Scott K. Andrews has written a lot of different things. He has, for example, written a guide to Dawson’s Creek. He has also written an incredibly violent post-apocalyptic trilogy about school-aged children armed for war against Blood Hunters, insane generals, and vampiric child slavers. I thoroughly enjoy the dissonance of that resume, though it doesn’t tell you much about the trilogy under the microscope today.
Except maybe to hint at the fact that Scott K. Andrews is likely to surprise you.
The three books collected in the 2012 omnibus collection School’s Out Forever—School’s Out (2007), Operation Motherland (2009), Children’s Crusade (2010)—were full of surprises. The plot twists and turns, throwing attack after surprise after horror after letdown after loss after battle at the young protagonists of this tale. The pages brim with machine gun fire, bullet wounds, pain, and violence. (Still not as violent as Blood Meridian though.) While you might have signed up for a pulpy book full of bloody battle (which you will get), what this yarn is about is how violence is stupid and fucked up and psychologically damaging and better avoided.
I had expected School’s Out Forever to near my threshold for pulp violence. It was published as a part of Abaddon’s Afterblight series/shared world, and Abaddon is a publisher that has explicitly set out to take readers “back to the good old days of pulp fiction, when vampire stories weren’t all about the endless torment of your lost humanity and fantasy stories didn’t run for fifteen volumes.”
While I can appreciate the sentiment about fifteen-volume fantasy series (I don’t, however, mind philosophically tormented vampires), I’ve never liked the stories classified as pulp, mindlessly violent and intellectually vapid as they so often are. School’s Out Forever is violent. Hideously so. But it is also peopled with well-developed, interesting characters and enough intellectual speculation about the consequences of violence and desperation to keep my brain cells charged for the duration. It combines all the fun of an action movie with all the realistic character and thematic development you wish Hollywood directors took the time for.
The Shared World: Afterblight
The Afterblight series is Abaddon’s shared world post-apocalyptic playground. It contains 15 books by 10 authors to date. So much for those pesky 15-volume series you were criticizing a second ago, huh Abaddon? (To which I am sure they would reply, but this isn’t a continuous story where you have to read it all. You can dip in and out! Which is true.) If I had to guess, I would say Adaddon tells its authors to imagine the most fucked up possible outcome to a widespread plague, grab a machine gun, and run with it. Punch a fucking bear if you like! Put school children in uniforms and slaughter them with machine guns! As a publisher celebrating pulp, they’ve certainly set up camp in the right genre.
Still, the Afterblight books tend to bring more intellect with them than I expect from pulp. I have also read Journal of the Plague Year, an omnibus collecting novels from Malcolm Cross, C.B. Harvey, and Adrian Tchaikovsky and Arrowhead, the first in Paul Kane’s post-apocalyptic Robin Hood trilogy. With the exception of C.B. Harvey’s Dead Kelly, none were particularly pulpy, though, yes, violent and peopled by the most fucked up cults you could nightmare into being.
Chronologically, School’s Out is one of the first books in the series, set as it is directly after the breakout of the disease that so drastically reduced the world population and brought life as you know it grinding to a bloody halt. You might enjoy reading about it—particularly as they are decidedly anti-racist and critical of religion—but you certainly wouldn’t want to live there.
Book One: School’s Out
World ends. Horrible plague. O negative blood types are immune. The world has dissolved into pockets of cults and power plays and communities trying to get by. One of those communities is an all-boys school in small-town England. They get a pretty nice thing going for them until the school psychopath takes over and starts crucifying teachers. There are a lot of guns and a lot of head wounds and stabbings and people are constantly drenched in blood (one of the big villains is a cult that paint themself with human blood for protection), though strangely, it never felt gratuitous. The story runs at break-neck speed with climax building on climax right until the end. The action keeps you running alongside, while the characters and their thoughts about the big themes—which considering the genre should be obvious: violence, death, murder, and the excuses and consequences that follow them—give you a reason to care.
Lee, our 15-year-old narrator, is easy to sympathize with, and he is focused on not becoming a killer. But circumstance shows him time and again that not killing your enemies results in further death and destruction as they try again and again to take you down. Killing them results in your own mental and moral disintegration. It’s lose-lose, and that’s the point.
Book Two: Operation Motherland
Though Operation Motherland begins a bit implausibly (16-year-old steals a plane, flies to Iraq to find his father, and is not killed in the first fifteen seconds of his arrival in spite of doing every dumb fucking thing you could imagine), this book kept up the taut, driving standard set in School’s Out. There were only a few named female characters in School’s Out—though those few there were 3-D and anything but wilting daisies—but they really get their first chance to kick ass in Operation Motherland when the badies just keep coming and coming and coming. Instead of following just one narrator, as in School’s Out, Operation Motherland splits the narrative between Lee and Jane, the school’s former nurse.
People keep criticizing Jane, now the leader of this group of school-age survivors, for bringing children into combat. And there you have one of the intellectual cruxes of the book. Don’t want kids fighting? Don’t show up on their doorsteps waving guns in their faces. Don’t kidnap them and sell them to religious cults. Don’t stand by while others fuck them over. Stand up for them. Be a fucking adult. In the words of Caroline, a young girl who first appears in Operation Motherland:
“Since The Cull I’ve met one—ONE!—adult who hasn’t tried to fuck me over. Every other predatory bastard out there thinks I’m either cattle to be bartered for food or a warm body to use and toss away. So don’t you fucking dare, Mr High-And-Mighty-Grown-Up-Man, tell me that children have no place in the front line. Because it’s you lot who’ve bloody put us there.” (657)
Ultimately, the kids can see the new shape of the world and the meaning of actions in that world, far more clearly than adults. That they are children, Andrews shows us in the ways that PTSD and prolonged combat experience warps their judgement, making them scary where a professional soldier would be scary, but theoretically more reliable. (Of course, adults suffer from PTSD too, and that fact is something I wish Andrews had showcased a bit more clearly.)
Book Three: Children’s Crusade
In order to cement the series’ “violence is bad” message, Andrews zooms in on the PTSD symptoms that Lee and Caroline are experiencing during Children’s Crusade. They hover on the verge of insanity, making scary, horrible decisions and endangering the people they love most. While Andrews successfully and convincingly manages this with Caroline—who had only appeared peripherally until this volume but evolved into my favorite character in the series—the portrayal of Lee’s PTSD/mental break-down was less convincingly constructed. By the last page he had managed it, but the first third of the novel had many rough moments when it felt like everyone was just concern trolling Lee for doing what they praised in others and/or did themselves, ie being scary mother fuckers on the battle field. Lee didn’t appear to be truly more fucked up than anybody else until the last bloody battle.
Was Andrews really successful in his anti-war, anti-violence message? Again and again the characters and the reader are taught the same lesson: if you don’t kill your enemies when you have the chance, they will sneak up behind you and kill you later. Dead is dead is safe. It isn’t a message that glorifies violence, but it is one that excuses it, makes it necessary. However, Children’s Crusade ends the series on a note that cements the idea that this is not some fun game of Rambo and that necessary is still not good or desirable.
As a stand-alone novel, however, Children’s Crusade is the weakest of the three. It wasn’t the story that stumbled, but the structural execution which Andrews nailed in the first two books. Switches between Jane and Lee’s point of view are confusing (couldn’t you have just put their damn names in the chapter heads?) and though I did not resent the 220-ish pages I had to read to get the end of the series, I was a little sad that the last book didn’t leave me quite as impressed with Andrews’ narrative tension-building acrobatics.
So what’s the big genre picture?
Having been published in the last five years, it is hard for me to say what “big picture” in the post-apocalyptic genre these books belong to in the way I can for time periods in the past whose trends can be spotted in relation to history and to the dates of their flood-like starts and slow trickling ends.
We are currently in the midst of a post-apocalyptic genre boom—in part thanks to how many books Abaddon has published in the genre—one largely related to our fears about things like climate change and the accelerated advancement of technology. Plague, however, is one of those things people have been scared of forever, and the Afterblight Chronicles appear to play into a more timeless line of human thought.
Like every post-apocalyptic book, School’s Out Forever is about our fears and values in the present, the end of the world a plausible excuse for machine guns and swords and a discussion of scary topics we’d prefer to approach from the side than head on.
Where I got it: Vender table at World Fantasy 2013