In the year 2030, long after almost total nuclear obliteration, an old man named John Wellfleet, living on the outskirts of what once was Montreal, is contacted by a young archaeologist who's found a steel box containing documents and tapes relating to Wellfleet's family. Thus is Canadian novelist MacLennan (Two Solitudes, The Return of the Sphinx) able to tell three time-distanced tales at once: John Wellfleet's story of how the world as we know it went to hell; the narrative of Wellfleet's cousin, a Sixties TV journalist, who tells how the news came to poison events as much as vice versa; and, furthest back, the story of John's stepfather, an immigrant from Germany--where, as a professor, he joined the Gestapo in order to try (unsuccessfully) to save his Jewish lover and her scholar father. MacLennan takes on, with each, large ballast, and his way with ideas is grave yet graceful: ""It troubles me,"" the professor writes, ""that fear is different from discontent and that there is something in discontented people that makes them crave fear. . . . Fear--a distant fear and not the terror of bombardment or torture--a distant fear is very exciting."" Yet, in telling what he clearly sees as a cautionary tale, MacLennan, for all his range back and front, never achieves a real intimacy of narration. Like all ""representative"" texts, his three patched-together tales read as somewhat obligatory. MacLennan-the-fiction-maker loses out to MacLennan-the-sad-moralist here; the result is a sometimes provocative yet dramatically uninvolving novel of ideas--of distinct, but very limited, appeal.