Apr 12 2011 12:05pm

Escaping dystopia through telepathy: Children of Morrow

Children of Morrow by H.M. Hoover

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.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
James Hogan
1. Sonofthunder
Mm, thanks for this review, as depressing as the book sounds! Your review faintly reminded me of Wyndham's post-apocalyptic The Chrysalids, which was a book I much enjoyed reading. Also, I would have loved those four paragraphs on crustacean and mollusk ecology. Does this make me weird? Most probably.
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
...can I ask for the paragraphs about crustacean and mollusk ecology, to go in the comments? Now I'm curious!
Noneo Yourbusiness
4. Longtimefan
I also would ask for the paragraphs about mollusk ecology! I always like more information. :)
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
Uh, wow. I wasn't kidding about the deletion part, since I assumed nobody would be interested, and I honestly can't remember exactly what I wrote.

Anyway, this unexpected interest started me on a new rant, which turned out to be much longer - far too long to pop up in a comment here. Following Skwid's suggestion, I put it as an LJ entry here:


If LJ is being wacky again, it's mirrored on Dreamwidth here:

Mari Ness
7. MariCats
Hmm. Apparently if I leave links in comments, they get flagged as spam. Or maybe the problem was that I had two of them? Let me try this again:

Mollusk rant over at my LJ.
Ursula L
8. Ursula
Thanks for this review! This was one of my favorites at the local library when I was growing up, along with the sequel "Treasures of Morrow." It is, indeed, Tia and Rabbit who make the book wonderful, despite its dismal setting.
9. erinlb
One of H.M. Hoover's other dystopias, This Time of Darkness, was one of my favorite books in middle school, and I still find it compelling.

I didn't read the Morrow books until much later, and I don't know if that totally accounts for my more critical stance toward them, or if This Time of Darkness is genuinely a better book. But, yeah, I found Tia and Rabbit compelling characters, but was kind of creeped out by the not-so-critically-examined eugenicist assumptions of the Morrow society.

Have you read Monica Hughes? I think of her in kind of the same was as I think of H.M. (Helen) Hoover--they were actively writing at the same time, and I always thought of their writing (both the dystopias and the non-dystopias) as "anthropological science fiction"--i.e. more focused on SF as a way of presenting different types of societies and worlds than on the science per se.

Pamela Sargent is another writer that I think of as part of this group, although her stuff was a little more hard-edged w/the science if I remember correctly. I'm so excited that Tor is publishing her Earthseed sequels!

I don't feel like this type of "anthropological SF" is as common in YA currently--maybe Beth Revis's Across the Universe fits? Or L.J. Adlington's books The Diary of Pelly D and Cherry Heaven--I get the impression that those weren't widely read in the US, but I liked them.
Tim May
10. ngogam
H.M. Hoover is one of several SF writers* I read a lot as a child, and then completely forgot about for years. I never encountered the Morrow books but I did read This Time of Darkness, The Lost Star, Journey Through the Empty, Return to Earth... I should really reread some of them and see how they hold up.

* Monica Hughes, mentioned by erinlb above, is another.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@Ursula - And I think Tia and Rabbit are why I still remembered the book years later.

@erinlb - I love this term: anthropological SF. This was definitely a big thing in the 1970s and 1980s - much of Peter Dickinson's work would fit this category, and I think House of Stairs would as well.

I read Monica Hughes' Isis series, because, ROBOT! I frankly don't remember much else of the series except being happy that one of the characters turned out to be a robot. I was a very uncritical reader at the time. I can't remember if I read any more of her books, although I'm guessing yes. She certainly doesn't seem to have stayed in my memory as strongly.

@ngogam - These are the only books by Hoover I ever read; I looked for others, but my various libraries never had them. And although I enjoyed rereading this, I wasn't impressed enough to go seeking out more of her work.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
12. tnh
Mari Ness, sorry about the delay getting your unpublished comment released. I'm having minor technical difficulties with that.

Note: SF readers have an endless appetite for wayside technical details. "Let me tell you why this is interesting" is usually all it takes.
13. filkferengi
Thanks for the great review! You should seek out other Hoover books; _The Lost Star_ is a perennial favorite, & not as somber as some. Hoover holds up well; Tamora Pierce has been enthusiastically recommending her for years.
14. Teheru
Your supposition about the locations in the book are dead wrong. Did you even READ it?

The society that Tia and Rabbit grew up in is aproximately 100 miles inland of San Fransisco Bay, and the Morrow settlement is listed as 6000 MILES south of that, which would place it toward the southern end of South America. Your anti-american bias has no place in a review. (No, I'm not American.)

Also, nowhere in the book does it say that "most plants have died out." As for why some mammals would survive and not others, you do know that small animals were the survivors of whatever killed off the dinosaurs, which is why we exist today? Larger animals require more oxygen for respiration, simple as that. Crustaceans and mollusks surviving? Have you ever seen a polluted sea-port? They have no problem with pollution, and remain long after there are no fish left in an area.

All the politically correct nonsense about rape and abuse is tiring, as well as your fear of intelligence.

Your "review" is nothing more then a sophomoric rant. And a pathetically biased one at that. You're seeing bad guys where YOU WANT TO, and not because they exist. How sad.
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@Teheru --

Page 38-39 of the 1985 Puffin Books edition:

"As the oceans' enormous masses of plankton slowly died from the filth man continuously spewed into the water, as the oxygen supply generated by the plankton diminished and the air continued to be heavily polluted, as the plants and trees on the land sickened and turned brown or yellow before death, the chain began to break, link by link, and the slow suffocation of life on the earth began....over 93 percent of all living creatures on the earth's surface and under the seas died by simple suffocation."

Page 41:

"In the tidal edge were clams, tiny gnarled oysters and huge scavenger snails. Inured to the poison of man's pollutants, adapting to limited oxygen, the shellfish had thrived on a world turned to garbage."

As far as dinosaurs are concerned, I will note three things: 1) no one is suggesting that the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period killed off 93% of all living creatures, making this a bad comparison, 2) mammals, birds and other living creatures had millions of years from the end of the Cretaceous until now to evolve into their current forms, instead of the few thousand described in the Morrow books, again making this a bad comparison, and 3) the end of the Cretaceous period also saw the mass extinction of mollusks. In fact, the end of the Cretaceous period is often used as an example of just how fragile mollusk ecology can be. So, bad comparison. Not quite as bad as your comparison of the number of critters in relatively unpolluted areas to the number of critters in polluted sea-ports, but close.

I could go on, and in particular, direct your attention to this recent article, but, as you said, tiring.
Henry Walker
16. Skylark2
Ever considering reading This Time Of Darkness? It seems to be a sort of bizarro version of this (which I have never read so I am probably wrong). In that the two kids (thankfully not conceived by medical rape this time, or telepathic) are escaping from the heavily mechanical underground world to a pleasant agrarian society. It seems more human a story to. I liked it at least.
Mari Ness
17. MariCats
@skylark2 -- I couldn't remember if I'd read that one before or not, so I ordered it from the library. Thanks for the recommendation!
Henry Walker
18. Skylark2
Got around to reading that book I recommended?
19. Ellynne
I have two theories on the atrificial insemination bit, because it's so improbable (assuming the scientists had modified DNA) that they would be carting it around in an area where they assume there are no humans. If they were going to use it at all, I assume they'd be modifying kids back home.

First theory is that this was an attempt to make an actual rape OK for children's literature. Second theory is that a woman from a culture where women are supposed to be submissive and sexually available encounters a strange man and things that are probably still pretty problematic happen leading up to sex. Afterwards, the man is more worried about the consequences if his people find out he had sex with rather iffy consent than he is in letting his people know they are not alone or in helping this woman and her people. That would also be problematic for a children's book.

This implies the kids higher telepathy may be the result of hybrid vigor--there are genetic factors on both sides giving them unique abilities. The people of Morrow seem to see themselves as a superior breed to their ancestors who caused the disaster they survived. I think it's ingrained enough that they're willing to treat all non-telepaths as subhuman. They never even entertain the idea that the kids' abilities may owe something to both sides of the genetic tree.

The mollusks may be unscientific but, reading this as a young teen, I remember the really alien landscape this world seemed to have, as if humans were interlopers. The strongest image I remember from the sequel was holding my breath as a giant, slug-like creature swam past their ship, wondering if it would attack (or I remember picturing a giant, slug-like creature. Don't tell me if it was a squid). At moments like that, I had the feeling that humanity had already lost the war for this planet. It didn't belong to us anymore.

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