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When the impending ending is the beginning – ‘The Effort’

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The end of the world has long been a mainstay of speculative fiction. Or at least, the end of the world as we know it. So many stories have been written about the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, something that has destroyed civilization, or at least radically altered it. You’ve got your post-apocalyptic stories, your dystopian stories – so many of them spring from that singular (and sometimes literally) Earth-shattering event.

What we get less often is the story of what leads up to that event, the tale that goes from the beginning of the end to the end.

That’s what Claire Holroyde’s debut novel “The Effort” (Grand Central Publishing, $28) gives us. It’s a story of mankind’s attempt to stave off the extinction-level event heading their way, all while dealing with the harsh reality of what it might mean when the fact that the end is nigh becomes widely known. It’s a taut, thrilling story of people committed to saving the world even as the world turns against itself.

No one thought much of the comet when it made its surprise appearance near Jupiter’s orbit. A dark comet, UD3 was more or less ignored when it popped up. But people in the know – people who made the study of near-Earth objects and their dangers their life’s work – are far more concerned. And it isn’t long before their concerns are made manifest.

Ben Schwartz is one of those people. He’s the manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies; basically, he’s one of the world’s foremost experts on the dangers of objects from space. He achieved a modicum of fame when he developed scores of hypothetical scenarios regarding how we could deal with an object on a trajectory to strike Earth.

Only now, it’s no longer a hypothetical.

One night, the phone rings and Ben – along with his girlfriend Amy – is whisked away to South America, to a spaceport that has been converted into what will become the most ambitious collaborative project in the history of man. Dubbed simply “the Effort,” Ben will lead a team of thousands in a race against time to try and come up with a plan to destroy or deflect UD3 before its eight-kilometer bulk slams into the Earth and causes the seventh mass extinction – but the first one to include humanity.

Meanwhile, on a Coast Guard icebreaker near the Arctic Circle, photographer Jack Campbell is on the job, trying to record the natural beauty of the polar icecaps before they are gone forever. His roommate aboard the ship is Gustavo Wayapi, an indigenous Brazilian poet and Nobel Laureate. His assignment rapidly falls by the wayside as news of the real dangers of UD3 begin to leak and the world reacts to the knowledge of its impending demise in a bleak but all too predictable fashion.

On the one hand, we have this massive effort devoted to finding a workable plan to save mankind. On the other, a small, intimate look at one man’s struggle to accept the things that he cannot change and instead seek beauty and truth in whatever small places he can find it. And behind it all, a ticking clock, one whose endtime is the obliteration of every living thing on Earth.

“The Effort” is a bit of a paradox, an undeniably bleak tale that still somehow contains small moments of hopefulness. Telling the story of a mission whose best-case scenario is one where only most of the world is in ruins is an obvious challenge – unrelenting darkness and despair is no way to go through life.

Yet Holroyde manages to do it while still leaving a few cracks through which light might shine. Not huge cracks, mind you. Not deus ex machina-sized cracks. Human-sized cracks that allow room for small happinesses in the face of massive disaster.

As you might imagine, there’s a propulsive quality to “The Effort.” The narrative is infused with an inevitability, one accentuated by the author’s decision to include a tag in each chapter heading that indicates just how many days we are from the end of everything. Those tags only add to the steady undercurrent of urgency that flows through the entire story, an omnipresent tension that the reader only really notices on the rare occasions that Holroyde decides to let them breathe.

Like all honest apocalyptic fiction, “The Effort” is a bit of a downer. This is not a sunshine-and-unicorns book. Things get dire. They get bleak. And Holroyde leans into it, unafraid to make sure that we know that when the time comes, the majority of us won’t survive even if we succeed. And yet, the book isn’t as pessimistic as I make it seem. Again – it all boils down to the author’s knack for giving us those brief, bright moments to offset the freight train of tragedy barreling down upon us.

In short, “The Effort” is a story where the impending ending is the beginning. It’s a taut page-turner of a read, narratively engaging and compulsively readable. Ultimately, your biggest effort with “The Effort” will be putting it down.

Last modified on Tuesday, 19 January 2021 11:12

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