"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"...The sun never really came out that day. They had all gotten used to the amazing crystal blue skies of Los Angeles with hardly any gasoline engines pouring pollution into the air. That day the sky was black."
This is the second of John Varley's books that I've read. The first one, The John Varley Reader, was also reviewed here a while back. Suffice it to say he's a lower-tier science fiction author who's lived in various locations throughout the U.S.
In Slow Apocalypse the world's oil supply vanishes under mysterious circumstances. Without oil, governments worldwide are left to struggle through the inevitable economic catastrophes that are the result of this oil shortage, and individuals forewarned of the difficulties find themselves with an advantage over those taken by surprise. One such person is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His family's struggles against shortages, starvation, fire and a general state of lawlessness are the subject of this book.
Speaking as someone who enjoyed Varley's short story collection, I'd have to say that I was disappointed by this novel. It's certainly well written and shows a professional hand, but it lacks tension, and is way longer than it has any right to be. Shorten this thing by a hundred pages, eliminate the unnecessary details, and you'd be approaching a much better book.
And more than anything, raise the stakes. What this book really needed was a greater sense of peril, or perhaps a sense of dread for what's to come. As it is I never really felt like any of the characters were in serious danger. Instead, the plot of this novel just lumbers along - in almost sociological fashion - without any sense of risk or of the random nature of larger events. As readers, we know that society is regressing, we know that living conditions are correspondingly difficult, but this doesn't add up to the kind of suspense that any good book should have.
The characters in this book are also far too reasonable given their circumstances. When confronted with the collapse of their society they seem unnaturally detached, almost as if they know the outcome of things beforehand. It's FAR from certain that everything will be alright, and it's FAR from certain that they'll survive until the following day. And yet they carry on as if everything will only be slightly worse tomorrow. No tempers are lost. No harsh words are spoken. After a few hundred pages of their measured responses, they really defy understanding.
I will say this, however. "Slow Apocalypse" as a title was at least half right. This book is SLOW, so slow I had to force myself through the second half. The "Apocalypse" part may be inaccurate, but yeah, he was right on with the "Slow."
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"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)
"Mission of Gravity" by Hal Clement (1954)