Novel: Slow Apocalypse by John Varley

If you ever want to become intensely cognizant of humanity’s impact on the environment, spend a week in Los Angeles, where it’s almost impossible not to notice the awkward clash of nature and civilization. It’s a city uniquely positioned to send a strong environmental message, which is probably why John Varley chose it as the backdrop for his bleak, harrowing disaster novel Slow Apocalypse (2012), an engaging if perhaps overblown thought experiment that keeps the pages turning.

Dave Marshall is a once-successful TV writer who is on his way down, struggling to maintain his expensive lifestyle in the hills north of Hollywood. In order to develop a movie script, Dave has been meeting with a retired general – now serving as a military consultant for the entertainment industry – in order to get ideas. One day the general drunkenly relays a fantastic story about a plot to sabotage the world’s oil resources, that, if true and carried out, would have catastrophic global ramifications. Dave thinks it’s a great, wild story, but doesn’t find it plausible until he sees, with his own eyes, the general killed by government agents trying to cover it up. Thus forewarned, Dave — wondering all the while if he’s gone crazy with paranoia — maxes out his credit cards preparing for what it essentially an instantaneous, doomsday peak oil event that will transform the world forever. In so doing, he manages to position his family to hopefully survive the ordeal, which ends up being far worse than he ever imagined.

Slow Apocalypse is no literary masterpiece, and it’s not even that original. Picture Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle played straight, substitute petroleum for water, add an Irwin Allen vibe, and you’ve got the picture. Its situations are familiar, its relentless escalating disasters formulaic, its insights generic. Yes, times of crisis bring out the worst in some people and the best in others. Yes, once we’re stripped of our crass commercialism and mindless escapist entertainments, we’ll see what’s really important in life. And yes, when our easy and convenient society breaks down, we stop taking things for granted and see how fortunate, how lazy, and how wasteful we were. Nothing surprising going on thematically, here, although the case is stated effectively enough.

All that said, it’s a well executed entertainment that accelerates compellingly from one crisis to the next. I grew to like its characters, especially Dave and his well meaning daughter Addison, very quickly, and found myself rooting for them as they weathered each ordeal. The book’s detailed depiction of Los Angeles is likely to put off non-locals, I expect; it’s practically “freeway porn,” reveling overly in its knowledgeable description of the territory. But in the end that turned into an asset, for me; the character’s shifting appreciation of Los Angeles’ unforgiving geography, once the city is robbed of its car culture, contributes powerfully to the environmental theme.

It’s not a book that will blow you away with its language or its ideas, then, but it’s a brisk, earnest, and highly readable survival drama, inherently thought-provoking and forward-looking. Its worst-case scenario forces the reader to stare starkly into a future we may some day have to confront.

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