Saturday, June 4, 2011

[Review] Patriots: A Novel Of Survival In The Coming Collapse

Note to all: After a long absence due to work, parenting, and general burnout, I figured I would begin re-immersing myself in the world of blogging by reviewing survivalist literature, post-apocalyptic novels, and survival “how-to” books. I read and own an extensive library of this sort of work, and am a “prepper” myself (survivalist is basically a pejorative term), so I’m uniquely qualified to judge the genre. Though I feel some trepidation about making my first review James Wesley Rawles’ rather extreme Patriots: A Novel Of Survival In The Coming Collapse, here goes:

You can’t really talk about survivalism in Modern America without mentioning James Wesley Rawles, the editor of Rawles has a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Jose State University with minor degrees in military science, history, and military history. A former U.S. Army intelligence officer who held a Top Secret security clearance, he achieved the rank of Captain, attended the Army NBC defense officer's course, as well as Northern Warfare School at Fort Greeley, Alaska.

In other words: he’s no Homer Simpson.

Rawles is very knowledgeable, very hardcore, and very Christian, and this comes through in his novel. His characters consider daily bible study to be an important part of the post-apocalyptic lifestyle, which makes a certain amount of sense. Who would you rather have watching your back in a firefight: a hardcore Evangelical Christian, or the guy who camped next to you at Burning Man? It’s not a difficult question to answer.

Patriots plot goes something like this: a decade before America collapses due to hyperinflation, a group of students at the University of Chicago form a survivalist group. They are uniformly athletic, competent, and religious, though not homogeneously so. Rawles’ protagonists include Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and at least one Jew. Through hard work and constant investment they purchase, stock, and fortify a small farm in rural Idaho. They also train constantly as a military unit and purchase identical matching equipment. Collectively this dozen or so men and women are known as The Group, and later as the Northwestern Militia.

When The Crunch (as the collapse in Patriots is called) happens, the various members of The Group make their way from Chicago to their compound in Idaho, where they work together to survive the collapse. As the novel progresses they find themselves working with other militia groups to patrol and protect the Idaho countryside, first against looters and roving gangs of criminals, then eventually against a United Nations-sponsored totalitarian government determined to impose its will on a devastated America.

But that’s not really what the book is about.

In the tradition of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (a tradition Rawles alludes to several times in the book), Patriots is really non-fiction disguised as fiction to make it palatable to a larger audience. (Several online reviews have accurately described it as a "survival manual fairly neatly dressed as fiction.") But where Rand used her novel to outline her philosophical ideas, Rawles uses his to provide a staggering amount of survival information. I’m betting that much of the content of his non-fiction work How To Survive The End Of The World As We Know It has been packed into its substantial 384 pages.

In fact, I’m going to buy a copy and find out… which may be the whole point of Patriots, come to think of it.

The information in Patriots ranges from selecting proper clothing to long-term food preparation to creating homemade anti-tank weapons. And, of course, gun info: lots and lots of lots of gun info, including proper maintenance, caliber size, modifications, manufacturer quality, and proper safety. In fact, there is so much information in Patriots that it interferes with Rawle’s writing style. A character never takes careful aim and fires at a marauding biker. He “zeroed cautiously in on the target using a Zeiss Conquest 24-power scope mounted on his custom manufactured stainless-steel bolt action A-Square manufactured in Chamberlain, South Dakota. It fired a wildcat 500-grain .470 Capstick cartridge designed to take down dangerous African game at distances of 200 yards or less.”

Okay, I made that last bit up. Still, his writing style can be very districting - though if you’re interested in these sorts of things, it can also be very interesting.

Another interesting aspect of Rawles’ book is its focus on ethical behavior in post-apocalyptic situations. His heroes are devoutly, un-ironically religious. The pray regularly, hold bible studies, and try to apply their Judeo-Christian faiths to the situations they find themselves in, touching on some interesting questions that are seldom mentioned in the genre. Should you pray for the souls of rapists, murders, and other assorted scum-of-the-wasteland after you waste them? Is it vital to show charity in a survival situation? What is the ethical way of disposing of goods taken from looters in a situation where there is no law and order? What are the proper roles of marriage and sex under such circumstances?

These aren’t problems that I’d considered before reading Patriots, and I think they are definitely worthy of consideration. Additionally, whether consciously or unconsciously, Rawles’ work examines the role of Judeo-Christian faith in maintaining a coherent, principled society during periods of social disintegration. (Not an unreasonable proposition, given the Catholic Church’s role in European society during the Dark Ages.) Because his characters are devout, they see themselves as part of a greater historical tradition, one that does not end or even greatly change when their society falls apart. Or, to put it another way: a Christian or a Jew does not cease being a Christian or a Jew when their government collapses, and must behave accordingly even under the worst circumstances.

This seems like a Big Wisdom to me, and one I’m going to give some thought to.

Religious questions aside, James Wesley Rawles and I aren’t really the same kind of Prepper, or at least his characters and I aren’t. His heroes are highly trained and affluent urbanites that had the foresight to prepare for worse case social scenarios. I think the rural, minimalist “post-apocalyptic” lifestyle is worth living in its own right, and that preparedness is simply a logical part of that lifestyle. Instead of spending countless hours and a small fortune getting ready to live that kind of life, it strikes me that his characters would have been better off living that life well before The Crunch happens, even if it made them poorer and a bit less prepared in advance. There is a certain rhythm to things, after all, and it’s a lot less shocking to know that the power grid is gone when you haven’t lived on it for years.

I’m giving Patriots four out of five radioactive skulls. If it weren’t so insanely informative it would get three for Rawles’ mediocre writing style and his characters general inability to comprehend irony, but he somehow turns these defects into virtues.