Monday, September 10, 2012

Slow Apocalypse - John Varley

Slow Apocalypse
John Varley
Science Fiction Thriller
Dave Marshall makes his living writing sitcoms.  It’s been a pretty good living, too, until the past couple of dry years.  With a wife who shops like it’s an Olympic sport and a daughter who’s grown accustomed to their current lifestyle, Dave is actively looking around for possible screenplay prospects.  What he finds is a retired Marine general, who tells him a very improbable story.  According to this General, a scientist created a bacterium that will solidify unrefined petroleum while it’s in the ground.  It was supposed to be used as a weapon against oil-producing countries in the Middle East.  But, as bacteria do, once this one was released, it mutated.  Now it strips the hydrogen off the petroleum, causing oil field fires.  And now it’s air-borne, meaning that every pocket of unrefined oil in the world is at risk.
It’s improbable, sure.  But what if it’s real?  Dave begins to see vague (uncharacteristically so) news reports about fires in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  Then the fields of Russia go up in flames.  The news is saying suspiciously little about it, and Dave is worried.  What would you need for an extended period of time with no access to oil or gasoline?  It means no personal transportation, but it also means no transportation for food supplies.  Obviously there will be shortages and rationing.  Dave brings together his former writing team and tells the story to them, just as a ‘heads up’ kind of thing.  Then he begins to lay in supplies.  If nothing happens, he’s got a bunch of stuff in his basement.  If the worst happens, he’ll at least be able to take care of his wife and daughter.

This story should hit people where they live.  Especially if where they live is a major metropolis that’s dependent on food and supply shipments from elsewhere.  Dave lives in Los Angeles, which is a desert.  Everything has to be brought in: food, gas, oil, and especially water.  An interruption in these imports, even for a week or so, would have a serious impact on life.  It’s fascinating – in a terrifying kind of way – to watch the various reactions to the end of life as we know it.  I made the mistake of reading the first hundred pages or so alone, at night, in my southern California home.  It’s written in such a believable way that I had to keep looking out the window to make sure the world wasn’t on fire. 
John Varley is a name known to scifi readers as a winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards.  This novel is science fiction in the broadest, best sense.  No knowledge of science (or even interest) is necessary to be drawn into the story.  It’s a story of individual people and their reactions to a complete shift, or end, of the life they’ve known.  It’s very much character-driven fiction, set against the huge canvas of what could be the result of our dependence on oil products.  For all of that, it never gets political or preachy.  Everything derives from the immediate need to survive for one more day.  It’s about what is truly important in life, and the lengths that a ‘normal’ person will go to in order to protect those things. 
Rating: 8 ½
September 2012
ISBN# 978-0-441-01757-7 (hardcover)


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