Thursday, May 10, 2012

Grid Down Reality Bites: A Review

Bruce "Buckshot Hemming and Sara Freeman's Grid Down Reality Bites is an EMP-based (electromagnetic pulse) apocalypse in progress novel set in a near current United States.  The primary areas of focus are Madison, Wisconsin, Southern Minnesota, and Northern California  with the primary large urban area featured (escaped from) being Madison Wisconsin.  It is stated to be the (very long) first part of a trilogy.

"Buckshot" Hemming, based out of Gackle North Dakota, manufactures snares, and related educational books videos that deal with wilderness survival situations.  I have not seen a lot on Sara Freeman, so she may have been a professional writer/editor who helped him to put his book together.  Early, introductory portions of the novel were published online as Green Death to the World and do not credit her.  Mr. Hemming, based on his online musings, appears to have a trappers traditional disdained for wolf-loving and fur-phobic, principled vegetarian folks.  We see allot on these subjects in the novel.
Madison Wisconsin is one of those unlikely popular locations for a collapse novel.  In what was my first full review on this website we have seen it in some detail in the slow collapse novel of Michelle Widgen's But Not For Long.

As with most EMP novels, the collapse happens virtually instantaneously.  I have always had a bit of a problem with these violent global, all-encompassing, fast collapses.  I am willing to listen to contrary viewpoints, but the few details of actual collapse situations that you get almost always have a little bit of a lead time before the violent anarchy begins:  Instantaneous looting, yes;  Crazed killings, no.

To illustrate from a real world  example from a very good interview by Selco at SHTF School:

Survival of women during SHTF
Selco, SHTF School 9 April 2012

Una begins to describe her situation:
My first and worst concern was what is gonna happen with my kids, I had two toddlers, and I did not have any clue what is gonna happen, or even what is gonna look like when hell broke lose. We did not want to believe it could happen. We heard the sound of big guns miles away and stories of violence, rape and murder but everything looked so peaceful.
At the beginning, actually right before everything started during my meetings with my friends and colleagues at work we discussed the deteriorating situation, and pretty soon I found myself faced with important decision: is it worth to send my kids to some more “secure” region or to some relatives to neighboring country, or keep them with me, and wait what happens
I never had question am I going to leave this place, I found it normal to stay in my city, with husband, in my house. Looking back now I know it was big mistake.

Note this is at the leadup to the siege of Sarajevo.  This is a war.  There were Yugoslavians-Bosnians alive at the time who would have seen the inter-ethnic conflict that went on during World War 2.  Yet people were still slow to grasp the dire situation.  In the case of an EMP-attack (if it worked), or any other type of collapse scenario for that matter, the very oddity of the situation would slow responses.  Yes some people are going to do some looting, but with lots of loot to go around, it will take a little bit of time before violence ramps up.  Here, you have violent encounters within minutes of the event.

The novel starts off on a weak note with a lot of ranting, and conspiracy thinking directed at environmental groups. It shares with Directive 51 the dislike of the environmental groups –which are portrayed as being anti-people. This characterization is about as fare as saying that “survivalists” or “preppers” want the world to end. Its not that there is no ammunition there to work with, but it's a strange accusation to focus an entire novel around. This ranting is accompanied with an occasional global viewpoint narrator, which makes the preachiness more direct. The conspiracy theory that leads up to the global exchange of EMP (only) strikes is one of the odder ones out there.

Fortunately, the early omniscient style  is dropped for a more conventional shifting first person narrator approach fairly quickly.  The novel eventually settles on three groups of survivors.  In one the key oddities of the book, all three groups, even the one caught without its preps,  have an abundance of supplies, running water, and....electricity.  There is a doctored up explanation for why their solar panels work - but it is not very plausible.

There is a certain sameness to the characters- particularly the men. They are either independent outdoorsy sorts, or sociopath-type bad guys. None of them are married at the start of the novel, although they generally pickup women, and sometimes children along the way. All of them have bought the author's online materials and make frequent references to his website. The frequent authorial self-references get very tiresome.  In a free online web-book, the ham handed advertising would be acceptable.  In a commercial (self-published or otherwise) for-sale novel, it is not.

On the plus side, at least most of the way through the novels the heroes are fairly likable bunch. . You want them to do well.  Issues involving children, while possibly a little idealistic at times, are not ignored.  Dealing with post-combat stress and the various ways they manifest themselves, particularly after having killed someone, are brought into the story.  To the extent that there are enough weapons to go around the women and children fight. Varisous imponderables such as how to comfort a young boy who has killed someone with a .22LR rifle, or the ferocity and despair of parents protecting children are all focused on at some point.

Trapping as a survival skill is one of the major themes of the novel.  Trapping – a very useful skill – is combined with a tendency to have his characters living in Rawles-like fortresses. Three-quarter inch plate on the windows is the norm. For non-wealthy individuals, the set-up described would be nothing less than fantastically expensive. You have bunkers built into the sides of hills with 400 pound counterpoised steel doors. All this at the same time that the author makes fun of people with overpriced hunting firearms.

My thought would be that buying overpriced fortifications does not impart any more survival skills than buying overpriced weaponry. As we noted earlier when we were talking about U.S. Marine WW2 bunker busting techniques. The Japanese fortifications were far more heavily defended than anything today's civilians would be likely to have, but once the outlying flanking forces were driven  off, the bunkers were generally made short work of, often with such simple expedients as gasoline down the ventilation shafts.

Although the prepper-survivalist fortifications, and the mad dash to the distant countryside give the books a similar feel at times to Rawle's Patriot world, it does not have that worlds focus on Christians making their way through a fallen world.  Religion outside of the rantings of an odd little group of rapture seeking Christians and the earth loving Gaians, is barely noted.

Is it an enjoyable novel? Sometimes.

As noted earlier, the front end of the novel is a preachy.  As a more consistent first person narrative is picked up this preachiness is toned down through the middle portions of the novel.  Unfortunately as the book begins to reach its various conclusions, the Armies of Gaia show up, the preachiness returns.

In addition, as the wandering groups settle down, the novels writing style bogs down with a very slow pace of narrations combined with an enormous amount of repetition.  With better editing the book likely could have been about 1/3 shorter.

With the entrance of the  Gaian forces, the book becomes something of a militia novel.  Groups of foolish nature-loving city folks dare to traipse around in the wilderness and face off with our intrepid rural survivalists who have all bought their trapping accessories from "that Buckshot Guy's" website.  It is amazing that they don't use the snares to kill the wicked Wiccans.  Mostly they use a lot of homemade smoothbore cannons used as IEDs, and explosives procured from conveniently located old school survivalists, to drop mountains on people.  There is even a "barricade" scene reminiscent of Lucifer's Hammer, and One Second After.

As a piece of speculative fiction, the book makes some interesting points, but the author wears his political world view on his sleeve, and the activity at times is a more driven toward proving points than actual scenario building.  If there is a good idea (trapping, danger from wild dogs, wolves eat a lot), you will see it hammer on to the point where you will just wish that the dogs or wolves would finally eat someone important.

If you had asked me halfway through the book if I thought I was going to like it, I would have said "yes."  By the end of the book I was tired of it.   The Gaians are such obviously phony "straw man" villains, that you never even think for a moment that they are going to get anywhere against the well prepared heroes.

For our descriptive ratings:  Rating from 1 to 7 with 7 being high.

Realism?  It usually is dealing with the eyeball level of reality, and you do have some concerns about food and supplies.  As is fairly typical, the good guys have a disproportionate number of flesh wounds, but I will put that down to survival bias. The people in similar circumstances who are hit hard, don't get a book written about them.   The obvious authorial biases, making the work a bit of a polemic, tends to take away some of that reality.  I'll be generous and say that it is a six.

Readability?  The editing is uneven.  By self publishing standards it is better than average, but there are points where it is distracting.  The insane amount of repetition, particularly the embedded advertising makes a long novel drag even further.  That this is actually the first part of a trilogy is mind numbing.   Once the combat scenes start, they usually keep moving, but they are frequently broken up by mid-novel cliff hangers, as the author switchs points of view to some far off location.  With some  a lot of paring down there is the real makings of an exciting page turner.  As written, I will say that it is a two.

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