Monday, March 23, 2009

Book Review: 'In the Drift' by Michael Swanwick
(Remembering Three Mile Island: 30 years later)


4/5 Stars

The best SF novel based on the TMI accident remains Michael Swanwick’s ‘In the Drift’ (Ace Books, 1985). Although it should be noted that the book is centered on events 100 years after a full meltdown of the reactor takes place, rather than the meltdown per se. And, there have not been all that many SF stories or novels dealing with the TMI accident to compete with 'Drift'....but it's still a very worthy read.

A fix-up of previously published, and new, stories, ‘In the Drift’ is set in Pennsylvania. The central and southern portions of the state are thinly populated wastelands contaminated by fallout (the ‘Drift’ of the title). The United States government has collapsed, leaving various regional governments and satrapies in its place. Philadelphia is the nearest metropolis to the Drift; it’s governed by the Mummers, a neighborhood organization that in the pre-meltdown days did nothing more ambitious than stage New Year's Day parades. The main protagonist of the novel is Keith Piotrowicz (pr. 'pet-ro-vich'), a somewhat aimless young man who works as a truck driver, toting garbage and toxic waste from Philly out to dumping grounds in the Drift.

The first chapter, 'Mummer's Kiss', was first published in 1981 in the anthology 'Universe 11'. Keith goes out on a dump run and befriends a reporter who has been asking too many questions about the fallout zone. Keith soon finds himself unwillingly allied with the reporter as they struggle to evade a dragnet unleashed by the Mummer cabal ruling Philly. 'Kiss' is a great action story, with the fallout zone serving essentially as a character in its own right; it's probably the best chapter in the book.

The remaining chapters focus on characters such as Sam, a 'vampire' girl whose mutated intestines cannot digest any food other than blood; Vicky, a girl whose family resides in the margins of the Drift; Esterhazy, a dwarf scientist researching the means of survival in the fallout zone; and Patrick Cruz O'Brien, a naive reporter from Boston who decides to chronicle the increasing tension between the population of the Drift, and those who want them out of the way in order to exploit the territory for the benefit of powerful political and economic interests.

While Swanwick was publishing and garnering critical praise at the same time as the flowering of the Cyberpunks in the mid - 80s, and is often included among their ranks, his writing is much less wordy than that of Gibson, Shirley, Shepard, or even Sterling. However, Swanwick is just as adept at conveying needed atmosphere and setting despite his comparatively restrained exposition. There are well-written passages in 'Drift' that are quite harrowing and memorable, such as when Piotrowicz, Esterhazy, and Sam visit the ruins of the TMI facility. Sam, gifted with the ability to detect radiation with her eyesight, sees the pulses of gamma rays spewing into the night sky; the enormity of the disaster is communicated without the stylistic over-exertions often encountered in Cyberpunk writings.

'In the Drift' is one of the best SF novels to emerge from the 80s (and, by extension, the Cyberpunk movement). Every time I cross the I-83 bridge into Harrisburg and I look south at the Susquehanna River, towards Middleton, and I see the far-off silhouette of the cooling towers at TMI, the strange alt-future Pennsylvania of the 'Drift' comes readily to mind.....

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