It’s the End of the World as we Know It

One of my favorite sub-genres of sf has always been dystopian fiction. If you’re not familiar with it, think 1984 by George Orwell. That novel presents a bleak future where a totalitarian government micromanages every aspect of peoples’ lives. Having a totalitarian regime of one sort or another seems to be one of the most common elements of dystopian future. Another one is some sort of post-apocalyptic setting where the Earth has become a disaster of one sort or another

 I wish I could find the book now, but I read one back in the 80s—or tried to read one—in which global warming, called the greenhouse effect in those days, had run wild and people were forced to stay indoors most of the time. In order to go outside, you had to put on what was almost a space suit. Acid rain was a constant problem, the temperatures were unbearably hot, and the air was toxic.

I say I tried  to read it because whoever wrote it had done his research. It was a bit like War Day by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka in that respect. But where War Day addressed a limited nuclear exchange, this book was about our climate gone crazy. What was scary about it was the afterword where he told of the things he’d researched that pointed to this as a very possible future. There were actually several aspects of it that were based on things happening in our world, but the one that stuck out to me was the Soviet Union’s rerouting of one of their major rivers (don’t ask me which one. There’s so little about this book that I remember), which the author said would change the way the jet stream flowed and have a major detrimental effect on the weather.

Things like that made this book scary because they were rooted in fact. It’s the only book I’ve ever put down because I just couldn’t stand to finish it. The future it predicted was simply too frightening to contemplate any more. Now, I wish I had the book again, if only to try and read it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember either the title or the author. I even visited a site called Empty World, if I remember correctly, which is a database of post-apocalyptic/dystopian sf novels and movies. I couldn’t find anything that resembled the book and emailed the guy who runs the site, describing the book for him. He didn’t know what it was, either, and since I don’t know title or author, I have no idea how to go about finding it, even in this modern Information Age.

I bring all this up because I listened to a story on the radio about the opening of the movie version of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Its popularity has evidently sparked a dystopian craze among YA novelists to such an extent that, for now at least, it’s replaced the vampire/vampire romance. One pundit said he didn’t believe it would have the long run the vampire genre did (or still does. The latest craze, which I fully support, has been trashing the Twilight setting) because it’s just too bleak. Even the man who bought The Hunger Games said he can’t see it going on forever because, when you finish one of these novels, you want to read something uplifting. Understandable. These books are all bleak and somewhat depressing.

I’ve read The Hunger Games, though I have yet to read the entire trilogy. It’s been so long since I read the first one that I’d probably have to re-read it by now to get the other two.

One series that sparked my interest is written by Patrick Ness. I can’t remember the exact subject matter, but one person in the news article I heard said if you think The Hunger Games is violent you should read this guy’s books. As a crime writer, I’m all about violence, so I may look these books up next time I’m at the library. I’ve been itching to read something sf for a while now, anyway. Just can’t make up my mind what I want to read. A quality space opera would probably work good for me, but this sounds tasty, too.

I did read a post-apocalyptic style novel last week called Supervolcano: Eruption by Harry Turtledove. Mr. Turtledove is known mostly for his alternate history novels, of which I believe he’s considered the master. He has a long series that starts with the Civil War in which someone manages to get some AK-47s to the Confederacy and they fight the North to a standstill. This alternate history progresses up through at least World War II, in which Hitler, Roosevelt and Stalin have to band together to face an alien invasion. Maybe for folks who don’t read sf on a regular basis, these things sound a bit outlandish (and I supposed they are), but his books have been incredibly popular, and he does a ton of research to get the historical details right, as I understand it.

Still, for all that, I have to say that I wasn’t very impressed with Supervolcano: Eruption. The writing itself is good enough. The characters are all smartasses, which got a little old, even if all of us are smartasses in real life. He just seemed to overdo it a little, in my opinion. Essentially, the story revolves around the eruption of the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park, and since I recently watched a Discovery movie about just that, I decided to read the book. The bottom line on the supervolcano itself is this: it might erupt tomorrow. It might wait thousands of years. It’s had a more or less regular interval of eruptions, the worst of which was a couple million years ago and caused a major extinction event. It’s also blamed for at least one of the Ice Ages, a recent one in which our ancestors almost died off.

All this was interesting, because one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about sf is that I invariably learn something from the best of the genre. Some of it I can’t even grasp (see Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg novels if you want to read about the higher math involved in the field of astrophysics) and can still enjoy the story itself. I learned some interesting things about the supervolcano in this book, but the story itself was a bit unsatisfying. The worst, for me, was that there was no real resolution. It was hinted that the world was beginning a long, painful recovery, but the major characters were left scattered around the nation (they were all members of the main character’s family in one way or another) with no hint that they might make it back home to California. Mr. Turtledove began several interesting storylines in the novel and then just seemed to lose interest in them.

On the other hand, I just finished a book called The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen. He has a couple other books out I might try, but this is his newest. It combines time travel and dystopian fiction. The main character, Zed, is a Protector. He’s been sent back from the future to protect what’s called the Perfect Present, a future where the world’s problems have all been solved. There’s no hunger or war, none of the problems we put up with in our time. Zed protects this future from hags—historic agitators—who are rebelling against this Perfect Present by trying to alter the past and prevent it from coming about.

Zed has to carry out his duties even if it means hundreds or even thousands of people might die. This includes an event known as The Great Conflagration. The hags tend to want to change some of these Events—that’s how they’re known—while the Protectors make sure history stays on course.

Needless to say, he eventually discovers that the Perfect Present isn’t as perfect as he’s been led to believe and he has to make a choice. The book includes intrigue with the inclusion of a disgraced CIA agent named Leo, an up-and-coming lawyer named Tasha, a repressed Indonesian illegal immigrant named Sari, as well as a cast of spies and various agents from different alphabet agencies.

The action all takes place in Washington, DC, and I won’t give too much of it away. It’s a deep novel, telling stories on several levels. The characters’ lives all intersect in different ways, though some never meet others, or, if they do, it’s late in the novel. Probably the main problem I seemed to have with it was, despite Mr. Mullen writing Zed’s storyline in first-person, present tense and everyone else’s in third-person, past tense, Zed and Leo’s stories had so many similarities (a big theme in this novel) that I sometimes confused the two. But that just may be me. Maybe most other people will be able to keep them separate.

I’m glad to see this kind of thing gaining in popularity. Maybe it’ll mean I can find books to read in this genre. I always wanted to write one, but every attempt I made left me unsatisfied and they died long before they could come close to completion. That’s life, I guess. It seems to me that crime is to be my genre. I’ve damn near pumped out more novels in the past year, year-and-a-half than I have in the rest of my life before that, and the ideas just keep coming at me. I’m halfway through a new Rural Empires novel involving Lyle, the revision of the first one is essentially done, and I have an idea for a fourth in the series. I’d planned to explore the Higgins and Ledbetter families with stand-alone novels about them, but so far it looks like you’ll see them through Lyle’s eyes.

But who knows?

Anyway, go out and get The Revisionists if you like this kind of thing, and you might even give Supervolcano: Eruption a try. Maybe you’ll like the story better than I did.




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