The Charles Sheffield series continues.
Raw Feed (2000): Aftermath, Charles Sheffield, 1998.
I thought this was going to be a post-apocalypse novel about life on Earth after Alpha Centauri goes supernova. But it’s clear that, except in the setting itself, Sheffield doesn’t have much interest in writing a true post-apocalypse novel.
There are multiple viewpoint characters apart from some brief opening scenes in which three characters, who we, of course, never see again, die to show us the opening effects of the supernova. This is a standard technique of the suspense blockbuster, and Sheffield here seems to be trying to write in that style since the hard science he is known for is at a minimum.
There are no scenes of desperate violence for precious resources, no calculation of whom is fit to live and die, no bands of marauders, none of the bread and butter scenes that the usual (and enjoyable) post-apocalypse story has.
The part of the novel I liked best was the part I expected to like least: the plot involving the brilliant scientist – and serial killer – Oliver Guest. My original fears that he seemed to be an imitation of Thomas Harris’ infamous Hannibal Lector were partly realized. He is brilliant and cultured with peculiar motivations to kill. Most of the information about him comes from his secret diary – which he explicitly acknowledges is meant, as all diaries are, to be read by someone else someday.
He is sentenced to “judicial sleep” which is an interesting idea. Sheffield does a good job of selling it as a plausible and socially acceptable alternative to capital punishment. The convicted criminal is put in a coma until he dies of natural causes – or is found innocent on appeal or pardoned – and his estate put in suspension. It’s a reversible sentence and cheaper than imprisonment.
After the supernova, all microchips are fried by an electromagnetic pulse, and three cancer survivors have their telemod implants rendered useless. Having been failed by all conventional cancer therapies, they are part of an experimental program that modified chromosomes’ telomeres: shortening those of cancer cells and lengthening those of regular cells. (Animal experiments have been outlawed by the date of this novel, 2026, as has tobacco use – we meet some tobacco smugglers.) It’s a delicate balancing act that could lead to progeria, runaway cancer, or extended life. The survivors are denied the use of their regular physicians so they seek out the therapy’s developer, Guest.
Guest’s crimes seem to involve killing beautiful 14-year old girls and then trying to clone them to create a perfect version of the girls whom he regards as spoiled. He hides his victims’ DNA in the introns of a turtle. (Sheffield puts his longtime interest in the biology of cancer and its treatment to good use here. The conservations between two of the survivors, Art Ferrand and Dana Berlitz, about how they regard their cancer cells as newly discovered traitors, seem realistic.
Ferrand is an interesting character. His occupation as a specialist in sewer and water networks provides the three an interesting, convenient route in the quest to break Guest out of judicial sleep. He’s also something of a survivalist. While he has panicked in two past situations (an averted plague and a threatened terrorist action against Washington DC, his regular home), his fleeing to his functional, primitive cabin this time is fortuitous.
How to get a clever serial killer to help you while not getting hurt made for an interesting plot, particularly the interaction between Seth Parsigian, an uneducated but very clever, amoral character who reminded me of Pierre the gunshop owner in John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, and Guest. Both parties try to betray each other. Guest escapes, and Ferrand and Berlitz try to turn him into the authorities.
But the violent ending to their subplot didn’t occur as I expected. All four live at novel’s end, Guest having unsuccessfully tired to fake his death after supplying an alternative monitoring method for the three to satisfy them into not looking too hard at his death.
That was the interesting plot.
The rest of the novel had subplots that were largely of the type normally expected in political thrillers. They all had elements of realism, but their very presence was largely clichéd.
There was the annoying triangle between single President Saul Steinmetz, socially ambitious Tricia Goldsmith (who wants to be First Lady, and Yasmin Silvers, exotsically beautifully, politically ambitious presidential aide who wants, someday, to be President. As Silvers notes, both women are from poor backgrounds and sexually adventurous “sluts” that arouse the psychologically impotent President. I found this subplot annoying. I also didn’t find Steinmetz as sympathetic as I was probably supposed. He was way too fond of spying on people.
We also have other clichés: the sexual predator politician (again, as Bill Clinton and others have shown, this is not unrealistic, just not terribly interesting) and opportunistic politician who uses the disaster for his own ends. Here the two are combined in Nick Lopez who has raped his nephew (Yasmin Silvers’ brother) and wants to use America’s new-found superiority to establish a global empire. He’s joined by racist Sally Mander. (I found the prevalence of anti-Semitism and racism annoying and unrealistic. I suspect that Sheffield has somewhat leftist politics given this feature and the plot of his Brother to Dragons, though he has written with conservative Jerry Pournelle.)
Their imperial ambitions seem, at first, wildly unrealistic, but Sheffield introduces the realistic touch that America’s arsenal, due to the keeping of old weapons without microchips, duplication due to inter-service rivalry, underground protection of some weapons, and protected subs, has survived and is now stronger relative to other countries than before the supernova. Steinmetz rejects, initially, the call to empire but, to get the world ready for the even deadlier hail of subatomic particles from the supernova, due to arrive in about fifty years, he accepts the notion. (His original practical objection – he also has moral ones – is that keeping an empire is hard and not, ultimately, doable.)
The Eye of God cult encountered by some of the surivors of the first Mars expedition is rather clichéd except for the notion that leader Pearl Lazenby (realistically portrayed as very charismatic and reasonable – as you have to be to attain such a position) may really have foreseen the supernova. I did like the well-rendered romance between Ferrand and Berlitz – I suspect Sheffield’s wife, Nancy Kress, listed, with others, as a reader of the novel’s first draft, may have helped here.
And, of course, the notion that Alpha Centauri’s theoretically impossible supernovaing was very interesting. That, the possibility of more global destruction in 50 years, and the proposed Dux Americana clearly make this the first in a series though the book was, annoyingly, not advertised as such.