Those of us who know Asheville, North Carolina as a kind of tourist paradise are in for a shock when we read Bob Mustin's future vision of the city as Citadel, a ruined, collectivist outpost in a late-twenty-first century, post-apocalyptic America. But that initial impression gives way to fascination as We Are Strong But We Are Fragile, along with its vivid characters, take us for an engrossing ride.
The novel takes up the life of Jakob History in the winter of the year 2090, following decades of economic collapse, civil war, and the local struggle between Citadel and the lawless, brutal Freedomland tribes that occupy Asheville's encircling hills. History is the editor of the Enlightener, Citadel's monthly newspaper, and mate to Takira, a dancer, empath, and psychic originally from Jamaica.
Of late, Citadel has begun to trade with its long-term enemies, and the question of a more lasting peace is in the air. But first, Mayor (read king or chief) Samuel II must determine whether Abraham Trapper, the leader of Freedomland, is truly in earnest about the truce. The mayor asks History to parley with Abraham, who, it turns out, is a defector from Citadel and Jakob's old friend and colleague at the Enlightener. Thus the process of peace or war begins, with personal, serious consequences for Jakob and Takira.
This deeply-felt book takes on a number of different philosophical and political questions, which makes it much more a book of meditation than of action and adventure. Mustin's choice of newspaper title here is a nod to that emphasis.
The considerations of humanity-- the nature of evil, the question of anarchy versus authority, the complexity of romantic relationships, among many-- take center stage in We Are Strong, with the action punctuating the thought, rather than the other way around. Discussion of spiritual matters also takes its place, though there is apparently no longer any institutional religion-- instead, spirits, curses, and spiritual wisdom (mainly through Takira and Jakob's "Elder" and mentor, Jonathan) predominate.
Mustin maintains a steady helm on the ugly yet hotly alive world he has created-- despite the setting in winter, I got the impression of Citadel and Freedomland as just as full of humid, insistent growth as summer weeds sprouting from cracks in pavement. Still, Mustin's grasp on the particulars of his post-apocalypse America strikes me as tenuous in places. Would a society that is still able to make pickup trucks run have forgotten about church, synagogue, and mosque already? Religion seems to me to be the unbreakable thread that runs through every apocalypse, be it the fall of the Roman Empire, the plagues of medieval Europe, or modern-day genocides.
Too, this twisting, delightful passage, about the bygone days when novels were written, seems to me to be Mustin making Jakob look back to a much more distant past, from the 31st century, say, rather than the 21st:
Her great-grandfather had been a writer, a novelist, as such persons were called then: a person who wrote fantasized stories, but stories that seemed, in that illusory state, too real to be actual accounts of life's mundane events. Instead, his books sprouted another variety of truth-- the realities of life in selective, abbreviated form. This sort of writing also had the paradoxical effect of exaggerating both good and bad, so that reader might see themselves through new eyes.
Yet, rhapsodic as he is about the quicksilver magic of long-gone novelists, Jakob's historical understanding of the equally-distant-in-time fall of the USA is bullet-point clear. Seems to me, history might turn fuzzy, but stories are remembered and told forever.
We Are Strong But We Are Fragile demonstrates, in fact, that stories are not going the way of the dinosaur. Skill and imagination rarely coalesce as well as they do in Bob Mustin's pen, but as long as we have some Bob Mustins in our society-- post-apocalyptic or not-- fiction will be in good shape.