Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Supervolcano: Eruption

Supervolcano: Eruption
© 2011 Harry Turtledove
420 pages

"I love the smell of hydrogen sulfide in the morning," Daniel intoned. "Smells like...tenure."
p. 146

Sometimes, even Harry Turtledove must tire of penning novels based on World War II. I don't know what spurred his interest in writing this novel -- the fact that 2012 will be a good year for disaster entertainment, perhaps, or the simple need to take a break from the War that Came Early series -- but this science fiction apocalyptic adventure is a drastic change from his usual military-action tomes. He opens on Lieutenant Colin Ferguson, a recently divorced and badly hungover cop taking a vacation to Yellowstone National Park to clear his mind, who barks at a parka-clad figure hunched over a geyser to scold her for trespassing. She proves to be a geologist taking readings of seismic activity,  one who believes the Yellowstone basin presents a future danger to the global environment.  Underneath the geysers and pine trees lurks trouble: a supervolcano in the making. Were it to erupt, the energy released would destroy everything around it for hundreds of miles -- and the amount of ash thrown into Earth's skies could very well lead to an ice age.  Naturally, someone forgets knock on wood.

From the start, the newly-single Curtis is interested in this geologist; his attraction and genuine interest in the implications of such a catastrophe compel him to learn more about it, preferably over dinner dates with her.  Their budding relationship allows Turtledove to gently explain the premise and science of the novel in an unobtrusive way, though the novel's action is slow to take off. The fun doesn't start until a quarter of the way in: for the first hundred or so pages, Turtledove introduces his panel of viewpoint characters, all of whom are Colin's relations -- his divorced wife, his sons (one a touring  20-something musician, the other a perpetual college student),  his impressively abrasive daughter Vanessa, and her ex-boyfriend,  who is working on a thesis related to Hellenistic poetry and who has remained friends with Colin despite being dumped by the lieutenant's daughter.

In the end, it's the premise and not necessarily its execution which carries the novel. The usual Turtledove baggage -- repetition -- is fully present, and the pace sometimes bogs down in minutia. This is especially striking after Yellowstone goes "boom", in a scene where a band-on-tour  breakfasts in Maine, and the viewpoint character devotes an entire page to describing what each member of the band had for breakfast. There's a giant dead zone in the middle of the continent, and he hasn't heard from his sister in Denver -- but these are trivial matters compared to the appropriateness of ordering Mexican food in a fishing village, apparently. Still, Turtledove won me over for the most part. He introduces a fun character in the last fifth of the novel whose personality makes him one of the most likable characters in the novel (not that he's against a lot of competition: Curtis' sons are bums, and even he refers to his daughter as 'a mean dog'). Once the disaster began to unfold, my interest peaked, especially as months wore on and people began having to make adjustments.  The amount of time that passes in the novel is unclear to me -- it begins immediately after Memorial Day, and at least one college semester passes -- but it's lengthy enough that we see more than immediate consequences. The wasteland of the plains strains the connections between the east and west coasts, causing resource crunches; the ash fallout creates a respiratory panic; the United States' diminished strength creates fun times for the middle east when Iran decides to seize the day and bloody Israel's nose. The novel leaves before entering long-term territory, though. Does mass starvation follow the ruin of all the plains crops? What becomes of the nations who rely on the US for their imported food?    The end leaves many of the characters hanging,  but all resolute to pick up the pieces as best they can.

Although burdened with painful repetition and slow to start, ultimately the interesting premise and character growth push Supervolcano into 'fair enough' territory. It's left me with the desire to study up on volcanoes and the possibility of a Yellowstone disaster -- isn't provoking an interest in learning the point of science fiction?

Post-edit note: according to a Turtledove wikisite, this is the first of a new trilogy. I hope Turtledove gets a better handle on what he's aiming for here: while he can get away with a character-dominated story in a war novel in which the viewpoint characters are soldiers participating in the central drama, in Eruption they're just getting in the way and reducing the supposed star of the show, the volcano, to an obscured background reference.

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