#REVIEW: Swan Song, by Robert McCammon

71ro-tXRGcLVery early on in Robert McCammon’s terrible book Swan Song the words “information computer” are used to refer to… a computer.  The phrase is used by either the President of the United States or one of his close associates, as it is used during a scene in the Situations Room, which I thought was just called the Situation Room, but maybe things were different in the 1980s.

I was initially inclined to cut him a break.  The book was written in 1987, after all, and that was a while ago. Computers weren’t in super-common usage, right, so a redundant phrase like “information computer” might have been something somebody said, I dunno.

Then somebody gets asked for their “computer number” later on, and it’s just like an ID number or something, and a third computer is described as being used to keep track of dates when people entered and exited a certain building, a task much more suited for a notebook.

I should not have cut him a break, as “computers” would only be the first item entered into a very long list of things that Robert McCammon does not really understand.  And I only made it through a bit more than 300 of this book’s nearly nine hundred and fifty pages of garbage before checking out and putting the book on a shelf, never to be touched again.

The basic premise: World War III starts in the first fifty pages or so, as the Russians and the Americans and who the hell knows who else fires all of their nukes at each other, obliterating basically everything.  The war happens because of Reasons, basically; McCammon starts in media res because what he wants is a book where everybody is dead.

The book is nine hundred and fifty fucking pages long, people, and fully half of that is dedicated to describing what people or things look like.  The rest of it is dedicated to getting basic matters of fact, logic, narrative consistency or physics wrong.  Two brief examples:

EXAMPLE PRIMUS!  The President is a character for the first little part of the book.  I thought he was actually rather interesting, as it’s clear right away that he feels (rightfully!) that he’s in way over his head and has no way how to prevent the terrible catastrophe that’s coming.  That’s neat!  Too bad that a few dozen pages later he’s killed when a flying bus destroys Air Force One, which isn’t called Air Force One even though that’s what the President’s plane has been called since the 1950s.

You may be wondering if you read the phrase “a flying bus destroys Air Force One” correctly.  Yes.  You did.  A nuclear explosion somewhere sends a bus flying so far and so high that it hits and destroys Air Force One, but without the nuclear explosion itself affecting the plane.

EXAMPLE SECUNDUS!  Several characters who survived the initial bombardment of New York City by being underground at the time are attempting to escape Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel.  Radiation, by the way, is something that McCammon will have other characters talk about incessantly but wandering around Manhattan after it has been hit by several nuclear weapons is no problem.  The Holland Tunnel is ankle-deep in water at the entrance.  The characters are able to walk through it to escape.  The water never rises above waist level.

So, two things about that:  1) the tunnel is, well, a tunnel, which goes under a river, which means that if it is ankle deep in water at the entrance the part that is actually under a river is going to be completely fucking submerged.  Also, the tunnel is completely full of burned bodies and smashed cars despite having been basically the safest place imaginable during the bombardment.  It’s clear that McCammon wants us to think the damage is caused by the bombs and not, say, panicking drivers, by the way, so he doesn’t get that out.

Ah, fuck it, let’s do an EXAMPLE TERTIUS! that will explain why I put the book down.  Two of the survivors are a kid who is plainly and obviously a psychopath and his one-handed nutjob Vietnam vet mentor, both of whom escaped from a gun nut survivalist mountain compound that was basically being used as a timeshare for other gun nuts by the Vietnam dude.  Don’t ask.  A pair of people, a man and a woman, are walking toward the Salt Lake in Utah– a useful source of perfectly drinkable and not poisonous at all water, where it is logical that many people would gather after a nuclear apocalypse.

The nutjob and the psycho kid pop out from where they have concealed themselves under dirt trapdoors like fucking human spiders and slit the man’s throat.  It is not clear how long they have been under there waiting.  Many other dirt-people also pop out of their own dirt trapdoor things and begin offering the man and the boy money for the woman.  The woman, who several weeks after a nuclear apocalypse is wearing a number of diamond and pearl necklaces, a thin T-shirt that reads “Rich Bitch,” no bra and, as it will be revealed later, no underwear either, offers herself sexually to the boy to avoid being gangraped.  This is OK because the book helpfully lets us know that the man of the pair used to help her out by being her pimp.  There are loving, detailed descriptions of her nipples.

Also, the nutjob spends a lengthy monologue ranting crazily about how the people in the cool camp nearby with supplies and such won’t let him into the camp, which is why he has to live as a dirt-person, and then transitions seamlessly into screeching about how no one can keep him from getting what he wants, as if he has not just described someone preventing him from getting him what he wants.

Nope.  Done here, thanks.  Bye, book.  I found out later, reading other bad reviews, that there is a 7-year jump later in the book, because sure, why not.  This is easily the worst book I read this year– the bits I describe are only the lowlights of the first 300 pages; there are examples at least once a chapter of something that makes no Goddamn sense at all.  Don’t read this, ever, and shun anyone who says they liked it or it was good.

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Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

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