The greatest dystopian novel ever written.
By tapping two of the predominant fears of the ’80s, Robert McCammon created Swan Song, the greatest dystopian novel ever written. Published in 1987, Swan Song spins a morality tale over 960 pages set in America post-nuclear apocalypse, something that formed the baseline dread of our daily lives back in the era of Reagan. The realization that ducking and covering under your desk at school was bullshit. We all understood that there would be no safety when the bombs started to fly, but that never stopped anyone from making pop art about it. Works like WarGames and Terminator sought to relieve the pressure, peddling catharsis and hope that the same ingenuity that engineered the bombs would somehow prevent them. McCammon begins his book with nukes falling, and all the spirit his characters have will be required to rebuild a world rather than save it.
In the face of mass extinction, the slim chance of survival serves as the trope, one that must be layered upon by fascinating characters and a plot that moves faster than the speed of plausibility. But, to make the work endure, McCammon steeped Swan Song in the sort of spiritual querying popular among Americans who pray that something as meaningless as destruction could have a deeper purpose. The end of the world represents the start of the real battle between good and evil. There is a chosen one and a devil journeying across America for a showdown in a harrowingly Christian credo. But this is no Left Behind. What differentiates this novel from its mythological underpinnings are the horrors McCammon provides that appear to have no expiration date three decades on.
The hero of the story is a young girl named Sue Wanda “Swan” Prescott. She has psychic abilities that allow her to inspire plants to grow. Her powers are minuscule at first, but grow as she ages, making her a bringer of life on a dead world. Because she is a child, she is given a protector in Josh Hutchins, a down and out wrestler known in the ring as Black Frankenstein due to his scars. Swan and Josh meet at a gas station in Kansas moments before the launch of a nuclear missile from a nearby silo destroys the place. Josh and Swan are the only survivors, but the wrestler is given his marching orders when a reanimated corpse tells him to protect the girl. One of Swan’s future comrades is a homeless woman named Sister Creep who survives the bombs in the subway tunnels. When she emerges onto the irradiated Manhattan streets she discovers two things: a circlet of glass that is psychically sensitive and warns her of dangers and provides visions of swan and a movie theater untouched by the blasts. Inside the theater sits the man with the scarlet eyes, later known as Friend. He is a shapeshifting being of evil who seeks to destroy all life. At first he pursues Sister and her magic circlet, but turns his attention to Swan once he hears of her and her powers.
The book spans seven years, a vast expanse of time that allows McCammon to bring his characters where fate dictates they meet for the final battle. That chronology allows him to explore the possibility of surviving in a world returned to the Dark Ages by war while adding magical elements that deepen the allegory between good and evil. Admittedly, Swan Song is a literary cousin to The Stand in theme as well as villain. Randall Flagg and the man with the scarlet eyes are monster brethren, desperately believing their time has arrived who are thwarted by their own arrogance more than the cunning of their enemies. But, King created a world placed in dormancy by a plague with cities that are waiting to be awoken. The immense destruction wrought on the world in Swan Song is a visceral realization of a collective fear as well as full of creative potential. In fact, the hopeful note the book ends on is that mankind will not repeat its mistakes when given a second chance. We get to grow a new world from the ashes of the old.
Sadly, nuclear war stands as just one potential outcome in the dystopia roulette of our current world, and the library of dystopian fiction has grown unwieldy due to our collective anxiety. To place McCammon above luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, King, George Orwell and Margaret Atwood says more about the needs of the reader than prowess of the literature. In fact, the dystopia we’re trudging through in the real world feels like a mashup of some of these works. In these dark times, we could all use a dystopia with less ambiguity: an Armageddon with a side of hope and horror heaped in catharsis. McCammon gave us this gift in Swan Song. It’s important that we remember to use it.