© John Varley, cover design by Judith Lagerman.
John Varley is an author whose work I like so much that I will automatically buy any new book he puts out, and I have yet to be disappointed. Most of his work has been science fiction. This one is a disaster thriller with just a touch of SF in the cause: someone in a secret military lab somewhere creates a strain of bacteria that can turn crude oil into something completely unusable and unleashes it on an oil field in Saudi Arabia. It succeeds too well, causing explosions and destroying the entire field. Too well, because, though it was only intended to work underground, the bacteria mutates into a form that can travel by air and begins to spread across the world, wreaking havoc on one oil field after another, and leaving behind nothing that can be used as fuel or anything else.
Dave Marshall is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles, a bit down on his luck, trying to drum up new story ideas from Colonel Warner, an ex-military man who works as a consultant on Hollywood films involving the military. At a meeting between the two, the Colonel reveals the story of the disastrous bacteria now spreading across the world, but being kept a dark secret by all the governments involved. Not long after their meeting, Dave witnesses the Colonel assassinated by government forces, which convinces him the story is true.
Dave’s wife Karen doesn’t believe a word of it, and the two are somewhat estranged anyway, but his daughter Addison becomes convinced, and joins him in planning what to do before their own world changes. They stock up on supplies, and information. They bring some close friends in on what they know, hoping they have time to prepare.
One night the oil field in the Los Angeles basin begins to explode, and suddenly it all seems much more real. But the authorities are still covering up the true problem, and it takes an even worse disaster, a massive earthquake, to completely destroy the infrastructure of the city and get everyone to see how life as they knew it was over. Even Karen is shocked into the truth, and finally rejoins her family in their efforts to survive this disaster. As you can imagine, things are going to get a lot worse.
Great read, wonderful characters, vivid depictions of the upheavals of everything we know. There are some quieter moments in the book, but some, like a fire that threatens their home, are as thrilling as anything you might see in the best action film, and very hard to put down. Varley is a fan of SF author Robert Heinlein, and many of his books can be seen to parallel that writer’s work in some way. This one has some nods to “Farnham’s Freehold” at the beginning, but follows its own logical course, and has a much better story arc than that book. I recommend it highly!