movement dead, writers like Gibson (centrist as he maintained he was, in 2004, while arguing against the overt politicization of fiction). Gibson, at the link I just included, claims he’s made an effort to be non-propagandistic writer:
In [E.M.] Forster’s sense of things, I have always tried very hard to not be a “political” novelist. I do not come to the page as a propagandist for my own beliefs. This has been made rather more easy for me, I suspect, by the fact that I am, as far as I can tell, more or less a centrist, equally repelled by either extreme of the political spectrum. Indeed, I believe that the spectrum forms a full circle, with right and left merging, as they meet at their respective extremes, into luminous batshit evil.
But the thing is, that centrism always seemed to me to include a faint awe at scope and size of megacorporations, some deep understanding that as much as cyberpunk was about AIs, it was also about corporations, and that in some sense both AIs and megacorps are a kind of artificial intelligence, coldly mechanical, ruthlessly inhuman, marvelous in the intricacy but always potentially fatal creations of humanity. There was always something both repellent and cool–a sort of sublimity that mirrored the technological sublime–about those rapacious Japanese zaibatsu and American multinationals that brought the world of the future to its knees. This seemed particularly on display in Gibson’s work: Rucker and especially Sterling tended to be more likely to give their characters families of a sort.
Still, Womack’s future feels different, and not just for the lack of the cyber: he’ll build a decayed, rusted, burnt-out tomorrow for you, and he’ll depict it with wonderfully-crafted prose, with great characters, with an imagination that is hard to beat… but the price of admission is that he won’t let you off the hook and turn it into a funhouse.
You want a world that’s rotting and falling apart? You want the end of American democracy and the collapse of American civilization? Fine: but Womack insists on showing you what it’d be like to be human in such a world: what it’s like to have aging parents there, to have and maybe lose a baby there, to be stuck in a job you hate, doing evil things, because if you don’t, you might end up sleeping somewhere a tank will roll over you, or might end up having to off yourself with rat poison to avoid being sucked into the black, greasy underworld that forms.
Which I suppose explains Womack’s abiding interest in Russia. Plenty of the stories my Russian exchange students in Korean told about what’s happened in Russian society the last twenty years sounds so much like Dryco that it’s not even funny. As far as I’ve read, nobody really bothered to do much about presenting the heartbreak of living in such a world, not at least to my knowledge… not until Jack Womack. In Random Acts of Senseless Violence, that heartbreak is at center stage–and that’s one of many reasons the book gets so much attention–but the narrator of Heathern, despite being young, beautiful, enmeshed in a romance with Dryden himself, and well-employed by him to boot, has her moments, too, especially when talking about her parents’ death:
“I guess they were old…”
“They were young,” I said. “They moved to a retirement community. In Florida. After the revaluation they lost their savings. They couldn’t afford the maintenance on their co-op and they got an eviction notice. I didn’t know until later. They must not have wanted me to worry, and I never thought–”
“Joanna, it’s alright…”
“Let’s go upstairs,” I said. He preceded me on the ascent. The second floor’s vacuums were broken, and dust settled over us as might sea-mist at the shore. “they didn’t tell me. It was such a–”
“Such a–” I began again, unable to think of a suitable conclusion.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” I said. “I’m fine. They were fine. Their lives went so smoothly. Too smoothly. I’d learned not to worry about them.”
“Joanna, it wasn’t your fault, whatever happened–”
“I should have been there,” I said, stopping, leaning against the wall; I’d not let myself think about it since it happened. They’d decided upon their course of action with the logic they brought to all situations; decided to kill themselves, and so obtained poison from a reliable source. “Why didn’t they tell me?”
“Joanna, it’s all right,” he said, holding me as if to keep me from shaking. Every Saturday night they fixed a candlelight dinner for themselves, once I was old enough that I might make my own arrangements. I remembered so often leaving the house, seeing them sitting there, staring into each others’ eyes as if they’d been married the day before. Perhaps, that night, they’d hoped to draw such romance as they could from their final tableau; more likely the electricity had been cut off, and they needed candlielight in order to measure out their doses. A candle caught the bedroom drapes on fire, the fire department said; they’d passed out before blowing out the lights.
“I didn’t know,” I said. Mom could have slept through it. Dad got halfway across the living room. “The fire department sent me a bill for their services the next day on the fax. That’s how I found out–”
“It’s all right,” Lester repeated, not letting me go. “It’s all right. Go ahead and cry–”
“I can’t,” I said. “I haven’t been able to in years. Not really.”
Note that Joanna barely tells her interlocutor anything, even here: she tells us, but unless he’s a mind-reader (and he may just be), all he knows is that they died in a fire, and that she doesn’t want to explain more, probably because she is to some degree culpable. That’s one species of subterranean telling, but there’s others: the man she’s talking to has secrets of his own, important ones that he doesn’t reveal in this conversation,though they’re hinted at.
And then there’s the power of not telling, only a few pages later:
“Was it his baby you had?” Lester asked. I couldn’t see his face from where I lay. He stood near my dresser, and I knew he was examining the pair of booties I had hanging on the knob of the mirror’s frame. “These weren’t yours, were they? You’d have had them bronzed–”
“I knitted them,” I said.
“You had a baby?”
“Recently?” he asked, walking over and sitting next to me, gazing down as if he might peer directly into my mind.
“January,” I said. “Things happen.” As I shut my eyes he leaned closer, whispering.
“Where’s your baby?”
“Where’s your parents?”
The effect was as desired; he said nothing else.
This should bring to mind that “shortest story ever written,” popularly attributed to Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn
… but it should also bring to mind the passage that opens the book, which I quoted on this site years ago, where a madwoman drops a baby from her window up above, and the protagonist only luckily survives.
A baby almost killed me as I walked to work one morning. By passing beneath a bus shelter’s roof at the ordained moment I lived to tell my tale. With strangers surrounding me I looked at what remained. Laughter from heaven made us lift our eyes skyward. The baby’s mother lowered her arms and leaned out her window. Without applause her audience drifted off, seeking crumbs in the gutters of this city of God. Xerox shingles covered the shelter’s remaining glass pane, and the largest read:
Want to be crucified. Have own nails.
Leave message on machine.
The fringe of numbers along the ad’s hem had been stripped away. My shoes crunched glass underfoot; my skirt clung to my legs as I continued down the street. November dawn’s seventy-degree bath made my hair lose its set. Mother above appeared ready to take her own bow; I too, as ever, flew on alone.
Theseare two side of a single coin, when you live in a world like Dryco’s. There’s a kind of brilliant bait-and-switch going on here, at about a third of the way through the novel: Joanna is opening up to the Lester, and all that hardboiled, tough-as-nails posturing–which was really epidemic in cyberpunk at the time–splits open to reveal the soft, vulnerable human flesh, riddled with wounds, beneath. The horrible secrets do out, of course, by the end–or enough of them do–but they come out of the shadows of human lives, and are more powerful and heartbreaking for it.
And here I am, a couple of thousand words later, and I’ve said nothing about the plot of the book. About how this could be read as (even if it wasn’t written as) a riff on Jung’s response to a question put to him by a ladies’ magazine, about what would happen if Jesus were to appear in the world today. (I can’t find the quote online, but Jung quipped that Jesus would be destroyed by his own success, and rapidly.) Or about how interesting it is to see Thatcher Dryden at a moment when his mind is spinning out of his own control, where his deep-seated anxiety about Japan–another cyberpunk cliché–has led him to try and use Jesus to sink Japan. (Yet another old SF riff, though a Japanese one.) About the idea of marketing meeting an actual messiah (not messianic religion, which even in the 1980s was already a thing in America, but an honest-to-goodness messiah). And then there’s the
A lot of people seem to have found Heathern the least engaging of the Dryco books–it’s the only novel in the series without a Wikipedia page, for one thing–and going by how long it took me to finish it (some parts are a bit slow, I’ll admit) I can see why, but as far as I’m concerned, as a novel it succeeded on its own terms. It’s just that its terms are so weird and disconnected from what the genre was doing at the time, that people maybe didn’t recognize it as such. But it’s worth looking at, especially if you’re interested in the Dryco books more generally.
Another deeply weird book from Womack, Terraplane is set after Ambient chronologically speaking, though it was his second novel. Terraplane is definitely the least brutal of the Dryco books I’ve read so far, at least in terms of the ultraviolence of Ambient, Random Acts, and Heathern. And, unlike a lot of writers, Womack managed in 1988 to predict that Soviet Russia would become a kleptocratic-capitalist society… sure, he kept it Soviet, but the capitalism he got right, and Putin’s regime is starting to look more and more like “Big Boy’s” with each passing year… and Russia is, according to many Russians I’ve known, not so much unlike the Dryco-world Russia (or Dryco’s America, for that matter) for anyone without the ability to rake in cash within that system.
This book is less about the horror of the Dryco future, and more about how it’s not the worst of all possible worlds. Basically, an African-American general and his white bodyguard are sent on an exfil to Russia: their target is a Russian scientist. But things go bananas pretty much right away, and what looks like time travel at first, is something much, much weirder. This novel seems a kind of meditation on James Baldwin’s comment in “Stranger in the Village”:
Joyce is right about history being a nightmare-but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
… and for “trapped” there are several different possible meanings. There’s the way people are “trapped” in their own history; there’s the SF trope of being trapped in another’s history, and wanting to return to one’s own; there’s the price that living history exacts from a person; and there’s the horror of the idea that certain individuals could actually escape from history, given the right tools.
But for all that, the novel mostly is about power, and race, and oppression in the old days, or, rather, a sort of distorted, more-conservative-than-it-actually-was version of them. Many of the protagonists are African-Americans, and though there are a few wobbles (I have trouble imagining a black American in the early 21st century who has as little awareness of what life was like in the 1930s in the USA as Luther seems to have), overall the depiction is honest, blunt, and intelligent. It’s also pretty brutal, but the brutality is of a sort that seems more familiar. That is to say, in some ways, the horrors of the Dryco world aren’t really so different from the horrors of any other oppressive regime, including a conservative wet dream set late in the Depression in 1939 in New York/New Jersey.
This is part of the brilliance of the title: unless you know what a Terraplane is, the word sounds very SFnal, very futuristic. I had no idea what it actually referred to until it came up in the story… in context, it’s obvious what it is, a model of car.
In a way, this presages an insight that Bruce Sterling included in his essay, “The User’s Guide to Steampunk”:
The past is a kind of future that has already happened.
That’s pretty much exactly what Womack seems to be saying: looked at correctly, the past–ours, or someone else’s–can be mined for useful insight into the present. In interviews, Womack makes it pretty clear the earlier Dryco books were a response to New York in the 1970s, and to the rise of conservative politics in America–especially the horror of having Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. That is a past for us now, but one with clear links to America’s present, and future… and the other world in Terraplane is, in a sense, mostly the kind of world that the American conservative right in the 1980s would have longed for, or indeed did long for–that is, the kind of history they longed for, where maybe blacks were freed from slavery, but still “knew their place” and failed to offer significant resistance to oppression, failed to make such inroads into popular culture, failed to unthrone the obvious sense of white superiority that so many white folks in the past felt. It’s very reminiscent of the “men’s rights” groups that crop up in backwards places today–groups we see not only in America, but even in places like South Korea, which is according to plenty of measures the worst place in the developed world to be a woman. Womack, here, seems to enact the wet dream of the American right so that he can expose the horror lurking within, and for doing that as effectively as he did in Terraplane, I think he deserves a standing ovation from SF fandom.
Of course, there’s also the weird, which ranges from odd details (gnostic Christianity survived into the modern day) to massive differences, such as the presence of a horrifying mutation of the flu virus, or the fact that in this America, slavery wasn’t abolished until 1907 (to alleviate the negative pressure of European countries on J.P. Morgan). One of the characters has a Coca-Cola brand on his body, because, after all, when people stopped owning slaves, companies took over and kept right on going with it. Robert Johnson’s still alive (and in fact, has a cameo in the novel). But the dystopianism in the novel, as far as the present-day action, is actually not fantastical: it’s just good old-fashioned 1930s racism.
The horror we see is the cheapness of human life, heightened by racism. One character from that other world is disgusted when she sees the people from the Dryco world kill off their enemies with little emotional response, but the brutality of her own world in some ways horrifies them more than she can imagine. There’s a discussion of how people acclimate to history, how they take for granted what they know: a woman whose husband was castrated by his corporate owner (yes, Coca-Cola), who lived as a slave, is horrified by the Dryco world, but the people of the Dryco world are flabbergasted by the constant, blatant, violent racism of that woman’s world. We’re all used to some horrible things: yes, even me and you. (Think about who probably made the clothing you’re wearing right now, if you’d like to meditate on that: unless you’re as rich as Thatcher Dryden, the thought is likely to discomfit you…)
If there’s one thing that rubbed me the wrong way in this book, it’s the futurespeak of the Dryco world… I’m not sure why, since it didn’t bug me in Heathern, and since it’s such an important part of the other Dryco books I’ve read. It’s not that it’s awfully done, but there’s something about it that feels like futurespeak made up by an SF writer living in the 20th century. However, Womack seems to be aware of it: a lot of the characters in the other world, where people speak our more familar form of English, are baffled by the Dryco worlders’ English, and keep commenting that they can’t speak the language properly at all. Of course, I suspect that the futurespeak, the argot of the Dryco world, is supposed to rub us the wrong way: it’s the language of a world that’s essentially broken in ways our little, local worlds mostly aren’t, yet, if we’re lucky. (So, maybe, reminiscent of the pain of reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker for the first time, with all that incomprehensible dialect of the future, English as broken as the world after a nuclear war.) So maybe this is a feature, rather than a flaw? It certainly doesn’t dissuade me from the enthusiasm I feel for reading the rest of the series! (As well as his non-Dryco book, Let’s Put the Future Behind Us, which is set in a SFnalized Russia which is basically like the real Russia, but slightly weirder, and his short stories, which would probably take some effort to track down.)
(Also, I realize, the futurespeak isn’t all so completely off as I’d like to think. One example that sticks out in memory is the tendency to turn a noun into a verb: “‘Hospital us,’ I said…” is one example from the end of Chapter 11. I actually know people who talk like this: “Rice me,” they say, meaning, “Give me some rice.” Or, “Plate me,” or, “Book me.” I think I’ve even seen people talk this way on TV. So maybe some of the aggravation boils down to familiarity with annoying people who talk this way, more than anything Womack himself wrote. Hm.)
All in all, I found Terraplane more enjoyable, but Heathern is a very good novel too. It’s a shame that Womack’s novels haven’t sold as well as they should have… and by shame, I mean that it’s shameful, really. This is one of the writers SF fandom ought to be celebrating: he does characters and language really well, he has a great imagination, and he has a way of making you look at the real world differently after you’ve read one of his books. Here’s hoping the better cover art on the reprints of his work have helped a little…
… and that his most recent project (mentioned in this excellent interview from 2011, a Southern Gothic history of his family titled Ashland), comes out soon.
(And in more recent news, Charles Stross’s recent post about rhetoric regarding “full employment” in Britain made me think of Dryco, too.)