Ben H. Winters recently won the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Countdown City. The PKD Award website states that award is for distinguished original science fiction published in paperback for the first time during 2013 in the USA. Well done Mr. Winters!
Countdown City is the second book in The Last Policeman trilogy. The third book, World of Trouble, is slated to drop on July 15th, 2014. The first book was The Last Policeman and it came out during May, 2013.
Post-apocalyptic books have long been a popular sub-genre in science fiction. The Earth Abides by George Stewart. On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Readers (such as myself) love ‘survivor’ fiction. What if I was able to survive a zombie apocalypse? What if I was chosen to live in a silo underground while the world above me melted? In these books, you get to imagine yourself the hard to kill hero.
But Ben H. Winters is dipping his pen in a far less trafficked sub-genre, that of pre-apocalyptic fiction.Obviously, Winters isn’t the first to do so. In fact, it seems to be a growing sub-genre.While drawing on the same tropes and plot devices as post-apocalyptic fiction, the pre-apocalyptic novel brings forth different emotions. You’re replacing desperation and survival with dread and hopelessness. I find the emotional crux of pre-apocalyptic novels to be stronger (or perhaps I’ve read so many damn zombie novels I’m growing immune to desperation and survival). Maybe this is why I enjoy Winters’ novels so much.
The first book, The Last Policeman, introduces us to the trilogy’s hero, Detective Hank Palace. Humanity has six months until a massive asteroid strikes the earth and causes a mass extinction event. The threads of society are barely clinging together. There is still a patchwork of a police force. Commerce struggles along. The rule of law still holds firm. Hank’s way of dealing with the impending doom is to dive into his work, so he investigates a suicide believing it to be a murder to the dismay of his squad.
The Last Policeman is fantastic. It is a study in building mood as tension. As the asteroid draws closer, society begins to crack. Yet Hank keeps pressing forward until he solves the case.
The second book, Countdown City, jumps forward in time. 77 days until the asteroid makes impact. By now, things are grim. The police force has disbanded. The military no longer patrols the streets to keep the peace. The threat of all out violence bubbles under the story.
Hank finds himself pulled into a missing persons hunt when his old babysit requests his help in finding her disappeared husband. Because he can’t shake his policeman urges, and the fact that he wants to help his babysitter friend, he agrees. Things are more dangerous for Hank. He no longer has authority. People are becoming less friendly. Imminent death is bringing out the worst in humans.
Winters’ second book is less tightly plotted than the first. I’ve seen that as a common complaint against the novel. I halfway feel that this was intentional. The world is becoming unraveled, after all.
By the end of the second book, we’re dealing with water shortages, escalating violence, conspiracy theories, desperate immigrants, how we deal with mortality, and family issues. Winters juggles it all deftly.
I can’t wait to see how Winters finishes the story of Hank Palace and the asteroid marked to destroy Earth. I look forward to July.