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The Armageddon Rag
George R.R. Martin
Gollancz, 369 pages

The Armageddon Rag
George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin was born in 1948 in Bayonne, New Jersey. He attended Northwestern University, graduating with degrees in journalism. Martin refused active service: instead he served with VISTA, in Cook County, Illinois. In addition to his writing credits, Martin has served as Story Editor for Twilight Zone, and as Executive Story Consultant, Producer and Co-Supervising Producer for Beauty and the Beast, both on CBS. He also was Executive Producer for Doorways on CBS. At 21, he made his first pro sale to the magazine, Galaxy. Martin now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

George R.R. Martin Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Game of Thrones, The Graphic Novel, Volume 1
SF Site Review: Fort Freak
SF Site Review: Fort Freak
SF Site Review: A Dance with Dragons
SF Site Review: Suicide Kings
SF Site Review: Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
SF Site Review: Busted Flush
SF Site Review: Inside Straight
SF Site Review: Dreamsongs
SF Site Review: The Armageddon Rag
SF Site Review: A Game of Thrones
SF Site Review: The Hedge Knight
SF Site Review: Windhaven
SF Site Review: A Storm of Swords
SF Site Interview: George R.R. Martin
SF Site Review: A Clash of Kings
SF Site Review: A Game of Thrones

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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Youth, anger, and rock and roll -- three things with the power of magic, especially for those of us who were young in the sixties. In this combination murder mystery and road trip novel, George R.R. Martin evokes that vividly, and then ponders where it all went.

The opening swiftly sets the scene: as the hippie generation swelled into student protests in the late sixties, the rock band called Nazgûl became the voice of a generation. Their rise to fame peaked on September 20th, 1971, at an enormous outdoor concert in West Mesa, New Mexico, then abruptly fell with the shooting death of the lead singer, Patrick Henry Hobbins, or 'Hobbit," right on stage.

The murder remained unsolved and the band went their separate ways. Their followers also dispersed, including Sandy Blair, a young student-journalist who'd helped found a rock magazine called Hedgehog. He wrote for the Hog until he was fired. The Hog was going mainstream, where the money was, leaving Sandy in the wreckage of the Age of Aquarius.

Now Blair is a novelist whose three publications have been progressively less successful. Stuck on page 37, he's living with a real estate agent whose grownup attitude has pulled him into a practical, contract-defined, gender-equal condo that is a creative black hole.

He gets a call from his ex-friend and editor at the Hog to investigate the murder of the rock agent who had once managed the Nazgûl. Blair is curious as well as at loose ends; he drives to Maine to discover that the murder was carried out in an extremely grisly ritual, with visual evidence linking to one of the Nazgûls' songs.

His literary agent and his girlfriend both want him to man up, drop the investigation and get back to practical matters. His response? What is the only possible response when everyone around you earnestly advises you to grow up and face reality? Road trip!

As Blair travels cross country to interview former Nazgûl and his once-activist friends, he is also traveling into his past. But the present doesn't stand still: violence follows him, making it clear that the murder of the rock agent is no isolated incident, but part of a pattern.

The trip into memory, fuel-injected by rock lyrics of the sixties, shifts into psychedelic fantasy, as a new impresario who fought for the sixties revolution brings the band together, the goal a repeat performance at West Mesa. Sandy, the emotional, political, and spiritual agnostic, hired as reluctant publicity flack, becomes the key player in an apocalypse that he doesn't believe he's seeing until he's got the past, present, and future in the cross-hairs.

As I was rereading the book in the handsome new Gollancz edition, the cover caught the eye of my son. The art depicts the Eye of Sauron set in the scope of a sniper rifle, and Martin's name is even larger than the title. My son is the drummer in a rock band; as a boy, he sat beside me each December when the latest Tolkien Ring film came out; and while I don't know if he's watching the Game of Thrones fantasy series on TV, he certainly recognized Martin's name.

I thought he'd be the perfect reader for this book, and began describing it. As I did, I watched his reaction, aware of the paradigmatic divide between my generation and his. When I read J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as a teen in the mid-sixties, it belonged to people my age, the counter-culture. I found it incredibly exciting, almost a secret code, when Lord of the Rings references began showing up in rock songs and on posters.

For my son, Lord of the Rings was Stuff Mom and Dad read, made into films that everybody went to see. Counter-culture for him in his mid-teens was punk rock and art, maybe Sandman comics. The sixties to him meant boring lectures and old vids about flag burning and the Viet Nam War, Nixon and Watergate... test questions on history exams, not the blood, sweat and tears of people once his own age who thought to reshape the world, inspired -- sometimes driven -- by music.

The Armageddon Rag was first published in 1983, three years after Reagan's election. Sandy Blair symbolizes so many of the thirty-something ex-revolutionary baby boomers, so many of whom were bitter, bewildered, wondering what had happened to the revolution, and how could we end up with a President who made Tricky Dick look liberal?

Reading that book in the eighties, I found Sandy's existential angst, the sky-challenging "What happened to us?" resonated so deeply that I could scarcely bear to reread the novel. Images from it chased me for quite a while after, and friends and I who talked about the novel often ruminated about which band's songs were closest to the "Rag."

In the mid-eighties, as I recall, the most agreed-on songs were "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and the long version of "Stairway to Heaven," but on this reread what came to mind was a vid I saw a year or two ago of a performance by Schandmaul -- whose rock demonstrates a strong Tolkienian influence -- when thousands of their fans took over chanting one of the lines and wouldn't let it go. The exhilaration teetering on the edge of mass action seemed to disconcert the band, to put it mildly.

It's that eerie reality-distorting vibe that turns crowds into mobs with a single mind and a single goal that Martin evokes so effectively. I used the term psychedelic fantasy up above because Blair is never really certain that the supernatural has irrupted into the natural world as he defines it, or if he's hallucinating.

On this reread, I found the earnest world-weariness of a bunch of thirty-somethings was amusing to me in my sixties, further, that some of Sandy's anxious ranting about what went wrong tended toward length and repetition. Whenever Sandy starts shaking, you know several pages of tirade are coming up, some more effective than others: on page 60, when he cries, "I don't like it, I don't like it!" and two lines later he blames the wine, I was thinking, unfortunate choice of words. I didn't need the echo of "whine."

Another aspect that had decidedly dated was the cheerfully unconscious (white) male het view of women: while the men get generally described, the women all receive visual reports on the size and shape of their breasts. But even with that Martin plays fair for the modern reader, in that Sandy does not get a free pass for his sexually-oriented evaluations of character.

Though the action rises to a dramatic climax, on this reread, the scene I found the most effective was Sandy's plunge among the ghosts of the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Occult-caused time travel? -- actual ghosts? -- the characters' differing perceptions of reality overlap at times like interlocking war zones. Whose version of reality is 'right' is immaterial, even uninteresting, juxtaposed against the resonance of truth.

And it's exactly this aspect (as well as the book being overall a ripping good yarn) that I'd love to talk over with my son. It is inevitable that we are going to look at human behavior, history, and music from either end of the decades in question, but one thing for certain: any book that can foster such discussion and still entertain, no matter what the age of the reader, is a keeper.

Copyright © 2012 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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