Steven R. Boyett’s 1983 post-apocalyptic novel Ariel (Ace)—his debut and written when he was 19 years old—has earned itself an important place on the timeline of post-apocalyptic literature on two counts: it is one of the few magical apocalypses ever written and it was an inspiration for S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse/Change series.
On its own steam I wouldn’t give Ariel much stock. The writing is functional enough, the action scenes well written, and the story has drive—but *shrugs*. Besides the fact that it exchanges the traditional boy-and-his-dog storyline for a boy-and-his-unicorn storyline, it is a pretty straightforward post-apocalyptic road trip. That is to say: *shrugs again*. But it is one of just three magical apocalypses that I have encountered so far: S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse, Jani Lee Simmer’s Bones of Faerie trilogy, and Ariel. In a genre as wrung out as the post-apocalyptic, it is a wonder to find something that hasn’t already been overdone.
Cause of apocalypse: One day the laws of physics suddenly change, disabling all mechanical devices (including bikes—what?—but also guns, which opens the door for swords, which are far more satisfying weapons to read about) and introducing magic to the world. Why this has happened is never explained. Why this leaves most of the world so empty is just one of the plot holes Boyett never bothers to stop up. (Yes, this would paralzye both modern farms and food distribution systems, but would it leave the world this empty? I don’t buy it.)
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(Yup, it’s still me.)
I fucking hate unicorns. (There, I’ve said it. Please don’t lynch me. Or let Erika break up with me over it. She’s already threatened.) So Ariel, being a unicorn story, had pretty much lost with me after the first sentence declaring that the unicorn’s inclusion would be neither subtle nor infrequent: “I was bathing in a lake when I say the unicorn.” Then the damn unicorn starts to speak in a high-pitched little girl’s voice and a lisp. I wished Boyett had at least given it an incongruously deep voice. When a few chapters later the unicorn learns how to talk like an adult and swears, it was even worse. Be careful what you wish for.
On the one hand, I dislike unicorns because as far as magical creatures go, they’re boring (*ducks as Erika swings a punch*). Sure, they can fight like tanks and heal people and shit, but I still think a mundane rhinoceros is more interesting. On the other hand, I dislike unicorns because of the thing they are meant to embody: the western idea of purity. For those of you just tuning into this universe, the idea is that virgins are “pure” and people who have had sex are not. So something that feels great and has the potential to create more life i.e. prevent species extinction is dirty. What a vile moral hierarchy. Thanks religion! Thanks patriarchy! We don’t need to associate sex with being “dirty” and make more people feel like shit by saying “sorry sluts, this unicorn ain’t for you.” Women who have and enjoy sex are given enough shit as it is.
Of course, this isn’t unicorns’ fault. They are a concept created by humans, and they are used by humans to represent another concept they created. If they existed in the real world, I would like me some unicorns. (See, Erika, there is a parallel universe where I sort of like them!) But as symbols of purity? Meh. Ariel (the name of the book is the name of the unicorn) is handled very specifically as a symbol of purity and while Ariel the book does not slut shame (and in fact defends women who unashamedly do the dirty), Ariel the unicorn does. It is an appropriate creature metaphor to use in a book about approaching adulthood and a sexual coming of age and loss of innocence but blah blah blah hofuckinghum.
Coincidentally, an article about how the concept of purity/virginity is a toxic one, particularly for women, showed up in my reader on the same day that I was trying to articulate my feelings about purity as a nasty concept. And I quote:
“Female virginity is valuable to society, but a man’s isn’t really worth anything; in fact, it’s better for a man’s social status if he is not a virgin.
“And this ties into what is known as the sexual double standard: Women are shamed for having sex and men are rewarded for it.“
Now, while this is a fucked up thing and supports my point about the toxicity of these concepts, it is not the point made in Ariel, and in that context I find myself begrudgingly required to give the book credit for subverting the usual purity tropes. Ariel’s male protagonist Pete is rewarded for being a virgin with the privilege of touching Ariel (all non-virgins experience pain when they try to touch her). While he isn’t overly excited about his virgin status because he knows it doesn’t fit in with male societal expectations, because it is what enables his relationship with his jealous magical horse, he begins to fight to protect it.
Which explains exactly why I didn’t love this book: who fucking cares about some dude defending his virginity from its inevitable “loss” in order to keep his mildly irritating best friend? Not me.
If you are into that kind of story you might enjoy this book. It has a swiftly driving plot about finding and defeating an evil wizard holed up in a New York skyscraper, faulted as it is. I would count off these faults myself, but in an afterward to the 2009 Ace reprint of Ariel, Boyett does the job himself: Shaughnessy, one of the book’s female leads (if you could even call her that) comes away pretty poorly; the necromancer (yes, necromancer—Boyett also says he would have named his villain differently today) needs more development; there are some holes in the world building; etc, etc.
Things I did like included the discussion of manly man violence in end of the world fictions, best championed by Shaughnessy (where the fuck did he get that name?):
“You walk around with your ‘you gotta kill to survive’ bullshit, and I resent it. I can’t tell you how many people—always men—I’ve heard rationalize it that way. I’ve survived as well as you, and I haven’t had to kill, or fight. I’ve run away. I’ve hidden. I’ve lied. I’ve done anything I could not to have to be in that situation, because I know you don’t really have to kill. I resent hearing you say how much you like the Change, because I despise it. I always have to be on guard. I can’t get close to anyone. Sure, you can romanticize the Change. Try it from my end.” (207)
This quote segways easily into another theme I was glad to see covered: the romanticization of end times scenarios. Pete was preoccupied with apocalyptic fiction before the apocalypse and only too late does he realize the folly of such:
“My parents never understood my fascination with the concept of the end of the world. Because we lived away from the city, I sometimes walked down the street to the canal…and it was easy, no cars coming and no city noises, to pretend something had wiped everybody out. Everybody but me. I think I wanted it that way. I thought up endless scenarios: the typical and clichéd ones of nuclear annihilation, others involving humankind wiped out by mutant viruses, bacteriological warfare, invading aliens, or disappearance in some great exodus I’d somehow missed out on.
“But I’d never figured on anything like the Change. And when it happened it turned out to be nothing like what I’d wanted all along. It wasn’t some grand and glorious heroic struggle, One Man’s Fight for Survival. It was work, and it hurt—emotionally and physically. I never found out what happened to some people I cared for very much. The end of the world turned out to be something I preferred to fantasize about rather than experience.” (166)
For all its nuance in mentioning this issue, Ariel doesn’t manage to transcend it, and it remains a rather pleasant tale in which the end of the world is pretty easy on One Man (now you should imagine my voice rising dramatically as I stand on my chair at the cafe and declare to the empty room:) One Man on the Road With His Unicorn. ONE MAN who must FIGHT TO SAVE the WOMAN (Unicorn) HE LOVES. Etc, etc, etc. The genre-conscious sentiment that romanticizing end-times stories is fucked up and delusional is practically a cliché in post-apocalyptic literature at this point. Still, it is an idea worth repeating: don’t romanticize the end of the world because if it happens to you it will suck unicorn balls.
Twelve out of twenty male unicorns.
Where I got it: Book Depository
After promising in an afterward that he would never ever ever EVER write a sequel to Ariel, Steven Boyett wrote a sequel to Ariel. It is called Elegy Beach and it came out in 2009. Considering the coherence of his insight into Ariel‘s flaws in the new edition’s afterward, I may even read it.