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The Harvest, Robert Charles Wilson, Bantam Spectra, 1994, 438 pp.
Call it Childhood's End meets The Stand, with real characters -- if such facile comparisons could do justice to Wilson's excellent book. The Harvest takes its premise and goes in far different directions than Childhood's End, and is perhaps a more satisfying book. Wilson has an astonishing eye for detail, and he can spin out the most memorable phrases -- and he is always careful to make sure his writing style serves the story and the characters. The Harvest is a wonderful read and is highly recommended.
The book opens with an alien spaceship in orbit around Earth. It makes no contact for over a year, after which it puts everyone on Earth to sleep, and asks of every person simultaneously, "Do you want to live forever?" As could be expected, we need a human drama for us non-immortal readers to understand and to fill out the book. So The Harvest mainly concerns itself with a few of the people who turned down the offer (one in ten thousand, a figure which is apparently much higher than the aliens were expecting). It's a hard storyline to summarize, mainly because Wilson does many unexpected things. The book has a number of remarkable and odd corners to it, which all work surprisingly well.
The Harvest's main character is clearly Matt Wheeler, a physician in the small town of Buchanan. He is a serious man, and in some ways, is purely functional in terms of the plot -- he's the down-to-earth guy that we can identify with in the face of astonishing events. But he is also sharply characterized, from his love for his daughter and deceased wife, to his relationship with Annie, to his medical insights. Around Matt, Wilson assembles a crew of interesting people, each given attention and respect, and their own credible character arc. I especially liked Murdoch, the choices that he made, and the way his story ends. I also liked the President, and what he does. Wilson also works hard to give us a believable villain, in the form of Colonel Tyler. The militaristic power freak is perhaps a bit stereotypical, but Wilson gives Tyler a human history as real as any of the characters we are meant to cheer for.
Wilson can write some wonderful phrases, and they always capture something about the sequence that adds a great deal to the book. For example, Matt and one of his doctor friends are talking about the effects of the alien nanotechnology, and here is a thought from Matt: "But he had heard everything from hot weather to diaper rash blamed on the Artifact, and he was wary of that line of thinking" (45). Wilson somehow manages to capture the entire range of typical human responses to the Artifact by those two details. Often, his phrases will add immeasurably to character development. Tom Kindle is borrowing a car from Matt: "Kindle was long-legged, and the act of climbing inside this automobile left him feeling like he'd been folded into a mailbox" (197). A rather obvious gesture describing Kindle's railing against the restraints of society, but on the literal level, it's a phrase that's hard to forget when seeing any small car on the road.
Wilson has the same kind of facility for making his ideas felt and understood, and again, the notions he speculates about are often best conveyed in terms of character. We get the first reactions to the question about immortality from the perspective of Simon Ackroyd, a rather peripheral character who is an Episcopal rector. But even this small section about Simon is stunning -- Simon's test of faith was reading about the Aztecs and human sacrifice and his dream about an Aztec priest (and I quote at length because I could not agree with the point more) "who had misunderstood [Simon's] horror as religious awe and who responded with his own attempt at a compliment. Our knives are trivial, the priest had said. See what your people have achieved. All your missile silos, your invisible bombers, each one an obsidian knife aimed at the hearts of tens of millions of men and women and children; each one a temple, painstaking, ingenious, the work of an army of engineers, contractors, politicians, taxpayers. We have nothing to compare, the Aztec priest had said" (80). This dream is the reason why Simon chooses immortality. In another example of great writing, Wilson takes us inside the head of Colonel Tyler, a real nutcase, an ironic frame from which to be talking about sanity: "Appearances matter. In the question of sanity, you were allowed to pretend. You were supposed to pretend. Everyone pretended. We prove we're sane by pretending to be sane. To fail at the pretense, or not to bother, was the definition of insanity" (224-5). The layers of irony resonate together cleverly -- Matt considers the immortal "humans" to be something other than human, and one of their traits is a kind of communal telepathy. Tyler is, by this definition, a normal human, even if the trait he is hiding behind his non-telepathy is insanity.
The Harvest's strength is clearly its characters, and I noticed as I was writing this review that each time I tried to talk about something else, like plot or writing or ideas, I drifted into discussion about the characters. That's simply because the people are at the heart of this book, and that's what makes it such a satisfying read. We meet some strange personalities in The Harvest and some non-human entities, and Wilson writes them as assuredly and credibly as straight-arrows like Matt Wheeler. Excellent work all around.
Last modified: June 14, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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