Modern publishers like Wildside Press, Cutting Edge and Armchair Fiction have been busy preserving the literary works of Sterling Noel (1903-1984). The author's knack for espionage and crime-fiction saturates his body of work, evident with novels like I Killed Stalin (1951), Prelude to Murder (1959), I See Red (1955) and Few Die Well (1953). It was with great interest that I acquired his post-apocalyptic, science-fiction novel We Who Survived. It was originally published by Avon in 1959 and was reprinted for modern audiences by Wildside Press in 2017.
The 160-page novel is divided into two parts, Book I: The Storm and Book 2: The Escape. The division marks a significant turning point within the book’s narrative. The first-half is essentially a massive snowstorm, which I'll explain in a bit. As expected, it begins by introducing the characters, their place in time and the extreme circumstances that place these characters in peril. The second-half delivers as advertised, the eventual escape where the action is propelled to match the “will to survive.” Both sections are good, but action-adventure fans may enjoy the closing chapters more.
Noel's protagonist, scientist and former missile commander Vic Savage, conveys to readers that the Earth was rocked by third and fourth World Wars. The conflicts utilized nuclear weapons and most of what we know now as the United States is fragmented into districts or complexes such as St. Louis Complex or Roanoke Complex that encompass a significant amount of surrounding territory. Two to three states conceivably are absorbed into new complexes or districts. Likewise, new countries are formed, including The Republic of North America where Savage lives. The book takes place in the year 2203, with the opening pages forecasting a snowstorm for Savage and the rest of Earth's inhabitants.
The Earth has entered the first stages of an unexpected cosmic dust cloud that is freezing the atmosphere. When the snow begins its slow descent, Savage, under harsh criticism, predicts that the snowfall won't stop for 72-years. The temperatures will plunge, ranging from thirty-two degrees in the early stages to a deadly eighty-degrees below zero. Due to the water vapors in the upper atmosphere decreasing, they will eventually vanish completely, removing all of Earth's heat. This deadly combination will result in massive storms that erode the east and west coasts of North America leading to flooding, gale-force winds, snow drifts over 200-feet and the inevitable death of billions of people.
The opening book, The Storm, has Savage collaborate with a number of key scientists and their families to stockpile a Missouri farm complex called Harrow. With engineers, fusion scientists, medical personnel and a support staff, the group begins fortifying Harrow for the inevitable storm. Eventually, Savage’s prediction rings true and their complex is buried in 100 feet of snow. The bulk of the first-half is spent on the characters interacting with each other, establishing rules and regulations and building tunnels with ventilation to service themselves for the remainder of their lives. Eventually, the group begins to fragment into factions, feuding with one another to disrupt the everyday boredom. Savage, and his team, decide to leave the complex after a number of long, lonesome months. The goal is to head to the equator where temperatures may be warmer.
The Escape, the book's second-half, finds Savage and the team driving a large vehicle holding 30 people. All of the vehicles of 2203 run on fusion reactors, so the author throws a bit of a curve-ball at the characters. They must create "prehistoric" rubber tires for the vehicle and build snow mobiles complete with welding-torch styled hand tools that melt the snow and ice that would otherwise block their travel. But, like most post-apocalyptic novels, it isn't the extreme conditions that kill – it's the people.
While not a riveting, action-packed spectacle, We Who Survived is a serviceable post-apocalyptic novel that introduces some new elements to the genre. The snowfall, harrowing frost and the ice-tunnels are new to me. While The Coming Global Superstorm, authored by Whitley Strieber and Art Bell, contains many of the same scenarios, it was written and published in 1999. We Who Survived was unique at the time, and still is.
Sterling Noel tended to write about nuclear reactors and nuclear energy in his spy novels, and he predicts the use of fusion reactors for everyday use. Furthermore, he predicts Facebook 40+ years ahead of it's conception. In an early scene, Savage and his girlfriend decide to be married. But, instead of the traditional wedding, the two appear in front of their computer’s camera and post a photo of themselves with a subtitle explaining they were getting married. They then post it to their friends and family through an app or device called DW-Three. Brilliant.
There could be some social context running through the novel. Noel's idea of characters ascending to the upper-surface could run parallel to the idea of a corporate ladder. Or, we all want to gaze down on everyone else, establish our own personal kingdom and be the envy of spectators. There are the unfortunate civilians trapped below and more fortunate, wealthy people “liberated” at the top. This idea of social class would eliminate the middle, leaving lower and upper class only. It could be a stretch, but I think Noel had more to say other than “Here is a catastrophe.” The shifting of wealth is significant. Savage and his group can ride free on the upper-surface because they have the money to plan ahead. Moreover, they have the ability to utilize expensive government equipment and the resources to own a huge farm. The lowly New York shopkeepers all freeze to death or drown in the ensuing flood.
We Who Survived isn't a gem you have to own. There are better post-apocalyptic books, but I think this paperback was really ahead of its time for 1959. It's a revealing look at our civilization and the fragile state of our planet. The social context is thick and illustrated by a characters that represent societal archetypes. The end result is an intriguing novel where the author, through his protagonist, warns us that the storm is coming.
Or, is it already here?
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