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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Slow Apocalypse by John Varley

November is almost here, which for those of us in the United States means election time. It's easy to get caught up in the rhetoric that's espoused at the conventions. What springs from that is a crazy notion that the two American political parties are separated by a legion of issues from abortion, to fiscal responsibility, to same sex marriage, to defense policy.

While it's certainly true that the extremes of the two parties disagree on most of these items, many of those who identify closer to center find themselves separated by one fundamental ideology. Democrats believe government creates opportunities, and Republicans believe it restricts them. Who's right? I've no idea and both parties often find themselves in hypocritical boxes (Pro-life policies for example seem more big government, than not). But, I often wish the debate could center around this issue because there's a lot of great academic work that's been done from both perspectives.

Why do I bring this up? John Varley's Slow Apocalypse, released September 4, contains a lot of political back drop, particularly as it relates to the government's role. Not in a traditional political sense, but asking the question of when everything goes to pieces, to whom can I turn to put it back together? Is it the government? Or is me? Varley answers the question resoundingly with the latter, demonstrating the failures of of the 'system' and the weaknesses it has foisted on us all.

Varley's plot device to begin this ponderous apocalypse is oil, or the lack there of. A scientist discovers a virus that turns oil solid, rendering it useless as a fuel source. Like anything created in a government lab things don't go as planned, and oil across the world begins to harden, in many cases with explosive results. With the world's oil supply dwindling Slow Apocalypse shows what life might be like in today's America if oil stopped flowing. A long and at times arduous read, it's successful for the thoughts its stimulates more than the characters and story it portrays.

In Los Angeles, screenwriter Dave Marshall meets with a retired Marine to listen to his war stories, hoping to spark an idea for his next big hit. After hearing an absurd story about an angry scientist, a virus that destroys oil, and the government who would cover it up, Dave watches as his informer is shot dead by masked gunmen. Armed with information that may or may not be true, he begins to prepare for life after oil in an effort to protect his family.

For long time readers of apocalypse fiction, there's not going to be much new material in Slow Apocalypse. It's a survivalist story, but one that shows the immediate after effects of catastrophe that precipitates a massive loss of life and the destruction of modern society. In that way, Varley's novel is reminiscent of the early parts of Stephen King's classic The Stand. But, where King's virus destroys human life directly, Varley's requires watching humanity crush itself under its own weight with the fossil fuel pin pulled from the grenade.

In contrast, Justin Cronin skipped these moments in The Passage, showing the impetus for fall and then the fall-out a hundred years later, he glosses over the decline. There's a loss there, in that Varley's reader must stand witness to heart wrenching erosion of community and the characters' loss. Unfortunately, the slow in Slow Apocalypse is apt, a criticism that was also levied against the long winded The Stand. Often moving at the speed of crumbling infrastructure, Varley spends countless pages painting a picture of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles while attempting to create a sense of dread as supplies diminish.

He has some success in that regard, but more often than not devolves into what amounts to how-to-guide for preparing for the big one. That's not to say it isn't fascinating to understand the unique challenges that Los Angeles, a city completely reliant on others for food, water, and power, would face in an apocalypse. As a native of the Los Angeles area, I can testify to the tremendous job Varley does in capturing the region and the people who live there.

Ultimately though, it's going to take a patient reader to finish and enjoy Slow Apocalypse. By the time Dave and his family are forced into action most of the novel's page count is gone. It results in a rapid conclusion that felt if not overly neat, then substantially easier than I was expecting. It left me thinking of it more as thought experiment than a committed attempt at storytelling.

Not a novel I feel compelled to recommend to most of my audience, Slow Apocalypse is a nuanced and frightening glimpse into the future of Southern California. Readers from the region, or those who have spent some time there, are certainly the best to find it a worthwhile investment.

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