Monday, October 24, 2016

Crude Disasters

Review: Slow Apocalypse by John Varley


Varley's Hollywood-mega-disaster novel begins, appropriately, with a Hollywood screenwriter looking for a good storyline to fuel his comeback. Dave Marshall and his crew of writers had been responsible for a sit-com called Ants, which lasted just long enough to give the Marshall family a taste for the luxurious life in the Hollywood Hills.  

When he learns of an impending disaster (a bacteria spreading through the world distills the explosive fractions from crude oil deposits underground, making it both explosive and unpumpable), Marshall warns his Ants posse and his daughter, but conceals his expensive survival-prep from his wife.

That in itself could trigger a disaster, but the reality of the crisis intervenes in the family drama when LA's Doheny oil field (sometimes called the Beverley Hills Oil Field) explodes. This is followed by widespread, catastrophic fires. Gasoline rationing. Earthquakes. Gang violence. And the hits just keep coming...

My spouse usually loves John Varley, but has an engineer's distaste for continually-pyramiding disaster, so I was reluctant to offer Slow Apocalypse. We had divided reactions just over a year before to The Martian—you can see my opinion in my review The Needs of the One. My spouse, on the other hand, put the novel down about halfway through, saying, "Too many problems. Every time Mark Watney solved one, another cropped up." 

There is a similar compounding of complications in Varley's novel—so much so that I had trouble staying absorbed in the story; I began watching for the next calamity whenever the Marshall family seemed to be about to escape the current one. On the other hand, the characters have a sincere reality that carries the tale. There are no supermen here, and most of the folks Marshall meets as he tries to get his friends and family to safety are true-to-life, neither all evil nor shining pure.

I was encouraged by Varley's resisting the impulse to give in to the pull of political consiracy. There are suggestions of it, but nothing that could not equally be explained as spin or stupidity. In the isolating havoc of the post-apocalypse bubble around the Marshall group, it becomes increasingly obvious that "all politics is local."

The undercurrent of meaning (material wealth is ashes in the wind, but love and friendship prevails despite disaster) is lightly maintained, sometimes overwhelmed by the narrative of collapse and social cataclysm. Yet the message persists. 

Cling to what is real, Varley tells us. Survival and happiness both lie there.

Liner Notes


  • Many readers were surprised by the fact of the oil-fields under the LA Basin. With a little more connection to these reserves and awareness of their extent, I kept waiting for the off-shore deposits to contribute to the catastrophes in the story, or perhaps for the Port of LA or Long Beach/Signal Hill to erupt in the same way the Doheny field had. 
  • California Department of Conservation's interactive map of active oil wells—over 3,000 of them in the LA Basin—bears a suspicious similarity to an earthquake-fault map of the same area. The resemblance is superficial. I hope.