Book Review: Slow Apocalypse by John Varley

Slow ApocalypseSlow Apocalypse by John Varley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read for the Apocalypse Now! Reading Challenge and the Second Best Reading Challenge.

Method of the world’s destruction: an engineered bacteria is released into Iraqi oil fields by a lovelorn scientist as vengeance, which mutates to become an airborne pathogen that solidifies all liquid gas resources on earth into useless lumps.

Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award 2013.

When you’ve read as many apocalyptica stories as I have, I suppose you become a little bit critical in ways that the average person, who probably has only read The Stand or maybe World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, won’t be. So take my review with that grain of salt.

You’ve probably often wondered, considering the limits of fossil fuels; what would happen if crude oil became useless tomorrow? Varley attempts to answer this question with the McGuffin of an oil-solidifying pathogen, which sounds a bit like bitumen to me, but perhaps this alters the very chemical structure of the stuff or something. Whatever, it’s a McGuffin. The protagonist is a comedy writer from L.A. who probably doesn’t know the first thing about how biochemistry works, so we don’t really need to know either.

Our protagonist, Dave Marshall, happens to get some advance warning because he happens to be in contact with a retired marine colonel with some clout and black-ops security clearance, who warns him when the first reports of destroyed oil fields in the Middle East start coming in. Dave wisely maxes out his credit cards and spends all the money in his bank account laying in supplies. This turns out to be the only thing that saves his family when the proverbial offal hits the air distribution device, and his advance warning of his friends and writing team helps most of them to get a leg up too; although it doesn’t save everyone and some people we never find out the fate of, which I like.

And it’s fortunate that he’s done so, because his wife is useless. Accustomed to a higher standard of living than she can currently afford based on what Dave is making, she spends the early part of the apocalypse shopping and the later part hiding in her bed and sulking, until it’s too late to get out of L.A. easily and an enormous earthquake, caused by the pathogen, trashes the city.

Part of this is Varley’s way of having an important dialogue, part of the decision-making process that humans really do struggle with after a major disaster is when to get out. Most people wait too long because of denial, and because evacuation is such a daunting prospect. Karen vs. Dave is Varley’s method of addressing that conflict, and considered on its own, it works rather well.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but a heroic effort is eventually made to pull the community together, and then to flee L.A. because they have to. Karen, the wife, eventually turns into a functioning human being, and Addison, Dave’s daughter, is a pretty useful and resourceful person.

Which is why it annoys me so much that many of this book’s good qualities are, for me, ruined by its degeneration into an American Libertarian masturbation fantasy.

First of all, after being a useless tit for most of the first part of the book, Karen becomes useful and resourceful . . . except that she willingly gives over all agency to Dave as the “man of the family.” This was a woman who didn’t do what her husband suggested because she thought he was crazy (and who wouldn’t?) but then she decides to suborn her will to his because . . . apocalypse? Nope, it didn’t fly for me.

Also, Addison, who was his ally and helper at the beginning of the book, becomes a child again who has to be told what to do when Karen decides she’s going to adjust to the new reality and take her head out of the sand. As a teenager whose parents sometimes failed her in difficult times, I can tell you that I certainly wouldn’t just accept this (and didn’t).

Also, as an adjunct to this, Karen decides, after many years of a rocky marriage in comparatively good times, that she’s just going to go ahead and have sex without birth control with Dave before they even flee L.A. Because . . . clearly she wants to bring a child into the world who might immediately die of famine, if it ever makes it out of the womb, considering the malnutrition she’s already suffering? You know, I realize that people have lots of babies in areas where infant mortality is high, but I think it would take a rational, middle-aged Western woman who has enjoyed all the benefits of white privilege and L.A.’s Hollywood society much longer to get there, is all I’m saying. Especially since her daughter is already in her late teens.

Second, naturally humanity immediately degenerates into a bunch of gun-toting barbarians. I’ve written about why this would not actually happen in the past. But I’ll sort-of give Varley a pass because the big issue, he wisely realized, was famine. With the over-populated Los Angeles area unable to drive or ship food in, food and water runs short quickly, and some people decide they are willing to kill for it. Okay, that’s probably to be expected. And with all the authorities so overwhelmed, I suppose it’s even likely.

I do wish that he had refrained from the tired old trope of a woman who had the audacity to try to survive the apocalypse on her own getting gang-raped though. Really, this is nonsense, especially when famine is the main issue, and it seems like every apocalypse writer has to try to assert the idea that a woman’s rights as a human being are dependent on Law and Order in Western civilization, so they’re a nice pipe dream while they last.

Seriously, if you’re a man reading this, is the only reason you don’t go around raping women that the cops would get you if you did? Yeah, right, didn’t think so. There’s always a small handful of psychos out there, but they’ll be psychos whether a woman is alone or not. I swear, this is becoming so much a trope of apocalyptica that there’s going to be rape-gangs going around in the apocalypse just because that’s expected. Varley lost a lot of brownie points with me for this. Probably it cost him a whole star.

When things start getting bad, the Marshalls are given the option, several times, of joining evacuations being organized by the U.S. government and military. Which they never take, because they don’t trust them. They don’t like the looks of them. The refugee camps, seen at a distance, are described as “prisons.” Nope, the only thing to do is to band together in little tribal bands and protect ourselves with our guns. Good thing they’ve got their guns.

Except . . . they really have no reason not to trust the authorities. None. The best the characters can offer is that a hospital was forcibly evacuated. Do they think that maybe that’s because it’s on an extremely unstable major fault line that might, at any time, plunge it into the ocean? No, of course not. I swear to the gods, the American distrust of government is going to turn their country into the world of The Postman when the apocalypse happens, and the survivalist libertarians will take them all back to the Stone Age!

The conclusion, while logical, is a bit anti-climatic. The government continues to censor news and information so that they can control all the former United States citizens and keep them in the dark. Except . . . maybe they’re doing that to keep other countries, such as Russia, China, or maybe even Canada, who might be in better shape, from knowing how bad things are and how fragmented their government, military and infrastructure has become so they won’t decide to invade? Does this cross the characters’ minds? Of course not. They just go right on defending their little community with their guns. Because guns.

And while we’re at it, I could have done without the smug lecture in the epilogue. “Yep, we’ve got a world where we’re living green now! Conservation is necessary, no more oil is getting burned, and we’re right back to the Victorian Age! Isn’t that nice?” Varley all but purrs, “Looks like those environmentalists got what they wanted! Isn’t this a great world?” Except that a) no it’s not, because they’re still using coal, and where possible, nuclear power, although some power plants have melted down and now there’s irradiated areas in the former U.S.; b) seriously, nobody wants to go back to the Victorian Age. Environmental advocates are asking for a transition; we know that everything stopping cold would be a disaster of epic proportions. But you know, it’s now cheaper to run solar power than gas power, and wind power is gaining all the time. There are other ways to do things, and we’re finding them.

I started out really liking this book, too. It’s well-written. The action keeps coming. The characters are ordinary people trying to survive an extraordinary situation. The ideas about what would happen should oil immediately go belly-up are worth thinking about, especially since that’s exactly what’s going to happen if and when it runs out. Maybe we should plan ahead for that, and this makes you think about it. Which is a good thing. I just wish that . . . I don’t know, I wish that Varley, whose research was so good in some areas, had chosen not to ignore contradictory information, such as the fact that the National Guard and the U.S. Military have been positively heroic in every major disaster I’ve heard of in the past several years. And I wish he understood women better.

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