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This is the Way the World Ends
by James Morrow
(Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions, 9.99, 319 pages, paperback; first published 1986, this edition 18 May 2000.)

Ahh, to be able to read satires on the bad old days of the Cold War, the lunacy of MAD and the prospective end of the world from the relative safety of the New World Orderä. I did quite a bit of my growing up in the '80s and can still vividly remember discovering for the first time (in about 1984, I think it was) that at any given moment we could all be dead within five minutes. It put a bit of a dampener on Christmas that year, I can tell you.

cover scanThis Is The Way The World Ends was first published in 1986 (it's republished in a paperback version of the nostalgic Victor Gollancz yellow jacket) but seems as though it could have been published at almost any time from the 1960s to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Everyman George Paxton sees his family and everyone else wiped out in a nuclear war a matter of minutes after he has accepted a free SCOPAS (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) suit that he hopes will protect his young daughter in the event of a holocaust (it doesn't). The suit comes free on the proviso that Paxton signs a contract that acknowledges his complicity in the nuclear arms race, having not actively done anything about it.

Miraculously surviving the end of the world, Paxton is whisked off by submarine to the Antarctic, there to stand trial as per his contract, for complicity in the destruction of mankind.

Let's not be under any illusions here, This Is The Way The World Ends is not a realist novel, it's an Alice In Wonderland trip through possibly the most "Wonderland" scenario of all time: the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. And it's very nearly funny.

Now that the immediate threat of global annihilation has largely receded it's possible to read This Is The Way The World Ends as a work of inspired lunacy -- before suddenly recalling that this is how things were. The horror in Morrow's magic realist satire is not in the physical descriptions of the aftermath -- which have been done more than adequately elsewhere -- but in the Catch-22 reasoning that the characters brought up for post-war trial exhibit, some of which is genuinely inspired.

Only some of This Is The Way The World Ends is quite as inspired though. The book is rather too long, some of the characters are unnecessary and annoying, and some of it just too unreasonably bizarre -- to say 'unrealistic' would be to miss the point somewhat, but a satire always needs some grounding in reality. Most of the characters are just devices for the points Morrow has to make, having no exterior life of their own, and sooner or later the reader begins to tire of them.

The book would, I think, have worked just as well as a longish novella.

That said, This Is The Way The World Ends is a nasty poke in the ribs for anyone still celebrating our "victory" in the Cold War, a stiff reminder that it was a stupid and insane period in our history, one that we'd all do well to remember for a long time to come.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 15 July 2000