Friday, May 4, 2012

Dark Grid: A Review

David C. Waldron's Dark Grid is a solar flare generated apocalypse-in-progress novel set in the general area of the Nashville, Tennessee and the nearby Natchez State Park.  Although the story as it stands is relatively complete, there is an intention to released sequel. [Review update:  this novel is now in its second edition.  The second addition takes care of some of the issues noted below].

First time author David C. Waldron  (born 1972) lives with his wife and children, has a son involved in scouting, and is into camping, fishing, etcetera.  He is self-described as a Star Wars-computer nerd.   Based on the action in the novel, you would think he lives in the Nashville, Tennessee area, but apparently is a resident of North Carolina.  At the back of the novel, he thanks Author John Ringo for his comments and advise.  I am not familiar enough with Mr. Ringo's novels to know if there is a similarity in their work.  Military slang plays a part in the story, and possibly Mr. Ringo helped the author here.
The book starts off immediately with a solar flare that blasts out the electrical power and communications grid throughout the globe.  Although the government had had plans to shut down the grid (the plan being called Dark Grid) prior to the storms arrival, they misjudged how fast the flare would travel and it arrived before warning could be given.  The storm wipes out anything connected to the electrical grid.  As it notes just as electricity can be converted into radio waves, radio waves can be turned into electricity.  And when the radio waves are powered by an enormous solar flare, with far more energy than would be in a nuclear EMP strike, the surge in electricity in long conductors is going to melt things: starting with the conductors.  The author actually has done research beyond reading other novels, and does not knock out electronics that are not on the grid.  His effects are a general extrapolation of the Solar Storm of 1859 where telegraph systems were set on fire,and aurora borealis were seen as far south as the Caribbean.

The Baltimore Herald of the time (3 September 1959) reported it as such:
"Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights. The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o'clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance." (wikepedia)
So we are not talking about a theoretical phenomena that nobody has ever seen. 

The original focus is with a small group of civilians, six adults and two children, living in Nashville, Tennessee.  The group are not survivalist-preppers, but with one person that works at the local power plant, who witnesses the meltdown of the  hydro generators, they have a jump on everyone else in knowing exactly what happened.  This gives them a chance to grab up supplies before the big rush gets started.  One of the main characters,  has been out of the army for six months which gives the group the excuse to stop off at a Tennessee National Guard Armory on the way to the Natchez Trace State Park.  The National Guard Unit, is missing all its commissioned officers and the Sergeants are in charge.  Although they don't do it in a hurry, the unit with their families in tow eventually decides to make the State Park their base of operations.  Our little group goes along with them.

Most of the focus of the story is on the National Guard unit setting up shop in the National Forest.  There is a fairly interesting secondary story that follows a small group of semi-bandits types.  About half way through the story the two groups collide, and some sparks start to fly.  The bandits are fairly intelligent, and at one point even team up with some local law enforcement to give themselves an early competitive advantage. If had not been for  the mistake (understandable) of not realizing that it is National Guard units camped out in the National Forest, they likely would have continued to have some success.

The story continues on in a low key sort of way.  There are some problems with other groups out there, and there is some discussions of how to run a mini-government, and get cooperation from the local farmers.   This story is a little different than most within the genre in that the group, because of its size and resources, is actually able to do something about the huge source of food that is sitting out in the farmlands.

For an author who makes a couple of comments about how, small prepper groups would not survive, his National Guard unit sounds an awful lot like a super-sized survivalist group:

"But we  aren't just letting everyone in either.  People, groups, have to have something to offer, as we've said, and we don't mean money or possessions, we mean skills.  It may sound cold but we don't have spare food, clothing, or shelter for  people who won't contribute. I didn't can't, I said wont'".  we've come across a couple of groups with folks who were in a really bad way, and we didn't turn them away, and nobodies complained. But we aren't going to take in a band of people who feel entitled to what we have but aren't willing to contribute to the community as a whole."

There is some polemics, but not the over the top ranting that you sometimes see in these survival-catastrophe related first novels.  Although there is a crack made about the theory of evolution made early on, religious worship doesn't play a particularly strong element in the story.

The story fits the definition of a cozy catastrophe almost to the "Tee".  Unprepared people having a rough time of it, but working toward a better future.  Granted, when you hook up with a small military unit, your "rough-time" is going to be a little different than others.  Still, stories with an apocalyptic ending can be very difficult to finish strongly.  The cozy is one of the few consistently successful ways to do that:  shoot even the very bleak The Road had a little bit of a cozy twist at the end.  The novel makes use of these dynamics and ends on a fairly strong note.

Did I like the story?  Yes, up to a point. 

With the possible exception of the very early Warday, this novel is probably the best researched of the EMP-Solar novels I have reviewed.  The author bucks the trend of having all electronic devices (unless tied into the grid) burning out.  Automobiles are not immediately and permanently disabled (which is in line with research), although without any fuel pumps working at the gas station, it is obvious that automobiles are not going to be on the road long.   People don't start rioting 5 minutes after the flare.

Two items, in combination hurt the novel.   The first is that the author gets carried away with the dialog.   He takes you through every blow by blow decision making discussion.  And even some discussions of almost no relevance.  We have an in depth discussion of why the father let his son buy an AR-15 military style carbine pre-collapse.  This weapon is never used in the novel, and with the hook up with the National Guard, is somewhat superfluous.  The net effect, is that before the good guys do anything - and I mean anything short of going to the bathroom- you will get a lengthy discussion of it. 

The second problem, which interacts with the first, is that the author's good guys are super soldiers.  This is a common problem with most adventure fiction, but is particularly problematic here.  As we discussed earlier in our post on casualties, battlefield reality says that most people firing even at exposed targets miss most of the time.  In the woods (thus shorter range) typical defenders would be expected to fire about 50 rounds per casualty/kill.  But our National Guardsmen hit ratio is 100%.  Even the sad-sack (as portrayed) raiders get lucky and hit slightly over 10% of the time.  I don't think the good guys miss a single shot through the entire novel. 

And that is the rub.  You have lots and lots of discussion, and when you finally get to the point of confrontation it is over lightning fast.  That pacing, along with the occasional typo (which I did not find distracting) seemed to have generated some heat at the Amazon reviews.  In total I found the book to be worth reading, but with the forewarning that it is not always moving at a rapid fire pace.  Given that One Second AfterLucifer's Hammer and Patriots (with its detailed birthing instructions) are often rather tedious, yet still make the Top-5 lists of many folks who love the realistic apocalypse-in-progress genre, I would think that this novel has an audience out there that will at the very least find it worthwhile.

[Update:  with the second edition, the author edited out about 16,000 words and attempted to greatly reduce the unneeded polemics.  The soldiers are still "highly skilled" but that is fairly common in the world of fiction.]

We will move onto our descriptive ratings, realism (which I sometimes call grittiness) and readability: numbered 1 to 7; with 7 being at the high end.

Realism is not particularly hard.  There is only a tiny element of technological speculation, and the catastrophe is an extrapolation from an historical event.  Large groups of people don't go crazy-violent 5 minutes after the power goes out, and most of the action occurs at ground level reality.  I could take some points off for the occasional short narrative sections that discuss presidential-government reactions, but they are not very intrusive, and truthfully could probably be found out through use of a ham radio.   Super-heroic heroes are so common within the action genre, that it is not something I normally would take points off for. It is not as if you have one ex-SEAL sniper commando ninja taking on 100 people with a six-shot revolver.  Realism is a 7.

Readability is hard.  This is not a qualitative ranking, but the lengthy dialog gives a rather padded affair to the story.  For the amount of story involved, it is probably 1/3rd too long.  The editing is not perfect, but is on par with the type of novel.  It is relatively easy to understand what is going on.  However, it is certainly not a page turner.  I will say that it is one notch below our mid-point at 3 [likely a 4 now with the editing noted above].


Stephen said...

You know, if you keep these great reviews coming I'll never again find a book to read. Having said that, thanks, I'll skip this one too. You're saving me money. Haven't had a chance to finish Holding Their Own, work you know, but will let you know how I feel about it. So far, not too bad. Little cheesy in places, but not bad.

russell1200 said...

LOL- I know what you mean.

Of the EMP/Solar books this is one of the better ones actually.

Apocalypse-in-progress fiction is really hard to pull off. I would say that it is well above average in difficulty because of the world building problem.

For some reason though, maybe because they tend to be written at a much more personal (family level much of the time) the pandemic novels just seem to be better as a group.

Of course that may not be fair as the pandemic novels also vastly outnumber the EMP-Solar novels, and I was able to be far more selective in what I read.

Erisian23 said...

I dont even care about the plot. If ringo was acting as an advisor, that says a lot about the value of this as a read.
Wouldnt be for everyone, but on review, this is up my alley

russell1200 said...

E: The book may not be perfect, but I get a sense that the author but more work into this one than can be said of many other within this little sub-genre.