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WesternSFA
Slow Apocalypse
by John Varley
Ace Books, $25.95, 438pp
Release Date: September 4, 2012
This is a grim, grim tale. As dark a world’s end tale as I’ve ever read, including Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

Dave Marshall, a comedy writer in L.A. is looking for material good enough to turn into a TV series or feature film…something. He’s hit a dry spell and reaching out to nail something down.

He comes across a Colonel Warner at a local Hollywood bar who tells him of a terrible conspiracy to cover up a chemical development involving a bacterium that will turn oil fields into puddles of useless sludge. This would be for obvious use against oil-producing nations to make them toe the line. It doesn’t affect refined products just the oil in the ground.

When tested it goes hideously wrong of course. Instead being contained in a Saudi oil field the bacterium has mutated into something airborne and this sludge-producing beastie gets into ALL the world’s oil reserves with horrible results. The Colonel shows him, on a very top secret government satellite feed, all these oil fields across the world burning.

But Varley focuses on Los Angeles .

Marshall believes the story—especially when he goes back to see the Colonel the next day on a follow up just in time to see commandos in unrelieved black storm his building. Dave gets to watch as Warner flies out the window of his eleventh floor condo and kiss the sidewalk.

Dave realizes the end has definitely come and things are going to hit the fan in a very bad way.

So he prepares. He cleans out his bank accounts, he raids army surplus stores for survival gear; he buys Costco –loads of basic foods stuffs. He eventually even gets his daughter’s horse and brings it up into the Hollywood Hills where he lives. His wife---a shopaholic on the Rodeo Drive level, spends days in denial in bed until he wins her over. Karen and Dave Marshall’s recent married life has been distant at best. But they both love their young teen-aged daughter Addison.

Dave gets his “posse” together. These are his writing buddies who put together a popular TV series that allowed him to move into the hills off Doheny Drive .

He tells them the story and some of the writers believe him and some of them don’t.

Dave continues to stock pile supplies. And a lot of guns.

The gasoline crisis finally trickles into LA and Dave begins to hoard gas too.

Varley builds the slow corrosion of the LA life style wonderfully. At first it’s just gas rationing and then it gets really severe (at least for Angelenos) - no school buses, no getting on the freeway at all unless your car is full, etc.

And then the oil fields in Los Angeles are hit by the bug and explode into ghastly life—spewing tarry sludge and burning oil everywhere. The Westside of LA goes up in flames.

A week later, because the sludge has destabilized the numerous earthquake faults L.A. is riddled with—the city is hit by a 9.5 to 9.8 earthquake which pretty much brings down most freeway bridges, destroys high rises, breaks water mains and sets fire to more of LA.

L.A. is flat out hell for all intents and purposes. And those that have survived want to leave.

Dave, up in his neighborhood off Mockingbird Lane, barricades his partially damaged house but he does band together with his neighbors—what’s left of them--to protect what’s left. They keep the roving bands of people with nothing to lose (because they have lost it all) from taking their supplies.

But wait that’s not all! Varley’s not done trashing L.A. ! The Santa Ana winds kick up—and the fires already burning spread to the hills among other areas.

It’s time for Dave and his family to leave.

He joins up with a writing buddy who lives in even a tonier hillside neighborhood called Holmby Hills further west from Dave’s home and they decide to caravan out. He wants to make for Oregon , but reconnaissance by his friend’s son Teddy by bike tells him landslides have all but shut down PCH and the I-5 going north. They can’t even get out of the San Fernando Valley .

So reluctantly they head south towards San Diego .

This novel made my stomach hurt! I lived my first 43 years in Los Angeles so I know the areas he speaks off.

His excruciatingly exact details of destroyed Westside neighborhoods, the death, the fires and earthquake are harrowing and horrifying.

How Dave, his family and friends try to keep their humanity in the face of overwhelming misery---God—it was devastating.

And I couldn’t put the book down.

If you hate L.A. you’d probably enjoy the destruction of Tinseltown and environs.

But for me this was a very vivid horror story. I have gone through four major earthquakes in L.A. and the 1994 Northridge quake (I lived in the San Fernando Valley at the time) finally made me move out of state. So it is not hard at all for me to picture the horrendous destruction.

But of course it’s the characters struggle to get through the city, to drive all over real hell and gone to avoid bad roads. The scenes of neighborhoods gone feral: the dead, the dying, and the starving. OMG.

Is there a happy ending?

I was beginning to think there was no way to go but further down with this tale.

But things resolve in a satisfying manner.

At least for the time being….

Varley’s novel is well, duhhh, a cautionary tale. We are too reliant on gas and oil (He comments we have plenty reserves of coal and can’t imagine there isn’t some way to deal with coal smoke now). It’s a tale about coming together as communities did over a hundred years ago. No electricity—things pretty much shutdown after sunset. No TV, computers, cell phones, there’s some short wave radio and regular radio…but most of the electronics we rely on are gone. But he does posit tha,t believe it or not, one of the Southern California nuclear plants—San Onofre--did not get destroyed by the quake—it shut down like it was supposed to—so areas serviced by San Onofre actually have intermittent electricity.

But you have to go back to farming by hand or using a horse and plow. He has some clever ways of dealing with getting trains on track again by using some of the old trains in museums throughout the state and beyond. He focuses on Traveltown in Griffith Park in L.A. which had several old coal and wood burning engines that are pressed back into service. Even with making cars wood-burning.

Varley mentions the caravan being about a mile north of Disneyland and then about three paragraphs down he discusses them stopping to take in the Watts Towers which have mostly survived the holocaust. The Watts Towers are in L.A and Disneyland, of course, is in Orange County a good 45 miles away. He completely flopped the direction he had his characters headed in. Of course, this could be an editor’s boo-boo.

But this boo-boo unfortunately got me thinking about other things a holocaust of this size would have created. I know an author can’t mention everything that would go wrong in a tremendously huge disaster like this: but still I couldn’t help but wonder…

There’s only a brief mention of a tsunami and I would think this quake would have created a monster. He mentions nuclear aircraft carriers carting refugees further north. The ocean must have been full of debris. And after the 1994 quake a lot of people got sick from airborne dust that had sat undisturbed on buildings for decades (I know this kind of illness wouldn’t show up right away). But I would think the air quality would have been way worse than Varley describes. He blames most of it on the fires with only a brief albeit graphic mention about airborne chemicals in a scene at the Coliseum. Even with the wind. Think of all the chemicals from burned plastic and insulation and from factories all over the place plus all that oil field crap. A 9 plus quake would have thrown a LOT of dust in the air from destroyed buildings and even the hills since he talks about how hot and dry it is during all this. None of it really has time to settle because things are so unstable with aftershocks and the wind. And though he mentions Dave taking the subway in Los Angeles at the beginning of the novel he doesn’t mention if its collapse also ruined routes through town, like beneath the Hollywood Freeway into the San Fernando Valley . Or along Wilshire Blvd. I have a hard time imagining the subway didn’t collapse on the Westside of town especially as it is closer to the oil fields as well.

Okay enough from me.

What’s important here is Varley, as always, is a superb writer with a real gift for description and a talent for characterization.

But, I am warning you; you have to like grim tales… ~~ Sue Martin

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