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Falling

Hey, do you remember that episode of Stargate where an alien disease turned everyone into cavemen, until they cured it with antihistamines? Richard Dean Anderson looked like he was really enjoying his part in that one. Nothing like the opportunity for some literal scenery-chewing, right? Good times.

Rajan Khanna's post-zombiepocalypse survival novel, Falling Sky, commits no great sin in retreading an episode of Stargate: SG-1. Its true failure is threefold: first, it regards its human characters through the filter of sophomoric misanthropy; second, its world is an incoherent collection of stuff, in which each piece has been glued on top of the last without any regard for how they might interact; and third, both the plot and the characters are too dull to distract from the rest of the book's problems.

In the world of Falling Sky, our civilization has been destroyed by a virus called "The Bug." The Bug is a bit like rabies, in that it makes its victims irrationally aggressive. Though slightly more infectious than rabies, it still requires contact with blood, spit, or semen for transmission. That would make it about as infectious as smallpox and Ebola, but not as infectious as tuberculosis or the flu. Victims of The Bug do not die, but they also never recover. They tear off their clothes and retreat into the wilderness, living out their lives in communities called "nests," where they raise their infected children. Also, they eat people.

It is hard to tell how many generations have passed since The Bug ended civilization as we know it. Our hero, Benjamin Gold, says that his grandfather was born before the plague hit. My best guess is that it has been less than a hundred years, but more than thirty; Ben and the other characters have a very strange mix of memories of the old days that is never explained. Poker has survived, for instance, but chess and Scrabble have not; Ben uses words like "radioactive" and "cloak and dagger" but has to explain "viking"; everyone remembers San Diego but no one remembers Chicago. Radios, rifles, and cameras are everyday objects, but radar and anti-aircraft guns are unheard-of.

In Ben's time, uninfected people live in zeppelins. Ben's grandfather stole the miniature zeppelin that Ben calls home, then passed it along to Ben's father, who taught Ben how to fly (Ben makes a brief mention of a mother whom he does not remember, but otherwise the Gold family might as well have been grown in vats, for all that women are involved in their story). A few ambitious folk have built flying cities. It is the description of one of these flying cities that destroyed my ability to take Falling Sky seriously as a work of science fiction. It took three words: "They made helium" (p. 26).

The "They" in question is Mad Max's Bartertown in the sky, a lighter-than-air city made of "corrugated metal and old car parts" (p. 165), appropriately renamed "Gastown." Unfortunately, the booming helium trade attracted the attention of a rival lighter-than-air city run by evil pagans. When the book opens, Gastown has already been conquered.

In the real world, helium is a product of radioactive decay. Most of the Earth's helium escapes into space, because the Earth's gravity is not strong enough to hold it. Some of it is trapped in the same kind of rock formations that trap natural gas. When humans drill for gas, we also release small amounts of helium. With the right cryogenic technology, that helium can be distilled and used.

Ben's world has no agriculture, no industry, no government, no currency, and only the most basic barter economy. Somehow they all keep their zeppelins flying, and someone is operating a natural gas drilling/refining operation. North America is teeming with murderous, naked, infected people, even the parts that get down to -20 F and have a foot of snow dropped on them in the winter (c.f. the Midwest). Falling Sky doesn't explain how any of this works. Everything I have described is just the setup for an action-adventure plot.

Here's the plot: Mr. Gold throws a temper tantrum and abandons the settlement that he had been hired to protect. On his way out, he spots an invasion force of evil pagans. Knowing that his departure left the settlement defenseless, he turns around, but is too late. In the melee, he loses his zeppelin. After a series of wacky hijinks that include sealing himself and his friends into used chemical drums in order to smuggle themselves into the secret underground natural gas/helium refinery, he gets his zeppelin back. Then he sets it on fire and crashes it into another evil pagan invasion force.

Why didn't he try the Hindenburg Maneuver during the previous invasion? Partially because he hadn't yet filled his zeppelin with bombs stolen from the conveniently located secret underground natural gas/helium drilling rig/refining plant/virological testing lab/explosives storage facility (I choose to believe that all the underground action sequences involve people talking in high, squeaky voices due to leaking helium). Mostly, though, Mr. Gold didn't tried to stop the first invasion because he is a terrible person.

Ben believes that there are two kinds of people in the world: idealists who panic and die in emergencies, and selfish survivors who grab what they can and then abandon everyone else to their fate. He and his father aspired to be the latter kind of man. They traveled the world alone, avoiding human contact (except for the teenage girl, Claudia, whom Ben's father picked up in the hope of replacing his dead wife). Since the plague, every attempt to restart civilization has failed. Somehow there was always a crisis, the idealists panicked, and everyone else grabbed whatever they could carry and bailed out.

As with every other incoherent part of Falling Sky, this view of human nature only exists to make the action-adventure plot possible. Decent people, real people, would be growing winter wheat in the Dakotas or fishing off the coast of Alaska, rebuilding civilization in places where General January and General February could be counted upon to clean up any stray infected people. They wouldn't be farting around in zeppelins, knifing each other over cans of Spam, and waiting for the end to come.

Decent people wouldn't have time for a selfish man-child like Mr. Gold. He wants us to believe that his big revelation is that he ought to risk his own safety for the hope of a better future. However, the events of the book do not bear this out. Consider: at one point, Ben is rescued by an old man who lives on a fortified ranch. The ranch has food, water, generators — even a horse named Rex, because horses are immune to the plague.

After a few days, the old man rides out and meets an untimely end. Rex the horse is unharmed, and eventually finds his own way home. While Mr. Gold is trying to figure out what to do about this, some of his friends arrive in a zeppelin. They are scientists, and they have salvaged the core of their research, but they need a new base of operations.

At this point, Ben has everything. Food. Water. Scientists. A zeppelin. Safety. Generators and a horse. If he only cared about survival, he should settle right there and never move again.

Instead, Ben shoots the horse. I'm not even kidding. He shoots the horse dead, fills his pockets with whatever will fit, and convinces his friends to take off and abandon the fortified ranch. He wants his own zeppelin back, and he doesn't care who or what he has to destroy in order to get it. He leaves the ranch with its fence, its water, the food that he couldn't carry, and the corpse of a loyal animal to rot because if he doesn't want it, then no one can have it. Ever.

I think that Rex's death will be Ben's moral event horizon for a lot of readers. There was no reason, aside from pure cruelty, to kill the horse rather than turn it loose. For me, though, Ben lost any hope of being redeemed when he found out that Miranda was coming along on one of his adventures. Miranda is his designated love interest (the woman that his father picked up, Claudia, is fine for a quick lay, but our hero isn't going to settle for a woman who is easy). When she surprises him en route to his next paint-by-numbers action sequence, he says,

I walk toward her, grab her by the arm and drag her back into the back room of the gondola. I can feel the heat rising in my face. But my momentary anger is drowned out by my shock.

He dragged her into the back room so that he could shout at her in private. The book tries to turn Mr. Gold's scary abusive boyfriend episode into a steamy private moment between the hero and his crush, but it's too late.

But wait! Evil pagans? Where did they come from?

While the most destructive forces in Falling Sky are Mr. Gold's ego, his poor planning skills, and his habit of prioritizing his toys over the survival of the human race, the actual villain is a community of people who worship the Norse gods and try to live like the ancient Vikings. Their lighter-than-air city lies far to the north and east, over the ruins of a city whose name no one remembers (Chicago). They call it Valhalla, and they have tethered it to the ruins of a tower whose name no one remembers (the Sears Tower). They wear fur (no explanation as to where they get it) and they kill lots of people.

Given how little thought seems to have gone into the rest of the book, I do not think that the author intended to portray modern pagans who follow Norse traditions as monsters with a fondness for vivisection and murder. I suspect that they were merely intended to be a clever foil for our hero.

Ben Gold is, so we are told, a Jew. He says that his father "drilled him in Hebrew," although there is no Hebrew in this book and Ben's copy of the Torah is an English translation (at no point do they attempt to salvage an actual Torah scroll, or even a single siddur). He says that he and his father had a hard time working out when to celebrate Jewish holidays, possibly because the caveman-zombies had eaten the Moon. He says that his father taught him Jewish traditions, but that is simply impossible.

One of our central traditions is called tikun olam. There are various translations, but the gist is that we, the Jewish people, are called upon to make the world a better place. Another central principles is pikuach nefesh, which places the saving of human life as the overriding priority in any situation. Mr. Gold makes no mention of the Talmud, which is the basis of Jewish law. And he makes no mention of the synagogue or the requirement to gather a minyan of ten adults in order to pray. Judaism is not a religion that can be practiced by one antisocial man and his son. Judaism requires a sense of community that is absent from everyone in Falling Sky.

Even the rabbi—and yes, there is a rabbi, dressed in "traditional rabbi garb," by which the book means that he is dressed like a Lubavitcher in a black coat and black fedora, silk and beaver being abundant after the apocalypse—makes no mention of any Jewish principles. He hands a Star of David pendant to Mr. Gold as if he were a priest handing a crucifix to a Catholic. In the background, the Jewish people shuffle silently out of their unnamed synagogue, making no effort to learn about the stranger who has appeared in their midst.

Later on, Mr. Gold pins that Star of David to his chest. He feels like a lawman, like a sheriff, like a gunslinger from the Old West. As a Jew, seeing another Jew with a star pinned to his chest makes me feel something very different.

The amount of incompetence, cowardice, and downright evil soaking through Falling Sky ruins any other redeeming qualities it might have. This isn't a world that I recognize. These aren't human beings as I know them. Consider that we all just witnessed Nigeria face down the Ebola virus and, by all accounts, defeat it with a combination of level-headedness, courage, and altruism. I don't think that The Bug could destroy civilization. Rabies has been a real and incurable fact of life for most (if not all) of human history. And, yes, people were occasionally beaten to death for being suspected carriers. But civilization? That kept chugging along.

When I read a book, I try to imagine what kind of person would be delighted to read it. Someone must love this book, or it would never have seen print. For once, I'm stumped. Falling Sky has a tedious plot, enacted by characters who range from dull to repellant, who live in a world made of paste, cardboard, and spite. Its portrayal of humanity insults the reader. Don't read this book. You deserve better.

As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.



As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.
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