Visions of Paradise

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Children of the Thunder

This review contains spoilers!

The last book I read this summer vacation was John Brunner’s 1988 novel Children of the Thunder. This novel was written a decade after Brunner’s famous series of near-future dystopias (Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider), but it shows as much influence from those books as it does from his more traditional science fiction. The setting is a near-future England which, along with the rest of the world, is slowly sinking into economic and environmental chaos which neither politicians nor regular people seem to be trying to rectify as they pursue their own greedy agendas.

Much of the book combines two alternating sequences. In the first, a group of evolved youngsters gradually realize that they are able to coerce people into doing precisely what they want them to do, and they each use that power differently, often for selfish reasons. One of them, a boy named David, is also a genius who realizes others like him exist, so he sets out to bring them all together with his family.

The other storyline involves Peter Levin, a news journalist who, along with an American scientist Claudia Morris, realizes from their researches that these evolved children exist and they set out to learn why so many evolved youngsters have suddenly appeared.

Intermingled with these storylines is the growth of fascism worldwide as a reaction to the spreading-rapidly chaos. Brunner shows snippets of the fascism, but does not really explore whether it is a natural human trait which manages to stay suppressed during times of plenty, or whether it is a reaction to the chaos as people instinctively point fingers at "others" for the growing problems rather than admit they are part of the problem themselves. A decade earlier, before Brunner felt obliged to write more "popular" novels for the sake of marketability, he might have explored that issue further rather than merely use it as a framework for what is basically a thriller.

Much of the novel consists of both David and Peter striving to find the mysterious L. Parker whose sperm donations to an artificial insemination clinic are the most likely root of the evolved children. However, it was fairly obvious to me early in the novel that Parker is really not the father of the children, a fact which becomes more obvious after Peter’s estranged daughter Ellen shows up at his doorstep.

Early in the novel Brunner seems to strive to show the evolved children as evil, outside the mainstream of humanity. However, I could not help but think of the food chain which humans have sat atop for several millennia. We have no qualms slaughtering all forms of life beneath us, whether for food or for sport (hunting, fishing, bullfighting). If these children are indeed the new "top" of the food chain, should they feel any more protective of we lower lifeforms than we feel of, perhaps, dolphins? Does that make them any more evil than humans are, or merely embracing their role in the food chain?

As the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that Brunner’s intent is not to create a race of evil mutants, but to explore, if briefly, the drastic measures which must be taken to save humanity in the form of the children of the thunder. He does not succeed totally in that regard, although he does tie up the various storylines rather nicely. What this book really needs is a sequel to explore the intentions of David and the evolved children to see what, if any, steps they actually take towards reclaiming the planet from the human-induced chaos. While I enjoyed reading this book, my last book read during summer vacation, it was definitely not a case of last but not least.


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