Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Last Light: The Review

Last Light by Alex Scarrow (with a hat tip on the recommendation to the Lord Bison) is an action adventure novel that in a very loose sort of way is about the threat of peak oil.

Alex Scarrow, not to be confused with his brother Simon Scarrow with whom he shares a website, is an interesting fellow.

If Puffin's marketing department had tried to invent the ideal author profile to appeal to the difficult early-teenage-boy demographic, they couldn't have improved on Alex Scarrow. A former rock musician, graphic artist and computer game designer, who grew up in the Bahamas and looks like a cross between a surfer dude and a Zen monk? With a fantastically piratical name? That should do the trick. Michelle Pauli, Alex Scarrow: "I have worked really hard to make Timeriders absolute cocaine", The Guardian, 22 July 2010.

He lives in Norwich England with his son Jacob, who makes an appearance in the novel, his wife Francis, and two pet rats. As implied by the above title and quote he has a young adult themed TimeRiders series that is planned to go to nine books. Much like John Christopher famous for the apocalyptic nightmare of "No Blade of Grass" he has switched from apocalyptic writings to the YA market. However, his TimeRiders series is in some unusual Ground Hog Day -way tied in with the Collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on 911, so there are elements of grimness to his YA writing.

Returning back to the novel; Hmmm....what to say about a very good book? As noted above, it’s not exactly about Peak Oil, the author says as much himself in the book’s explanatory epilogue, but very much in rhythm with it. When (in real life) Al Qaida tried to blow up Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia in 2006, you almost wonder if they had got hold of an advanced copy and were trying to emulate the story in a smaller sort of way. If their plot had worked, you likely would not need to kick on the link to Abqaiq to find out what the heck it is: although we have chatted about this before.

Focusing primarily on the fate of one, highly involved family, the novel’s point of view shifts through a variety of characters: primarily three of the members of the Sutherland family: Father and Oil Company Security Consultant-Andy, annoyed mother who is planning to leave -Jennifer, and not very innocent Freshman in College Daughter- Leona. The young War Hammer Fantasy playing brother- Jake is not used as a primary point of view. However, we do get to hear from a bad guy who has some interest in their affairs, and he offers both an explanatory point of view, and less plausibly, dialog as well.

At the start of the novel, Andy’s paranoia and secretiveness have stressed marital relations to the breaking point. The novel starts with Andy on a consulting assignment in Iraq checking out oil fields, and Jennifer going off to Manchester on a job interview. Leona is just starting her first semester in college and is working at seducing a young lad named Daniel. She is successful in this task, and her boyfriend is a helpful figure for at least a portion of the story.

The whole story runs from Monday to Sunday. With the four points of view to bounce around between, this tends to keep the pace moving. All three characters are away from home when the Middle East bursts out of control with bombings in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Other follow up bombings, and mysterious explosions work to bring the supply of oil to a screeching halt. Britain, who is not one of the countries that works very hard at having a back up oil supply, starts blocking off highways and trains almost immediately to conserve fuel. This of course strands a lot of people in a bad way. Many commuters cannot even get home from work. When people panic, and anarchy begins to reign in some areas, it get ugly quickly. The police concentrate on some areas and leave others to die-on-the-vine.

One of the better scenes is early with the daughter, Leona in the grocery store. She has been warned by her father (by cell from Iraq) to get there before the crowd does.

As they entered the tinned goods aisle, Leona was aware that it was noticeably busier than the other areas in the supermarket they had walked through; half-a-dozen shoppers, like herself, warily eyeing each other up, whilst filling their trolleys with canned goods. As they wheeled their trolleys down towards them, there was a moment of shared communication, eyes meeting, and barely perceptible nods of acknowledgement.

My God, they are here for the same reason!

Somehow, the thought that there were other people out there who had begun to see beyond the news soundbites to something more disturbing , made the bizarre situation she was in right now feel much more real.

They had the same look as Dad; a slightly rumpled, disheveled appearance, unburdened with any fashion sense…they were unmistakable from the same tribe as Dad [edited to avoid confusion/spoilers].

It is hard to say too much more without dropping spoilers.

As a novel it moves fast and is entertaining. It was written five years ago (2007), but outside of a few T.V. shows whose time ran out quicker than the oil supplies, the cultural scene has not changed much.

The actual mechanics of the plot are of dubious likelihood. But this is not very damaging as the book is clearly written as a thriller, rather than as a Patriots-like apocalypse-in-progress primer. It’s setting in England (no firearms) leads to more, not less, tension in scenes with confrontation. The confrontation gets very close and personal. The quality of the writing is superior. To make a comparison with another book I thought a lot of, its military thrills are not of the caliber of [a book whose review I will soon post] Steven Pressfield’s also thrilling The Profession, but its research is its equal, and from a cautionary point of view it is superior.

Alex Scarrow

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