David Palmer sucks. Why? Because back in 1984 he came out of nowhere with Emergence, possibly the best First Novel ever, followed it with a second novel (Threshold, almost as good), then disappeared from the face of the earth. Well-meaning people mistakenly wrote obituaries. Decades later, just the rumor that a sequel to the story is to be published fills readers my age with joy, like denizens of winter-locked Narnia hearing the sound of sleigh-bells and dreaming of Christmas. I kid you not–the book is that good.
Emergence is the story of young Candidia Smith-Foster, plucky girl adventurer of the Apocalypse, and it shouldn’t have worked. It’s written as a series of journal-entries, all Candy’s–except for a bit near the end, written by someone she met on her adventures–and she uses an idiomatic form of shorthand English with “superfluous” words (words assumed from context) removed. Opening lines:
Nothing to do? Nowhere to go? Time hangs heavy? Bored? Depressed? Also badly scared? Causal factors beyond control?
Unfortunate. Regrettable. Vicious cycle–snake swallowing own tail. Mind dwells on problems, problems fester, assume even greater importance for mind to dwell on. Etc. Bad enough were problems minor.
Candy is writing this journal as therapy, to break out of the “vicious cycle” caused by her situation; she’s stuck in a private shelter (built by her sadly absent genius father), with only her idiot little brother Terry (really a very smart macaw) for company. And above-ground the world has ended in an orgy of Mutually Assured Destruction. It’s a fairly tidy one; the Cold War goes hot and Soviet Russia launches a biological attack that wipes out virtually all human life on the North American Continent, and presumably the rest of the world, in days. The US retaliates with an old-fashioned all-in nuclear strike that sterilizes large parts of northern Eurasia.
So the book begins with a downer and Candy gets to listen on the radio while shelter after shelter goes silent as the pre-planted supervirus kills even the most prepared. Since the triggered virus works fast, she keeps a pistol handy so she can shoot Terry if symptoms start presenting themselves (since they’re stuck underground, if she doesn’t do him that Final Favor he’ll starve to death). While waiting for the Last Cold Ever to set in, she begins the journal to clear her head and we get to learn her biography, leading up to her unexpected but fortuitous entombment.
So. End of world. Girl stuck in shelter, awaiting death, writing journal in shorthand English. Shouldn’t have worked. Did.
Why? Because Candidia Smith-Foster is one of the best characters ever written, the most clear-eyed, competent, child-genius protagonist ever to grace a story. Palmer’s skill at internal dialogue is enormous; by the end of the first chapter we know her, and are cheering for her all the way. And, far more than a Robinson Crusoe-type survival story, or even a post-Apocalypse road-trip, Emergence catches us again and again with surprises that come out of nowhere and yet are organically part of the plot. You see, it turns out there’s a reason why she survived the virus; Candidia Smith-Foster isn’t human. And there are others like her, if only she can find them…
Sadly, Emergence is out of print (the publishing house scheduled to re-release it and publish its sequel went out of business a couple of years ago, and I have no idea what Palmer’s plans are), but a used copy can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $18. I’m taking good care of my copy while praying for the ebook edition.