Series Review: The Survivalist

By Colin Salt

There is one plot element late in the either 27 or 29 book Survivalist series [depending on if you count the two non-numbered specials] by Jerry Ahern that makes it technical alternate history. That is the changed fate of Adolph Hitler. It's not the classic and overdone "Hitler LIVED!" trope. Rather, it involves his dead body, which becomes a plot point in the final arc. Apparently, the Americans got a hold of the Fuhrer's corpse and stashed it in a super-bunker in upstate New York. Why they did that is never substantially explained.

Even before that bizarre angle, the Survivalist is still a plenty weird and quirky series. It doesn't take a PHD in literary analysis to know why, as the Cold War intensified around the late 1970s and early 1980s, post-apocalyptic fiction became prominent and popular. This is after all the age of Mad Max and Fist of the North Star, and the Survivalist's early books remind me a lot of the latter. You have an unashamed superpowered munchkin scything his way through post-apocalyptic bandits and colorful enemies. It's just instead of "martial arts that make you explode in seconds", this involves lavishly described firearms. Cultural differences, you know.

Anyway, the Survivalist series is the tale of John Rourke. A super-powered, super-smart, super-strong super-operative with a love of the Detonics miniature .45 pistol, Rourke finds himself in an apocalyptic nuclear exchange. This was the tiny hook that got me into the series to begin with. I was reviewing conventional World War IIIs (and already starting to feel tapped out), and this was technically a World War III with a substantial amount of conventional combat. Note that I say "technically", because it is night and day compared to self-serious technothrillers and "RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES" threats of the week.

On the so-called Night Of The War, John Rourke is trapped on a force-landed airplane with initially inexperienced survivor Paul Rubenstein. Their first obstacle between themselves and Rourke's stashed-up "Retreat" is an insane biker gang. Also seeking a return to the lair and John is his wife Sarah and two children. Many people dislike the Sarah plot, but I actually found it refreshing to have a vulnerable, human character in contrast to the maxed-out ultra-action hero.

The battles are goofy and well, kind of a little repetitive. But not too much so, as Rourke wields a stunning array of firearms, knives, and hand to hand combat techniques against a massive array of foes, including the invading Soviets. The "Party" is rounded out by Natalia Tiemerovna, a Soviet officer and escapee from her cruel husband. Besides her, the Soviets and setup to the Night of the War is handled with surprising evenhandness for a 1980s cheap thriller. And the justification for the Soviet invasion is actually the kind of thing that makes in the context of a story: They won the initial nuclear exchange (though not before the Americans launched a preserved sleeper ark called the Eden Project), and thus could just walk in.

The first nine books are pulpy masterpieces. Unlike a lot of other authors who, by design or mandate, had to make each entry shallow and self-contained, Ahern was able to pull off truly serialized writing. We get a plot involving an impending fire wave, California immediately falling into the ocean thanks to the nukes and Florida joining it a few books later, and a climactic arc involving cryonics, hardened shelters, and a plan to rule the world that Rourke foils. It's a good stopping point to have a timeskip followed by the safe return of the Eden Project, and I have to wonder if it was intended as a potential series conclusion.

In any case, the series, though still readable, jumps the shark after the initial passage into the future. There's an icky subplot where Rourke selectively ages (via adjusted suspended animation) his children so that they will be able to pair up with the other Retreat survivors in a world he anticipates as lacking genetic diversity. Thankfully, that doesn't come to pass, as after they wake up, they soon find more bandits and more survivors.

Here the worldbuilding goes a little off the rails. Kind of like how Superman and Dragon Ball lost their "last survivor" mystique and became full of Kryptonians and Saiyans of the week, so does Ahern retcon in underground city after underground city to withstand the fire wave of the ninth book. One of these even retroactively messes up the initial arc: There, it was a big deal that the Soviets didn't have fireproof shelters of their own. After it's established that they did (along with, among other countries, Iceland before Red Storm Rising), what was once a good climax no longer makes much sense.

Post-timeskip, the series becomes far less post-apocalyptic. Ahern had always wanted to write science fiction but was restrained by his very success in contemporary action, so he snuck in what he could and eagerly embraced all sorts of contraptions and setups after the ninth Survivalist book. It gets to the point where there's a second timeskip, and after that, society is completely rebuilt in an advanced world and there's no longer the slightest hint of shortages or collapses.

The finale, 1993's Death Watch, is less than satisfactory in isolation. It's basically a "save the world from the threat of the arc" and then a quick conclusion. However, in context it's better than it could have been. With the fall of the USSR, many of these series simply stopped abruptly. So having a proper finale at all was a luxury for the Survivalist. Also, after missing the station at the ninth/tenth book, it was going to be near-impossible to gracefully end the series anyway. So that can be forgiven.

For normal readers, I only recommend the first nine books. I binged the series anyway because well, I binged the twice as long and far clunkier Kirov series. I'm just weird like that. This is not only an influential and successful series in its own right, but also something that really opened my eyes to the wonders of lowbrow fiction. To go from infodumps and arguments over what unit went where in 198X to something that just didn't care and was willing to go increasingly gonzo was a great and wonderful experience for me, and the expansion of genres to review that started with this series made my blog much better.

The Survivalist is no one's idea of sophisticated literature, but it does aim higher than a lot of pulp does with its format, and it will always have a special place in my heart.

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Colin Salt reviews other genres at his blog: Fuldapocalypse Fiction and has written The Smithtown Unit and its sequel for Sea Lion Press