Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart
© 2013 Harry Turtledove
400 pages

What was the difference? Just a little timing. There wasn't a person in the world who didn't have a story like that. If you'd been a little late or a little early, if you hadn't had that fender bender, if that woman in the store with you had bought the secondhand book that changed your life when you read it, if this, if that, if the other thing, your whole life would be totally changed. | It made you wonder. It really did. Ordinary lives were so easy to jerk around that way. What about the lives of nations? If your destiny could twist like a contortionist slipping on a banana peel, what about your country's?  (p.379)

Almost ten years ago, a supervolcano buried under Yellowstone National Park erupted, vaporizing a few deer and covering most of the American west with ash. That ash and dirt filled the air, too,  killing millions and blocking out sunlight.  As a year without a summer becomes a decade without one, the odds that the planet is slipping into another ice age look increasingly large.  Like the books that preceded it, Things Fall Apart follows the lives of the scattered Ferguson family as they continue to adjust to the new facts of life -- or in one character's case, continue to whine about it.  It is essentially a soap opera with a mildly interesting background -- for ten years into the crisis, changes are everywhere.

While most of the characters live in the greater Los Angeles area, two one lives on the fringe of habitable land in Nebraska and another lives in the wintry wasteland of Maine. Their county is now virtually autonomous, forgotten about by the US Government in its attempt to find food and shelter for the millions who are still displaced, a decade after mounds of ash moved quite rudely into their neighborhoods overnight. The few who remain there eke out a living growing turnips in greenhouses, hunting moose, and chopping wood, though ten years of such harvests have fallen to meager pickings. After a decade of intermittent power and scarce resources, the 21st century has been pushed back: now typewriters sit upon desks, notes are taken by hand on paper, and virtually everyone bicycles. In the cities, many still crowd onto public transportation, but aging and overworked buses are breaking down with no parts available to replace them. As people emigrate between the states -- or in Europe, flood from the north away from a dying Gulf Stream to invade Greece and Spain -- tension between the long-time residents and newcomers surge.

All this is background, however, the scenery to a plot consisting of a police officer retiring, his oldest son having an affair with a married woman and then being dumped by her; his oldest daughter having all of her money stolen by her Serbian revolutionary-boyfriend, and his two younger sons (well, son and almost-son-in-law-who-he-thinks-of-as-a-son)   being cold and having wives in Nebraska and Maine.  Oh, and his wife begins dating a middle-aged man who can't get enough of European football and Broadway musicals.

Things Fall Down is really As the World Turns....into an Ice Age. or, The Young and the Restless and the Very Cold.  Or, Coronation Street Ice-Plow Capers.  At any rate, if you're looking for science fiction, this isn't it:  science-as-plot was over after the eruption, and now it's scenery. If you want post-apocalyptic thrills, then sorry, out of luck. Now, if you want characters eating oatmeal and taking showers and brooding over their love lives while it snows outside, then hey --  this is the book for you.


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