Monday, September 12, 2011

Soft Apocalypse: A Review

Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse is a slow collapse novel set in the near future primarily in the environs of Savannah Georgia.

Mr. McIntosh is a Hugo Award winner and Nebula finalist for short fiction.  Originally from New York, he is now a professor of psychology at Georgia Southern.  He is a father of twins.

The slow collapse is a combination of peak oil, global warming, economic collapse, and home grown bio-terrorism.  I have noticed that bio-terrorism is somewhat the bogey man of the moment in science fiction.  It also featured prominently in the more futuristic The Windup Girl. The genesis of the idea comes from the fact that biology labs are getting smaller and more advanced.  So much as a music group can now cut an album in a home recording studio, a lab-savvy malcontent could make weapons of terror in his home lab; Let's hope the malcontents stick with the protest songs.  Biological weapons have a rather mixed history in the few cases they have been used (accidental or otherwise).  The issue is not only the deadliness of the disease but the vector.  Nanotechnology (grey goo or otherwise) was a popular world destroyer-changer back in the 1990s- now it is gene manipulation.

Showing appropriate award-winning strategy (or should it be "strategy to win awards") the protagonist and viewpoint of the story, Jasper, is a bit of a Holden Caulfield type - updated to modern sensibilities.  Updated to modern sensibilities in that he has the typical delayed adulthood of today’s children, and is older than Holden was in Catcher in the Rye.  A lot of the story involves Holden Jasper developing into some form of adulthood.  There is some intersection with a concept that a new type of development is needed in a collapsing world, but it is not always well handled.  The exploration of the development of neo-hunter gatherers at one point is so starry-eyed as to be cloying.  But if you can stick Holden Caulfield in your story, and hide the fact with enough violence and action, you are bound to get some good reviews.

The novel starts with Holden Jasper and a small collection of post college age friends wandering around Northern Georgia.  They are not the wilderness survival types (which they understand) and go from town to town, trying trade their minimal resources (battery charging capabilities) for food and water.  They discover that most people are not nice to the homeless.  The homeless’  lack of societal buy-in (intentional or otherwise) is threatening to a structured society- even a collapsing one.  When the Oakies left dustbowl Oklahoma for better opportunities, people thought they were bums and freeloaders.  Only many years and a Steinbeck novel later did they come to be viewed with a bit of romanticism and sympathy.

Eventually our characters are drawn away from the small towns of Georgia, and toward the larger urban center of Savannah.  Our “heroes” have no way of staying out in the hinterland.   They are not hunter-gatherers, and there is no work to be had in the small to mid-size towns. Without sufficient oil, transportation becomes expensive, and the acceleration of the decline in the rural areas continues.  It is a version of what has happened in Argentina when small towns were turned into ghost towns when rail service was cut.
Within the cities, people who have in-demand skills, still do very well.  But your soft-majors, arts, sociology, history, tend to find themselves unemployed or under-employed.  In Savannah the characters are able to do a little better.  Finding a job working at a convenience store is a major coup for Jasper who has a degree in Sociology.
The book leans a little to the left.  Since the viewpoint was that of a sociology major, I did not particularly notice.   Since many of the apocalypse in progress tomes have been written from the right side of the fence, it was interesting to have one from the left that did not have lesbian utopians suffering the occasional company of men for reproductive purposes.
What I found challenging about the book is that Jasper, and his friends seem to be very self-absorbed and almost insanely foolish at times.  They have the foolishness of college students who are used to having their status within society give them a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”, rather than kids who have lost their parents in water riots.   At other times, one almost believes the subtitle of the book could be “Jasper the Loser tries to get a date”.

One theme that runs throughout is the various levels of chaotic rebellion that take place.  They are not the strongest part of the book.  Only in a science fiction setting would they be viewed as plausible.  We have open-source guerrilla war by violent nihilist with no obvious agenda, and virologists turned eco-terrorists.  The “heroes” at times are very much willing to help the later group.

The story ends with a problematic attempt at regenerating a better society through a combination of biotechnology, and science.  That these same scientists do not seem to have predicted or directed anything of note is not a particularly strong indicator of their future success.  Part of this scheme involves the (often involuntary or coercive) introduction of a happiness virus.  I did see an odd real-life parallel here:

Nicola Jones, Nature Magazine, 30 August 2011 via Scientific American (ht: NC)

Beneficial gut bacteria, or probiotics, have been shown in the past to alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety, but it wasn't clear whether the bugs could have an impact on the brains of healthy animals. Now, John Cryan, a pharmacologist with the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Center at University College Cork, Ireland, and colleagues have found that probiotics have a direct impact on mood neurotransmitters in mice1. The findings further support the idea that one way to heal problems of the mind might be through the stomach.

Of course, since this is science fiction, we are talking about more than happy tummy bugs here.

What I did like about the story was the grimness and almost inevitable slow motion grind of the collapse.  Trying to make wise choices, when you are in a position of disadvantage is extremely difficult.  Sometimes the key decision was some minor point three months in the past: and you did not even realize you were making a key decision at the time.

Using a jump in time after each long chapter helped speed up the pace of the novel. 

The portrayal of the variously partially collapsed life styles within the (early on) small town settings, and urban environment is interesting.  There are always a few people who manage to hang on find a niche.  The pecking order is there to be found.  Not many apocalypse-in-progress novels try to take on the urban setting for any length of time.  To some degree this is understandable, but also a shame.  The urban environment offers a much broader range of possibilities to explore: that is why people more their after all.
In the scale we used before (High=7, Mid=4, Low=1), I would give it a 6 on readability, and a 5 on reality of setting.  For readability, there were no demerits for having  Jasper Holden Caulfield as a character.  I accept that that is a matter of taste.  However, the books pacing was uneven.  At times it seemed as if it took a very long time to get to very mundane ends, and at other times 5 episodes were (implausibly) packed into one event.  The realism score is increased because the book is set in the near future.  This adds very much to the immediacy.   However within the constraint of a very near future, it does have the various exploratory tropes of science fiction that give it an air of implausibility.  That to some degree is unavoidable.  On a more pointed note, some of the “villains” were rather cartoonish in nature:  the (non-gay) deliverance-like Vietnam vets, the all-spikes anarchist, the small town police officer.  There is the usual problem of unskilled combatants being far too competent with their weapons.  Apparently in an outdoors encounter, untrained people with pistols will handily defeat people (presumably) familiar with the long arms they are holding at ready.  Given that our untrained heroes score hits ~100% (In real life trained police officers in combat often manage ~16%), it can be seen why the heroes win.   It is not overplayed too much, so I did not deduct further for realism.

In all it is a worthwhile read.  If it does not quite bring the grit to the level of course sandpaper, it does bring up some scenarios that are very much worth reading.  If you don't find the idea that you will be forced to take happy pills to get your food implausible, think of the other things might be forced in exchange.
Will McIntosh winning Hugo for short fiction

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