Read this book: The Last Policeman

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 The Last Policemanown: 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.

 

Read this book: The Passage

This literary/genre juggernaut is worth the hundreds of pages.

passageIf you picked up The Passage without knowing the plot, you would quickly know that dark times were ahead. It starts out with a deadly virus culled from South American bats, adapted and tweaked by government scientists to create super soldiers. Of course they test it out on twelve vicious killers on death row. And of course the outcome is worse than these scientists could ever have imagined.

So begins The Passage, Justin Cronin’s cinder block sized novel about vampires, the first of a trilogy. In other hands this setup might have been just another soon-to-be-forgotten pulp read. Cronin has the skills and literary background to create a lush, sprawling tale that spans genres and centuries.

The Passage, like the monsters it portrays, mutates and grows. It starts off as a technothriller that follows FBI Agent Brad Wolgast and one little girl named Amy. Amy is taken by these scientists and is given the same serum that turns twelve killers in to vampires. It doesn’t do that to her; instead it keeps her young. As the twelve proto-vampires escape and create their own tribes of powerful, evil vampires, Wolgast takes Amy and flees into a dying America.

Then we shift.

Courtesy of a report from a University set 1,000 years in the future (there’s hope for humanity!), we jump ahead nearly 100 years after the first vampires were created. Now we’re in a small California compound — a former FEMA camp — with a handful of survivors. Here we follow Alicia, one badass warrior woman, and Peter, along with other members of their community, as they struggle to survive. The technothriller is now a dystopic tale, reminiscent of the Mel Gibson flick The Road Warrior, though one deeply infested with horror that rivals Stephen King. Amy, the infected girl from the beginning, shows up and she becomes pivotal to the colony’s struggle against vampire hordes and horrific odds.

So what’s great about The Passage?

Start with the writing. I’m a fan of wordsmiths, and Cronin is definitely one. Though the book is huge, there isn’t much in terms of fat, and lyrically it is beautiful without being distracting.

Then there are the characters. The Passage includes several characters, and Cronin writes from their point of view. We get to know there people, and without exception they’re all three-dimensional.

And the plot. The Passage is thrilling end-of-the-world fare. We see America crumble. There’s a scene early on as a train full of people flees Philadelphia – the last train out before the city is overwhelmed. The train ride is harrowing, as the vampires pick off the train car-by-car. A few lucky ones only barely manage to survive. This scene has stayed with me.

This is just a glimpse into the world of The Passage. There are tons of twists and turns in this book, more than enough to get you hooked.