Thursday, May 3, 2012

Terawatt: A Review.

Des Michaels' Terawatt is what you could call a Texas to Tennessee based apocalypse-in-progress travelling road show. It is a novel of rapid collapse set off by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) type event.  I say type, because the exact source of the problem is never exactly stated, and there is some intended ambiguity.  Although not billed as such, it is not a stand alone novel with follow up books intended.

Not much is said about the author.  He may be the Des Michaels that wrote Bio-Angel, a novella that originally went under the title String Theory. He may also be the Amazon reviewer here who is from Dallas Texas, and has Techniques of Selling Writing on his wish list.  Looks like he is interested in photography, and possibly science fiction war gaming.

The novel starts with a laid off teacher, Marc Sortel,  who stays behind in Dallas, Texas while his wife and 16 year old son go on to a vacation at her fathers place in Tennessee.  He has stayed behind in Texas to try and short sell their house before the bank reposes it.  He is also in charge of Rancid, his wifes aging cat.

As an aside,  Texas is apparently a hot spot for EMP events.  For reasons not entirely clear to me, a disproportionate number of our EMP stories include Texas within their environs.

Marc, our first-person narrator, is not entirely the likable sort.  The first person point of view, makes it difficult to tell if some these traits are a bleed through of the author's personality.  Marc is an overweight 40 year old who plays first person shooter video games, and as a history teacher enjoys pontificating on what is wrong with the world.  As someone who has been no doubt living on unemployment for some time, and worked for the government when he was employed, he none-the-less seems to see no irony in his belief that the Pilgrims almost collapsed because of their initial communistic setup:  communism for me, not for thee – so to speak.  Marc is completely unprepared for trouble, so you don’t get the survivalist prep pontifications, but you do get a fair amount of political, and politics-disguised-as-history rants.  It is fairly easy to see why Marc's young outdoorsy teenage son, cannot stand him. 

If some books have been accused of making all the white people villains, this one seems to lean the other way - at least with regards to Latinos.  You have a throwaway scenes where “immigrant” drunk driver kills a ladies husband and child, and when he is working alongside of some captive Latinos cleaning up an airplane crash, one of them is a thief, and the other is a lazy gay second generation fop.  Having worked in the field with a lot of Central Americans, I can assure you that this would not be representative of the type. 

Marc has issues with other folks.  One of his encounters is with an attractive immigrant woman from Africa who is with a group of religious flagellant types on a death march pilgrimage  to the Mississippi River.  Marc is one of those semi-agnostic types who says they like God and Jesus alright, but don’t like Christians.  Most of the outwardly devoted in the book come across as cruel zealots, or fools.  Granted, both types do exist, but the needless setting up strawman villains, gets to be a bit old.

Finally, the author has the tendency to make important people be attractive, while incompetent or stooge-like people are unattractive.  His calypso savior is a gorgeous.  The female reservist who stops him at a check point is described as bland faced with a small top and big bottom.   The reservists are only there to bother Marc, and to generally act in a high handed obstructionist manner.   It is obvious that the author strongly associates value with beauty- oh, well.

Marc himself is incompetent.  Which does make for the rather realistic portrayal of an incompetent, out of shape, middle aged man-child who none-the-less feels justified in his rather snarky view of his fellow citizens.  Isn't America great! LOL.

Here is an example of his snarkiness.  The EMP-event has happened.  Our overweight forty-year old jumps on his mountain bike (bought for exercise) and goes to the fire station to get some information:

I am not the only one with the bright idea, apparently. The firehouse Captain stands in the middle of a small crowd of people.  One of them is an overweight lady on a high dollar racing bike.  She wears bright yellow Spandex and a matching decaled helmet.  A chubby Lance Armstrong-with breasts.
As with many of these apocalypses in progress tales that involved completely unprepared folks, our hero is preternaturally lucky in being able to come up with supplies.  The author tries to implausibly rehabilitate him somewhat as the tale goes on.  But Marc lacks all caution, and walks or rides into almost every roadblock or ambush setup for him.  Every stray sniper type gets at least one free shot as he wanders around in the open.

The story  has Marc dither around in Dallas for about a week, getting into some minor tangles with some local toughs, before he decides to set off on a bicycle ride to Tennessee.  Before leaving, Marc does try to help an aging neighbor get some insulin, and does bring along his wife's cat.  His few good deeds do help, people don't shoot him on site because anyone carrying around their cat in a carry case is not likely to be a rampaging rapist-looter.

Although a bit uneven, the trip to Tennessee is the best portion of the book.  Much of what happens is not exactly plausible – his Calypso like capture by a beautiful (naturally) Nordic woman being a particular case in point – but there is more immediacy, and attention to day to day concerns.  Marc is lousy at surviving, and often pays for it.

The book is clearly written to be the first part of a series.  The book does not end at a natural location, but instead at a cliff hanger. There are some suspiciously militia-like conspiracies going on in this book that are not clearly resolved.  Presumably these will be explored in whatever later books come out.  Given that book peaked at the middle portion of the novel, just before Nordic-Calypso shows up, the trend line does not bode well for the second installment.

So did I like the book?  The first two-thirds yes.  The pre-travel, and travel portions were uneven, but interesting.  The first person approach made for something of a page turner during these sections.  With all of its flaws, I would actually say that the book actually gets a lot of stuff correct that other collapse books miss:  the huge advantage of cash in hand at the time of first crises, the huge advantage of night vision, the still existent – but uneven law enforcement.  At times it almost felt like the author had gone through my site here, picked up all my pet peeves about apocalyptic fiction, and went out of his way to address it.  If he could have just toned down some of the nasty world view of the main character, and avoided the conpiracy-compound silliness, he would have had a best-in-class story going.  As it is, it is a flawed, but often entertaining story. 

For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings (1 to 7: 7 being high).

How realistic (gritty) is it?  The cause of collapse does not count here, but would not be a huge problem.  It is not that far removed from the economic fast-collapse scenarios seen in Rawles' books.  Some of the events that occur are rather unlikely.  But the general tenor of day-to-day survival are pretty much on.  The randomness of outcomes is also pretty much on.  Prepared people run into more heavily armed antagonists, and lose.  Sometimes, unprepared people get lucky and survive.  There is a lack of information not only to the individuals, but to the people in charge.  Nobody really knows what is going on.  I am going to give it a top socre of seven.

How readable is the book?  There are some editing issues, but as a self-published effort, I thought the overall polish was above average.  As I noted above, the first two-thirds are pretty close to a page turner.  It bogs down some toward the end.  I am going to knock off another point because it is an unannounced first part of a projected series. So we will put it at an above average 5.


Stephen said...

Nice review. Think I'll pass on it. Holding Their Own, so far, is pretty good. I should finish it sometime today.

russell1200 said...

Thanks Stephen,

One critical distinction (without giving anything away) is that Holding Their Own, at least to a degree, sells itself as a "how to" survival manual. Thus it should hold itself to a higher degree of realism.

For those who are curions about Holding Their Own, its review link is below: just don't tell Stephen I don't want to influence his perceptions until after he has had a chance to read for himself.

Erisian23 said...


russell1200 said...

E: Yes well...