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Aftermath by Charles Sheffield

Aftermath (1998)

by Charles Sheffield

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Aftermath [Sheffield] (1)

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My reactions upon reading this novel in 2000. Spoilers follow.

I thought this was going to be a post-apocalypse novel about life on Earth after Alpha Centauri goes supernova. But it’s clear that, except in the setting itself, Sheffield doesn’t have much interest in writing a true post-apocalypse novel. There are some brief opening scenes in which three characters, who we, of course, never see again, die to show us the opening effects of the supernova. This is a standard technique of the suspense blockbuster, and Sheffield, here, seems to be trying to write in that style since the hard science he is known for is at a minimum (in the novel and from the types of characters and relationships). There are no scenes of desperate violence for precious resources, no calculation of whom is fit to live and die, no bands of marauders, none of the bread and butter scenes that the usual (and enjoyable) post apocalypse story has.

The part of the novel I liked best was the part I expected to like least: the plot involving the brilliant scientist – and serial killer – Oliver Guest. My original fears that he would be an imitation of Thomas Harris’ infamous Hannibal Lector were partly realized. He is brilliant and cultured with peculiar motivations to kill. Most of the information about him comes from his secret diary – which he explicitly acknowledges is meant, as all diaries are, to be read by someone else someday.

He is sentenced to “judicial sleep” which is an interesting idea. Sheffield does a good job of selling it as a plausible and socially acceptable alternative to capital punishment. The convicted criminal is put in a coma until he dies of natural causes – or is found innocent on appeal or pardoned – and his estate put in suspension. It’s a reversible sentence and cheaper than imprisonment. After the supernova, all microchips are fried by an electromagnetic pulse and three cancer survivors have their telemod implants rendered useless. Having been failed by all conventional cancer therapies, they are part of an experimental program that modified chromosomes’ telomeres so that those of cancer cells are shortened and regular cells’ are lengthened. (Animal experiments have been outlawed by the date of this novel, 2026, as has tobacco use – we meet some tobacco smugglers.) It’s a delicate balancing act that could lead to progeria, runaway cancer, or extended life. The survivors are denied the use of their regular physicians, so they seek out the therapy’s developer, Guest. (Guest’s crimes seem to involve killing beautiful 14-year old girls and then trying to clone them to create a perfect version of the girls whom he regards as spoiled. He hides his victims’ DNA is the introns of a turtle.) Sheffield puts his longtime interest in the biology of cancer and its treatment to good use here. The conversations between two of the survivors, Art Ferrand and Dana Berlitz, about how they regard their cancer cells as newly discovered traitors, seem realistic.

Ferrand is an interesting character. His occupation as a specialist in sewer and water networks provides the three an interesting, convenient route in the quest to break Guest out of judicial sleep. He’s also something of a survivalist. While he has panicked in two past situations (an averted plague and a threatened terrorist action against Washington DC, his regular home), his fleeing to his functional, primitive cabin this time is fortuitous.

How to get a clever serial killer to help you while not getting hurt made for an interesting plot, particularly the interaction between Seth Parsigian, an uneducated but very clever, amoral character who reminded me of Pierre the gunshop owner in John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, and Guest. Both parties try to betray each other (Guest escapes, and Ferrand and Berlitz try to turn him into the authorities), but the violent ending to their subplot didn’t occur as I expected. All four live at novel’s end, Guest having unsuccessfully trying to fake his death after supplying an alternative monitoring method for the three to satisfy them into not looking too hard at his death. That was the interesting plot.

The rest of the novel had subplots that were largely of the type normally expected in political thrillers and bestsellers. They all had elements of realism, but their very presence was largely clichéd. There was the annoying triangle between single President Saul Steinmetz, socially ambitious Tricia Goldsmith (who wants to be First Lady), and Yasmin Silvers, exotically beautifully, politically ambitious presidential aide who wants, someday, to be President. As Silvers notes, both women are from poor backgrounds and sexually adventurous “sluts” that arouse the psychologically impotent President. I found this subplot annoying. I also didn’t find Steinmetz as sympathetic as I was probably supposed. He was way too fond of spying on people.

We also have other clichés: the sexual predator politician (again, as Bill Clinton and others have shown, this is not unrealistic, just not terribly interesting) and opportunistic politician who uses the disaster for his own end. Here the two are combined in Nick Lopez who has raped his nephew (Yasmin Silvers’ brother) and wants to use America’s new-found superiority to establish a global empire. He’s joined by racist Sally Mander. Their imperial ambitions seem, at first, wildly unrealistic, but Sheffield introduces the realistic touch that America’s arsenal, due to the keeping of old weapons without microchips, duplication due to interservice rivalry, underground protection of some weapons, and protected subs, has survived and is now stronger relative to other countries than before the supernova. Steinmetz rejects, initially, the call to empire but, to get the world ready for the even deadlier hail of subatomic particles from the supernova due to arrive in about fifty years, he accepts the notion. (His original practical objection – he also has moral ones – is that keeping an empire is hard and not, ultimately, doable.) The Eye of God cult encountered by some of the survivors of the first Mars expedition is rather clichéd except for the notion that leader. Pearl Lazenby (realistically portrayed as very charismatic and reasonable – as you have to be to attain such a position) may really have foreseen the supernova. I did like the well-rendered romance between Ferrand and Berlitz – I suspect Sheffield’s wife, Nancy Kress, listed, with others, as a reader of the novel’s first draft may have helped here. And, of course, the notion that Alpha Centauri’s theoretically impossible supernovaing was very interesting.

That the possibility of more global destruction in 50 years, and the proposed Dux Americana clearly make this the first in a series though the book was, annoyingly, not advertised as such. ( )
  RandyStafford | Nov 22, 2013 |
Deeply credible premise, fascinating technical and social projection to the year 2026. Not very engaging, however.

Cast: Astronauts, politicians, genius serial killer, everyman-survivalist
Timeframe: catastrophe through recovery era ( )
  benwbrum | Dec 10, 2008 |
Beat it, Lucifer's Hammer. Take a dive, Deep Impact. I have read the one (lost the book somewhere, though!) and own the other (far better -- for those who enjoy SOME science with their fiction -- than the flashier, star-laden Armageddon) but I'll be damned if this doesn't crush them both. First, the scientific premise is beautifully presented: while married to a physicist, I am an English Major - so my understanding is sketchy at best. Sheffield explains all: clearly, cogently, and in words I understand. Then, he uses believable characters to carry the story. SF has long been tarred with the 'minimal characterization' brush - but Sheffield is no more guilty of that than say, Michener, who used the same technique in his sprawling explorations of place and time (see Hawaii, Centennial, or Texas for examples). Sheffield gives a reader enough to feel these folks are real, & have more backstory than a reader ever sees, which is as it should be. He puts them in a page-turner of a plot that is as propulsive as early Clancy, with suspense worthy of LeCarre. The villain is, to my mind, much more frightening than Hannibal Lecter- and drawn much more completely.
A smashing good read - you won't be disappointed! ( )
  GibsonGirl | Jan 13, 2008 |
three books in one converging on a great end. well thought out.
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Charles Sheffieldprimary authorall editionscalculated
Youll, PaulCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553577387, Mass Market Paperback)

In 2026, the Earth faces an unexpected disaster. A supernova in the nearby Alpha Centauri system has apparently wiped out nearly every electronic component on the planet, leaving human civilization paralyzed. Phones don't work, transportation grinds to a halt, and essential services such as medical care are thrown back into the Stone Age. As the world tries to cope with this technological cut-off, a man dying of cancer begins a journey to save his life and that of his fellow patients, a master criminal escapes a sentence of "judiciary sleep," a returning Mars expedition faces what looks like certain death, and U.S. president Saul Steinmetz strives to keep his country from falling apart. Author Charles Sheffield has taken a classic hard-SF concept, applied it to the real world, and created a gripping story of survival. --Craig E. Engler

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:01 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"It's 2026, and catastrophe has struck from an unexpected source. The Alpha Centauri supernova has risen like a second sun, rushing Earth toward its last summer. Floods, fires, starvation, and disease paralyze the planet. In a blue aurora flash of gamma rays, all microchips worldwide are destroyed, leaving an already devastated Earth without communications, transportation, weaponry, or medicine."--BOOK JACKET. "The disaster sets three groups of survivors on separate quests. A militant cult seizes the opportunity to free their leader, known as the Eye of God, from the long-term coma to which a court sentenced her. Three cancer patients also search for a man in judicial sleep: the brilliant scientist - and monstrous criminal - who alone can continue the experimental treatment that keeps them alive. From a far greater distance come the survivors of the first manned Mars expedition, struggling homeward to a world that has changed far beyond their darkest fears. And standing at the crossroads is one man, U.S. President Saul Steinmetz, who faces a crucial decision that will affect the fate of his own people ... and the world."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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