Modern Classic: The Border by Robert McCammon

Alien invasion books are a dime a dozen. Post-apocalyptic alien invasion books are almost as numerous. So, it’s difficult to come up with at least a semi-original premise, and package it into a refreshing and gripping story. McCammon manages to do both and presents us with a gritty science fiction horror with a good story, solid characters and excellent worldbuilding. The Internet is full of lukewarm reviews for this novel. This is a far more positive one.

McCammon has been writing books since the 1980s, especially in the horror genre. His Swan Song is often described as on par with Stephen King’s The Stand, and although he never achieved King’s name recognition, he has gathered a very dedicated following. For those, The Border is an inferior, modernized copy of The Swan, but for the rest of us, The Border is as good as it gets in the modern post-apocalyptic alien invasion niche. Try to repeat the last part five times in a row…

In this book, Earth is invaded by two races, named by humans as Gorgons and Cyphers. Actually, the Earth is not really invaded. It represents a no-man’s land between those two races, who wage a galactic-wide war of extinction, and we were just unlucky enough to fall between their two trenches. The trench analogy is apt here. The book starts with a ruined landscape, reminiscent of World War I no-man lands, scarred by bombs and mortars and full of dead bodies. Ethan, a young man, finds himself running through this landscape, trying to avoid the battle between the two alien races that rages all around him. Eventually, he is rescued by a group of people who managed to survive for the two years since the invasion took place. They are holed up in an apartment complex, and their numbers are slowly dwindling.

Once in the complex, Ethan displays some unusual abilities. According to the group’s doctor, his body is so battered that he should have been long dead. Instead, he just suffers from a memory loss. He shows some supernatural abilities, most notably when he defends the complex against an attack from the Gray Men, mutated humans turned cannibals. Eventually, Ethan comes to a realization that he is on a mission to reach a place in the mountains. Why he must go there, he doesn’t know. He convinces the survivors to travel with him to this location.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah Johnson, a televangelist turned small town preacher, enjoys a nice day in his town. This town is perfectly preserved, amidst all the carnage. The Gorgons found the time to study the humans, and they selected this town and its preacher for their studies. Johnson is a scumbag who cheated on his wife and just barely avoided getting shot by her. He is no better in his town-sized prison, but he becomes eventually sympathetic, thanks to the hell he must go through, which includes intimate meetings with a Gorgon interrogator (called queen in this book, but given the scale of the conflict I doubt a queen would be interested in a mere human). These are very intimate meetings indeed… The Gorgons catch word of Ethan and his journey when he manages to defend against them, and they send Johnson to meet and eventually kill him. While the humans are pursued by both alien races or Gray Men at every point of their journey, the epic showdown for the survival of the humanity takes place at Ethan’s final destination.

The main strength of this book lies in the worldbuilding, and McCammon’s masterful description of the setting. Earth is a really bleak place, and the author is extremely effective in painting it as such. The atmosphere is intense, and it put me right into the middle of the action. The aliens are also very well portrayed. The names the humans gave them hint to their characteristics: The Cyphers are a largely mechanized race that can move so fast it looks like a blur. They are small and operate independent craft in air battles. Gorgons are a biological race that grows enormous machinery from flesh and bone. They are masters of mutation. In one scene, which will be forever burned into my mind, they transform a few abandoned cars into monsters. The Grey Men are more than zombies. They are mutated and a palpable threat. Action is so well described that I felt like I was watching a movie.

The setting is also quite refreshing. As I stated before, there’s nothing original about an alien invasion, or a destroyed earth. What makes this book stand out is that it completely negates the exceptionalism of the human race. We’re nothing more than an occasional wildlife in the middle of a battle. We’re like the rats between the trenches, trying to feed on the dead while dodging falling bombs. And when we become a little nuisance, we’re very quickly and effectively dispatched. This completely changes the mood of the book. Humans are not the victims who resist evil aliens. And aliens are not evil. They are more like a force of nature, and the humans need to find a way to survive in a new kind of extreme weather.

Character portrayal is also solid. The book is essentially about two characters: Ethan and Johnson. The rest are bit players who remain flat and unchanged throughout the story. Ethan is the weaker of the two characters. He is essentially a prisoner in his own body, passive and acting without understanding. I was unable to get attached to him, and instead just watched him from an emotional distance as he progressed in his quest. Johnson, on the other hand, was extremely well done. He’s a mix of conflicting emotions: he is sleazy and cowardly, but he also thinks for himself and shows some spine when trying to preserve his little community. He develops throughout the book, and eventually becomes one of the few literary characters that I was fascinated by, while still strongly disliking him.

Many other reviews of this book contain something like this: “Even though many people disliked the ending, I was pretty happy with it.” I haven’t found any of the ‘many people’, but I can see why people would assume the ending was a little controversial. At first, it feels like a cop-out, to close the book down prematurely after such an awesome build-up. But it also is a very definitive ending, without the possibility of a sequel, and I applaud the author the strength and courage to cut the story short at the right time.

The only real problem I’ve had with the book was the editing. There were typos, weird sentence structures and disjointed paragraphs. The polish I’m used to from other books simply wasn’t there. As good as McCammon is, he doesn’t have a unique voice like John Brunner and others to afford idiosyncratic mistakes. The novel should have been edited much better.

All in all, The Border is an excellent book. It’s currently out of print and difficult to come by, at least in Europe. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if we find a classic edition one day. With its excellent world description, strong main characters and a unique take on the world within its niche, The Border is a true modern classic.

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