Monday, May 17, 2021

Traveler #8: Terminal Road

Traveler #8: Terminal Road, by D.B. Drumm
February, 1986  Dell Books

I’ve been wondering how John Shirley would handle this eighth volume of Traveler, given that his previous contribution, #6: Border War, was basically a series finale, with Traveler literally sailing off into a Happily Ever After with his lady love Jan. But as we know from the previous volume, which was courtesy Ed Naha, Traveler’s HEA was short-lived: his boat was bombed out of the water, Jan lost, and Traveler returned to the weary, battle-hardened life of a post-nuke road warrior. 

So as it turns out, Shirley basically just ignores that previous book; other than a late, very brief recap of what happened after Border War, Terminal Road just picks up the pace from the earliest installments as if there’d been no change to the status quo. Traveler’s back in his armed and armored van, the “Meat Wagon,” playing tapes as he travels the road, his riding companion old Army pal Hill. Shirley has read Naha’s previous volume, as we do get a bit of detail on that one, and the fallout from it. Like for example that Traveler’s other old Army pal Orwell is still recovering from the wounds he endured, and thus decided to stay in Mexico a bit with new US “President” Jackson. And Shirley also answers one thing – while Naha left Jan’s fate a mystery, Shirley clearly informs us she was killed in that seaborne attack. Bummer! 

Shirley also answers another question I had – namely, when the series takes place. He makes it clear throughout that the year is 2005; the nuke war occurred “sixteen years ago,” which we’re informed was 1989. So this confirms my theory that the Dell editor who handled the back cover copy was just plain confused…because once again the back cover states that the book takes place “twenty-seven years after doomsday!” This would place the action in 2016, which is incorrect. Otherwise Shirley doesn’t dip into the subplots he introduced in previous books, ie Traveler being a supernaturally-chosen savior of post-nuke society or whatnot; in fact, I get the impression that Terminal Road was quickly churned out so as to fill a contract, or maybe because Naha needed help. 

Chief evidence of this is that Shirley, for the first time in the series, borrows a gimmick from William Gibson; each chapter alternates between two protagonists. It’s been decades since I read Gibson, but I recall this being a schtick of his in every post-Neuromancer novel. So one chapter will focus on Traveler, and the next will focus on a character new to the series, a bounty hunter named Hastur. And as with Gibson these concurring storylines slowly coalasce into one. Shirley’s never done this before; Traveler was always center stage from beginning to end, so this really gives the impression that Shirley had said all he wanted to say in Border War and was just churning this one out in a pinch. 

Which is not to say Terminal Road isn’t good. In fact it was one of my favorites in the series yet. Like all of Shirley’s Travelers, it’s essentially just a fast-moving action story, but what adds to it is the contrasting natures of Traveler and Hastur. While Shirley never outright states it, the implication is that Hastur is everything Traveler could have been: a Special Forces badass who has turned his back on any vestige of goodness and murders with impunity for money, fuel, or supplies. He’s a seven foot giant of black-American Indian heritage and built like a pro football linebacker. He carries a host of weaponry and rides an armored “trike” with a teardrop windshield. He takes glee in killing for profit, and is in every way the antithesis of Traveler, which makes for an entertaining read. 

The only problem is, Hastur seems like a poor man’s substitue for the Black Rider, that jet-black mutant biker villain who appeared in Shirley’s earliest installments. But unfortunately Shirley killed the Black Rider off, thus he had to come up with this new guy…who, despite lots of setup, turns out to be pretty much a dud in the supervillain sweepstakes. I mean when we meet Hastur he’s killing with ease – and we see how evil he is, as he wipes out his target’s entire family – but when he tries to take out Traveler later in the book he just makes one goof after another. Which makes the whole “alternating protagonist” chapter-switches all the more strange: are we supposed to be rooting for Hastur in his chapters? Hoping that he catches Traveler unawares? While it’s a neat narrative trick, it just comes off like it did in Gibson’s novels: an easy way to meet the word count. 

Another curious thing about Terminal Road is that the customary gore of Shirley’s previous books is mostly gone, and the sex almost nonexistent. I mean there’s a part where Traveler, as expected, gets busy with some post-nuke babe he meets along the road, and it fades to black! This from a series that would at least give a paragraph or two of lovably purple prose. Granted, Traveler and the lady’s second “bout” is slightly more, uh, fleshed out, but still it’s nothing compared with what, uh, came before. (My mind’s permanently in the gutter, in case there were any question.) So to recap – our hero is only in half the book, given the alternating chapters, and the sex and violence have been greatly reduced. Regardless, Terminal Road is still heads and tails better than the previous volume, which makes me sad that this was Shirley’s final installment. 

Shirley opens the book with what will be the only big action scene: Traveler and Hill, barreling through West Texas, take out a small army of Roadrats. After this they take on a job from a commune that’s been hit by Bubonic Plague; Traveler and Hill will do a “serum run” to a hospital in Utah in exchange for fuel and supplies. Traveler learns about the job opportunity via his short-wave radio; can’t recall if this aspect was much mentioned in previous novels, but here Shirley has a whole post-nuke radio society, with people on the various bands recreating old radio shows, just jabbering away, or calling out for aid. There’s a great part later on where Hastur gets hold of a shortwave radio and starts fucking with people, like a post-apocalyptic Jerky Boy or something – this could’ve gone on much longer, so far as I was concerned. 

Speaking of Hastur, in his sections we see him also offered a job: to bring Vice President Veronica Barlowe the head of Traveler. Barlowe I don’t believe has been mentioned before, but she is the VP of crazed President Frayling, who we learn is still recuperating from the previous book. In fact, Traveler is wanted dead because he nearly killed Frayling. Shirley excels in unexpected humorous bits; my favorite in this regard is when Hastur, who has never heard of Traveler, reads the dossier Barlowe provides on him – how he’s seen so much action that he’s become a legend – and bluntly declares, “Sounds like a nobody.” 

Hastur actually carries most of the narrative, shuttling around the South and trying to find Traveler. Most of the action takes place in New Mexico, by the way, and Shirley does a great job bringing the setting to life. Meanwhile Traveler just drives along, blissfully unaware he has a bounty on his head. Hill has suddenly developed a personality, so there’s a goodly bit of chatter between the two. Also this time Traveler’s listening to a “Coltrane tape” as the miles roll by, the music blotting out any thoughts. The cover depicts a random encounter with a “war mech;” for the first time Shirley introduces a sort of sci-fi element to the series, with these battle robots having been created shortly before WWIII and used to guard secret military installations. Most of them, we learn, were destroyed with the nukes, but a few survived and have gone solo, attacking people at random. 

The robot is described pretty much as it appears on the cover, and comes after Traveler and Hill while they’re fixing a flat tire. It’s a rolling tank with .90 caliber cannons and .80 caliber machine guns, as well as other stuff. Solar-powered, to boot. Traveler and Hill are only saved by the sudden appearance of two women in “powered gliders;” they swoop over the war mech and start dropping bombs on it. This is Vickie, a pretty blonde, and Dennie, an also-pretty redhead. Soon we learn their story: Mormons who have come from a high-tech sanctuary built beneath Salt Lake City before the war, so that a new generation could survive any nuclear calamity. 

Only the girls reveal that the men never showed up; while the women and kids made it down there before the nukes fell, the men didn’t. In the passing years a community has developed, with two warring factions: the “conservatives” who think religion should dictate all affairs, and the “liberals” who want to follow the Constitution. Vickie and Dennie are part of the latter group, and they’ve come up to the surface world to find a group of escaped conservatives – who have taken off with computer gear and other essentials that are necessary to maintain the underground society. Meanwhile Traveler and Hill have actually met these escaped women, not knowing who they were – early in the book they came across a bunch of smiling and polite blonde women who looked like “women from before the war;” their bus had been damaged and Traveler helped them repair it. 

It’s inevitable something will soon be happening with these couples – I mean Vickie and Dennie are presumably virgins, having grown up in a “matriarchal” society, both of them having been kids when they went to the sanctuary years ago. Shirley doesn’t elaborate much on this, but he does of course have Traveler hook up with Vickie (the hotter of the two, naturally). But as mentioned he doesn’t go into the full-bore sleaze details of past volumes, dammit. Instead Shirley goes another route – that Traveler, “despite himself,” starts to fall for Vickie. Even though he “promised himself he’d never love again,” yada yada yada. I mean you’d think Jan’s fate would give him a prefigure of what could happen, but nope. 

Hastur slowly makes his way to Traveler, using cunning to figure out where he’s headed. But as mentioned he’s a poor villain. He bungles chance after chance to take out his prey. But with this sole villain it’s clear Terminal Road isn’t headed for a big finale. Rather, Shirley goes for something that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Marvin Albert novel, with two men squaring off in the harsh elements. After a few firefights – some of which are rather costly to Traveler’s companions – Hastur holes up in a cliff and Traveler scales it to take him on man to man. The villain’s sendoff is memorable, but the climax seems more in tune with a suspense-thriller than a post-nuke pulp. 

And that’s it for John Shirley’s run on Traveler. We leave our hero as we met him, adrift in the post-apocalypse with the Meat Wagon his sole recurring companion. And also Shirley doesn’t plant any carrots for future volumes, unless Naha intends to do something with the newly-introduced Vice President. Otherwise Terminal Road is another entertaining installment of the series, though honestly the sixth volume came off like a more fitting conclusion. Here’s hoping Naha will take a few cues from Shirley in the following novels and deliver similarly fast-moving yarns.


DaveM said...

My nostalgia kicks in pretty good for the 80s post apocalypse stuff. Loved your William Gibson reference. I reread Neuromancer last year and had forgotten how amazing it is. I think every read I figure out something I missed before. I also forgot till I got till the end of your review that Shirley was part of the cyberpunk movement. Which is funny as I was just reading that a few weeks ago as I had started his latest novel "Stormland". I mean....I think it is the same guy.

Guy Callaway said...

Man, that's one bad cover! ;)