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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reading List: Founders

Rawles, James Wesley. Founders. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7282-7.
This novel is the third in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008) and continued with Survivors (January 2012). These books are not a conventional trilogy, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. Many of the same characters appear in the volumes, but different episodes in their lives are described. This installment extends the story beyond the end of the previous books (taking into account the last chapter, well beyond), but most of the story occurs in the years surrounding the Crunch. In an introductory note, the author says the books can be read in any order, but I think the reader will miss a great deal if this is the first one read—most of the characters who appear here have an extensive back-story in the previous books, and you'll miss much of what motivates them and how they found themselves in their present circumstances if you start here.

Like the earlier novels, this is part thriller and part survival tutorial. I found the two components less well integrated here than before. The author seems prone to launching into a litany of survival gear and tactics, not to mention veering off into minutiæ of Christian doctrine, leaving the story and characters on hold. For example, in chapter 20:

The gear inside the field station CONEX included a pair of R-390A HF receivers, two Sherwood SE-3 synchronous detectors, four hardwired demodulators, a half dozen multiband scanners, several digital audio recorders, two spectrum analyzers, and seven laptop computers that were loaded with demodulators, digital recorders, and decryption/encryption software.

Does this really move the plot along? Is anybody other than a wealthy oilman likely to be able to put together such a rig for signal intelligence and traffic analysis? And if not, why do we need to know all of this, as opposed to simply describing it as a “radio monitoring post”? This is not a cherry-picked example; there are numerous other indulgences in gear geekdom.

The novel covers the epic journey, largely on foot, of Ken and Terry Layton from apocalyptic Crunch Chicago, where they waited too late to get out of Dodge toward the retreat their group had prepared in the American redoubt, and the development and exploits of an insurgency against the so-called “Provisional Government” headquartered in Fort Knox, Kentucky, which is a thinly-disguised front for subjugation of the U.S. to the United Nations and looting the population. (“Meet the new boss—same as the old boss!”) Other subplots update us on the lives of characters we've met before, and provide a view of how individuals and groups try to self-organise back into a lawful and moral civil society while crawling from the wreckage of corruption and afflicted by locusts with weapons.

We don't do stars on reviews here at Fourmilab—I'm a word guy—but I do occasionally indulge in sports metaphors. I consider the first two novels home runs: if you're remotely interested in the potential of societal collapse and the steps prudent people can take to protect themselves and those close to them from its sequelæ, they are must-reads. Let's call this novel a solid double bouncing between the left and centre fielders. If you've read the first two books, you'll certainly want to read this one. If you haven't, don't start here, but begin at the beginning. This novel winds up the story, but it does so in an abrupt way which I found somewhat unconvincing—it seemed like the author was approaching a word limit and had to close it out in however sketchy a manner.

There are a few quibbles, but aren't there always?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  

  • In chapter 8 we're told that Malmstrom Air Force Base had a large inventory of JP-4 fuel. But this fuel, a 50–50 blend of kerosene and gasoline, was phased out by the U.S. Air Force in 1996 in favour of the less hazardous JP-8. It is unlikely that at least 16 years later an Air Force base would still have JP-4 in storage.
  • In chapter 11 we hear of the “UN's new headquarters in Brussels”. But, if the UN headquarters in New York had been destroyed, isn't is much more likely that the UN would fall back on the existing European headquarters in Geneva?
  • In chapter 17, Ken is “given a small bottle of flat black lacquer and a tiny brush from Durward's collection…”. But Durward was the farmer with whose family they passed the previous winter. I think either Carl or Graham was intended here.
  • In “President” Hutchings's speech in chapter 19, he states that more than 65 million people were killed by an influenza pandemic that swept the East and continues, “Without antibiotics available, the disease ran rampant until there were no more hosts to attack in the heavily populated regions.” Influenza is a viral disease, against which antibiotics are completely ineffectual. Of course, this may have been intended to highlight the cluelessness of Hutchings and how glibly the Provisional Government lied to its subjects.
  • In the glossary, CB radio is defined as a “VHF broadcasting band”. The citizens' band in the U.S. is in the 27 MHz range, which is considered in the HF band, and is not a broadcast service.
Spoilers end here.  

So, read the first two, and if you like them, by all means get this one. But don't start here.

Posted at October 24, 2012 23:07