I grew up in an apocalyptic faith (I no longer adhere to this religion or belief system), but the experience has left its mark on me. It's one thing to see the end of the world portrayed on movie theaters, TV, or read about it in books, but it's quite another to have felt it in your bones for the first eighteen years of your life. I therefore judge this genre of book by one simple criteria: does the book re-awake the same feelings of dread and awe I felt as a child contemplating the utter destruction of the world around me?
The Getrude Threshold takes place in the near future. The Sun's main sequence has gone awry, and what was once predicted would take place a billion years in the future, the expansion of our star as its nuclear fuel begins to run out, is taking place now. The planet is slowly cooking as the heat rises and there is no solution to the problem and no hope. Fantasies such as a time travel exit out of Hell on Earth have been exposed as opiate for the masses and planned migrations to Mars and similar locales beyond our practical grasp.
Threshold (the book's name is derived from the last name of a scientist who has calculated the exact tipping point when the heat will overwhelm the final barriers mankind has built to survive the inferno) takes place on Last Day and follows the actions and thoughts of four main characters, John, his wife Ellen, Ky, their five-year-old son, and Brandon, Ky's elderly grandfather. Earth's remaining population has retreated to a claustrophobic underground warren of tunnels and living complexes that become increasingly disordered and dangerous as society collapses. In this maze of despair, our four characters will interact with other survivors and seek out what grace they can as fate deals with each of them in turn.
The book's most heart-rending character is Ky, whose birth was probably a mistake but who has provided his parents with joy and some hope for the future until the point that all hope runs out. Like all five year olds (and, at heart, like all of us), Ky understands his life is coming to an end but does not truly believe it. At the end of the story, Ky leaves the small apartment in which he has lived for most of his brief life to meet his destiny and comes upon an abandoned little girl also seeking peace in the dark. The narrative at this point becomes heartbreaking, but never bathetic:
Daisy glanced away. She spoke into the well to pass along a secret, confident it wouldn’t echo back. “Truth is I lied,” she admitted. “I don’t live here. I have no home. It’s just me.”
“No mommy? No daddy?”
“Not for a while.”
Ky hugged her. She hugged him. “Neither do I . . .”
Ky dared to say. “. . . at least, I don’t think so.” Time halted in the presence of their embrace. “What happened?”
“One day, my parents went out. They never came back.” Daisy released him. She wavered listlessly, avoiding Ky’s stare.
“The enforcers tossed me into the tubes to make room for a real family.” Time flooded the void their confessions left.
“Why pretend?” he asked.
This scene and what follows enables author Brooks to end his novella on a note of grace and love.
It's a fair question to ask why anyone would read a work as downbeat and grim as The Gertrude Threshold and I'm not going to pretend to have any definitive answers. Some people find catharsis in this type of book. For me, the answer is that at 61, I've become increasingly aware that my own Gertrude Threshold looms not so far away in the future as I once thought, and I find the topic of how I'll deal with my Last Day of increasing interest. (Or maybe I just woke up in a gloomy mood this morning.)
Certainly, the book awoke in me those memories of the end of times I experienced once so regularly.
The Gertrude Threshold is a powerful tale very well told. You will not forget it once you put it down.
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