Thursday, December 6, 2018

Traveler #6: Border War

Traveler #6: Border War, by D.B. Drumm
June, 1985  Dell Books

It’s a veritable Old Home Week in this installment of Traveler, which sees John Shirley writing what comes off like a series finale. This leaves me with many questions, as Shirley did pretty much the same thing in The Specialist #3; he caps off the entire series with a satisfying conclusion. One wonders what led him to this, as there were seven more volumes of Traveler to go.

I wonder if Shirley just figured this was it for him on the series, but as it turned out he wrote one more volume: the eighth installment, with series co-writer Ed Naha writing the others. Maybe it looked like Traveler was about to be cancelled and Shirley wanted to give the readers a proper finale. Who knows. Whatever the story behind its creation, Border War is a blast, my favorite volume yet in the series. It features everything you could want in post-nuke pulp, save for the inexplicable lack of Shirley’s patented hardcore sex scenes. Bummer!

First though a bit of pedantic housekeeping: the back cover states that the novel takes place in 2015, which is odd given that previous volumes were set in 2004. In the text itself, Shirley writes that WWIII happened in 1995, “seventeen years before.” This would place the action in 2012. First I thought Traveler took one hell of a detour in his drive to Arizona, which he began in the climax of  the previous volume, but later we’re told that the third volume was just a year ago. So what I assume has happened is that Shirley intended to write that the nukes came down in 1985, not ’95, or maybe a copy editor just goofed. But even that doesn’t work out, as seventeen years after 1985 would be 2002, not 2004. Ultimately I just said to hell with it and enjoyed the book.

So Traveler is headed for Arizona in the Meat Wagon, his buddies Link (a muscle-bound black dude first introduced in the third volume) and Hill (an old Special Forces pal who debuted last volume) riding along, as well as the seldom-speaking Rosalita, the sexy Hispanic babe Link has hooked up with. Traveler himself wants to hook up: with Jan Knife Wind, the Indian babe who was established as his soul mate back in the third volume, but whom Traveler unceremoniously dropped at the end of that volume so he could get back to travelin’. Traveler is so intent upon reuniting with Jan that one wonders why he didn’t just stay with her in the first place. Again, it seems clear to me that Shirley assumed this would be the last volume of the series, or at least his last volume, and wanted to give Traveler a proper sendoff.

But nothing’s ever easy in the post-nuke US, and when Traveler and crew arrive in Pyramid Lake, Arizona, they find the place overrun by Hispanic-looking soldiers in black uniforms. Jan’s tribe has been imprisoned, and these soldiers, as Traveler learns after a soft but violent probe of the area, are from El Hiagura. The same Central American country Traveler was stuck in doing CIA stuff when WWIII happened. I’m not sure if this has been stated before, but here it’s relayed that El Hiagura is actually Guatemala, the new name coined by commie dictator Diaz, aka “the Colonel Qadafi of South America.”

In a unique spin on things, Shirley has it that the United States has become the stomping grounds for “military advisors” from other countries; in other words, the US has become the new Vietnam. And those former third world hellholes are veritable industrialized empires in comparison to the nuked US. What really makes Traveler seethe is his realization – perhaps grasped a bit too quickly – that senile President Frayling, commanding his lunatic “army” the Glory Boys from a bunker in Las Vegas, is clearly working with Diaz, despite Frayling’s hatred of commies. It’s again made clear that Frayling “started World War III,” something the entire surviving populace of the US is apparently aware of, and this is just yet more of his nefariousness.

Each volume of Traveler has been heavy on the action, with many of the books really just extended chase scenes; Shirley continues the trend but varies things up a bit. For one, people finally seem aware that bullets and ammo would be scarce 17 years after nukes destroyed the country, so Traveler, in an attempt to save his ammo, often resorts to using a crossbow. There are still many scenes of gun-blazing gore on full auto; even the mounted machine guns on the Meat Wagon see some use, and Traveler at one point takes out a Russian helicopter with an M-79 grenade launcher, just like Rambo was doing in movie theaters at the time. The El Hiagurans tote new submachine guns Traveler’s never seen before, things that look like Uzis, but surprisingly there’s never a part where Traveler gets his hands on one of them.

Each volume of the series has also had a bit of a metaphysical slant, and Border War really goes all-out with it. In many ways this volume comes off as almost New Agey as the average volume of Doomsday Warrior. Traveler is briefly captured by the El Hiagurans and finds Jan’s tribe in the camp stockade; Jan herself unsurprisingly has been taken away, to serve as Diaz’s personal concubine. Meeting with the chief of the tribe, our hero learns he is the clichéd “Chosen One” of prophecy who will lead “the red man” against “the white man.” Through the novel Traveler will experience the occasional astral voyage, meeting a spiritual Indian and reconnecting with mysterious holy man Nicholas Shumi, returning from previous volumes.

One of these astral voyages features a surprise appearance by a previously-vanquished foe: the super-cool Black Rider, Traveler’s mutant archenemy who was killed off in the fourth volume. As part of a test to prove he is indeed the chosen one, Traveler is baited by the Black Rider, who claims that while his body is gone, his spirit is strong as ever. But Traveler is powered by his love for Jan, whereas the Black Rider is just fighting out of hate: “Traveler kicked his ass but good.” All of this seems to me another indication that Shirley intended this to be the series finale.

We also see a return from Orwell, another of Traveler’s old Special Forces guys, last seen in the third volume. Now he’s a prisoner at a Glory Boys base, but manages to break free and assemble the surviving soldiers into another of the rag-tag armies Traveler will use to beat the El Hiagurans. Orwell is also our guide through the horror element Shirley delivers each volume; there’s an arbitrary but fun bit where he takes a tour of all the gruesome mutants Frayling’s men have created out of unwilling test subjects. I believe Shirley has a bit of in-jokery here, as we’re told that Orwell’s second-in-command is a guy named Bolan who looks around sixty and claims to have fought in Vietnam. More in-jokery comes courtesy Traveler, who early in the book poses as “Robert B. Parker” to avoid the Glory Boys who are looking for him.

Shirley introduces a new character, one I assume will become important in later volumes: The Grizzly, a burly, red-bearded roadrat leader who was a friggin’ professor of Medieval Literature and Mythology pre-war. Now he’s like a figure from Beowulf, commanding his loyal army of bloodthirsty roadrats. Shirley clearly has fun writing this character and I appreciated how he wasn’t just another of Traveler’s many one-off enemies; Traveler and comrades free Grizzly and his crew from the El Hiagurans, after which Traveler appeals to the man’s patriotic instincts – America is being overrun by a militant horde, and it’s time to band together and kick those South American asses back where they came from. To its credit, though, at least this particular horde is honest about the fact that it’s an invading army.

Another new character is one of those one-off enemies: the Gila Lord, another roadrat leader, but this one a super-massive monster with lizard eyes. Word has it he’s not human, and I kept picturing the Mutant Leader from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In an arbitrary but very entertaining sequence, Traveler must fight the Gila Lord in a match to the death in order to win the support of his roadrats. Shirley again shows his mastery of the minor details: the Gila Lord comes onto the stage amid much fanfare, biting off the fingers of one of his attendants to feed to his pet gila. After all this, Shirley just has Traveler “stroll” onto the stage, which I thought was very funny. But then as ever there is a subtle comedic element that runs through Traveler.

Traveler becomes a post-nuke Patton, putting together a makeshift army of Indians, roadrats, and “real” soldiers who have become sick of the ruling Glory Boys. Speaking of which we have an almost anticlimactic sendoff for President Frayling; the Reagan analogue hasn’t even appeared yet in the series, I think, but here Traveler and his army finally decide to make short but final work of him. Frayling’s exit would of course be another indication of the quick wrap-up Shirley appears to be giving the series, but it leads to fun potential developments for future volumes, in particular a character at the end of the book who reveals his surprising intent to become the next president. 

Action is frequent and as usual well-handled. Shirley as ever delivers appropriate gore, as well as a cruel streak in Traveler – his torture of a captured El Hiaguran soldier shows a new side, though in his defense the soldier beat Traveler around during Traveler’s brief imprisonment with the El Hiagurans. Toward the end of the book Traveler becomes more of a field commander, so that the climactic battles for the most part feature Traveler watching from afar while others do the fighting. Indeed, Shirley attempts to shoehorn too many big battles into the text, and given that the book’s so short this means that many of them are basically dealt with in summary. We do get more detail in the bigger battles, like the fight to free Kansas City – which sees yet another return of previous characters, like Baron Moorcock (yet another in-joke), last seen in the second volume.

But as mentioned Shirley doesn’t treat us to one of his purple-prose XXX scenes. Jan stays off-page for the duration, and in fact I think she has like one or two lines of dialog. Shirley is more intent on giving Traveler a Happily Ever After; he is as expected reunited with Jan (like a page or two before the end of the book!), and further decides that he’s going to go off with her on Diaz’s captured yacht. Further, Traveler gives the Meat Wagon to Hill and Orwell, who are going to stay behind and help rebuild the United States – Traveler just wants the tape deck and the tapes! Meanwhile Link and his girlfriend Rosalita will come along with Traveler and Jan on the yacht, hoping to find some paradise in this post-nuke world.

 And that’s it for Border War, and seemingly for Traveler. Curious then that there were more volumes to go. A peek at the back cover copy of the next volume would indicate that Traveler is not headed for a Happily Ever After, which reminds me how I felt when I saw Alien 3, the opening of which completely ruined the dramatic finale of Aliens. I’d love to know the story behind Border War; did Shirley intend it as his swan song? If so, was it because he wanted to leave or because it looked like Traveler was going to get cancelled? Or did he just want to wrap up all the plot elements he’d created in the previous volumes so that Naha could work off a clean slate upon his assumption of the writing duties?

Regardless, I loved this one, and it encapsulates everything that’s great about post-nuke pulp.

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