Unstructured Review: The Survivalist

Having completed the Herculean task of finishing the entire Survivalist series, I figured it would be ideal for my first unstructured review. The “formal” parts can be found in my reviews of Total War and Pursuit, and not that much has changed in terms of zombie sorceress contrivance or rivet-counting detail.

The first nine books are good fun for anyone who likes 80s cheap thrillers, and the overall arc provided the series with a natural stopping point. The Rourke family and friends ride out the fire wave around the world in suspended animation, and they wake up to await the return of the Eden Project, a similarly suspended group of people launched into space just before the nuclear war to return a long time later.

Ideally, they’d ensure the safe return (with Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun” blaring? 😛 ) and that would be that.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Instead, after the tenth book, the series felt increasingly less post-apocalyptic and more self-indulgent. Ahern could finally write the sci-fi he wanted to, and the books felt like an author’s toy box. This is not a bad thing at all by itself-after all, more than two dozen books of Rourke flopping around in the wilderness would have felt monstrously dull and samey in its own right. However, the hearts of the books are still close combat with laboriously described pistols, bullets, and knives. It’s just occuring around a backdrop that by the end involves Nazi mad scientists, memory-implanted clones, and hypersonic fighter aircraft.

The soap-opera serial nature meant a clear-cut possible ending never emerged again after the ninth book (even the finale is kind of rushed). The characters almost never have to scavenge and can fish from convenient arsenals. The world has a “Fallout game” problem of everything working after sitting for centuries (and of course, everyone using either real or replica versions of centuries-old equipment). Convenient underground and underwater cities emerge when the plot calls for it. The series never was “plausible” and had ridiculous geology from the get-go, but the parade of gimmicks still felt contrived.

The rough and tumble charm of the first few books is gone and the sci-fi action stuff doesn’t quite rise to the level of replacing it. If I had to give a reason, it’s a sort of “have the cake and eat it too” effect where there’s all this supertech but still the good old familiar (and of course, exactly infodumped) weapons. The science fiction tone isn’t really that much of a problem, but I still liked the original postapocalyptic one better and have read better military science fiction than the weird hybrid Ahern made.

And then there are the fundamentals. They don’t get that much worse, but often they weren’t the best to start with. That Ahern wasn’t afraid to shake up the character relationships and kill an important character off is a good thing. That Ahern devoted a lot of time to characters pondering about their lives and continued a love triangle for muuuuch longer than he should have is not. For the action and prose, Ahern’s definitely not the worst, but he doesn’t really try to grow that much.

The later books are still readable and still have the action feel -if they didn’t, I wouldn’t have finished them-, but the series definitely goes past the point of diminishing returns after the ninth or tenth book and the lack of “compartmentalization” means they’re less enjoyable on their own.

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I’d only really recommend the first nine books to cheap thriller fans. I must emphasize I don’t want to be too hard on the later ones in spite of my critique. A much better author would still struggle with keeping quality up over a very, very long series. Ahern was clearly writing the way he liked and was making a sincere effort to be different. The books kept flowing well and did not devolve into total clunkers like say, later Tom Clancy ones.

But they’re still less interesting and unless one is really into Ahern’s writing or is determined to see the overall plot through to the end, I’d say that there’s better sci-fi or contemporary action novels out there than the later Survivalist novels. Still, nine fun goofy over the top cheap thrillers isn’t bad.


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