Not to be confused with Will McIntosh’s fascinating Soft Apocalypse, Slow Apocalypse by John Varley presents a familiar end of the world scenario. The premise– a rogue scientist seeking vengeance for 9/11 creates a virus that solidifies the world’s oil– is quickly discarded in favor of a rote story about stocking up on canned food and shotguns. Instead of exploring the ramifications of the collapse of a worldwide infrastructure, Slow Apocalypse focuses on how a struggling screenwriter learns to protect his family from roving biker gangs.
The story is told from a blithely male perspective that is frankly repulsive. Before the catastrophe, Dave Marshall was a mild-mannered comedy writer with no employment prospects, a shrew of a wife, and a spoiled daughter. But thanks to a heads up from a Hollywood military consultant, he hoards food and supplies, learns how to fire a gun, and is able to take advantage of this stroke of good luck and negotiate his way back into his family’s affection. Los Angeles is on fire, his friends are missing and presumed dead, but at least Dave’s wife is finally sleeping with him again. And as an added bonus, he can now kill people he finds threatening, like Hispanic looters and Korean gang members.
It’s hard to imagine John Varley crafting a more narrowly inclusive scenario out of the apocalypse than making the everyman hero a sitcom writer and limiting the action to Los Angeles. But it’s the book’s attitude towards women that makes it truly unpalatable. A line in the epilogue sums it up best. “If she dwells on her gang rape, she has never shown it,” Dave writes of a friend in his journal. Truly, his stoicism in the aftermath of this terrible catastrophe is commendable. His ability to adapt to extreme circumstances is a testament to by-your-bootstraps perseverance, proof that there is hope for American masculinity if only we put the Internet and television away, and that man’s inability to see other people as human beings will always prevail.