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Russell Letson reviews John Varley


The imagined disaster and its immediate aftermath – as distinct from the other, longer-view branch of what is usually called the ‘‘post-apocalypse’’ subgenre – is a perennial in SF as well as in various areas of the mainstream that are unacknowledged parts of our turf. The precise nature of the cause of the collapse might be minutely researched and believable, or arbitrary and borderline-plausible, or outright fantasy (zombies, anyone?), or cagily undefined (viz., The Road), but what remains constant is the knocking away of this or that (or every) technological and logistical prop of civilization in order to see what falls down, what it squashes, and who (or what) crawls out of the rubble.

To pull back before moving forward, I have been reading these books for almost as long as I have been reading at all, and like many of my generation, I find that a large chunk of my imagination was formed by the nightmare scenarios of post-atomic-war or collapse-of-society novels: George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, and The Death of Grass. I recall being particularly impressed by Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, with its focus on social cohesion (and a curtain line that has stayed with me for fifty years), and decades later by Dean Ing’s Pulling Through (1983), which was half detailed survival tale and half hands-on how-to manual on the necessary materials and procedures. (Interestingly enough, Pat Frank also produced non-fiction about how to survive an atomic war.)

Which brings us to John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse, which combines the three crucial elements of the immediate-aftermath subgenre: what-might-happen, how-to-survive-it, and what-we-become-in-the-face-of-it. While the first two elements generally provide what might be called content and procedural interest – the traditional bedrock of the hard-SF (and techno-thriller and minimally-fantastic) tradition – this story moves and is moving in that third dimension, which is also the strong suit of the best of its predecessor examples. This is not the first time that Varley has worked the disaster tradition – half of Red Lightning (reviewed in April 2006) portrays the aftermath of a tsunami that rolls across Florida, and some of its core elements are similar to those of the current book: a careful depiction of the wreckage and a trek through it by a well-equipped mixed-family group that includes young people who must prove their mettle.

Slow Apocalypse can be seen as a considerable expansion of that basic survival story, starting before the disaster and filled out in considerable detail on both the material and social levels. Sitcom writer Dave Marshall, needing to change professional tracks, is researching material for a possible disaster movie. When the ex-military guy who has been feeding him ideas is gaudily assassinated right in the heart of Hollywood, it’s clear that the late colonel wasn’t just making stuff up about the creation and release of an oil-eating bacterium. Dave is smart enough to work out the implications of a world without petroleum and pragmatic enough to start preparing for a worst-case scenario. So he stockpiles gas, food, and materials (and even buys some guns and ammo), warns his closest friends (who were also his writing staff) that bad days are coming, and prepares to hunker down until things get straightened out.

But even Dave could not have anticipated the entire cascade of effects that follow when the world’s oil wells and storage facilities – including those in the Los Angeles basin – swell and explode. Some of the events in the chain are entirely natural, while others are social and logistical, following from government secrecy and a lack of resources available to respond to the piling-on of earthquake, flood, fire, and hunger. As the title signals, we get a gradual buildup to the gaudier parts, and one suspects that the target audience includes not only old science-fictional hands but general-fiction readers who might need to be walked through the implications of the disappearance of oil. In fact, once that single, initial, science-fictional enabling device has been deployed, all the other effects unfold with completely realistic cause-and-effect process that owe much to the rigor of science-fictional thinking but would not strike a secular audience as wild and wooly or skiffy-esque.

The entire posse of apocalyptic horsemen (not to be confused with Dave’s daughter, who keeps a horse) shows up on cue, with considerable help from a non-scriptural but scientifically-justifiable earthquake and an absolutely predictable (if unprecedentedly thorough) southern California wildfire. Dave’s Hollywood Hills neighbors at first pull together and form a mutual-defense and -support group allied to similar groups in the area. But it’s one thing to pull your neighbors out of the wreckage of their homes or to drive off roving gangs of motorcycle thugs, and quite another to face the possibility that your family will starve, and the desperation that prospect generates begins to erode the little community. The noose of the story tightens relentlessly, limiting options, presenting situations in which all the choices are bad, or at least distasteful or humanity-diminishing. When a gardener who once worked in the neighborhood shows up with his thirsty, hungry wife and kids, Dave ignores the mini-militia’s security precautions – ‘‘No one was to be allowed to approach the barricade… and no one on the inside was to cross in the other direction’’ – and offers the family some of the community’s water and a can of pop:

He was choked up. He didn’t like himself very much at that moment, and he hated what had happened to him. What had happened to them all. What was still happening, with no end in sight.

One of the group, recognizing something like what Nancy Kress called the ‘‘beggars in Spain’’ dilemma, gives the family some of her own food and then declares, ‘‘I’m through with this shit. I can’t take it any more…. I’m out of here’’ and leaves, ‘‘with her back straight and her rifle resting on her shoulder.’’ And that is just a small hint of what is coming – it gets much, much worse.

As social bonds weaken to the breaking point and one-damn-thing-after-another rolls over Dave’s preparations and defenses, it becomes clear that hunkering down isn’t going to work. The last part of the novel details how Dave’s family, with two others, make their way out of the devastation that was Los Angeles, hoping that somewhere there is stability and safety. Their trek allows the camera to pull back and reveal the full extent of the disaster and the many ways there are to die.

Like Pat Frank’s novel, this one is as much about the resilience of our social bonds as the fragility of our physical infrastructure. But that fragility, and the devastation that follows when systems fail and nature gets her innings, remain in the foreground. This book, like John Barnes’s rather more science-fictional Directive 51 sequence, had me looking at my home and my town and recognizing how delicately balanced the systems are that support our comfort and safety, and wondering about the robustness of the human machineries that might or might not kick in to counter both the blind violence of nature and the demonic side of humanity. Varley’s early fiction went way out there, pushing at the limits of the most exotic and fantastic possibilities the species might encounter. Trust me that when the imagination that devised both ‘‘The Phantom of Kansas’’ and ‘‘Press Enter [ ]’’ digs into some of the genre’s oldest perennial questions (What will we do when the lights go out and things fall apart?), the results are just as gripping, terrifying, and convincing.

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