Apocalypse stories are divided into two camps:
1. The impending doom, where we see the event plus its aftermath (or see it thwarted)
2. The post apocalyptic, where a remnant of survivors has built a new and dangerous world from the wreckage of the old.
Ben H. Winters, in his novel The Last Policeman, gives us what should be a new sci-fi subcategory all its own: the pre-apocalyptic world.
Hank Palace, the hero of The Last Policeman, has always wanted to be a detective (a desire that in part stems from the fates of his parents). A rookie cop with the Concord, New Hampshire Police Department, he gets his wish, but only because an impending cataclysm has opened up a detective slot.
This impending cataclysm? A kilometers-wide asteroid named Maia heading straight for Earth.
In the world of The Last Policeman, everyone knows that Maia will arrive in several months to end life as we know it. Several months of knowing that doom awaits. Imagine that.
Winters does a stellar job in describing what life is like in this world. And he does so mainly through the eyes of Palace, a solid, tenacious, and kind protagonist who the reader quickly grows to like.
Hank Palace is not a man trying to save the world. He’s just trying to do his job.
The plot is simple enough: a man is found hanging by his neck in a McDonalds bathroom. Suicides are rampant in this world, but Palace isn’t convinced this is a suicide. He doggedly investigates while others tell him not to bother. What he gets is apathy and stonewalling. But he never gives up, even as many in the world around him (literally) do.
In many ways this is classic crime noir. Think Raymond Chandler, with his misdirection (and even a femme fatale). This element of The Last Policeman hooked me. I’m a big fan of Chandler — he inspired me to write my novel The Last Conquistador, and I proudly employed his techniques.
Winters amps it up, though, in that he throws us a sci-fi curveball in Maia. On a technical level, I admire the way Winters uses newscasts, media reports, and recollections to tell us about Maia — how he effectively intersperses the info without giving us a data dump.
He also peppers The Last Policeman with fascinating details of life on a doomed planet. For instance, that McDonalds where the body was found? It wasn’t really a McDonalds. Corporate HQ closed, and the remaining stores were run by whoever wanted to sell their own food. All over the world people are abandoning their old lives to pursue a final dream. Or, they’re just giving up.
The Last Policeman is part of a trilogy. I’ve read the second, Countdown City (also great), and Winters does an even better job in describing a society desolate, dejected, but still clinging to threads of hope. In fact, he just won the Philip K. Dick award for best sci-fi book for Countdown City.
Life on a doomed planet: it’s not a cheery topic, but it’s rich with dramatic possibilities.