Book Review: Slow Apocalypse

I’ve read most of the novels John Varley has written, so when I saw Slow Apocalypse, I wanted to read it. If you’re a fan of Varley, this may not be the book for you. It is very unlike his other books at a macro level, though there are some familiar threads (Red Lightning deals with the after effects of a disaster).

When I read the synopsis on Amazon, it seemed to be the setup for a Tom Clancy like thrilled. This is not a book like that. It is much more similar to a disaster story, like you might see in a movie, but as the title implies, the story unfolds much more slowly. I think the book takes a very literal and methodical approach to describing what would happen in the hours, days, and months after devastating catastrophes.

The book is full of misdirections for the characters, which can prove annoying for the reader. The characters will say “We are going from point A to point B,” but then there’s some other situation, that takes them from point A to C or D or E, and B is abandoned.

As I read the book, the comparison that comes closest for me is Albert Camus’ The Plague, and reading the book with that in mind, I was able to peel back a layer of the book that made it much more enjoyable for me, because if the story in Slow Apocalypse was only what is there superficially, I would have hated it.

Both Slow Apocalypse and The Plague address the human condition and the effects of catastrophe on the populace of a city. Both authors seem to take a viewpoint that we have no real control over what happens in life, but how we react to this idea of the Absurdity of life gives us meaning.

Unfortunately, Slow Apocalypse does not seem to have as much depth as The Plague, which was full of metaphor, symbolism and double meaning. I just didn’t see much of that in Slow Apocalypse, though maybe on a second reading with a deconstructionist critique in mind, I could extract some additional resonance.

Ultimately, where Slow Apocalypse succeeds is from it’s ability for the reader to ponder his reaction to the Absurd in the same situation. Could you kill someone who was threatening your community? Would you share food with someone when your resources are scarce? Would you strike out on your own or with others, and would you wait for a loved one?

But if I were to recommend a book to you, I’d recommend The Plague over this one.

I’ll leave you with quotes from The Plague that also could apply to Slow Apocalypse:

  • “You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins.
  • “I can’t say I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbor hasn’t one?”
  • “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
  • “The public lacked, in short, standards of comparison. It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored, that public opinion became alive to the truth.”
  • “Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come.”
  • “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.”
  • “No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite.”

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