So apparently once the Yellowstone supervolcano goes off, the worst most of the west coast will have to worry about is a little snow, higher gas prices and Denny’s serving pork burgers with barley buns. That, at least, is the impression I get from the latest novel by master writer Harry Turtledove; a novel that is, sadly, a rare misfire.
This story picks up right where part one left off. Colin Ferguson and his family are dealing with the literal and metaphorical fallout of a volcanic eruption that killed about 2 to 3 million people, ejected something like 600 cubic miles of debris into the air and buried a huge part of America’s agricultural belt under several feet of ash. It’s a global crisis presented on a local scale and that’s really just part of the problem.
See, at no point do I get a real sense of desperation. Life is basically going on as normal for almost everyone in the book. Ferguson is being a cop and tracking down a serial killer (whose identity I got almost correct), his new wife wants to have a baby, his ex-wife is raising a new baby, their youngest son is helping when he isn’t acting like a jerk, their older son is stuck in rural Maine dealing with ten months of winter a year, and their daughter is stuck at a refugee camp where she does unpleasant things to make her life slightly better.
Now you’d think that, for example, the son in Maine would be living in desperate times indeed. This does not appear to be the case. We follow him through his second and third winter there (because he’s decided not to leave, even though he could at almost any point), and he makes mention, from time to time, about how the moose herds and second-growth forest are thinning out. But despite that, no one seems to be starving or freezing yet. It’s a specter that might come later, but isn’t here at this point. This removes some of the tension.
There’s a similar problem with the daughter at the camp. She could, at any point, leave. All she needs to do is contact her father and have him send her money so that she can go home. But, no, her pride won’t let her do that. Ok, I suppose I can kind of understand that, but apparently her pride doesn’t stop her from performing certain services for various men in order to make her own way along in the world. That the only men she ever meets are apparently the sort who would abuse their power in this way is a given, though I’m not clear why, since I think most men are better than that.
Mind you, the problems these two characters face are real, but they aren’t that big, and they can escape from them whenever they chose and go back to Southern California where the rest of the family are. Things aren’t perfect there, with gas shortages and frequent brown-outs, but they’re not that bad. People ride bikes in weather that now resembles Seattle, but that’s really it for the problems they have to deal with. We’re told, however, that more problems are on the horizon.
That’s the real problem with this book. We never actually see any really, major, huge problems. Life is basically just going on like normal, and we’re told all the time that problems will be coming along down the line, but they never do, or if they do, they don’t in such a way as to cause real disruptions for the main characters.
It’s worth noting that this book suffers from some other problems, too. First off, Turtledove’s strength as an author has always centered on him being able to come up with interesting worlds and/or interesting stories and go from there. His strength has never been in his characters. Here has what is basically the real world with a lot more ash, and the result is that his characters problems show through big time. Vanessa and Marshall are characters we spend a lot of time with, and neither are particularly interesting. Everyone else are basically just archetypes in search of characterization, and none of them are especially interesting.
Second, Turtledove continues his habit of telling us the same thing over and over again. This was excusable when there’d be a year between books and he’d remind us, once, of something he told us in the previous one. That’s awkward when you read them one right after another, but not a problem when there’s a break. Here, however, we’re given certain bits of information repeatedly, throughout the same book, often using the same phrases. That’s annoying, distracting and unnecessary.
The third minor problem is minor indeed, and that’s that Turtledove’s personal politics seem to be showing. It’s implied that this happens around our current time, and that would imply in turn that the president and vice-president are the current ones. The former we hear nothing from and the latter is presented as rather feckless and foolish. We also hear almost every single character complain at least once about how the government isn’t doing anything to help them, which gets annoying, and the only politician we actually see is a noble, hard-working New England Republican. Turtledove also takes every chance to bash on the media, including presenting a CNN reporter as being a vapid idiot. Now I watch CNN daily, and while I have many complaints about the way they cover the news, I don’t ever feel that the various reporters are morons.
I didn’t hate this book. I just felt that not enough happened. We basically end with everyone in slightly different places geographically and the world turning along like it was at the end of the last book. Nothing major happened. Nothing major changed. The volcano is an annoyance, but little more. I sincerely hope that the next book in the series changes all those things, but right now, I’m not hopeful.