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Slow Apocalypse by John Varley

What would happen if the world's supply of oil was suddenly gone? And specifically, what would happen in Los Angeles, a city created artificially out of the desert?

Slow Apocalypse begins in present day Los Angeles, where Dave Marshall, a formerly successful but now struggling comedy writer, is researching aspects of a military plot of what he hopes will be the next big dramatic movie. He is fortunate enough to stumble upon advance notice of what the rest of the world will soon find out – that the world as we know it is over, and things are about to change dramatically.

John Varley, an exceptional writer, does a terrific job of describing what would happen as the power goes out, supplies slowly dwindle, fire sweeps the city with no one able to put it out – and the Big One, the earthquake to end all earthquakes, finally hits. End-of-the-world stories are big right now, but Varley doesn't go for the obvious dramatic choices or cliches; his focus is more on the reality of what would actually happen, the ethical and moral choices we would all have to make. I could see myself in this story, and it rang true all the way until the end.

The world narrows for Dave and his wife and daughter, to their house, their neighborhood, their struggle to survive, their awareness that every decision they make could mean life or death. This is essentially a first person story (Dave's) even though it is told in third person, but while Dave is a good man, the characters I enjoyed reading about the most were his wife Karen, who changes dramatically during the course of the novel, and daughter Addison, who is obsessed with both saving her horse (yes, that's "horse," not house) and helping the suffering people she encounters. Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters were two-dimensional for me, but the changes in the biggest and most important character of all, Los Angeles, is where Varley concentrated his considerable writing talent. I've lived in Los Angeles for the past decade, and the meticulously researched level of detail about the city got to me; I read this novel in pretty much one sitting, and it's not short.

A lot of John Varley's novels are hard (and exceptionally good) futuristic science fiction, which is very much my thing, but Slow Apocalypse is very much "day after tomorrow", and despite its subject matter, I assure you it is not a downer. I thought it was much better than his treatment of a similar plot line in Red Lightning.

So do I recommend it? Yes, absolutely. Of course, I'm biased because John Varley is my favorite author right now, but if you like a good end of the world story, don't miss this one.

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Thanks for the review, Billie. This sounds like a book I would like. (I'd never heard of Varley before reading about him on your site.)

    I have often thought that writers have missed an opportunity in apocalyptic works. Such works tend to focus on a big, sudden apocalypse or start after the apocalypse is over. Even in great graphic novels/television shows like The Walking Dead, I find myself wishing they'd spend more time on what people did as the world they knew was disintegrating. I guess I just wasn't reading the right things.

    I'm sure many of your readers know this, but I thought I'd share it anyway (it's the teacher in me): There is a type of third-person narration called third-person limited, in which the narrative perspective is focused exclusively on a single character. (As opposed to the more familiar third-person omniscient, in which the narrator knows all and shifts focus among different characters.) The most well-known example I can think of that uses third-person limited is the Harry Potter series, but it's pretty common. (There is a third third-person narrative type, third-person dramatic, but it's not very common.)

    Sorry for the tangent, but I can't help myself. I'm an English teacher!


  2. " Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters were two-dimensional for me..."

    That just makes it sound more realistic, given the setting. :-)

    I hope you weren't reading the book during our recent earthquakes. That would have been creepy.

  3. I read it yesterday, Josie, fortunately after the earthquakes. :)

    KAM, I always love your comments. I have a literature degree but didn't know that particular term.


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