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Slow Apocalypse by John Varley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441017577
Date: 04 September 2012 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Will the world as we know it end with a whimper or a bang? John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse gives it enough time to do both. When a bio-weapon turns the world’s oil supply into unusable goo, it’s not the end of everything in a flash we’re used to from nuclear war, zombie plague, asteroid impact or EMP strike. Things fall apart, but they do it in slower motion, and that gives us time for it to sink in.

Dave is an LA writer who had a hit series about alien invaders that looked like ants, but now is on the glide path to despair, at least if he can’t come up with something pitchable. Unfortunately, at 40 he’s over the hill in sit-com hip-writer years.  So he takes a look at the market, decides the real money is in video game oriented action movies and starts digging to see what he can come up with.  What he comes up with is the end of civilization in the very near future, or at least it will be if the ex-spook he’s been paying to tell him war stories is telling the truth through the Jack Daniels haze that’s loosened his tongue.

Once upon a time there was a brilliant scientist who was working microbes that would make oil slipperier, and easier to get out of the ground without all that fracking. Then his girlfriend got killed on 9/11 and he got pissed. When Middle Eastern oil companies wanted his microbe, he was happy to give it to them, along with a little upgrade that turned the oil to goo and made the field give off explosive hydrogen. What he didn’t count on was that it might spread. Everywhere. Slowly.

When Dave’s source sobers up he calls and explain that this is one story he really can’t use, and Dave really doesn’t need to see his source blown out of an eleventh floor window moments after he talks to him to be convinced. But it’s a nice touch that he should appreciate as a writer.

So Dave kills the story, goes home to his expensive house and over-sized SUV and starts thinking about the end of the petro-fueled world. Then he starts buying everything he can think of to protect his family, hoping that the world ends before his next credit card bill. He also calls in his brain trust, the crew of folks that have helped him put together story ideas over the years, and plays out the scenario as fiction...until it sinks in to them that he’s not actually telling them a story. Though Dave wanted to keep it from his family until he had a real plan, his daughter was one up on him, using an old baby monitor to bug the meeting of minds, and a good thing too, as she’s considerably more level headed than his wife, who dismisses the whole thing as fantasy and stalks out.

Then the oil fields under LA blow sky high and everything goes to hell.

Huddled around the TV with his creative friends, Dave has to figure out how to survive and what kind of world to make for his daughter. Fortunately, he’s a writer, and if there’s one thing he knows how to do, it’s come up with creative solutions to big problems.

The slow pace of everything falling apart gives the author time to heap a long list of challenges on Dave, his wife Karen, and their daughter Addison. They miss out on pestilence, but flood, fire, earthquake, and plenty of encounters with desperadoes, either by nature or desperation, give them and us a chance to examine their reaction to the end of things.  Is it enough to survive when everyone around you is dying?  Where do you draw the line between self-preservation and inhumanity? Dave’s character started out as almost rich before the crisis, but afterwards he’s a freakin zillionaire by comparison to the hordes he passes on the roadside or pressed up against fences in refugee camps.

At first I worried that a Hollywood writer wouldn’t be a sympathetic character, and if they make the movie they’ll have to make sure we see a transition that makes him more human.  I’m thinking John Cusack for the lead, by the way.  His sister Joan can be Jeanne, one of the wacky writer friends.

There are echoes of John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (1972) in here, where bacteria, designed to make plastics biodegradable, runs wild and everything breaks down, though of course much more happens in Brunner’s deeply insightful book.  Here it’s a single point of failure, but Varley has clearly done the research on how things spread out from it.

The LA setting for the story is interesting, and makes a nice counterpoint to other stories in the genre that take place in more sensible rural areas, like last year’s very good One Second After by William R. Forstchen, which made it very clear that you’re better off in the sticks when the lights all go out. It might be worth noting that Varley moved from LA to Oregon at one point, though he may have come back by now.

At one point in the book, while Dave and his group of friends are trying to leave LA, which turns out to be nearly as hard as the Eagles suggested, they pass by a museum of Science and Technology, which made me think of Jerry Pournell and Larry Niven’s Mote in God’s Eye, where the alien Moties had repositories of technology set aside for their periodic lapses into barbarism.  Varley’s folks don’t take advantage of it, though there is a bit where coal burning trains are wrestled out of a museum and back onto the tracks.

Varley makes the interesting observation that even after the end of the world, GPS satellites still work, and our adventurers move through a devastated landscape that’s overlain with the bright grids and perfect streets shown on their Garmin (he calls them Garwin units) even after a 9.3 Richter quake and an unchecked firestorm have reduced the City of Angels to a Hellish wasteland. Unsurprisingly, he also notes that books might be useful again...though it occurs to me that you could pack an awful lot of survival and classic literature into a Kindle Touch, and keep it well charged with a very modest solar cell.

Varley charmingly admits that Slow Apocalypse is a departure for him. "I am so pleased to see my old friend George R.R. Martin raking in the dough; this is my attempt to reach a larger audience, like he has, beyond all you lovely people. It is my hope that my long-time readers will enjoy it, too."  I wish I could say that they’ll like it as much as his other works, but in the end it’s a long tough slog to nowhere special, though it might work as a setup for a sequel, with the daughter, a few years older, facing the challenges of this new world.

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