Monday, 19 June 2017

World of Trouble by Ben Winters

This is an extraordinarily hard review to try to write, as mostly I want to talk about my feelings toward the overall plot and the ending of that plot over the course of reading three books. More specifically, I want to write about what started to worry me when reading this book, and whether or not those worries bore fruit. There are going to be a lot of spoilers, people, and they are definitely the kind that would change your reading experience, so if you don't want to know more than that, read no further. These were really good books, and the third wrapped everything up in a manner than I found intensely satisfying and emotional.

*Spoilers! So many spoilers!*
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Still with me? Okay. That means you've either read these books, or you're like me most of the time, not really convinced spoilers ruin the books. And I'm not sure these would be ruined, but it would change how you read the last book. Because all three of these books have been set against a backdrop of an impending end to the world by asteroid strike, and the main character's attempts to solve mysteries while that date approaches.


By the time we get to the third book, though, the story happens over the week before the asteroid is due to arrive. Winters finally tackles the story behind Hank's sister, Nico, who thinks that there's a way to stop the asteroid that the government is just hiding from the populace - out of, presumably, sheer malice, or greed (although I'm not sure how greed works in a decimated world) or shortsightedness.

And she's found others who believe too, and are trying to mount an operation to find the scientist who has the information they need to launch a nuclear strike on the asteroid and shatter it in such a way that it won't be an Earthkiller. They even have a helicopter! That helicopter weighs on Hank, as indeed it started to weigh on me.

I started to really worry that we were going to get a deus ex machina, a way at the end that saved the earth and gave rise to cheers and the rebuilding of society. And it's certainly not that I like bleak books, or have any desire to see the world wiped out. It's just that these books have been so good and thoughtful at taking this concept seriously, at exploring what living in that world would be like, through the lens of a man who can't stop looking for justice, even though there's a limited amount of time in which justice could mean anything. I wanted the last book to have the courage to follow through on an amazing lead-up. I started to worry that it wouldn't.

So, bravo, Ben Winters. You had me suckered there for a bit too, worried that maybe Nico did have the answer after all, and all those who were trying, quite soberly or insanely, to get ready for the last days on the planet, had been doing all that preparation in vain, and then we'd go into a book about how you deal with the removal of such an existential threat. (And yes, that could be interesting too.)

But that's not where we went. The books have promised an asteroid, and there was absolutely no wimping out. And as we get closer and closer, six days, five days, three days, two days, less than a day, Hank takes on a new case - who murdered his sister - with less than a week before individual deaths will come to mean nothing at all. I'm not going to talk about how that case comes out - I'll leave Winters some secrets for those readers who have plunged into this review despite warnings.

But Hank's pursuit of justice, as laudable as it seemed in a world disintegrating in the first book, does come to seem somewhat of a mania this close to the end, although you understand the importance of this particular victim to him. We see the last tatters of a grip on meaning when meaning slips away.

At the end, he has answers, and an underground bunker with more than enough food to get him through the first six months of the ash cloud that will envelop the planet. Some may survive that long, and then starve. Some very few may even survive that, but they are, at the moment of the strike, not individuals. We don't know who will survive to live on - some may, indeed, but it won't be many. It's not those individuals that we're concerned with. It's those who see the end coming, quite literally, and choose to be present.

The last scene just about did me in, with its understated moment, with what feels like hard-won knowledge of these characters and their choices, and the moment when choices come to mean nothing at all.

I liked the first book, and that affection has only grown with each one - and that by the end, there was the conviction to stick the answer and refuse easy ways out - World of Troubles will linger with me for a long time.

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