Who could resist a book with this cover?
I suppose there are strong-willed people out there with determination and grit who could, but at 12 years old I wasn't one of them. I saw this book at the public library book sale and was instantly determined to have it. Reading the back of the book only amped up my craving: "Blah, blah, blah...nuclear war...blah, blah...war...blah, blah, blah...war...blah, blah...nuclear weapons...blah, blah, blah...war." To summarize: nuclear war, war, war, nuclear weapons, war.
I tried to read it. I really, really tried. I remember taking it with me to visit my aunt in Greenville and finishing every other book I brought with me on the trip, except for this one and Whitley Strieber's Warday, another tale of an America blasted into radioactive wasteland by Commie missiles. I was baffled by how hard it was to read The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun: awesome dude in a poncho with a machine gun on the cover and totally impenetrable text. It didn't help that this book is set in a quasi-Medieval society that's arisen two hundred years after a nuclear war and is full of clever little in-joke names (the good guys live in the Western O'cracys - get it? The Western DEMocracys? There's Arakal (Oracle) the leader and they live in cities with names like Kebek). It doesn't help that it springs directly from the events in Christopher Anvil's short story "Ideology Counts" which isn't reprinted here. Anvil just assumes that, of course, you know what happened in his short story and so he doesn't need to reintroduce his characters or the world in which they live.
But what really doesn't help is that the entire book consists of people sitting around tables and talking.
Now, this is a book about a war-ravaged America restaging D-Day as they invade a technologically and economically superior Soviet-occupied Europe while rooting out traitors and spies who infest their proud American ranks. It's a book that has a battle on a train. It features weird technology being unearthed, invasions from the sea and massive advances across snow-covered Northern Europe full of war atrocities and guerrilla attacks. And yet out of the 16 chapters, 9 of them start with people standing around in a room having a meeting. Sometimes the meeting is on a train. Sometimes it's in the snow. Sometimes it's on a ship. Sometimes, just to get your blood pumping, there's not even a conference table. Only a desk.
You think I'm joking?
Chapter 2 begins, "Arakal, King of the Western O'Cracy's was in the Plot Room, bent over a model of the territory that had once been the Eastern United States."
Chapter 3 begins, "The evening of Admiral Bullinger's return, Arakal and his chief lieutenants gathered in the Plot Room." Again with the Plot Room?
Chapter 5 features the invasion of Europe, but we're watching it from yet another office, "S-One tensely watched the display." And he watches it, and watches it and watches it for the rest of the book.
Chapter 8, if you think you can handle it, begins, "S-One slowly rose from behind his desk..."
Chapter 9 continues ratcheting up the tension, "S-One glanced from the papers to the display on the opposite wall."
Arrrghhh! This non-stop action is killing me. But wait: there's more. Because Chapter 9 is entitled "The Judo Master" and it's divided into 6 subchapters. And they are killers: "Arakal studied the map, with Pierrot at his elbow...", "S-One glanced from the report to the display..." and, if you can stand it, "S-One rested his eyes on the garden, and then looked back at the report."
It's a book in which people are constantly glancing at reports, looking up at displays and studying maps when they're not examining models or analyzing photographs. There are so many conversations and so much offstage action that it's totally confusing, but this kind of misdirection pays off for Anvil, because it turns out that the entire book is about misdirection. When I finally got around to reading it a few months ago (after having had it on my shelf for over 20 years - like I said, it's not a book that grips one's soul) I was so bummed out to slog through all the meetings and report reading only to find out that the nuclear war that had broken out wasn't about WW III but was in fact a giant accident having something to do with ecology, satellite technology and genetically modified hay. That's right - the book's shocking revelation is mutant hay. The kind of hay that horses eat. And not mutant in a "it has claws and eats people" kind of way but mutant in an "it is resistant to many forms of blight and can survive inclement weather" way.
It's as if Christopher Anvil set out personally to disappoint young boys everywhere.
Apparently, Christopher Anvil is the pseudonym for Harry Crosby, a well-respected sci fi writer who published hundreds of short stories in magazines like Analog and Astounding starting back in 1952. His short fiction is currently collected in a recently-issued eight-volume set and he has lots and lots of fans, especially among other writers. Needless to say, The Steel, The Mist and the Blazing Sun is not among his shining achievements. In fact, I doubt most of his fans have read it because if they had they would want to go to his house and punch him in the nose, even though he is dead.
There's a genius to marketing this kind of disappointment, and it takes a village, really. Sure, Anvil wrote one of the most tedious post-apocalyptic war books ever written, and that's no mean feat. But someone at Ace Books had the bright idea of pairing his sleepy prose with this genuinely pulse-pounding cover and the cover is what suckered me in, and what suckered a lot of other people in if I can believe the Amazon reviews. The cover art promises machine guns, ponchos, action, excitement and post-apocalyptic thrills. It's not entirely misrepresentative: there are ponchos in the book, after all. The painting is by Walter Velez who has illustrated the covers for most of the fantasy and sci fi books that called out to adolescent boys like sexy, but non-threatening, seductresses from paperback racks all over America in the 80's.
I don't want to speak ill of Christopher Anvil, who by all accounts was a very nice man who wrote lots of very good stories. But for decades I was convinced that if I could just stick with it and make it through to the end of The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun I would be rewarded with awesomeness on par with that cover. Instead, I spent years trying it, then gave up, then tried one last time, plowed through the uphill prose, slashed my way through the dense thickets of confusion and made it to the mountaintop of the last chapter only to find...mutant hay.
There's a lesson in there somewhere.