Review of SUPERVOLCANO ERUPTION by Harry Turtledove
Roc, December 2011
Cop Colin Ferguson travels to Yellowstone National Park to get away from himself. He's bitter over his ex-wife leaving him for a young aerobics instructor, angry at his children, and has been drinking too much. Meeting a pretty geologist near a Yellowstone geyser helps Colin regain contact with the world, but also helps him develop an obsessive interest in Yellowstone and its potential for turning into a world-destroying supervolcano. Meanwhile, Colin's children are trying to get on with their lives... or possibly self-destroying. Rob travels with a rock band that will never be superstars; Vanessa is dating a man older than Colin, and follows him to Denver when he moves; Marshall is a perpetual student, changing majors to avoid graduating and having to face the risk of looking for a job.
Although nobody will believe it's coming, Yellowstone does blow, throwing enough dust in the air to kill everyone within hundreds of miles, and throwing the planet into a cold spell that might turn into a new ice age.
The Yellowstone supervolcano is real (in fact, this is the second book based on a hypothetical eruption I've read recently. See also ALL THE LIVES HE LED by Frederik Pohl). Author Harry Turtledove (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of speculative fiction by Turtledove) uses the style he's developed in writing his special brand of alternate history, following ordinary people as they deal with dramatic events.
SUPERVOLCANO ERUPTION has a lot of potential. It's fascinating to speculate about how an eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano would change America and the world. As Turtledove points out, much of America's heartland would be lost, much of our agricultural produce would be destroyed... along with the land on which it grows, and the dust clouds might very well create a long-term change in global climate. Following the lives of ordinary people in the face of these dramatic changes should work. For me, though, the story fell short. It's not just that the people Turtledove chose to follow are largely unsympathetic (although it's easy to cheer for Marshall as he actually sells a short story), it's that, with the exception of Vanessa, the volcano doesn't really change their lives much.
The high point of the story comes when Vanessa picks up her cat and leaves Denver, fleeing the poisons of the volcanic dust, trying to find her way to safety. That's the spunky kind of action I want to see--and I wanted to see a lot more of it. I'd even enjoy seeing characters trying to hold onto their ordinary lives in the face of unstopable change. In SUPERVOLCANO ERUPTION, it seemed too often that the characters could hold onto their ordinary lives, they'd just have to miss the occasional rock gig, switch from wheat to rice, and pay a bit more for gas.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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