A perfectly wonderful little disaster read I undertook on a Sunday while cooking too much food and then eating it. Gotta put on the fat for the long nuclear winter! (Or Christmas, but same dif.) Sixteen year old Alex is left home for the weekend, his parents and sister driving off to visit family a couple of hours away. Then blammo! The super volcano under Yellowstone erupts. Although about a thousand miles away from eastern Iowa, where this mostly takes place, the volcano belches enough ash to blot out the sun and rain down in inches. Alex strikes out into the wasteland to reunite with this family. Post-apocalyptic troubles ensue.
Although this book kinda looks like one of those landscape pictures, like The Road
, where the principles move through a landscape that is (on some level) metaphysical, it's not. This is more akin to hard science fictions, and its concerns tend to be physical. The homework has been done, and everything about the descriptions of the volcano, its aftereffects, and even the effects on technology, animals, the body are well-researched; not just plausible but likely. Mullin knows how to skin a rabbit, and he's not afraid to tell you how it's done. But, and this is just me, I have some personal boredoms with certain aspects of hard science fiction - there is often a whole lot of concrete detail that doesn't do anything but sit there concretely. I'm not complaining - this is a great antidote to a lot of shitty, fanciful world-building that goes on, the kind of stuff that sets up a world to conform to the fantasies of the readership. (I'm not going to name names, but you probably know what I'm talking about.) This is more documentary than horror film, even while it documents horror. More books, even fictional ones, would do better to have bibliographies; nice.
The characters are competent and not prone to arm-wheeling, even in often dire situations. For the most part I liked the voice of Alex, though I think he sometimes slipped into sounding older and more measured than his years. And sometimes I think his affect was a little flat - or possibly it was just the unornamented prose. Alex doesn't pause much for flowery descriptions, which has both benefits and disappointments. I am a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic landscape, and that desolate beauty is what has made me forgive books like Blood Red Road for other narrative foolishness. I think this ashy Iowa could have been better evoked, but that is mostly personal preference, and the attention to realistic detail is well done.
The best parts of this book occur in small, claustrophobic environments, like the sequence when Alex falls into a river and nearly freezes to death. The building of the ersatz igloo, the breaking of his travelling partner's grief taking place in the mundanity of hour-by-hour survival - this was very well-done. When the lens widens and we start seeing more of the post-volcanic world - like everything about the FEMA camp - this worked less well for me. It's not that I don't think what happens there is impossible - and again, the part where Alex pulls a guard duty has a bleak everyday quality which is sketched well - it just felt more pointedly...what?...like some kind of commentary, a smash at corporatization that felt out of place in an otherwise suffocatingly personal narrative. Sort of oh noes, teh governments
, when the opposite has been vividly shown to be no good either. (Oh noes, teh cannibals!
) I guess there's something to be said for balance, just, I don't know, that camp didn't make any sense to me. Governments are often stupid and cruel in crisis situations, just in a more casual, haphazard way.
Anyway, this was super fun to read, and I liked it, but several things about it - mostly personal preference stuff - keep me from raving. Enjoyable end of the world, and tons of points for the physical realities here.