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Charles Sheffield
Bantam Spectra Books, 452 pages

Art: Paul Youll
Charles Sheffield
The winner of Hugo and Nebula Awards (for the novelette Georgia on my Mind) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for the novel Brother to Dragons), Charles Sheffield is an established author. He writes science articles and books, as well as novels in the horror and thriller genres. By training, he is a mathematician and a novelist. He is married to Nancy Kress and they live in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Charles Sheffield Website
ISFDB Bibliography
The Omega Point
Convergence - An online story

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The more technology advances, the more dependent on it we become; the more dependent on it we become, the greater the potential for disaster when it fails. That's the premise around which Charles Sheffield's catastrophe novel Aftermath is built.

In 2026, the double star system Alpha Centauri (Earth's next-door neighbor in stellar terms) goes supernova. Strengthening to 90% of the sun's brilliance, the supernova disrupts weather patterns worldwide, wreaking especial havoc on Earth's southern hemisphere, where devastating droughts and floods virtually wipe out the population of the southern continents. But the worst is yet to come. A little over a month after the supernova becomes visible in the night sky, a huge release of radiation from the dying stars makes a direct impact on Earth's atmosphere, resulting in a worldwide electromagnetic pulse that destroys every piece of electronic equipment on the planet.

Within the scenario of social breakdown and chaos that follows, Sheffield weaves several different stories of struggle: of the crew of the first manned Mars expedition, fighting to return to Earth without a re-entry system; of three cancer victims, battling to retain access to the high-tech treatment system that is keeping them alive; of the grisly serial killer who has the knowledge they need; of a violent and bigoted religious cult that sees Earth's catastrophe as the first step in its own Armageddon; and of Saul Steinmetz, President of the United States, who must try to resurrect the country from the ashes while dealing with the elements of his own government that seek to use the disaster for political gain.

Aftermath is a well-written, absorbing book. (How absorbing? I read most of it in a hospital waiting room, and was actually able to forget where I was much of the time.) As always in a Sheffield novel, the science is well-explicated and the characters varied and sympathetic. The plot turns are unusual, and keep the reader guessing. Sheffield's near-future world -- distant enough to be far more dependent on electronics than we are today, but close enough to have retained an underlayer of older technology on which recovery can be built -- is convincing, and replete with interesting details (actually, I would have liked to see more of this).

There's a bit of a grab-bag feeling to the book, however, as if Sheffield had had a number of interesting but unrelated ideas rattling around in his head, and decided to concoct a scenario in which he could explore all of them. Perhaps because of this, the way in which the separate plot lines finally link up isn't entirely satisfying. And though the necessity of coping with the social and political chaos following upon the complete loss of the world's electronic infrastructure is integral to each story, this is, oddly, the portion of the novel that is least well-realized. The characters talk about the catastrophe a lot, and complain about it, but their direct encounters with it are secondary to their personal odysseys -- a lot of telling, not enough showing. I also have to confess that I was a bit put off by the May-December romances that occupy a prominent place in two of the plot lines. In one case, this is a reasonable component of the action, but in the other it's little more than a long digression that doesn't add much to the story and also (in my somewhat biased opinion) skirts the boundaries of good taste.

But these are relatively minor reservations. Overall, Aftermath is an entertaining and thought-provoking read, well worth picking up.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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