Supervolcano: All Fall Down
© 2012 Harry Turtledove
YellowstoneNational Park is gone, replaced by a vast caldera that still ripples the air with its heat. The momentous eruption covered North America’s great-growing heartland in ash, ruining harvests for years to come, and vented enough dust into the atmosphere to begin a new ice age. In Supervolcano: Eruption, Harry Turtledove began a trilogy exploring the aftermath of such an enormous eruption, using the dysfunctional Ferguson family and their associates to tell the tale. The original novel was shaky at best, relying more on its premise than anything else, but All Fall Down is an improvement.
All Fall Down builds on the world the eruption began to create – a colder world, with abbreviated growing seasons and snow that never seems to stop. Characterization has improved from Eruption, or rather the characters have: the Fergusons tended toward the obnoxious before the earth-shattering kaboom, but having to adapt to increasingly adverse circumstances has improved their dispositions. They , and the world in which they live, are adapting; this is especially obvious in the case of the Ferguson boy trapped in Maine, who before the fun began was touring in a garage band. With the entire northern hemisphere experiencing eight months of winter and four months of bad skiing, the Federal government has largely abandoned Maine. There, characters live close to the land. No more do they ship in salads from California and shrimp from Thailand: now they hunt moose and squirrel, and subsist on whatever crops can survive the new local conditions. In California, Colin Ferguson – a no-nonsense cop whose steely resolve and willingness to make adjustments makes him a solid central character – bicycles to work, even if he is the #2 cop in the city. He’s also willing to turn a machine gun on the Los Angles Police Department if they try to pinch his department’s tanker of gasoline. Desperate times breed strong men and iron-handed measures. Colin’s daughter Vanessa continues her caustic reign of terror, but the Ferguson crew is supplemented by a mysterious guerilla-turned-freedom fighter from Serbia and an endearingly odd political leader who embraces anachronity in his dress and speech.
The novel spans anywhere from three to five years, judging by the fact that a woman gives birth to a child who is asking annoying questions by novel’s end, and in that timeframe Turtledove’s new world becomes much more like Jim Kunstler’s peak-oil world featured in his World Made by Hand Novels and less like our own. This slow transformation takes place in the background, against which characters pursue their own private stories – a serial killer for the lieutenant, escape from the purgatory of Kansas for Vanessa. As with the first novel, the premise and how that shapes the characters’ lives is more interesting than their private lives, with the exceptions of those characters who live outside of California.
Unfortunately, the same basic weakness of Eruption is present here, as well. Turtledove’s novels have a big background happening with his characters trying to live out their lives against it, but the gradual transformation of the climate doesn’t move the plot, and neither do the characters’ little stories. The man in Maine whom CNN calls a virtual dictator has the potential to create a more energetic story, but so far he’s only functioned as a wry commentator. And of course, there’s the usual editing problem — Turtledove stumbled upon a metaphor he likes between the two books, “screwing to the wall”, and he used it with great gusto here. He does seem to be curbing his habit of repeatedly describing the same characters: here, only Colin’s dry humor is used in this way. For the most part, Turtledove demonstrates his characters’ personalities rather than describes them, which is refreshing after reading for the hundredth time that Sam Carsen burns easily or Ludmila Gorbunova is a good child of the Soviet Revolution and has no use for priests.*
Although All Fall Down was entertaining enough that I don’t regret reading, I can’t say I’d purchase it. It is a step forward in the right direction, and the general premise still holds fascination for me.
* To be fair, though, I remember Turtledove’s characters when other novelists’ creations have long been forgotten, so perhaps there’s a method in his madness. The trivia I can tell you about people who don’t exist…!