© 1995 Peter Hernon
San Andreas? You want a real earthquake, son, you come to Tennessee. In America’s heartland lies a currently-quiescent fault, the New Madrid Seismic Zone. In the early 19th century a series of three massive earthquakes rolled the Mississippi River region, the most powerful quakes recorded in American history. In 8.4., it happens again…..but instead of scaring the coon-skin caps off of hunters and making the cows go crazy in the frontier, it devastates cities. It doesn’t just give them a bad day, knocking the electricity offline and collapsing interstate bridges: it levels the area, with a preliminary death toll of over a hundred thousand.
The novel is a genuine science fiction tale, as most of the viewpoint characters are seismologists who are frantically trying to figure out what’s happening; as they argue between themselves and attempt to convince the authorities that the worst is yet to come, the reader is treated to not only explanations of tectonic geology, but graphics that give some idea of what is happening below — illustrating the different kinds of faults, for instance. Key to the drama is the fact that New Madrid activity doesn’t consist of one big quake with minor aftershocks, but that its powerful tectonic activity erupts in clusters. The characters spend most of the book in mortal danger: if they’re not fleeing the consequences of the quakes, like floods in Kentucky after a dam collapses, or urban riots as people raid stores for supplies, they’re actively courting it by crossing rivers transacted by the faults, rappelling into open breaks in the Earth’s surface, or probing deep into abandoned mines to collect data. There’s even a little outbreak of civil war at the end, when the President decides the best thing to do is stick an A-bomb in the Earth’s innards and blow it up, and the Kentucky governor realizes the White House is out of its ever-lovin’ mind.
8.4 leads with science, and follows with disaster-movie thrills. The endgame is bonkers, frankly, but maybe it’s hard to sell 20th century readers on the idea that not everything can be solutioned or bombed away.
Supervolcano: Eruption, Harry Turtledove.