[Warning: Spoilers Present]
I usually spend my short breaks at work reading fiction–about the only times I’ve had for quite some time to read for mere enjoyment. Here are brief reviews of two disaster novels I recently read. I’ve not taken much care to keep things “unspoiled,” so if you want to read these books you might want to read them before you read my reviews.
Empire, by Orson Scott Card
I had been looking forward to Empire from the moment I found out about it. I enjoy Card’s writing a lot, and since in my non-fiction work I’m very interested in the foundations, development, and yes, even the falls, of civilizations, I figured this book would be quite a good read. Billed as “A Disturbing Look at a Possible Future,” Empire revolves around the near-future fracturing of the United States into warring factions, and the battle to restore unity and forge a new destiny for the nation.
The premise is frighteningly sound, as Card himself explains in his introduction. At no time in our history since the Civil War itself, he says, has political rhetoric been so heated. We are today all but at each other’s throats, virtually ready to spill blood over our heated Conservative/Liberal, Red State/Blue State agendas. Nearly everyone believes, in an absolute either/or way, that their views are the best for the country and nearly everyone believes that the other guy’s views are simply stupid nonsense bearing the potential for totally destroying the country. Card believes that it wouldn’t take much to ignite the current rhetoric into the flames of open war.
In Card’s scenario, this occurs via a combination of inside and outside interests. The good guy, Major Ruben “Rube” Malich, thinks he’s working for the Pentagon’s counter-terrorism force when he’s asked to create a workable plan for terrorists to enter Washington, D.C., and kill both the President and the Vice-President. The idea is that by creating this workable plan, the good guys will then be able to develop a workable defense against it. Unfortunately for Rube, real terrorists are given this plan by opportunistic U.S. military forces eager to exploit internal American political division. And of course, there is no counter-terrorist plan in place.
Accordingly, the President and Vice-President get assassinated on the same day, and fear and instability grip the country. Even as the chain-of-command struggles to re-assert itself (hampered by the fact that the next in line for presidential succession is an ineffective moralist whose policies cannot help but galvanize the already bitter internal dissent), the aforementioned military dissidents invade New York as a prelude to breaking off relations with the Federal government and declaring themselves the true and lawful government of the United States.
The story moves at a rapid pace from this point, chronicling the efforts of the heroes, Malich and his partner Captain Coleman, to save the nation’s unity. Thrown into the mix is the towering figure of Averell Torrent, who, as a brilliant, if maverick, political philosopher is eventually tapped to be the National Security Advisor. Interestingly, Torrent has been predicting the collapse of the U.S. for sometime and arguing in his University classes and in books that if America is to survive it must duplicate the feat of ancient Rome and transition out of its Republic phase into an Empire phase.
The Roman Republic, it will be remembered, fell in no small part as a result of several decades of internal strife, the loyalties of the populace divided amongst several strong leaders. Order was only restored when a single powerful individual, Augustus, who had the respect of all the parties, managed to make peace between them and take sole, unparalleled power as Rome’s first Emperor. This, as it turns out, is Torrent’s (hidden) prescription for the U.S., with himself as the Augustus figure.
All in all, plot-wise and author-wise, a recipe for a great novel.
Unfortunately, Card’s usually excellent story-telling and writing were missing from this book. I believe part of the problem is that the premise of the book was created for a video game, and Card was only tapped after the fact to write a novelization of scenarios which the game might explore. The video game was to centrally feature “mechs” (for those not in the know, robotic war machines, usually manned by humans) and a secret base run by a wealthy malcontent with Grand Designs. Great ideas for building a video game, but not so great for building a novel.
Even considering that he was constrained by these devices, I feel that Card made too much of both the mechs and the secret base. Indeed, when the much-hyped “second Civil War” begins, a running battle with the mechs through New York City consumes too much of the reader’s time–as it would consume much of the gamer’s time. One gets the feeling that one is reading a video game, and that one is just supposed to be going “Cool! Awesome! Whoa!” merely at the sight and capabilities of the mechs. The secret base, while possessing a rather ingenious method of hiding in plain sight, comes out of nowhere about 2/3 of the way into the book, and the storming of it by a mere handful of troops loyal to Malich seems somehow hollow–and too easy. Not to mention that the guy whose riches financed the base is not mentioned at all until about 2/3 of the way into the book. It comes across as if he, and his secret base, were just afterthoughts.
Equally disappointing were occasional patches of writing that frankly sounded bizarre. For instance, the death of one character, who gets shot through the eye by a trusted friend, is described something like this (I don’t have it in front of me, so I’m quoting from memory): “First [the character] dropped the boxes. Then he followed them to the floor. The bullet did not exit his head. There was no functioning brain inside.” I read those sentences five or six times and wound up thinking that somebody must have ghostwritten the novel because Card is certainly a much better writer than that! I mean, really, this is the guy who wrote Ender’s Game!
Further disappointment came when, by the novel’s end, the motives for the trusted friend having killed [the character] still remained unexplained. It seemed a pointless death for such a well-constructed hero, and like several other things the whole incident just came out of the blue and quickly gave way to the next set of events. Because the hero’s death was, like the mechs and the secret base, pre-scripted as part of the planned video game, it was like reading a video game. In a video game you don’t have to explain motives or develop situations. You just have to throw stuff out there in rapid succession and challenge the player (reader?) to adapt. This to me made the book poor reading.
The book ends on an ambiguous note, leaving us to wonder whether America will cease to be a Republic and become an Empire. Will Torrent become the American Augustus, or will the forces of republican democracy thwart his nefarious imperial pretensions? Would a mere couple of weeks of fairly localized civil unrest (unlike Rome’s several decades of widespread unrest) be enough to make the masses of American people cry out for a single leader to restore order, at potentially whatever the cost? And could one man truly unite all the disparate factions that even now exist in our country? Will America follow Rome and spread a pax Americana across the world? Will the Empire, once founded, continue sine fine, or will it follow Rome’s pattern of decline?
Perhaps Card wants us to go away and think about these things, so he didn’t provide any answers. I just wish the book had had more substance so that I could go away and seriously think about it some more. The observations about our current political climate are indeed disturbing and the questions they raise are good ones. The first few chapters where Malich is in graduate school and interacting with Torrent about complex issues of political philosophy are worth reading, but after the assassinations the story simply fails to explore them adequately and in a way that lives up to Card’s talent as a writer.
Nevertheless, I do have to admit that for all my disappointment with the novel overall, it was pretty neat that the secret base was located only about 100 miles from where I live in Idaho, and that the good guys’ route to get there took them through several towns near my own. For all my disappointment with the book I am to some degree a product of the video game generation, so I have to admit that the prospect of secret bases and mechs in rural Idaho makes me want to go “Cool! Awesome! Whoa!”
Ill Wind, by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason
Ill Wind tells the story of the collapse of civilization across most of the world as a result of a terrible ecological disaster. Through a series of events that masterfully chronicle pure human selfishness and stupidity, an oil super-tanker crashes into the Golden Gate bridge, spilling millions of gallons of crude into San Francisco bay in a disaster many times worse than the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. All traditional clean-up methods are thwarted. The disaster galvanizes eco-fanatics, especially against the rear-end-covering politicians and “Big Oil” interests. To make matters worse, the hulk of the tanker sinks in the Bay, guaranteeing that raw crude will continue coming to the surface for years to come.
Enter the savior, Sovereign Science. It just so happens that a scientist working for the oil company that owns the supertanker has been working on a genetically-engineered microbe which likes to eat certain petroleum compounds. Though controversy erupts over the plan to deploy the microbe on the spill, another series of tragically short-sighted human events causes this to be done.
At first all seems to be going well. The spill decreases dramatically within just a few days. The microbes are very hungry, it seems, and are doing their job well. However, it turns out that the scientist who created the bugs had lied about their capabilities. The bugs are not supposed to be able to go airborne, but when cars all over San Francisco begin to quit running, their gas tanks strangely emptied, the main characters realize that the bug has indeed spread beyond the Bay spill. And of course, modern travel being what it is, it has already begun spreading to other states, hopping from gas tank to gas tank not just via air, but by contaminating gas stations. Cars all over the world cease to function. Planes start falling out of the sky. Gasoline feeds this “petroplague,” and nothing can stop the “ill wind.”
But it gets worse. Although the bug itself is a naturally-occurring organism which only eats certain petroleum byproducts, the scientist who tinkered with it gave it abilities far beyond its natural ones. In short order, nearly all petroleum byproducts all over the world begin to break down. Plastics are especially affected, and as the disaster progresses the reader quickly learns just how dependent on plastics of all kinds the Modern world is. Everything from styrofoam cups to medical supplies to music CDs to computer circuit boards begins to “melt” as the microbes ruthlessly eat the petroleum right out of their molecular structures.
Within weeks society is crippled. National governments are reduced to impotency as travel and communications across their territories fall apart. Anarchy reigns in big cities full of starving people in a world that has become, to borrow a phrase from Darwin, “red in tooth and claw.” In the U.S., the last orders successfully sent out by the President (a man the authors take great pains to show as a despicable, selfish, corrupt cretin totally unfit for the job) are that military commanders in local areas are to establish martial law and keep some semblance of society alive.
The story tracks several groups through the catastrophe, including several scientists, the technician who sprayed the microbe on the spill in the first place, the captain of the wrecked ship, a small-minded military commander who tries to rule his little corner of America with an iron fist, and the unbelievably irresponsible, mind-numbingly stupid individual who caused the oil tanker wreck in the first place. Some of their sub-stories are interesting, others quite pointless. The main two threads seem to be the ones concerning the despotic military commander and a physicist who is trying to use an already-existing solar satellite network to restore electrical power to his area of the country.
All in all, the authors do a pretty good job of describing a massive social collapse due to an uncontrollable ecological disaster. The main complaint I have with the plot is that the motives of the scientist who created the nasty little bug are never openly explained. The reader is left to infer that because his wife and daughter were killed when a gasoline truck slammed into their car and because his son was killed fighting in the Middle East that the scientist just simply hates a world dependent on oil and so he creates a super-bug to destroy that world. It’s annoying that when the world finally realizes what has happened and one of the main characters goes to find the scientist, the scientist has killed himself in the ultimate act of irresponsibility.
The other complaint I have with the book is that there are two places where the reader simply has to skip past several pages to avoid graphic sex scenes. These scenes are completely gratuitous, giving no insight into the characters at all (which at least might make some sense in including them). It came across to me as if the authors, or perhaps their publisher and his marketing concerns, just abruptly decided “Let’s see if we can hook more people with explicit verbal pornography.” There was just no reason to spend those pages that way. The “scumbag” nature of the particular characters involved was quite well portrayed in other things they did, so the fact that the authors felt it necessary to dump simple trash into an otherwise fairly well-written book was very disappointing to me.
One thing I did like about the book is that Sovereign Science does not, at the last, save the world. The world doesn’t exactly explode or anything, but neither is it saved by mere technical ingenuity. One last point that intrigued me was that of all the things the authors could have chosen to demonstrate the human impulse to create and preserve culture, especially in a time of terrible collapse, the thing they chose to use was a group of people who create a deep sense of community amongst an isolated enclave of battered survivors by holding a rock-n-roll concert with jury-rigged instruments. You’d think the more traditional notion of saving libraries would have sufficed, and it makes you wonder what kind of culture will be rebuilt from the ashes of the Ill Wind when the main cultural product is the Grateful Dead performed by people who get all teary-eyed with nostalgia because their CD collections and players dissolved.
I have read better disaster novels than Empire and Ill Wind. My favorites are still Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (reviewed here) and Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road (which I have not yet reviewed, but should someday).