Our embrace of eternity engenders in us an equal but opposite reaction – our eagerness for Apocalypse. We cannot wait for the world to end, and as it is doing so extremely slowly, if at all, we enlist our best and our brightest to offer up suggestions. Fire’s good. Fire is fine, and Joe Hill sets the world ablaze with authority and an almost shockingly sweet charm in The Fireman. If the world is going to end under our watch, we can only hope that it happens with the graceful cheer of Harper Grayson. She makes Apocalypse not just acceptable, but out-and-out fun.
This is not to say that The Fireman is not serious, because it is. Hill’s vision of the end begins with a plague called Dragonscale, a sort of fungus that causes those who fall victim to it to burst into flame. Hill’s done his homework, and he crafts a disease that seems quite capable of annihilating civilization, and not just because most humans die. Once we get past that bridge, handled with great economy by an author at the height of his powers, what we like to call civilization begins to rebuild. Alas, it proves to have been pretty loosely defined and well regulated by the masses. In their absence, something rather different arises.
Harper Grayson is a survivor because statistically in any plague there will be survivors. And she’s a unique, wonderful character who deserves both observation and celebration. She’s not a tough-as-nails, armed-to-the-teeth survivor type. She’s cheerful, intelligent and resourceful. She’s also pregnant, and determined to live long enough to give birth. Like others who survive Dragonscale, she’s become aware that it has other side effects beyond self-immolation. Those side effects lead her to the Fireman of the title and through the bulk of this engrossing, involving novel.
Heretofore, the bulk of the bulky Apocalypses we’ve spawned have tilted towards the page-turning side of the scale. And make no mistake, The Fireman will keep you up at night. But it’s not a book that you will read to find out what happens as much as it is a book that you will read to be in the world created by Joe Hill, in the company of Harper Grayson, and yes, a few, less savory types as well. Harper Grayson is a character both believable enough and powerful enough to make reading about the end of the world a cheerful experience. While to be sure, the unpleasant types have their ways and days, The Fireman is more a book about why we might ultimately survive rather than why we deserve to die.
Hill’s conflicted Apocalypse, then, is crafted with a degree and type of page-turning tension that we’ve not seen before. This is indeed a test of survival with characters who manage to stare into the abyss without succumbing to it. Some, at least, and that makes sense and that’s enough. This is the sort of book that bears and indeed rewards re-reading. It’s a world you want to be in, even as most of it goes up in flames.
Listeners to my podcasts probably guess that in general, I tend to edit them carefully. In the case of this conversation with Joe Hill, I’ve taken the opposite tack, that is to say, I’ve included casual conversation outside the actual chat. Listeners can thank the crew at KQED for this; my engineer has the mics on when Joe and I were just talking beforehand, and it proves that Joe has some great observations on genre that were outside the range of the conversation about his book. You can hear that conversation by downloading it from this link, or listen below.
Not surprisingly, I also did a lightning round with the wonderful Mr. Hill. Be sure to listen and hear about the movie. And you can hear that conversation by downloading it from this link, or listen below.