In 1985, a young Philadelphia writer published a first novel that explored an alternative ending to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident. In Michael Swanwick’s In the Drift, the accident ends with a meltdown and a catastrophic explosion. Radioactive fallout contaminates a huge swath of the Middle Atlantic region and renders it uninhabitable. The federal government collapses under the strain created by millions of displaced persons. The big cities descend into anarchy.
Swanwick completes this portrait of calamity with a uniquely Philadelphia touch. In Philadelphia, the mummers clubs restore order. “The clubs were all neighborhood groups,” Swanwick writes, “and their members were, by and large, decent men. When the last hospitals were about to go under, several clubs got together to march and collect money to keep them going. When there were no police, they organized volunteers to patrol the neighborhoods.”
The glockenspiel tolls for thee
In the Drift takes place decades after the meltdown, late in the 21st century. Mummers have taken control of the city and succumbed to the usual temptations. Club captains have become “feudal lords.” Mummers extort gifts from the general populace on Mummers Eve and Mummers Day. The people who line the streets during the Mummers Day parade know they’ll be in trouble if they don’t show up when they’re supposed to.
The first third of the book presents a logical, believable picture of mummer traditions that have been perverted into something less innocent. The other sections mostly take place in the contaminated area but the plot marches with the mummers all the way to the end.
In the Drift has now been released as an ebook by Open Road Integrated Media, a publisher who specializes in keeping older works available. I think I can safely assume that very few BSR readers have heard of it, even though it sports a distinctive Philadelphia slant and its author has become a major presence in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Swanwick’s current bibliography includes nine novels and approximately 150 shorter works. On the weekend of July 19-21, 2016, he was a guest of honor at the annual World Science Fiction Convention.
Science fiction writers generally feel the guest of honor slot at the world convention is the highest honor the genre bestows on its writers. Most of the awards in the field attempt to identify the best work of the year; guests of honor are being recognized for their entire careers.
In the Drift is a first novel. Swanwick has acquired a surer sense of his aims as he’s developed over the years. But I reread it before I wrote this piece and it stands up. Its picture of a might-have-happened future is as grey and unrelentingly bleak as the landscape George Orwell embedded in our brains when he wrote 1984. Orwell’s characters live with surveillance cameras and torture chambers, Swanwick’s with shortened life spans and ogreish mutations.
Swanwick has a good feel for political and military matters. The main mummer boss in the book's opening chapter is a knowing portrait of a big-city ward politician. Anti-mummer guerillas operating in the contaminated areas make logical choices when they’re acting rationally and bad choices when they’re gripped by emotions like the lust for revenge.
People who don’t read science fiction usually get their impressions of the genre from books and movies aimed at general audiences. In the Drift isn’t cutting-edge science fiction, but it will give you a better idea of the kind of work genre writers produce. If you remember that it was written 30 years ago, you may begin to understand where the creative geniuses behind stuff like The Hunger Games get their ideas.