Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Raising the post-apocalyptic bar

kw: book reviews, science fiction, future fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction

If Slow Apocalypse by John Varley were shorter and more technically focused, I suppose it would be called high concept. Certainly the scene setting is simple enough to state, and the author does so in very few pages. In short, a microbe is developed that rapidly converts all the petroleum in an oilfield into something like coal or asphalt, releasing most of the hydrogen in the hydrocarbons, causing enormous explosions and fires. The microbe, engineered to be mobile only in liquids, mutates such that a variety can survive being blown about from oil field to oil field. It doesn't take long—a few months—for all the world's petroleum to be solidified.

This is the starting point. The story Varley tells is the more human story of what people do about it. A Hollywood screenwriter named Dave Marshall gets advance warning during an interview. The following day, not knowing what to believe, he is shown evidence that convinces him. He makes preparations for his family. But there is only so much a fellow can do, living in the Hollywood Hills. He lays in food, water, guns and ammo, and as much gasoline in as many cans as he can buy (the microbe doesn't affect refined products, only crude oil. The story would get too complicated if the author allowed the bug to mutate again!).

A little over half the book takes place mostly in the Marshalls' neighborhood north of the intersection of Doheny Drive and Sunset Blvd, and covers a month or two. At one point, the "big one", a 9+ earthquake occurs, triggered by the disturbances in the oil reservoirs deep beneath the Los Angeles basin. Not long after that, a wildfire comes roaring out of the hills above Doheny Drive, and they load up whatever they can carry and abandon their home, joining another family that has invited them to migrate with them out of the LA area. One of the men has converted two large vehicles to burn wood chips. I presume he also knows how to convert the wood chipper they take along to burn wood chips.

The fire burns about half the whole basin to the ground. Ironically, once the ground cools, the burned-out area is the best place to drive. No (living) humans, though it is hard to tell which street goes where, with all the street signs burned up. Their trek as refugees takes up the rest of the book, up to an Epilog. I have to pick a nit: near Anaheim, they pass by the Watts Towers. Last time I was there, the WT were 25 miles northwest of Anaheim, not within sight as the narrative implies.

Varley has given a lot of thought to the way a continent—or a county—can Balkanize after such a thorough disaster. The full range of human good and evil is on display, and at one point the Marshalls and their fellows are attacked by a gang that numbers 15; road-hardened and ready, they kill most of them. This makes them a lot more welcome in the town downhill of the gang's hideout.

The premise is worth thinking about. Take away petroleum, and what will happen? Can the earth support 7 billions when there is no way to make chemical fertilizers, nor a way to transport them, or the food produced? Prior to the 1880s, a large number of farmers and farm workers supported a much smaller work force of blacksmiths, wagoners, carpenters, millers and others. Such an agrarian economy is the natural state of a petroleum-free planet.

Is there a way to have a high-energy economy without petroleum? There isn't enough wood. Coal (and newly coalified petroleum) will only support a medium-energy economy, and conversion would take a long time. Solar and wind energy are just barely efficient enough that you could use solar energy to produce more solar panels, or wind energy to make more windmills, before the originals break down and have to be replaced with what you just made. You get very little surplus energy out of the process. I call a wind turbine a high-tech way to turn hydro-power into aluminum and then back into about the same amount of electric energy you started with. A truck full of aluminum windmill parts goes by, and I say, "There goes another few million KWh!"

John Varley makes you believe things could really happen this way. Amidst a global tragedy, some will triumph, and not just the most greedy. People will get things going again, as long as there are people. You have to gun down the occasional greedy gang to get there, and good people might have nightmares after doing so, but that won't stop them.

The scale of the aftermath is kept out of view; most likely, fewer than one fifth of the world population would remain after the first year. Varley's focus is narrower than this. LA is truly where the greatest problems would arise, a desert kept green by billions of acre-feet of imported water. In a post-petroleum world, no more than a few thousand people could live there. Los Angeles County, New York City (all 5 boroughs), and all the megalopolises would empty; they would have to. A very thought-provoking book, and we can always use more of those.

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