Phyllis Gotlieb – Sunburst


I picked up my original copy of ‘Sunburst’ as a wee varmint, aged maybe eight or nine, at one of our town’s semi-annual library sales, attracted by the blurb but mostly by the bright cover. It ended up being one of my favourite books and I re-read it several times before losing it when my family moved in 1991. I thought about it again when I decided to get into nuclear literature this year, and had aaaaaaaalllllmost steeled myself to bite the bullet and order a used paperback online when it suddenly came into Kindle edition in February for several billion dollars cheaper. Woohoo! (I spend all my money on books but I don’t, if you get my drift, appreciate spending all my money on books.)


‘Sunburst’ is just a perfect nuclear terror novel. Published in 1964, it precisely captured the new fear that was dribbling out from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear tests of the 40’s and 50’s – it wasn’t merely that radiation could kill you quickly, or that it could kill you slowly, but that you could survive and then later things would go wrong. And the science was so new that who in the hell knew what those things could be? You can contrast that to Martin Cruz-Smith’s ‘Wolves Eat Dogs,’ which I read a few weeks later. It’s set partly in Chernobyl and Pripyat, where the fear of radiation is that it will kill you, not that it will subtly fuck up a generation of your kids. It’s a straightforward fear: wiggly rays of invisible death, the amount of polonium or cesium that would kill you being so small you might not see it, the way the police warn us about Fentanyl now in Alberta. You can detect it, listen to the crackle and yawp of your dosimeter, know where the hazard lies (lay? lays? fuck off, grammar). The thing is, there’s no dosimeter for your genes; consequently, ‘Sunburst’ is powerfully scary, playing on the very human fear that you will one day be forced to live with monsters. I suppose that’s part of the fun of writing a sci-fi instead of a thriller, is you can create your own hazards instead of looking them up in a chemistry textbook.


The re-read also confirmed that any book is only half there; it’s half what you bring to it. And Shandy was the very first literary character that I remember thinking was significantly like me, the first time I felt I had representation in a book, maybe aside from Mole in ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ Shandy is acutely sensitive to the fact that there are situations where either being intelligent, or being seen to be intelligent, is the worst thing that can happen to you. In school I was picked on for being intelligent (but also: being a girl, a glasses-wearer, a year younger than my classmates due to an injudicious and involuntary skipped grade, an ethnic minority, and a fashion disaster), and I came home to parents who reamed me out for not being intelligent enough. They didn’t understand the value I would have placed on effective camouflage, like the kind Shandy had. They exhorted me to distinguish myself in some way but I, like Shandy, had a horror of being ‘special’ – I was driven to be seen as normal at all times, so I could dodge the occasional jibe or kick, just once in a while would have been enough. And I loved her self-awareness, the story she tells about the man who wastes his whole life waiting to prove how special he was until he dies and it turns out the only special thing about him was his belief that he was special and he wasted his whole life. I lived in terror of that happening to me, and finally realized that if you’re aware of it, it can’t happen. (Me: “Thank GAWD.”) And yet Shandy turns out to be special in a way that turns out to not necessarily be grand or heroic or noble, or even useful, till there’s a crisis that only she can help with.   


It was years before that happened again, and it was when I read ‘Gormenghast’ in junior high. I felt such a kinship with Lord Sepulchrave that it was as if Peake were writing about me, myself. I knew that if someone burned down my paltry library – just a few hundred books back then – I would also go mad and kill myself. I knew it just the way Sepulchrave knew it.

I wasn’t, and am still not, interested in reading fiction about people who look like me or live like me; a character’s race, gender, age, or culture isn’t important when I feel that tingle of recognition. I’m interested in reading about people who think like me, see the world like me, that’s where I get validation from. It’s funny, while I was on Twitter reading the #DVPit challenges, there was a huge chorus of voices saying how much they wished their younger selves had seen important parts of their identity represented in fiction – their specific background, culture, location, gender, orientation, addiction, things like that. And I was struck by how little I identified with their yearning; those were never the most important things about my self-identity. I felt far more belonging seeing my mind represented in books, because everyone I knew said my mind was wrong, I was thinking wrong, something was busted. Wart, in T.H. White’s ‘The Once and Future King.’ D-503 in ‘We’ (sidenote: which I read at our Catholic high school and had no idea that it preceded ‘1984’ until I was much older – I rarely checked to see when the book I was reading was published). Caddy Compson in Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ was aspirational to me, she was the badass who flipped her hair and flipped her family the bird and climbed trees and did what she liked; but her brother Quentin was the one I saw myself in. It even transcended species; I saw myself as Fiver in ‘Watership Down,’ and was thrilled to meet my ‘Hazel’ in junior high, my best friend MMM. Seeing people like me in fiction took some of the terror out of the way the world worked, and told me that I wasn’t alone.


I also loved Gotlieb’s neat, lively dialogue. There isn’t a ton of worldbuilding in the book, it’s sketched sparsely enough that a reader pictures Sorrel Park automatically as whatever little podunk, industrial town they’re familiar with. It’s the characters and their speech that really shine – surreptitious whispers, frenzied yelling, the whoops of a war-party of kids versus the shouted commands of the actual army. You don’t see much of the buildings or the tech, but you see a lot of the people.  


The book isn’t without its flaws, of course; it’s a product of its time, as well as, clearly, a product of some pretty deliberate and pretty gross misinformation about human intelligence and developmental disabilities that strays well into eugenics territory and then just kind of unrepentantly hangs out there. Actual slurs get tossed around not just by children but adults, and not just as insults but as descriptors. It’s enough to break your concentration, as a reader in 2016, which is something I truly hate a book doing, whether SFF or not. It’s not precisely that it breaks the willing suspension of disbelief, but it’s like having someone scream at you on the bus or something, something unwanted and intrusive.


My last thoughts as I finished the book were how much I wish it had a sequel – you know, I’ve read a few series in the past few years where I was like “Oh God, send help” because it was so clear that the author was writing a series that would have been far superior as a single book simply because their agent told them that series were more likely to sell. (Sort of the book equivalent of turning ‘The Hobbit,’ a 90-page book, into 10 1/2  hours of movie.) Mainly, there’s a point at which it’s uncomfortably raised that this situation could be happening all over the world, but the characters aren’t able to explore it – where? What other reactors have melted down? How are they coping? Do they need help? Could they offer help? What tech is being used? And so on. That would have made a really good sequel, if not series. My current plan is to hunt down some of her other work and see if it ever gets mentioned, if things happen in the same universe, or if any of the surviving characters reappear; you never know.

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