Required Reading is (another) new format at Cardigans & Capes: This category refers to a novel, text, or series that was so important / innovative / resonant that this same text has stayed with us for the rest of our lives. Thus, for our dear readers, it is… Required Reading.
Keywords: Post-apocalyptic worlds, hominids, evolution, Russian Scare
When I first read Emergence at twelve years of age, I had no idea how important this novel would become (to me, at least. After the 1985 nomination for a Hugo, Palmer has enjoyed relative obscurity as far as I can tell). For some context: I have always been a reader. I started my voracious consumption of novels with ghost stories and Nancy Drew (The Secret at Shadow Ranch 4Evah!), and when I turned ten, I thought I’d give a fantasy novel a try (This event will be detailed in another Required Reading post…). By twelve, I had branched into Anne McCaffrey and some other adult sci-fi novels. But Emergence was something else.
Emergence occurs in a post-apocalyptic world where homo post hominem — the next stage in hominid evolution — has arrived. Narrated by a twelve year old girl who methodically picks her away across the bionuclear fallout zone that was the United States, Emergence is told through an amalgamation of shorthand styles (think Pitman shorthand) and in a conversational tone addressed to the reader, who is often saluted with, “Hello, Posterity!” Even now, this phrase makes me smile. The novel follows the main character, Candidia Maria Smith-Foster, as she searches out other hominems. The novel culminates when she engages in a dangerous mission to save her fledgling species. The characterization, the narrative style, and the plot are deliberate and excellent choices that, when added together, create a rollicking read. The sheer imagination and scope of the novel is tremendous, and such fun! The reader is left with a feeling of, “Goll-eee, that was great!”
But Emergence resonated with twelve-year-old-me on a fundamental level: Never before had I seen myself (or rather, how I wanted to imagine my future myself) in a novel. Many other readers, librarians, and cultural analysts know and comment upon this phenomenon: Readers want to identify with the characters; they need to “see” themselves in the stories they consume. Candy, the main character, was a polymath with a hard work ethic, a nigh telepathic animal sidekick, and a black belt. I, also twelve, was an awkward fat kid with a hearing loss (and a related speech pathology).
So… we were not quite the same.
However, Candy seeded in me the idea that I could — someday — become a polymath and obtain a black belt and do anything I wanted to. As I grew up, reality presented itself: With some privilege, some luck / chance, and hard work, I could accomplish some goals. Not everything that Candy could do, true. But some of them. And though reality has intruded and my ability to continue faking adulthood seems to be successful, I will never forget the joy of possibility I felt when I read Emergence for the first time. I realized then that I didn’t need to be limited to what I was, or what I had been. I could be more. And that is a precious, precious gift.