Faraday's Orphans
N. Lee Wood
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Get *Faraday's Orphans* delivered to your door! Faraday's Orphans

N. Lee Wood
Ace Books/Berkley
June 1997
294 pages
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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What a post-apocalyptic novel must achieve is a believable, engaging portrait of what life might be like after "the end of the world." N. Lee Wood (Looking for the Mahdi) does just that in a gripping, character-driven tale of the eastern United States after the earth's geomagnetic field disappears, freeing the protective ozone layer from the Van Allen belts that hold it and laying the earth's surface bare to scorching, deadly radiation.

Curled Up With a Good BookIt's the year 2242, and Berk Nielsen, like his father before him, is a helicopter pilot. He flies on mail and reconnaisance missions for the domed City of Pittsburgh, a City like the few others where civilization as we know it today huddles and regroups. An independent sort, Berk resists becoming part of the City's stable of pilots who have relinquished a measure of their freedom for the stability of the cherry jobs the City hands out to those it owns. Berk's wife, a cooly beautiful woman who used to find Berk's means of making a living romantic, is chafing at his absences and meager income. When one of Berk's pilot friends fails to return from a regular run over the Outside, Berk cajoles his way into taking over that run, hoping that he can find an untapped reserve of precious fossil fuel and be assured steady flying jobs and steady income.

Berk flies into the Outside, the barren wasteland between Cities that the governments of those domed havens hope eventually to reclaim. The Outside has reverted to basic tribal warfare -- Tunnel Families live and trade with everyone, acting as a primitive Swiss neutrality; peaceful, agrarian Aggies plant and harvest crops until they are caught and reabsorbed by the Cities that exploit them and their mute, stunted intelligence; and the wild bands of Rangers, feral tribes of vicious young people, attack everything and everybody with a viciousness baked into them by the unfiltered radiation surely as that radiation has irrevocably mutated their genes.

When Berk finishes his designated run, he scouts the domeless, wrecked old city of Philadelphia for an abandoned cache of crude oil, one that might be missed by an airplane pilot but might be accessible to a helicopter -- and finds it. His jubilance at the discovery, though, is short-lived. He sets down atop a twenty-story building to sleep for the night before returning from his run, and is attacked by a band of feral children who not only nearly beat him to death -- they push his helicopter over the roof's edge, smashing it on the broken pavement twenty stories below.

Berk is saved by Sadonya, a fiercely pragmatic adolescent girl who acts as "cook" -- a sort of primitive diagnostician and pharmacist -- for two rival "unions," which are the glorified and extremely violent street gangs who rule the ruins of the city between them. Sadonya nurses Berk back to health in the neutral squalor of her territory, though not with any sort of compassion, for her world is one where compassion is a dead, useless thing, not vital to the very real fight for survival. When the leader of one union makes an ultimatum regarding Berk's self and knowledge, Berk and Sadonya set off on an impossible journey -- crossing the hostile wastes of the Outside hundreds of miles back to Berk's City.

Faraday's Orphans takes a hard look at the beast man is when stripped of the thin veneer of civilization, and at the beast disguised as civilized. It tells a frightening and compelling tale of one man's search for freedom and meaning. N. Lee Wood is a name to watch if she's got even just one more novel like this one in her.

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