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An alternate Armageddon Slow Apocalypse'

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Novel offers a gradual end of the world

When we think about the end of the world, we tend to think of it happening in a single moment. One minute here, next minute gone. But what if it wasn't like that? What if society held together long enough for us to actually bear witness to each phase of its ultimate deterioration?

We might see the world of Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author John Varley's 'Slow Apocalypse' (ACE, $25.95). It's a story about what might happen if the world as we know it ended not in one giant flash of Armageddon, but piece by piece.

Los Angeles screenwriter Dave Marshall is best known as the writer/creator of an inane but popular sitcom. He's branching into film and meets a retired Marine who is consulting on one of the movies Dave is working on. This Marine tells Dave a story. It's the story of a brilliant government scientist who goes rogue, bioengineering a virus that feeds on and solidifies petroleum. The scientist releases said virus into the Saudi oil fields in an attempt at vengeance.

But the virus continued to mutate. And spread.

Dave initially dismisses the Marine right up until he witnesses that same Marine's 'suicide.' It turns out that the story is very real, with consequences far beyond anything anyone could have imagined. Armed with just this ever-so-slight advance notice, Dave has to do his best to find a way to protect his friends and family from the multitudinous disasters that will effectively end the world that he knows.

As the dangers surrounding them escalate, Dave and his family are forced to confront some ugly truths about the illusions maintained by society, truths about their neighbors and truths about themselves. As the world spirals out of control and the city of Los Angeles crumbles around them, Dave must battle through the natural dangers and desperate masses and find a way to safety while still maintaining some remnants of his humanity.

Perhaps the best thing 'Slow Apocalypse' has going for it is its central concept. The inherent feeling of possibility with regards to the near-future created by Varley is what makes this novel as engaging as it is. The unfolding of events feels mostly realistic on a macro scale; things progress in a way that makes sense as the story advances.

Varley is a master of pacing even the slower, more introspective moments feel packed with urgency. That urgency is what makes for a true tautness in a thriller. And for those who may initially scoff at the speculative premise, make no mistake - that's what this book is.

It's not perfect beyond Dave and his immediate family, many of the characters come off as a bit stilted and flat. There's not a lot of dimension to the supporting cast. Of course, the family unit is the foundation of the story, so that lack of dimension doesn't really affect the big picture. There are a few moments that seem out-of-tune with the overall reality, but these are relatively rare.

Small criticisms, really, for a captivating page-turner that offers one man's look at an alternative end of the world. 'Slow Apocalypse' will satisfy fans of science-fiction, literary thrillers and mysteries alike.

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