Wrath of God, Robert Gleason

Harper Prism, 1994, 397 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-06-105311-2

You’ve never read a book like this. It’s a promise.

A post-apocalypse setting. A Mongol horde invading the United States. Stonewall Jackson, George Patton and Amelia Earhart brought back from the dead through time along with a triceratops. A torturer named “The Cuddler”. A bunch of good guys led by a tough grandmother who has an eagle as a pet. And so on…

Stylistically, it’s also a fair bet to say that you’ve never read a book written this way before: The first fifty pages are as slow as molasses, the pacing picks up and drops off at strange intervals, some characters bite it unexpectedly, others survive needlessly.

Then, what is Wrath of God? Religious allegory? Cheap patriotic propaganda? Slightly above-average men’s adventure? Science-Fantasy? Military fiction? Mystical adventure? All of the above? In the end, this novel looks more like a 400-pages indulgence than any kind of coherent story.

Science-Fiction fans probably won’t remember the name Robert Gleason, but should be interested to know that he was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s editor. (Readers of Niven’s N-Space will remember how an early outline for Footfall became Lucifer’s Hammer when their editor said “Drop the aliens; do the asteroid novel.” Gleason was that editor.)

So it could be natural to assume that Wrath of God would be slam-bang SF with dashes of mainstream narrative structures and a few random wacky post-apocalyptic details. The truth is harder to describe.

There’s no SF here despite the time-travel, which is much more a fantastic/spiritualist device than serious extrapolation… a flaw often repeated: In Wrath of God, it’s difficult to separate the seriously earnest with the ridiculously tongue-in-cheek. A ground-bound eagle named Betsy Ross, symbol of an impotent America? Pleeeaaaassseee…

There are six pages of raving quotes at the beginning of Wrath of God, but a quick glance will reveal that most of these quotes are from authors. And Gleason’s an editor, get it? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!

By times ridiculous and boring or exciting and gripping, Wrath of God is disjointed, and the ultimate irony is that Gleason might have needed a good editor to suggest necessary changes to this novel. Characters could have been tightened, the action could have been more evenly distributed… even the writing could have been improved. (Although not by much: For all its faults, Wrath of God is written with a certain flourish.)

And let’s not get into not-so-subtle errors of logic and credibility, such as why a Mongol horde would take the trouble to invade the United States…

It would be a mistake to assume from the preceding paragraphs that Wrath of God is a worthless book. Truth be told, there’s a certain raucous enjoyment to be gleaned from it, much like shlocko, over-the-top B-Movies can be much “better” than preachy, ponderous Oscar-list motion pictures. It’s still a bit depressing to find here a variety of elements that don’t quite manage to gel together, despite offering a few intriguing possibilities. It ain’t The Stand, despite what the cover blurb promises.

Ultimately, Wrath of God can’t be recommended strongly, although it’s a definite curio for the curious reader. Niven and Pournelle can rest safely, knowing that their jobs remain secure.

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