Friday, February 4, 2011

Travis Adkins on Walter Koenig's BUCK ALICE AND THE ACTOR-ROBOT

Travis Adkins, author of Twilight of the Dead and After Twilight, shares his personal history with Walter Koenig's Buck Alice and the Actor-Robot in this essay/review.

I was the editor of [the new] edition of Buck Alice and the Actor-Robot, published by Permuted Press, specialist in the post-apocalyptic genre. It first saw a mass market paperback printing by Critics Choice in 1988, then a small revival by Coscom Entertainment in 2006, (with superb editing by Nicholas Grabowsky.) I write this review, not so much regarding editing this new iteration, but because Buck Alice and the Actor-Robot is one of my favorite books of all time.

A little backstory: I was a fairly advanced reader at an early age. I read (abridged, unfortunately, as it was the only version available at the time) Stephen King’s The Stand when in the sixth grade. Certainly that doesn’t mean my unfully developed mind comprehended it all at the time, but I knew what I was tasting in the text itself, and what’s more, I knew I liked it. Apocalyptic scenarios fascinated me. My mother, maybe not appreciating the literary road I was heading down, attempted to introduce me to her favorite genre, Sci-Fi, so she presented me with Buck Alice, (in all its mass market paperback glory, pulpy, yellowy, wonderfully smelly pages and all,) along with the goading concession, “It takes place after an apocalypse. Try it.”

I read it. I loved it.

There’s something to be said for how Buck Alice, piggybacking off of The Stand, shaped me in my formative years as an adult, but more directly as a writer and editor. But I don’t write this review purely out of sentimental reasons. As post-apocalyptic literature became more and more popular, and I read more and more of it, I did so with a certain degree of aloofness. All elements of a post-apoc novel, no matter how serious the tone, are present in Buck Alice.

The ashen, dirty ambiance you get in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Hey, I’ve seen that before. Try a landscape covered in the white dust of disintegrated human remains, and how it clings to the survivors who drudge through it. Are they dirty? Are they clean? Moreover, what do we say about a Jewish messiah who chooses to lie down in the dust, and emerges a glistening white man? Do we discuss in book clubs the sacrilegious nature of this trope, or do we disregard it because Buck Alice initially impresses itself upon you as satirical in nature?

How about the mass death of humanity by plague, seen in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and in modern times in King’s The Stand? Hey, I’ve seen that before. The alien invaders, after wiping out humankind, suffer their own apocalypse in Buck Alice—a plague that hugely diminishes their numbers and enfeebles the survivors, so much so that they must evacuate their new colony. This is followed by the quintessential betrayal by the disillusioned Imhor, with a mentality and a logic not so far removed from Harold Lauder.

I’ll try to shorten my point: The surreal philosophizing of Radix? Check. War of the Worlds? Definitely check. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hero, villain, scenario, landscape, motivation, or emotion that is not present in Buck Alice. Leonard Nimoy calls it “a wry and insightful look at human behavior after apocalypse.” While he’s not wrong, I’m more inclined to say “a brilliant critique of the post-apocalyptic genre.”

Here we have all that good stuff: power mongering, messiah complex developed during prolonged isolation, ultimate betrayal, the fallibility and insecurity of leaders. But here, in Buck Alice, these tropes are boiled down to their rudimentary cores. Was Koenig attempting to write a prophetic novel? Was he attempting to write such an insightful novel? I don’t know. He may have been writing it only for kicks, but it doesn’t matter.

Buck Alice shines a sometimes painful light on human behavior, and all your favorite heroes and all your favorite conniving villains are revealed much in the vein of the emperor’s new clothes: they’re not wearing any. Just how different is Randall Flagg from Buck Alice? Just how different is Courtney, the heroine in my novel Twilight of the Dead, from Joshua? Both are lucky survivors, attempting to make sense of their new world and trying to ground themselves in reality, oftentimes failing.

The bottom line is: Humans are silly. Human behavior after apocalypse is even sillier.

Maybe we’re all doomed.

Maybe we should start paying more attention to the books we write, and the books we read, and ask ourselves if we’re not acting like caricatures. Are our heroes really to be so respected? Are their motivations any different than those of a lunatic? And, worse, *gulp*, could our villains actually be right?

Buck Alice and the Actor-Robot makes me wonder that. If you’re a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, I recommend this book as your primer. It should go on your mantelpiece. At the very least, it should head your collection of Permuted Press novels.

In editing this book, I wanted to somehow pay respect to the fact that I was dissecting a classic work. Due to time (and sanity) constraints, I resisted footnoting and cross-referencing ala a Norton or Broadview. Instead I settled for subtitling each chapter in the style of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Somehow appropriate, I think.

So will you enjoy this book even if you don’t enjoy the deep thoughts or internal philosophizing? Yes, I think you will. It’s sustainable in and of itself, and entertaining on its own merits. It’s quite fun, and while some reviewers will argue that the book is just silly and random, I disagree.

It’s as serious and somber as you want it to be. And I think that is a reflection upon you, the reader, and your attitude toward and appreciation of post-apocalyptic literature.

Purchase Walter Koenig's Buck Alice and the Actor-Robot in paperback and eBook here.