Throughout the ’80s and into the beginning of the ’90s, John Varley was one of science fiction’s most colorful writers. His novels Wizard, Demon, and Steel Beach and the short stories assembled into collections like The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne focus on humanity more often than on alien life, while bending and stretching the definition of humanity. In his most explored version of the future, cloning and gender-swapping are common, memory downloads have made death all but obsolete, and technology is often advanced enough to be indistinguishable from magic. What interests him in those early books is what people do with all their options—how entire isolated space communities form around an ideal or belief system, or how malleability of form changes human society and interactions. And while his later books, like the young-adult-friendly Thunder And Lightning series, became more about recognizable social constructs and ordinary people doing extraordinary things, they’re still closely concerned with space travel and life on and off Mars.
So it’s startling to see him come so sharply down to earth with his latest, Slow Apocalypse. The book reads more like a Michael Crichton thriller than a Varley novel: Apart from the science-fiction conceit of the central premise, which renders all of Earth’s crude oil inert in one mass catastrophe, Slow Apocalypse takes place entirely in a recognizable present. It’s a straight techno-thriller and a detailed polemic about the dangers of dependence on oil for energy, with a preachy edge but enough solid, down-to-earth detail to make the message stick.
Protagonist Dave Marshall is a successful Los Angeles screenwriter with a long-running hit TV show far enough in his past that he still has some cachet, but is perpetually worried about his next job. Then a retired Marine colonel looking for work as a story consultant tells Dave about a brilliant scientist who turned a personal grudge against Saudi Arabia into a bacteria strain that metabolizes crude oil into a solid. The colonel’s story—which features exploding oil fields and a news blackout—seems to dovetail with real-world facts Dave is able to gather, and the colonel’s death on the first page of the book certainly suggests something more significant is going on than a drunk old fart making up stories. When the solidification of the oil fields proves real and spreads to the rest of the world, Dave and his wife and daughter family wind up dealing with an apocalypse that isn’t slow at the outset, and rapidly worsens due to the near-collapse of the government and the disintegration of support systems and supply lines. Suddenly, people’s tendencies to gather in cities dependant on outside food and water stops being sustainable, and becomes a recipe for riots and starvation.
In spite of his Hollywood life and former TV glory, Dave is an Everyman, smart and forewarned about the oncoming doom, but hapless and easily intimidated by the catastrophe, and given to long bouts of wait-and-see tactics that seem practical, but limit how propulsive the book can get: Imagine 2012 if John Cusack decided to huddle up in one spot for a month at a time. The whole novel proceeds not unlike Steven Gould’s Jumper, which gives a boy teleporting powers, then turns into a methodical, step-by-step life plan for teleporters. Dave and his family and friends lay in supplies, bond or clash with their neighbors, fend off outside incursions, brave the outside world in short spurts, and try to form long-term plans in a country newly without reliable news or communication. It’s as though Varley is laying out a road map for readers, both warning them what to expect when the oil runs out, and letting them know how to prepare. And above all, he’s shaping a cautionary tale with a built-in polemic message that human civilization will eventually come to this, so long as its foundation rests on a limited, in-demand resource.
Slow Apocalypse has its limitations: The downtime is sometimes exasperating, Dave and his family aren’t particularly distinctive characters, and the few action scenes tend to over-rely on villainous, generic Mad Max-esque bikers without questioning where they get their endless supplies of weapons and gasoline, or whether they have anything going on in their heads besides a vast appetite for drugs, booze, and rape.
Nonetheless, it’s a page-turner. In essence, it’s a disaster movie like Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, where an inciting incident endangers a group of people, and the action is focused on their attempts to escape and survive. And apart from the recurring biker-villains, Varley sorts through those attempts in rational, informative detail, offering a well-realized tour of post-apocalypse California and considering, as he always has, how massive change would affect how human beings live together and relate to one another. His prose style is accessible without being slick or dumbed-down; this is a literary novel with a potboiler plot, easily digested but not insultingly simple. He builds a thought-through, realistic world, then explores how his cataclysm would change it. Along the way, he reminds readers, “This could happen, and you should prepare.” For the first time in his writing career, that warning seems plausible.