John Varley’s latest novel, the aptly-named Slow Apocalypse, was indeed a slow read. But despite the trudging narrative pace, the warning behind the tale was actually somewhat believable – which is a departure from many of his past tales of earthly demise – allowing the reader to become engrossed in the storyline. Unlike most apocalyptic novels, this one begins with characters who are actually living in a pre-apocalyptic world, and the majority of the narrative takes place during the apocalypse as opposed to focusing on a world facing the ramifications following such an event. It’s a survivalist tale that shows the slow onset of dwindling supplies that precipitates a massive loss of life and the destruction of modern society. In this case, such an apocalyptic event is one that hits home to gas-guzzling America – a slow-acting virus that turns petroleum solid, making the entire planet’s supply of black gold unusable.
The novel follows Dave Marshall, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter in West Hollywood researching aspects of a military scheme that he envisions as the basis of his next movie. As luck would have it, though, Dave’s informant, a retired US Marine with insider information about a scientist with a personal grudge, has tipped him off to a government plot that could truly bring forth the end of the world as we know it. While the warning seems improbable, the truth is much more frightening than anything Dave could have envisioned, and his fortuitous enlightenment could be what saves him and his family from the coming end of earth.
While the novel possesses a generally bleak outlook, I wouldn’t say that it is overly pessimistic or depressing, but rather attempts to convey a tone of admonition. I felt that it achieved a pertinent social, political and economic standpoint on the nation’s dependence upon foreign oil, which was wrapped in a fantastic tale with an ending that I unfortunately believe to be slightly too optimistic. Its meticulous and exhaustive description of Los Angeles gives the reader a very corporeal sense of experiencing the tale as a witness as opposed to an unaffected outsider. This level of detail sometimes felt tedious, but I appreciated the vivid nature of Varley’s description.
The great achievement of this novel is in its ability to bring the reader along for the emotional pitfalls and heart-wrenching devastation of an immediately post-apocalypse world with characters who are still reeling from the realization that not only will their lives be changed forever, but the lives of countless others will be lost or altered beyond repair. Dave’s daughter Addison is experiencing this tragedy from the perspective of a child, and her compassion is relatable and real. Dave’s wife Karen is also dealing with the trauma caused as the power goes out, supplies slowly diminish, fire ravages the city — and the Big One, the earthquake to end all earthquakes, finally hits. The emotional response of Varley’s characters feels real, even if the circumstances aren’t as immediately relatable. I will admit that this book took me longer to read than normal, partly due to the slow narrative pace; I do, however, recommend it overall. As far as end-of-the-world novels go, this one is worth the time.
For another review of John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse that was well-written and convincing, check out this article.
Editor: Lindsay Duncan