Slow Apocalypse is something of a departure for titan of interplanetary science fiction John Varley: uncharacteristically for Varley, there are no spaceships or extinct megafauna on the cover, as the novel is set in a future so near that by 2013 it's already a little dated. Both more accessible to a mainstream audience and less compellingly inventive than the high-concept science fiction for which Varley has become best known, Slow Apocalypse is finally a run-of-the-mill apocalyptic thriller redeemed by a few outstanding set pieces and occasional moments of deep sociological insight. I'll admit that I was expecting more from this one, as the title in particular intrigued me. What can Varley mean, one can't help but wonder, by slow apocalypse? Would the novel imagine an end of the world that just keeps on going, a dying world going out with T.S. Eliot's apocalyptic whimper but holding that note for eternity, perpetually in the process of ending but never arriving at the moment of termination? Or, a more intriguing possibility, would the novel be a meditation on the slow apocalypse we're all living through, as we destroy the world by bits and pieces and find ourselves beset by both natural disasters and our own manufactured horrors, each a little bit bigger or closer to home than the last? Would it, in fact, redefine the daily course of human events and all of human history as a long prelude to the inevitable apocalypse? Slow Apocalypse turns out to realize none of these possibilities directly, and can only rarely be seen to suggest them indirectly or thematically: the title mainly refers to Varley's matter of fact contention that, in contrast to the 20th-century tradition of instantaneous nuclear apocalypses, today it might take civilization a few months to unravel. It's certainly a fair point, but in the end I don't know that Varley needs the entirety of this 438-page novel to explore it.
Slow Apocalypse recounts the various trials and tribulations of one Los Angeles family during the death throes of Western industrial civilization, a series of disasters that commences after the world's oil supply suddenly dwindles to nothing. Our viewpoint character is Dave Marshall, a once-successful sitcom writer struggling with both a creative dry spell and a failing marriage at the time when the oil apocalypse begins its slow crawl across the planet. Although Varley will later reflect on how screenwriters, along with a number of other occupations, quickly become superfluous once civilization ends, the novel's first irony is that Dave's precise position in life gives him the opportunity to prepare for the coming societal breakdown better than almost anyone else. A rogue military officer and former Hollywood consultant warns Dave of the impending disaster on the pretext of giving him the story idea of a lifetime: sufficiently credulous, Dave takes precautions that help him immensely as he begins to live through the very story that he was supposed to be writing. This premise is admittedly contrived, but ultimately remains unimportant, just as does the single science fictional element in the novel, the manufactured petroleum virus that contaminates and renders useless the entirety of the world's oil reserves. We never learn much about this virus or the details surrounding its release, although we do learn plenty about its consequences for one man, his wife, their teenage daughter, and a few of their close friends. Indeed, one of the most artful aspects of the novel proves to be how it narrates the gradual diminishment of the world, the forced reduction of modern globalized society to a collection of impossibly distant localities. In this brave new world, for example, thirty-mile journeys acquire an epic scope, and, as one of Dave's friends and business partners remarks, "Our world is contracting, day by day" (p. 136).
This gradual contraction of the world, the slow transition from the global to the local, accounts for Varley's unusually extensive references to the environs of Los Angeles, which far exceed splashes of local color and may even prove slightly intimidating to those not familiar with the area's topography and history. Most readers, however, will at least know that Los Angeles has already become famous as a post-apocalyptic city, immortalized in the dreary 2019 of Blade Runner (1982), among other works, but Varley also exploits the city's pre-apocalyptic status, as it were, in constant danger of succumbing to the Big One and falling right off the edge of the world. In this sense, the novel actually presents an accelerated apocalypse, ringing in early the apocalyptic earthquake that would have come to claim Los Angeles anyway. Sometimes, of course, the particular locality of Los Angeles can stand in as a synecdoche for industrial civilization itself, as when Varley repeatedly insists that the great metropolis will return to the desert, its absolute dependence on water imported from elsewhere now exposed as its death sentence in a post-apocalyptic landscape. But at other times Los Angeles is not simply a convenient metaphor for unsustainability or a negative balance of trade. For instance, throughout the novel I detected some play on Los Angeles as that "La La Land," self-absorbed and self-isolated from the rest of the world: when that isolation becomes literal and insurmountable, all of the city's luxurious glamor and opulent grandeur begin to dissipate. In fact, I would have liked to see a bit more self-conscious reflection on the economic disparities that an apocalyptic trauma would reveal all the more starkly, especially in a place like LA. After all, Dave and his friends manage to weather the apocalypse so well in large part thanks to their economic status: almost a millionaire, Dave has the literal good fortune to own an Escalade and even a horse, which both prove invaluable during his journeys. While we hear that "[t]he Third World was faring worst, to no one's surprise" (p. 146), that's all we really hear about anyone much farther down the economic scale. To be fair, these Third World blinkers again play into Varley's larger point that the post-apocalyptic world will undoubtedly shrink to the local, such that neighborhoods will not be able to see beyond themselves, forced to develop their own "foreign policy" towards adjacent neighborhoods. One of the tradeoffs of Varley's narrow focus on Dave is simply that we don't get to learn much about the rest of the ended world—and Dave the well-to-do Los Angeleno is certainly not a typical or representative citizen of that world.
It's also important to note that Varley has chosen to write the novel in the classic triptych style of apocalyptic fiction, in that we can divide the plot into distinct pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic phases. In general, I found the initial phases far more compellingly drawn, while the various episodes and conflicts that pad out the latter portions of the novel often seem just another romp through the familiar old post-apocalyptic playground. Indeed, one of the problems with Slow Apocalypse is simply that, at this point in the universal saturation of all forms of culture with apocalypse, it can be exceedingly difficult to produce an end of the world that we haven't already seen before. Despite the novel's title, the driving premise is really nothing more than a peak oil scenario that happens more rapidly than even the most pessimistic of the old peak models, and allows for a few more explosions here and there. Indeed, because of the attention Varley pays to these explosions and certain other less-than-apocalyptic catastrophes, the novel sometimes takes on the character of a full-blown disaster novel, recalling the career of George R. Stewart, author of the touchstone post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides (1949) as well as a number of early disaster novels. In succession, Varley's Los Angeles suffers an industrial explosion, an earthquake, a megaquake, and a firestorm; while his descriptions of these events can sometimes drag, Varley excellently depicts how, in the absence of outside aid, every disaster is a major disaster, and major disasters become truly apocalyptic. In general, these individual disaster episodes succeed to the extent to which Varley manages to make full use of the uniqueness of the Los Angeles setting, as he does the best in a set piece exploiting the proximity of the La Brea Tar Pits and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In this scene, Dave looks on in horror as LACMA slides into the ooze, bearing helpless witness to the mass destruction of art objects and other cultural artifacts from all of human history, the final victims of the tar pits.
The destruction of the museum, along with a later passage in the novel reflecting on the (apparent) uselessness of fiction after the apocalypse, reminded me of a passage from Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning apocalypse novel The Road (2006), in which the central character reflects on the futility of a library: "Years later he'd stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He'd not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation. He let the book fall and took a last look around and made his way out into the cold gray light" (The Road, p. 157-8). Both Varley and McCarthy capture a character's simultaneous rage at the wanton destruction of these precious works of art and their abject failure in the face of what destroyed them, a failure of utility that (apocalyptically!) threatens the value of our literature in the present, before any apocalypse reveals it. Of course, Slow Apocalypse lacks both McCarthy's incomparable stylistics and economy of narration: Varley can spend dozens, sometimes hundreds of pages evoking features of the apocalypse that The Road compresses to a single powerful scene or even paragraph. But perhaps it's unfair to compare Varley to McCarthy on these points. Certainly, there is value in the extrapolative realism that The Road so notoriously eschews, and Varley in no way consciously writes in response to McCarthy. In fact, one will find very few direct references in Slow Apocalypse to the (post-)apocalyptic tradition at all, despite several perhaps unintentional evocations of earlier novels, such as Varley's comparable but less satirical version of the Airborne Toxic Event from Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985). But, for instance, none of Varley's characters, although they are Hollywood scriptwriters, joke about triffids or On the Beach (1957). The only namecheck I recall is The Road Warrior (1981), and, by and large, the novel's intertexts are not other apocalypses but—a not insignificant detail—all the catastrophes and scenes of violence in recent historical memory: Hurricane Katrina; the Dust Bowl; the Rodney King riots; massive earthquakes in countries like Haiti and Turkey; the London Blitz; NATO action in Kandahar; the sinking of the Titanic; the Allied firebombing of Germany; and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, among others. By far the two most commonly invoked events are 9/11 and, less expectedly, the Okie migration; collectively these references not to apocalyptic fictions but real disasters raise the insidious suggestion that, yes, we may be living the slow apocalypse ourselves, day by disaster-filled day. Moreover, as the apocalypse peculiar to the novel unfolds, Varley's references to historical events seem to reach farther and farther backwards in time, by the middle describing the new world in terms of medieval social organization and geographical knowledge; peaking near the start of the novel's final movement with the Hebrew Exodus; and then returning to the earliest days of civilization: "Dave could easily imagine the comfort such a fire must have provided to the humans who first tamed it" (p. 345). As well as any other recent post-apocalyptic novel, Slow Apocalypse emphasizes that what we might call the apocalyptic condition afflicted humanity just as much in the past as we might imagine it to do in some foreseeable future.
As with any post-apocalyptic novel, then—or, one could argue, with any science fiction novel—we must ask whether we think Slow Apocalypse is finally more a novel about our present, or more about the real possibility of a particular imagined future. In other words, when Varley writes, "One disaster follows another, in a relentless parade" (p. 428), is he talking about a world actually ending, or simply the world existing? It's not The Road, but, largely because of its ability to address in sophisticated ways both the present and its plausible vision of a genuine societal collapse, Slow Apocalypse remains a cut above, for example, the spate of similarly survivalist novels dating from the later decades of the Cold War. Of course, in Slow Apocalypse there are still the obligatory roving motorcycle gangs, but thankfully no cannibals, and the novel generally holds to what strikes me as a plausible and only mildly paranoiac view of the sociology of disaster. The epilogue may verge on the didactic, but Varley never disguises the cautionary nature of the tale he's been spinning: for example, throughout the novel, Varley urges us to reexamine and redefine words like "conservation" and "community." Government, too, tends toward the authoritarian, and the novel's politics emerge as a decidedly communitarian libertarianism: the novel offers a vision of the reforming and rebuilding of civilization from the smallest effective unit, the community, having moved from individual to family to rest at community. In the novel's final scenes of rebuilding, there may be a particularly pungent whiff of the "cozy catastrophe"—earlier in the novel, the only one happy about the slow apocalypse was an aging railroad engineer eager to fire up the old engines—but Varley only occasionally slips into sentimentality (the family that braves the apocalypse together stays together). By the end of Slow Apocalypse, we see not simply the reconstitution of some quasi-utopian societal structure, but also the resurgence of entertainment, of narrative, elegantly capping the novel's quiet reflections on what it means to write (and read) the end of the world in a world that hasn't ended yet. Since imagining the apocalypse continues to be one of our favorite pastimes in the 21st century, any post-apocalyptic novel that spares some time to reflect critically on that pastime will stand out, at least a little, from the rest.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.