"A rough estimate based on geologic records indicates there's a 1-in-10,000 chance of a "supereruption" at Yellowstone during our lifetimes. However, given the erratic nature of volcanoes, that number doesn't mean much. The bulging pocket of magma swishing around beneath Old Faithful might never blow its lid again. Or, it might put on a surprise fireworks show next Independence Day. Scientists just don't know."
And what does that huge caldera look like? First, a science overview.
In the foreground is the Yellowstone River, winding peacefully through the Hayden Valley. From what we see here, this could be any (alluvial) flood plain from any sizable river, formed from sediments that eroded from the mountains in the distance.
Yes. But. This particular flood plain is the floor of the Yellowstone Caldera, northeastern portion. It lies directly over the the bulge/magma hotspot shown schematically in Pic #3 above. And those mountains in the distance are the edge of the caldera. In plain English, the mountains are the RIM OF THE VOLCANO. If and when there is another major eruption, this peaceful valley will be a seething, violent cauldron, and millions of tons of molten rock and ash will spew forth.
A similar caldera from the same hotspot (but in southern Idaho) was formed between 10 and 12 million years ago, and the event dropped ash to a depth of one foot, 1,000 miles away in northeastern Nebraska. Within the past 17 million years, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot, as discussed in this Wikipedia article.
In what follows, I will focus (as usual) on big-picture aspects of the story, and stay (mostly) away from plot details. If you are completely unfamiliar with the book, there will be some mild spoilers in the details. But most of those are implied in the publisher’s synopsis.
And watch for comments by SPECIAL GUEST REVIEWER, karen!! (YAY!!). karen’s comments will appear in this format.
So let’s talk about some general aspects of this book.
Will the Yellowstone caldera have another massive eruption at some point in the future? I think the odds are very strong that it will. The site is under continuous surveillance, and you can check up on the latest at the USGS/University of Utah website. . There is even a webcam where you can watch for the next eruption:
Note the wispy puffs of steam here and there at ground level. And this quote from the webcam page:
”This area hosted a variety of rock- hurling hydrothermal (steam) eruptions during the 1930s... In recent years, similar smaller blasts have been known to occur.”
Now, if that doesn’t get your heart pumping, then you fail the geek test.
Will the effects of a major eruption be devastating for all life within a radius of hundreds of miles (including human, if we survive all those other apocalypses that may come sooner than this one)? Absolutely.
Here are some critters that were fossilized by a previous eruption of the hotspot - the one in Idaho, mentioned above. The pic is from Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, in Nebraska. And yes, that is volcanic ash that surrounds them (and covered them before it was cleared away).
There is a ton of science on this subject, and hundreds of web pages, scholarly articles, books, etc. that delve into all the scientific details. The Yellowstone Supervolcano is very real, and a lot is known about it.
The author placed the scene of his Ashfall story in Iowa, about 900 miles from the eruption site. I think this choice was reasonable based on the ashfall zones from relatively recent eruptions (see map in Pic #1). The ashfall might not reach quite the depths discussed in the book, at that distance from the caldera. And the noise levels described in the days after the eruption might also be somewhat overstated. But these are minor quibbles, I think, and the quibbles could also be wrong.
In any case, it seems very likely that all human life within several hundred miles of the caldera would be exterminated by the combination of projectiles, ash, poisonous gases, and habitat destruction (and there are other factors that the reader will discover). So, I would say that the Iowa scene was an excellent choice overall for the story as written.
Human behavior, post-apocalypse: For review purposes, let’s just say that some really bad human behavior happens, beginning soon after the initial cataclysm. As a reference point, think about New Orleans in the days and weeks after Katrina. There were acts of extraordinary heroism, courage and selflessness. There were also acts of barbarism, violence, and savagery. Many of us watched coverage of those events, and I doubt that we will ever forget what we saw. Now, instead of toxic flood water, think of a blanket of ash and an atmosphere of sulphur dioxide and other noxious goodies. And a VERY much larger impact zone.
Do normal rules of law, order and civility break down in such situations? You bet. Do people of high character rise to the occasion, match wits with the disaster and the demons, and win a few battles here and there? Yes, they do. Both of those manifestations are handled extremely well here, and in stark, vivid detail. Not for the squeamish, but certainly not over the top in my view. I found it all highly engrossing and very believable.
Male POV: The merits and demerits of this first-person male narrative approach have been discussed elsewhere. I thought that Alex was very effective as the story-teller, and both the telling and his character became more interesting and nuanced as the story rolled along. There were moments, especially early, where Alex was, umm, annoyingly obtuse. And yes, I wanted to slap him around a few times as he struggled to master the obvious. But for me, those problems disappeared around 20-30% into the story, and I give kudos to the author for the highly believable growth in his character.
karen’s comments: i was talking to mike mullin at ala, and he said that one of the things he likes to do is reverse the typical gender roles. so darla is very mechanically-inclined, and practical, while alex is a bit more emotional than your typical boy in YA novels.
Strong, smart female protagonist: Darla was definitely one of my favorite female leads in recent memory, and I will continue to emphasize the critical importance of intelligent, proactive women whenever I find them in my reading. Put simply, Darla is a prime force for survival of the good guys. More on this from karen below - but she is resourceful, clear-headed, very determined, and extremely capable. AND - she takes the initiative. No wimpy girl, waiting around for the strong guy to point the way. NO WAY!! Darla is a winner in every sense.
karen’s comments: and it's great that she is older than him, and that he does look up to and respect her, despite being a giiiiiirl. but they are still on equal footing. they both have something to teach the other, and that's where their attraction come from; not this more shallow connection you see a lot on YA, where it is all surface level, or seems to arise because of proximity only, and not because the characters have any real feelings for each other.
Survival tactics Let this sink in for a moment. Most of the area covered by ashes is farmland that normally produces a sizable percentage of the nation’s food (and a huge amount for export). Wheat, corn and other staple crops; cattle, pigs, and poultry - all wiped out by the ashfall. The repercussions are felt worldwide, and some of this is detailed in the book.
But the everyday struggle for the next meal is uppermost in the story. Town-boy Alex must learn quickly how to cope. Farm-girl Darla, with her knowledge of machinery and creative use of all available items, is critical to most of the adaptations. I was really impressed with the way these aspects of the story were handled.
karen’s comments: these two have come through the trenches together, but their relationship doesn't seem to be because of external conflict; that thing that happens when two people share the same traumatic experience and that binds them together emotionally, but that conflict made the relationship possible just by bringing them together in the first place. they do keep rescuing each other, to varying degrees, but i think their characteristics are compatible even without the circumstances, you know?
Who’s in charge of recovery efforts? And WHERE is the government aid? Some reviewers have questioned the near-total absence of U.S. government support in much of what happens here.
What really interested me was the mechanism by which the government DID play an active role, and the extremely sinister aspects of that. The prominent role of government contractors in recent U.S. military engagements - and one company in particular (**Blackwater/Xe**) - were very much in my thoughts as I read those sections. The other prevailing theme in this regard was the martial-law mentality of the scene, and the loss of human values that resulted.
karen’s comments: well, there is an attempt made in the book to gather people together into refugee camps, but what happens there seems to be a criticism on the way FEMA is unprepared to deal with large-scale events of this kind. there aren't enough supplies, no one really knows how to handle the volume of people, no one knows how long this situation will continue... and, of course, put the wrong people in charge, and things are going to get ugly. as they do. and it only becomes more horrifying in the sequel, the problems with the refugee camps. we just have too damn many people in this country, and if something like this happens, this is a very realistic portrayal of how things could go down. (hiding under my bed now)
Is there a sequel?
Why yes, there is! And karen has a copy of the ARC, and has written a preliminary review. The book will be released in October 2012.
karen’s comments: the sequel... well... i don't want to give too much away, but darla and alex become separated, and as time goes on and food becomes scarcer, people become harder and more imaginative in their fight for survival. there aren't "good guys" and "bad guys," there are just people trying to survive. and while some people do in fact seem very very bad, usually mullin will throw in a scene that humanizes them a little, so they can't just easily be dismissed as "bad." it's a very smart thing to do.
Wrap-up So, I really enjoyed this innovative story about a titanic catastrophe and the valiant efforts of two teens to cope. I did not get hung up on the likelihood of the event. It may not happen for many millennia, but there are good reasons to keep an eye on that enormous caldera.
karen’s comments: what's great about these books is that he is crazy for the science. he doesn't shrink away from using actual medical terminology, or going off on a geological fact-tangent. but in a way that doesn't sound like a textbook. it just makes the story more believable and more important to read. i cannot praise this book highly enough.
Agreed! I thought the story told here was highly plausible in the event of a major eruption, and extremely sobering in its implications. The book can serve as a wake-up call for an action plan. If and when it happens, there will be tremendous death and destruction on a global scale. But forewarned is still forearmed for those who survive, and I took this book as an appeal to the better angels of our nature.