Eric Shaffer's Reviews > Summer of the Apocalypse

Summer of the Apocalypse by James Van Pelt
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's review
Jun 04, 2010

it was amazing
Read from June 04 to 06, 2010

James Van Pelt's Summer of the Apocalypse is a compelling read. Unlike some of the reviewers here, I found the dual timelines not only refreshing--since I tend to tire of unceasingly long linear plots--but I also found they were masterfully constructed to comment on each other. One chapter might end just as the same topic is raised in the next, or one might provide the answer to a question just posed in the other, or the outcome of a situation in one affects the action in the other. I believe that this is hard to do, and I admire the author's skill with plotting.

I love post-apocalypse SF for many of the same reasons mentioned by other reviewers here, but I am usually disappointed at the relentlessly human-focused tales. Yes, I know that fiction is about people, and people are the only readers of fiction, but it seems very clear to me that one exceptionally and glaringly obvious fact of a post-apocalyptic world is constantly overlooked by writers: IF we posit that 90 to 99 percent of the world's human population is absent from the planet, THEN the story must be shifted to focus a bit more on how the planet and remaining flora and fauna respond to the lack of humans.

In other words, the "life after people" books and films and documentaries that abound lately are a welcome respite for me from those works that only focus on valiant survivors, crumbling masonry, caches of canned goods, and newer, crazier, smaller tin gods with automatic weapons and the same idiotic ideas about controlling people.

That said, here are some wonders that make Van Pelt’s Summer of the Apocalypse exceptional:

1) Van Pelt focuses on the shape of the landscape after our passing, the fires, the floods, the vandalism of sulky dying humans, the horrible deaths and frantic adaptations of domestic animals, the weird weather. He focuses on a local landscape, and that electrifies the fiction with verisimilitude. If you’ve lived in Colorado, or if you can read a map, the travels of Eric, Rabbit, and Dodge are utterly traceable. You could take that walk yourself today--if you weren’t arrested for trespassing every quarter of a mile. So that’s wonder one: landscape becomes a major character because without the technology that allows us to ignore where we are (by focusing on where we WANT to be), where we are absolutely determines WHO we are and WHAT HAPPENS to us. This point is foregrounded, as it should be.

2) Unlike most science fiction writers, who, as much as I love them, are focused nearly exclusively on the future, technology, outer space, and inventions that are fascinating but ludicrous, James Van Pelt knows the planet, this planet. You may recall that we are but one species among many, but James Van Pelt KNOWS the species that are around us, understands their actual behavior and depicts that. In fact, his knowledge of the environment makes both possible and beautifully plausible the closing moment of the book, which if readers have the good sense to notice it, reveals the true and permanent shift that humans in a post-apocalyptic world must make not only to survive but to well and truly live on an Earth we will no longer be able to pretend that we rule. To prepare for that moment, I recommend that readers take a long walk in a grassy field and learn what the song of a meadowlark actually SOUNDS like. It will make your experience of the novel’s closing infinitely richer. Wonder two: Van Pelt knows where he is and applies that knowledge in a tale that is made better by that knowledge.

3) Eric, the main character, is truly a representative of the American culture as it stands today. He knows nothing of what civilization actually is or means until he’s lost it (and even then, he remains mistaken about much of its value), and he has a talismanic attraction to books, as if they are the source of knowledge. Van Pelt reveals to us through Eric that books are not the source of knowledge, and that is a very useful lesson for most of us, especially when we’re reading science fiction. Knowledge, as far as I can tell, is experience refined with careful reflection and continued experimentation. Mellowed with age, knowledge can even become wisdom, but just knowing facts and information is not enough, and Van Pelt allows that idea to shine through his fiction. New situations require new knowledge. Wonder three: this novel does not propose the “same old, same old.”

4) Simple post-apocalyptic fiction that assumes that all we need is to get our machines up and running again is just disappointing. As with revolutionaries who believe that things will be much better once THEY are in control, there are too many people who believe the world would be a much better place if 99% of all the OTHER people were just gone. The machines are not the point, and Van Pelt reveals that. Eric stumbles on his realization mainly because the author knows the planet so well. The first lesson of humans who live in a place is that we must start where we are. Van Pelt brings this lesson home to Eric and his readers. In a “new” post-apocalyptic world, the machines left behind will not be that useful. If the survivors develop new machines, so be it, but those machines will be necessary to living in the place where the inhabitants are. Wonder four: the machines that make us what we are today will not make us what we are tomorrow.

5) Simple post-apocalyptic fiction simply assumes that humans will survive and will go on to raise civilization again. Van Pelt makes it clear that that possibility is a small one and suggests that, very delicately. Species that suffer a catastrophic environmental event rarely completely recover. Most die out immediately; others stagger on for decades or centuries; some very few mutate to find or fit new niches. I admire Van Pelt’s novel for applying the scientific likelihood, as repellent as that outcome might be to his all-too-human readers (this is, after all, SCIENCE fiction), instead of the unlikely literary and reassuring childhood conceit of “. . . and they lived happily ever after.” Wonder five: a world without humans is a very distinct and statistical likelihood, in spite of our naive, self-centered optimism. After all, if I recall correctly, sharks, cockroaches, and opossums (imagine that!) have been around for three hundred million years; humans (in an arguably recognizable form) have been around from 500,000 (for perspective, that’s half a million) to 40,000 (that’s less than a twentieth of a million) years. Another sobering fact is that nearly all of the species ever resident on Earth are extinct now. Since I come to science fiction to experience wonder, it’s nice to see truths so fundamental and deep acknowledged.

Clearly, this novel made me think, and that is the main reason I read science fiction. I recommend you read Summer of the Apocalypse for that reason. Contrary the escapes we seek and the work we avoid, this novel will make you think. That’s probably good for all of us.
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06/04/2010 page 146
04/28/2016 marked as: read

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message 1: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Flanagan yours is a great review. I too am tired of the lack of notice given to the Earth itself in most post-apoco books. world building is so important but some authors think they can skip this as it is already the Earth. not true. the lack of species would have such wide ranging effects they can't be ignored.

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