Sunday, June 26, 2005

"Ill Wind"

Authors: Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason
Apocalypse Type: Economic collapse
Rating: **1/2 (of 5)


This is a plague novel, but not your typical one. There's no mad scientist-produced virus that wipes out 99% of humanity as in The Stand or Earth Abides. Instead a bacteria called Prometheus attacks the underpinnings of our economy directly, by consuming oil and many oil-based products.

Most of us don't realize just how many oil-based products we rely on in everday life, and this book's ever-expanding list of affected products is just a drop in the ocean. Just looking around me now, I see a lot: the computer I'm writing on, maybe the desk that supports it, the CDs I'm hearing, the phone, file crates, maybe the chair I'm in, my glasses lenses, the window moulding, the vacuum cleaner, various wiring, the potato chip bag, the window blinds, maybe the wallpaper, the paint & varnishes, the cat box & dishes, the broom...

And that's just the things I can see at the moment, never mind the dozens of things around me that aren't oil-based themselves, but required oil in some stage of their creation or shipment: my notebooks and books, beer glass, wooden furniture, metal file cabinets, etc. (For a longer but still incomplete list, see this site.)

Since I could probably list almost everything I own in one of these two groups, if this happened, I'd have to change lifestyles VERY fast. No more blog, no more freelance journalism, no more Echo & the Bunnymen, no more electric doo-dads, and some very blurry vision. I could probably salvage the beer, but I'd have to make it myself, and since I've never done that, it would be some pretty bad swill at first, I imagine...

Of course, causing such an economic meltdown wasn't the intent of Prometheus... or was it? As a desperate solution to an oil spill worse than Exxon Valdez, in a much more public locale (San Francisco Bay), Prometheus is sprayed on the water to eat the oil slick. It works. Too well.

That's entirely plausible, since we have developed bacteria that break down pollution -- the still controversial process is called bioremediation. In fact, most of the book's science is plausible, including the efforts of some survivors to restore an experimental solar station in NM that receives power beamed down by satellite daily. We have some of the technology to do that.

The book's portrayal of martial law being imposed in cities (with some revolting against it) to control urban chaos is also quite probable, although the authors generally skirt the issue of what that chaos would actually look like. The fact that such martial law might breed a "Napoleon of the Apocalypse" like General Bayclock, who brutalizes Albuquerque in the name of restoring order, is also possible. Although they mention that characters expect urban fires and looting, etc, none of the characters actually experience such things except to portray Bayclock's viciousness; in most cases, the characters escape the cities all too easily.

Also realistic: a government in Washington that thinks it has control but in fact does not. Violent local attacks on people the attackers blame for the crisis (in this case, the oil company). Brief mentions of overseas hostility to US representatives (including the stranded president) as the oil plague spreads around the world. Disparate communities forming to survive semi-independently, some of them very agrarian, some seeking to restore what tech they can.

One thing these communities have that seems a little questionable is the "Atlantis Network," a network of shortwave radio communications. Don't such radios use petroleum-based components (at least, if they're not decades old) and need electricity? The latter could be created in several ways that don't require oil; the former might be harder to come by. It could happen, but I doubt it would spring up so quickly.

Also questionable is the fact that two Navy pilots are flying across AZ when Prometheus consumes their fuel and their planes explode upon crashing. Common sense says that fighter jets flying across the US wouldn't be armed, and without those weapons, how do you explode without fuel?!?

Unfortunately, once we get beyond the science, there are some problems. Many of the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes or have no character at all, with repetition of their full name, title or a slogan replacing any real development. The Mayor of Albuquerque is the most obvious example: despite the fact that he must've had enough personality and leadership skills to get elected, he's totally spineless, with only the repetition of his title giving him any legitimacy at all. Gen. Bayclock is the other extreme: a caricature of what "liberals" see in military figures, a very unsympathetic bastard who hates scientists and other "weenies," a catagory that includes anyone who tries to question him. (Was he modeled on Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe?!?) Sgt. Morris is a stereotype of military women, lacking any semblance of femininity or even intelligent thought, and most of the other military people are just there.

Todd Severyn, one of the heroes, is a semi-steretyped cowboy/oilman; the authors mention that he regrets his role in spraying Prometheus, but we don't actually see it in his behavior. He escapes to an old hippie commune/farm, but is repeatedly portrayed as criticizing them as "weird" or "loony" despite the fact that they are farming and he spends a lot of time riding around rather than helping. (The whole commune's protrayl is itself conflicted: the authors note it has been surviving off the land for years, yet the group spends a lot of energy trying to pull together the "last big rock concert," so we learn nothing about how they farm.) In fact, there's little or no psychological exploration of the characters at all, except, to some degree, with the tanker's captain -- he at least is protrayed as having changed from a voluble guy to a taciturn one and trying to hide his identity due to guilt/responsibility for the oil spill, which he didn't actually cause.

It would've been a lot better if the authors kept us guessing who he was until he re-encountered the spill's cause, Connor Brooks, who is portrayed as having absolutely no redeeming qualities and no sense of responsibility. By the second time he was mentioned, I hated him, far more than Bayclock, who at least had a warped sense of duty motivating him. There are such people, but even sociopaths aren't usually quite so obviously self-centered assholes as this guy is.

Come on. Having minor characters be one-dimensional is expected in a book, and I understand that getting too psychological can slow down the flow of the story. But having almost everyone be a caricature of a real person becomes trying.

So, too, is the ultimate plotline: barbarian with real military training gets defeated by civilized (mostly) civilian heroes who travel all over the place and somehow manage to avoid starving, or, in this case, dehydrating to death. (They do, after all, cross the deserts of the Southwest....) There are way too many of those plots in apocalyptic lit; see for example, The Stand, Swan Song, or Wrath of God, to name a few. I'd much rather see an exploration of what it might take to survive such a crisis, the variety of communities that develop, and how people adapt to the changes.

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10/31/2005 12:31 PM  
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