by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Harry Turtledove has turned his talents away from alternate history to explore a disaster scenario in Supervolcano: Eruption. Beneath Yellowstone National Park there lurks a massive volcano which last erupted more than half a million years ago. Still considered to be active, Turtledove imagines a world in which this volcano erupts and the devastation that it would cause to the United States. Evidence indicates that an eruption of the Yellowstone caldera would dwarf even the largest volcanic eruptions of recorded history, giving Turtledove plenty of horrors to deal with. However, that horror often takes a back seat.
The volcano doesn't erupt until the book is well underway. By the time it does, Turtledove has created vibrant, if often unsympathetic, characters and has begun to look at their relationships and ambitions. His main character, Colin Ferguson, only knows about the possibility of an impending eruption because of a chance encounter with Kelly, a geologist he met at Yellowstone. Despite difference in age and location, the two strike up a relationship as Colin is trying to get over his failed marriage to Louise. When the eruption does occur, vindication of Colin and Kelly's warnings is foregone as Colin's family is more concerned with their survival as ash blankets Denver and causes rapid climate change in New England.
One of the problems with Eruption may be the issue of expectations. When reading a disaster novel, all too often the protagonists attempt (with varying degrees of success) to reign in the destructive power of the Earth. In Eruption, the Ferguson clan and their dependents simply attempt to survive and lead their lives as normally as possible given the environmental changes wrought by the supervolcano. While Turtledove portrays his characters and their interactions realistically, the volcanic eruption often seems to recede into the background as Colin continues to track a serial killer, Rob’s band tries to find gigs in an increasingly isolated Maine, and Marshall continues his career as an undergraduate. Rather than focusing on Kelly’s research, the character whose life is most affected by the eruption is Vanessa’s.
If readers can accept that Eruption is less a book about the disaster and more a look at how a somewhat dysfunctional family deals with their own issues while the world around them does its best to isolate them from any chance of helping each other or over-coming adversity. By having his characters in different parts of the United States, Turtledove is able, as he often does, to show the different affects of the eruption. Vanessa flees Denver ahead of the ashfall and finds herself in a displaced person camp and a bitter winter strands Rob and his band, but Colin, Louise, and Marshall are mostly affected by a slight drop in Los Angeles temperatures and a rise in prices and scarcity for gas and food. However, Eruption is only the first book of a projected trilogy and most of the the characters are left adrift at the end of the novel, waiting to see what life brings them and to figure out how they are going to change with a world which has substantially changed.
Eruption gives the feeling that not much has happened despite the tribulations of its characters. The first half of the novel sets up the titular eruption, which comes almost as an anticlimax. The book as a whole seems to be setting up for the subsequent books in the series. Although some of the characters are cold and distant, Turtledove does provide enough hooks that readers can and will find themselves rooting for the characters and, even when the characters are at their most dislikable, dreading the horrors, both natural and man-made, which they face.
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