Vanishing Point, Michaela Roessner (1993)
Review by Philip Suggars
In Michaela Roessner’s 1989 Campbell Award winning fantasy debut novel, Walkabout Woman, she explored the consequences of belonging to two worlds: the psychic space of aboriginal dreamtime and the brutal “civilised” reality of the “whitefellas”. This preoccupation with conflated and contradictory realities also provides the central premise for her only science fiction novel to date, Vanishing Point.
The backstory for the book is intriguingly simple: what if, completely unannounced, 90% of the world’s population suddenly vanished? The disappeared leave no clues as to their whereabouts and those who remain are left to fend for themselves as best they can.
In the immediate aftermath of this “Vanishing” late twentieth century capitalism collapses into a neo-dark age of violence and a process of piecemeal recovery begins as competing and co-operating enclaves of survivors come together to establish micro-societies in the Bay Area and the Eastern seaboard of the former United States.
Set thirty years on from the existential trauma of these events, the novel tells the story of Dr Nesta Easterman, an ageing physicist, who treks her way from the Carnegie-Mellon Institute to the Hacker’s Centre, a scientific community based in the former Silicon Valley. Easterman is convinced that the seemingly trivial mutations in children born after the Vanishing provide clues not only to the original causes of that event, but also to the long term changes it has wrought upon humanity and perhaps the fabric of reality itself.
Upon arriving in the Bay Area, Easterman encounters Renzie a self-sufficient and irascible member of a communal society based at an enormous, rambling and continually evolving building known as the House. Despite their obvious differences the two become fast friends and at Renzie’s continued insistence, Easterman becomes part of the House community. The physicist comes to suspect though, that her new home’s ever-changing topography and the ability of the community’s children to navigate it are yet more evidence of the Vanishing’s strange inheritance.
As Easterman attempts to unpick these mysteries by gathering data on a sequence of strange anomalies affecting nearby communities, a threat to the continued existence of the Housers arises in the shape of the Heaven Bound. The ‘Bounders, a roving group of millennarian religious fanatics, believe that the Vanishing was a partial Rapture and are therefore intent on destroying anyone attempting to build an earthly future.
If the story is a relatively straightforward one, Roessner’s narrative masterstroke is in setting the book thirty years after the cataclysmic disappearances of the Vanishing. This enables her to sidestep the worst clichés of the post-apocalyptic novel while giving her the narrative space necessary to explore not only the grief of those left behind, but also the Vanishing’s effect upon the generations of children born after it.
Certainly, the former is where the book feels at its most accomplished. The passages that recount how Hake, one of Renzie’s companions, visits a local zoo in the days immediately following the Vanishing have a grim poignancy to them and evoke “Setting Free the Bears” era John Irving. Similarly, the pilgrimage made by Renzie’s estranged father to his old house, an event which culminates in him washing his vanished children’s bicycles, is one of the novel’s most moving scenes.
The novel’s portrait of the numerous post-Vanishing societies is fascinating, if sometimes uneven, each community having formed from like-minded survivors who have evolved complex ideologies that attempt to explain and come to terms with the human effect of the calamity.
Indeed, it’s a testament to Roessner’s versatility that she is able to subtly invest each of these communities with aspects of human grief writ large without it ever appearing too “on the nose”: there is the denial of the Homers who tend the houses of the disappeared, hoping one day for their “Great Return”; the bargaining of the Watchers who attempt to fend off another mass disappearance by watching each other sleep; acceptance is exemplified best by the denizens of the House, whose prelapsarian community is more equitable and nurturing than anything the 20th century had to offer, while the rage and disappointment of the ‘Bounders is the driving force behind their homicidal mania.
If the emotional core of the book is the nurturing relationship between Renzie and Easterman, then the key to its central mystery is their relationship with the House. Here Roessner’s fascination with three dimensional space and multiple realities comes to the fore once again. Like her short story “Inside Outside” – where she explores to charming and comic affect the impact on wider reality of a subatomic game of pitch and putt – the House is an Escher-like structure whose spatial footprint appears to leach into parallel realities. The novel makes explicit references to Borges’ ‘Garden of the Forking Paths’ and while Roessner has clearly drawn some water from Borges’ well it’s not giving too much away to say that she takes the very literary denouement of his gentile meta-spy story and fashions an intriguing cause for the Vanishing from its central conceits.
Politically, this feels very much like a post-feminist work. Renzie and Easterman are both well-realised, fully-fleshed out characters (although Renzie does occasionally stray into generic “kick-ass chick” territory). Neither Renzie’s physicality and survival skills nor Easterman’s Physics chops are ever questioned from a gender perspective and one of its distinct pleasures is that, for a book with a post-apocalyptic setting, it exudes anti-machismo from every page.
It’s ironic then, that its only real weakness is perhaps an unwillingness to engage with the more unsavoury aspects of human nature, occasionally resulting in scenes where survivors are so civil to each other as to stretch credulity. Similarly, it could be argued that the answers to the Vanishing come a little too easily, and that aspects of it are never entirely adequately explained, but for all that this is an accomplished book that offers a novel premise, real emotional heft and the pleasure of watching its multiple plot strands weave together to a satisfying conclusion.
2 thoughts on “Vanishing Point, Michaela Roessner”
That’s a really good analysis of one of my favourite neglected novels. Great to see the wonderful story ‘Inside Outside’ mentioned too.
I would just say that the civility you see as a weakness is perhaps deliberate choice. I have always viewed Vanishing Point as sitting alongside Lisa Goldstein’s A Mask For The General and Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After in attempting to demonstrate the possibility of a passive resistance to aggression and tyranny.
Renzie is an interesting female take on SF’s stock omnicompetent hero. Her abilities are, as you say, never questioned in gender terms but she is a well-rounded woman character.