World of Trouble: Science fiction for your friends who think SF is stupid

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWorld of Trouble by Ben H WintersWorld of Trouble by Ben H. Winters

We all have that friend, family member or co-worker who thinks speculative fiction is stupid. To be fair, they have a lot of ammunition for this short-sighted view; the Star Wars prequels, vampire-boyfriend sagas and numerous homogenized series with trashy covers. Ben H. Winters, however, is the secret defensive weapon in our arsenal, and the LAST POLICEMAN  series is the smart, thinking-person’s SF you can offer as a rebuttal.

World of Trouble is the final book in the trilogy. In The Last Policeman, we met Hank Palace, the titular character. The world is going to be struck by a large asteroid, and all the projections show the results will be the end of life on earth. Bruce Willis is not going to blow it up with a nuclear warhead; there is no technological or scientific way to deflect it. Scientists have predicted the date and location of impact. The three books, dubbed “pre-apocalypse” books, deal with what happens in the months and weeks leading up to impact. Hank was the last beat cop in his home town, promoted, quickly, to detective about eight months before impact, due to a sudden vacancy in the ranks. There are many vacancies in many occupations; people go “bucket listing;” some can’t face the thought of the world ending and commit suicide; crime is at an all-time high. In the second book Countdown City, municipal police forces were nationalized, but Hank, acting as a private agent, still managed to find a missing husband for a friend. In World of Trouble, one week from the date of impact, Hank is on a personal quest, searching for his tough, rebellious younger sister, Nico, who was last seen leaving on a helicopter with a group of people who were sure that there was a scientist being hidden by the government, and that he could stop the asteroid.

World of Trouble opens in a town in Ohio, where Nico’s trail goes cold. Hank, his partner Cortez and his dog Houdini search the municipal police station, and they find an underground bunker. Hank thinks it will hold answers to Nico’s whereabouts. Cortez is as interested as he is to open it up, but for very different reasons. Although Cortez is useful to have around, he and Hank were not friends before (in fact Hank met him through Nico’s group) and Cortez’s motives are troubling. It’s a moot point, though, because they don’t have the tools they need to get into the bunker. Before they can hatch a plan, Houdini’s excited barking lead them to a surprise; a young woman left for dead in the forest. She is not Nico, and she is not dead.

An old-fashioned “hard science fiction” novel would focus on a technological approach to stopping the asteroid. While Winters keeps his astronomy real, and the science in these books is good, the real interest is how human beings react in the face of hopelessness. The countdown is days away. People aren’t going to fly away on secret space ships or hole up in underground cities. The earth will no longer sustain life. In the face of that, what do you become?

Hank categorizes the responses by using a color system to describe the cities, towns and settlements he encounters. Green towns have pulled together, formed some kind of community, even if they are heating and lighting with wood and growing their own food. Red towns are filled with uncontrolled violence, strong preying on the weak. Blue towns are deserted, with a few people barricaded in their homes or other buildings, closed in on themselves, reaching out to no one. In Rotary, Ohio, Hank meets some of each of these. He shares a meal with two cheerful rednecks who drink beer and barbecue chicken; they’re going to cook two chickens a day until the end of the world. They are funny, deeply in love, and Winters shows us a moment of deep sadness with them – just a moment. Hank, however, is still fixated on Nico, obsessed with the idea of finding his sister before the world ends, a phrase that gets him into trouble when he goes looking for tools to break into the bunker and meets the Amish patriarch Atlee.

Hank Palace is one of the most decent characters I’ve come across in recent fiction, any fiction. He clings to his decency here, but his need for an answer, to reconnect with his one remaining family member, nearly overrides his commitment to his values. The few characters in World of Trouble play out various facets of human nature. Cortez is an amoral opportunist and pragmatist. Hank truly is The Policeman, trying to impose order and keep the peace. Returning characters, like Nico’s friend Jordan, reveal aspects of themselves we didn’t expect but should have. The not-dead girl in the woods in an enigma, and perhaps the most compelling person Hank comes across is Atlee, who rules a large extended family on the outskirts of town.

The mystery here is the simplest (I’m tempted to say “weakest”) of the three books. It is clear what happened to Nico, and pretty obvious why, very early. Since the book is less about the mystery and more about holding onto faith, fairness and humanity, that wasn’t a big problem. Winters continues to explore human nature in a way that shows us the worst and still lets us hope. These books ask the big questions, and World of Trouble gives us answers in the smallest moments and gestures of humanity; sharing a meal, offering help, forgiving others, forgiving oneself. If the end of life on earth comes while I’m still around, I hope I behave as well as Hank Palace. These are the books for your friends who don’t “get” science fiction. If they can’t get these, there is no help for them.

~Marion Deeds


World of Trouble by Ben Winters science fiction book reviewsWorld of Trouble is the quiet, inevitable conclusion to Ben H. Winters’ moving end-of-the-world trilogy. Here, the cause is that old stand-by — an extinction-level asteroid about to crash into the Earth. The three novels begin months before the apocalypse (The Last Policeman), weeks (Countdown City), and now in World of Trouble it’s just a matter of days. Hank Palace, that “last policeman” used as the title of book one, remains one of the good guys in the end times, committed to doing what is right, to what is “supposed” to be done. In earlier books, that meant solving crimes despite the apparent reality that none of it matters in the face of apocalypse. Though of course, the fact that it does matter to him in the face of apocalypse, even then, or perhaps especially then, is what makes Hank such a rarity.

Here, the mystery is what happened to his sister Nico, a mystery that soon becomes a criminal investigation. But more so than in the other books, Hank’s sense of responsibility, his continuing focus on being a policeman, nears compulsive-obsessive behavior that is potentially harmful to himself and those around him. Nico’s trail has led him and his traveling partner, an opportunistic thief named Cortez, to a small town in Ohio, where Nico and her group were to meet with a scientist who is allegedly in charge of a last-ditch effort to destroy the asteroid and save the world (a “fantasy” Hank tried to tell her in the prior books).

I called this a “quiet” apocalypse, and that is because Winters eschews the spectacle mode of end-of-the-world stories — no roving gangs, no explosions, no warlords reigning over an area. Instead, society’s reaction is represented by single characters, or sometimes pairs/very small groups: Hank’s partner Cortez, a young girl Hank finds near-dead in the woods, a couple hanging out eating chicken at their parked RV, an Amish family sequestered on the family farm (my personal favorite and the most moving encounter I thought). The characters he meets give us the gamut of human reaction to inevitable doom: defiance, self-delusion, opportunism, violence, surrender, and so forth. His encounters also put Hank in some tough situations, requiring him to make difficult decisions in terms of what is/is not an ethical/moral response, a compassionate or not response. And it is in these moments, especially at the end, where his obsession with Nico and police work threatens to overcome his up-to-now sure moral compass.

It’s impossible not to root for Hank, for this normal guy trying to be the best he can be, do the good he can, in a world where all action is rendered meaningless as action. Certainly Hank gives us lots of reasons to feel that way, stating directly he knows the futility of certain actions, or considering several times how he’d eventually “know what to do” once he gets more on-the-job training. Though of course, he never will have that training.
But what Winters examines here is if meaning cannot be found in action, can it then be found in the morality of those actions, and the morality alone.

The concept is an old one, but thoughtfully, poignantly, movingly explored in this trilogy, perhaps in some ways no more so than in this last book. But I have to admit that I felt as if Winters had already trod this ground, if not quite so intensely, in the other two, and while there were many beautiful moments in this book, it lagged in places more frequently and more noticeably than in those first two. Perhaps because the ground was so familiar. At times, mostly when it bogged down but even during scenes I was moved by, I found myself wondering (for the second time in as many weeks with regard to concluding books of a trilogy), if this was a “necessary” novel. I wasn’t sure enough was being added to the story as we’d known it to this point to justify an entire novel’s worth of plot. And as beautiful and appropriate as the ending is, I’m still a bit doubtful. I think I might have preferred a longer book one and two, with the better scenes from this one scattered throughout a duology (marketing be damned).

There has been a bumper crop of “soft” post-apocalypse stories lately: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandell; The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, and this one — character-driven, end-of-the-world tales that are thoughtful, lyrical, and hauntingly, quietly, beautiful. World of Trouble is the weakest of Winters’ three novels, but it still has the power to move, and does so often enough to make up for its sometimes lagging pace, which makes it easy to highly recommend this series.

~Bill Capossere


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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4 comments

  1. Wow, that got the coveted Marion Deeds Five Star Award — rarely seen! Now I really do have to read this series. (I started the first book in the series, but haven’t been impressed so far; I’m assuming it gets better, if you like it so much. I’m annoyed at the science in it. Or, rather, the lack thereof.)

  2. His astronomy is right, but he doesn’t use a lot of it, in part because his first person narrator isn’t in a position to know, and also because, really, everyone is taking the word of government scientists — all governments. It’s not a conspiracy book.

    I also read a lot of mysteries and police procedurals, so it might just be that I’m more acclimated to this kind of book, but I was pleased with the wrap-up here. And yes, 5-star books are rare for me!

  3. You nailed Hank’s journey, Bill. I certainly see your point about the “third book,” but I wanted Nico to have her own story, and I loved the final page of this one.

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