Some lucky children find themselves travelling in fairylands. Considerably less lucky children find themselves physically and emotionally abused before having the fun of scrambling through an ecologically devastated area and ruined cities. Even telepathy and sudden discoveries of honey can only do so much.
As befits a 1970s book by a well meaning author, the intriguing and oddly satisfying failure The Children of Morrow is set in a world of post-ecological collapse. As the author makes clear, this disaster, and the resulting near extinction of most of humanity, came about not thanks to aliens, asteroids, or natural disasters, but terrible environmental mismanagement, leading to a significant drop in air quality and oxygen levels and the near extinction of most of humanity. And not just humanity: all birds, dolphins, larger animals and most plants have also died out. But, oddly enough, not bunny rabbits, nor, as I will try not to complain too much about, crustaceans and mollusks.
In this world of still poor air and slime molds, two communities have managed to survive. (It will probably not surprise you to hear that both are American.) The first, a small deeply patriarchal, occasionally violent community scrambling for existence, lives in the once-Pacific Northwest and worships a missile silo (seriously); the second, in the once-Southern California, is a pacifist society that emerged from a technologically perfect multiple story underground compound that happened to develop telepathic powers thanks to eating crustaceans. And mollusks.
And how, might you wonder, are these two compounds connected? Glad you asked. As one of the peaceful, advanced people of Morrow explains, he was on a mission trip, encountered the missile silo folks, and then:
One of the younger female workers had wandered into the woods near my blind. Except for the fact that her skin felt like hide from over-exposure to the sun, she seemed healthy enough. I mind-stunned her and performed artificial insemination with File Morrow-strain sperm banks.
The people of Morrow, hearing about this, are mostly upset that this entire, um “artificial insemination” (and the resulting medical/genetic experiment) happened without the approval of their council, which is a worse no no, apparently, than randomly artificially inseminating “primitive” humans that you happen to come across.
I assume the term “artificial insemination” was used to keep this book suitable for children. (It already was skirting on the edge of other issues, what with both cultures openly taking more than one spouse.In the missile silo community, most children have no idea who their biological fathers might be. In the Morrow world, children do know, but only because of careful genetic engineering.)
However, even if the woman was only penetrated by a needle (the above quote is all the details we get on how this was physically accomplished), this incident cannot be sugarcoated: it’s rape. And the victim is a fully sentient woman, physically and emotionally abused by her own people, certainly, and part of a brutal patriarchy, also certainly, but that in no way justifies rape.
In any case, thanks to this rape—I am not going to be using the kinder term—two children with telepathic powers are born to the missile silo community: Tia and Rabbit. Both are ostracized because of their odd appearances and strange abilities, Tia, as a girl-child, far more than Rabbit, to the point of enduring severe physical and mental abuse. Only Tia’s dreams—actually telepathic communications with the Morrow community—keep her sane. These communications do not keep her and Rabbit out of trouble, and after Rabbit accidentally murders one of the Fathers, the two find themselves on the run— towards Morrow.
Hoover is not, shall we say, subtle about certain things. In particular, patriarchy, bad; destroying ecology, bad; developing peaches, good. Other moral lessons in the book include How Alcohol Screws You Up; Shellfish Are Delicious Although They May Make You Barren or Give You Birth Defects; and always, When Escaping From Mean Patriarchs Who Want To Kill You, Stop Off For More Food First. And, she warns, again not subtly, that if humans continue to destroy the environment we, too, shall have to crawl into dark underground places and risk losing our chances at a normal family life. Even the happy Morrows face several restrictions: they cannot, for instance, have more than three children. She paints a devastating picture of the consequences of environmental destruction: vast wastelands, ruined cities, an unthinkable death rate, and near societal collapse, or, in the case of the missile silo worshippers, a brutal patriarchy arising from the mere struggle for survival, whose leaders later maintain their political power through lies and deceit.
(To be more specific, they worship the missile inside the silo—feel the symbolism!—whose warhead, Hoover helpfully explains, was conveniently removed in the far off past, although everyone is still terrified of touching the thing in case it goes bang. This, incidentally, with the Major’s yelling about the lazy slobs of the past while yelling at everyone to LOOK AT THE POWER OF THE MISSILE—feel the phallic symbol, everyone! deeply impressed me as a kid and caused me to laugh out loud as a grownup.)
Hoover was not the only author to suggest that the societal and economic collapse leads to patriarchy, although the one she paints—where women are regularly physically and verbally abused, forced into specific and degrading gender roles, and used as sex slaves (understated, but clear)—is particularly brutal. My first response is that patriarchy has been known to appear in more than one wealthy, civilized country, and that the Athenian Greeks Hooper so much admires (yes, this comes up in the text) were not exactly guiltless of this social setup. (In fact, the “barbarians” she decries—amusingly enough listing Rome among these—were perhaps more gender equitable than the Athenian Greeks, although of course this varied depending upon which ancient culture under discussion…and I digress.) But however questionable her history, and however heavy handed her depiction, it still comes off as largely convincing, and terrifying.
Equally convincing is her portrait of Tia’s mother, an abused woman with three other children to protect, terrified of the men who control her life, and unable to accept her daughter’s differences. She, too, turns into an abuser. Tia finds kindness—and limited at that—only from one of the other women, who does not risk ostracism by doing so. Not surprisingly, Tia never thinks of her mother when she flees the community.
Considerably less convincing is Hoover’s ecology and biology. In particular, she has a very poor understanding of the nitrogen cycle, the role of cyanobacteria, and, well, the biology of crustaceans and clams.This is not necessarily a fault in a writer; it is a fault in a story attempting to be an ecological fable and warning.
And the novel also lacks something found in the very best of children’s fantasy/science fiction: the children do not get to rescue themselves. Oh, they do some of their own rescuing, certainly, but in the end, they need to be saved by the superior people of Morrow.
That, by the way, leads to at another problem with the supposedly superior Morrow society. The children are rescued; the rest of the missile silo community, despite food and health issues (not to mention the chance of getting hit on the head by old military equipment) not. They aren’t, after all, telepaths. Morrow may be environmentally conscious, supposedly egalitarian, and led by a woman. But for all their superior qualities and kindness to Tia and Rabbit, they are not compassionate, and some of their statements about historical societies display a chilling lack of empathy. They drip with knowledge, with elitism, but not hope.
You may be asking, so, why bother with the book? Because, despite all this, Hoover managed to create two outstanding, convincing characters in Tia and Rabbit. Rabbit, the brave young stammerer and accidental murderer, by turns supportive, helpful and tearful, and Tia, angry, cynical, and distrustful, frequently irritated by Rabbit but needing him as a friend, are both easy to identify with, as is their desire to find a place to fit in—and later, just to survive. Their ability to still find delight in certain aspects of their trip—finding honey, the massive ruins, and, um, avocados (in northern California?) and clams both lightens the trip and adds a further sense of realism.
And if I question Hoover’s ecology, I don’t question her conclusion that the societies that may arise from ecological (or other) collapse may not be ones we want to live in—even the ones that claim perfection, or close to it.
The portrayal of Tia and Rabbit, and their journey across the desolate areas of the Pacific Northwest, allow this book to linger long in the memory; it was the first book to come to mind when Tor.com mentioned the dystopia project, even before the even more chilling (actually nightmarish) House of Stairs, by William Sleator, published a year after this one. If this book fails as an ecological science primer, or as a book of self-empowerment, it succeeds admirably as a reassurance that children who feel despised, who feel they will never fit in, can eventually find a group that wants them—even if they may need a little help along the way.
Mari Ness very kindly eliminated four paragraphs about crustacean and mollusk ecology from this post. You’re very welcome.