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Slow Apocalypse

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This was a difficult book to read...and to review. I'm not talking about difficult as in poorly written, with a weak plot or insufficient character development. Quite the contrary. No, the difficutly lies strictly with the content of the book itself. There is very little optimism here. Mostly it's bleak and forboding, with some horrific events happening to characters easy to identify with. The difficulty in reviewing it is simply not to spoil anything but still give you a sense of why you should check it out.

There have been many post-apocalyptic books and stories over the years. Some deal with the aftermath of nuclear war, or a biological plague, or some other cataclysmic event. I won't say Varley's tale is that original or unique, but it does come at this sub-genre from a different perspective. The opening chapters are actually pre-apocalyptic, but other than an epilogue, the majority of the novel is (not sure what the prefix would be) during the apocalypse. I'm not going to give a synopsis here. You can find a few mentions of it on private blogs and the publisher's site, as well as at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. As far as I've been able to determine there has not been a major review yet, or if so I'm not sure why it isn't showing up on Google. That will likely change soon considering there has to be others like me who consider Varley one of the best writers working today. This is certainly more serious than his last few books, actually the most serious ever, and while it is speculative fiction, it is not science fiction except for one particular. Again, I won't spoil that factor.

The setting is southern California, particularly the residential area of West Hollywood, where the main protagonist lives. Dave Marshall is a television/movie writer, currently unemployed, but always writing and looking for that next big idea. He gets one bigger than he could have ever imagined when he starts a series of interviews with a retired Marine general who had been a consultant on a previous film on which Dave had worked. The general is mysteriously killed by a black-ops team, leading Dave to conclude the information he was told was the frightening truth. This impels him to begin planning for the coming fallout from that event, and while keeping most things secret from his family in the beginning, he does turn to former colleagues to inform them of his suspicions. One of them takes him seriously and begins preparations himself, taking even further steps than Dave had considered.

It is written primarily in third person, but everything is from Dave's perspective, so just as compelling and immediate as if it was first person. The epilogue is in first person, as Dave recounts things approximately a year later, and explaining that his use of third person for the majority of the narrative was to get a bit of distance from the events and think of it as fiction, or at least events that happened to someone else instead of himself. Varley was born in Texas and currently lives in Oregon, and I'm not sure if he has ever lived in the Los Angeles area. I have, plus I have (or had) relatives and friends there and have visited quite a few times. It was easy for me to visualize the scenario because of that familiarity with the locale and terrain. He did make at least one mistake in identifying a particular place in South Central L.A., but I'll chalk that up to a typo instead of a research error.

The "slow" in the title refers to the fact that, even though there is one specific event that triggers everything else, the collapse does not occur all at once, and Dave is one of the very few people that understands not only what happened, but why, and what to anticipate next. It could also refer to the life of the survivors post-apocalypse, as they adjust to the new order of things. As in most any other story of this nature, there are several different reactions to the events by different individuals. When things are bad there are some who react badly, thinking only of themselves and to hell with everyone else. Dave feels he has acted wisely, and in most instances morally. He protects his family and friends, is considerate and generous to others when he could have done otherwise, and yet he is also forced into certain acts that disgust him. As in war, there are times that people will do things they never thought they were capable of. But if "kill or be killed" is a moral stance, then Dave's actions are moral.

There were a couple of times I became discouraged with the bleakness of it all. As gripping as it is, this isn't Varley's best work, and it is both not the kind of story I'm used to from him nor the book I wanted to be reading (will "Irontown Blues" ever be finished?). I anticipated even worse things were going to happen to Dave and his family, but the ending is more upbeat than I had any reason to expect. However, Dave paints a rosier picture than the reality of such a situation would probably merit. There may be a sequel one of these days, and if so I will read it. Varley's that good, no matter what he is writing about. He relates the events in a very compelling and realistic way. The narrative flows in a logical pattern, and the pace is at times exhilirating while also tragic and frightening. I kept reading because I had to know the characters' fate, even if I didn't like what that might be. It's a totally fantastic scenario, one we all should hope never occurs, but in the midst of the fiction it also relates to a lot of current situations in the world, politically, economically and socially. In a blog on his site he mentions he (along with his agent and publisher) wanted to try something different, more mainstream and accessible to readers not already familiar with his work. I'm not sure this is the book that will get him that recognition, but we can always hope.

Related Links:
Varley's Official Webpage
My profile article on Varley's career


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