A screenwriter living in the Hollywood Hills gets advance warning of a coming disaster, a nanopathogen that renders oil supplies useless. Thinking itself a little mad, he nevertheless stocks up on supplies such as canned food and water. Pretty soon there are gas shortages, and it is clear that society is slowly unraveling while the government is hiding the truth. Things get worse and the small hill community where our hero lives buttons up, barricading the access road to prevent refugees from coming in. Then a massive Earthquake brought on by the destruction of the Los Angeles oil fields hits. Fire, flood and anarchy ensue.
Unlike many post-apocalyptic stories, this one isn’t about a superbly prepared person or group. Our hero is simply a normal person, and he does make mistakes. Varley’s skill at bringing characters to life really shines in this book. The struggle is personal, and those with real power are far away, unknowable, and untrustworthy. The big moral of the story is of course how very dependent the world is on oil. What would happen if all the oil reserves in the world vanished within the space of a few weeks? Society would break down very quickly, especially in big cities dependent on cars like Los Angeles.
The premise behind this book is, ahem, simple. Fifty thousand years from now, humanity is dying off as the result of plagues, toxic chemicals and radiation. However, time travel has been discovered and the “Gate Project” is kidnapping people who were going to die anyway in the past. For example passengers from the Titanic, victims of air crashes and so forth. These abductees, who are far more healthy than their short lived and sickly descendants, are put in storage for a future repopulation of the Earth. The story initially revolves around an impending mid-air collision between a 747 and a DC-10 over California. The two protagonists tell their stories in first person format more or less alternately. Bill Smith is the head of the crash investigation in the 20th century, and Louise Baltimore is the head of the “Snatch Team” from the Gate Project in the future.
So far so good. The characters are, as is typical for Varley, deeply flawed and authentic. The story is laid out as logically as possible, although the mechanics of time travel make this tricky. Once Varley has established the premise, the plot is about a developing temporal paradox that threatens the already bleak future with complete annihilation.
The first four fifths of the novel are quite enjoyable. It is clearly laid out where it could easily have been confusing and Varley skillfully ensures that the doomed humanity theme carries over into the characters and the story. The references to old fashioned computers don’t distract since Varley is always about the people, not the technology. The ending did annoy me a bit, since I dislike deus ex machina. But I must admit Varley pulled it off very well, especially by inserting a quite literal meaning in the whole thing.
This novel starts off rather slowly and without fanfare, with our hero moving to Edinburgh to work on a moon rock. This moon rock is taken out of the lab and lost. It slowly starts to devour the landscape. Weird premise, but Baxter does it well. It’s all about how the humans of today would cope with the Earth literally disappearing under them.
I very much enjoyed how the novel starts small and events snowball into a massive cataclysm by the end. Well worth a look.