Countdown City by Ben Winters. The more things change…

Countdown City

January 2015
Recommended for fans of mystery, philosophy, apocalypse
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

Had Earth not been scheduled meet an asteroid face-first in less than six months, Hank Palace would have made a fabulous beat cop. He might have even made a decent detective once he had a few years under his belt. However, his hasty promotion through the police force has been cut short and he finds himself hanging around the neighborhood and doing favors for friends. And by ‘favors,’ I don’t mean in a Matt Scudder-alcoholic-ex-detective-on-the-down-low kind of way. I mean mean it Don Quixote style where Hank is living in an imaginary world guided by a value system relevant only to himself. The result is a read that is equal parts fascinating and maddening.

This time, Hank is working on two cases: the local park kids had their plastic samurai sword stolen, and his childhood babysitter, Martha, is missing her dependable, ex-officer husband. Oh, make that three cases–he’s also stalking his baby sister, trying to keep an eye on her as she runs with a guerrilla group planning to save the world. Martha’s husband Brett left the state troopers and took a job working with his father in law at a former bowling alley–now successful shooting range. One day Brett heads out on a supply run and never comes back. As usual, most people suspect Bucket List or suicide, but after discovering more about Brett’s character, Hank suspects Martha is right and the answer is neither. As he searches, he runs into various individuals and communities seeking to deal with the coming asteroid in their own way. One of the most significant developments from the first book is that boatloads of people are fleeing Asia, the projected site of impact.

While Hank is better at asking the big questions, his stubborn response makes the answers all the more frustrating. As he works to solve the missing-persons case, I had hopes that he was developing a degree of self-awareness:

There is an aspect of my character that tends to latch on to one difficult but potentially solvable problem, rather than grapple with the vast and unsolvable problem that would be all I could see, if I were to look up, figuratively speaking, from my small blue notebooks.

What the reader realizes–or this reader, at least–is that Hank’s way of coping might not be any more ethical or useful than the ways of coping others are using, whether Bucket List, pleasure-seeking or suicide. In essence, he is as selfish as everyone else, pursuing his own small goal in context of his value system at the expense of those around him.

Winter’s writing remains engaging, moving quickly without sacrificing description. His occasional brilliance in word choice and imagery impresses. For instance, as Hank is interviewing Martha, he notes:

Her hair does not appear to have been washed or brushed, and it flies off in all directions, thick and messy. I get a nasty feeling, like her anxiety over her husband’s disappearance has metastasized into something else, something closer to profound despair, even madness.

What Winters excels at is capturing human universals in small moments. There’s Nico’s apt observation of Hank:

You have a way of saying you’re going to listen to something, but then when the other person is talking you’re up in your head having some sort of complicated policeman dialog with yourself about something else.

And an unpleasantly well-described moment of voyeurism:

The potbellied heroin addict at the end of the table makes a low grunt and depresses his plunger, grits his teeth, and throws back his head. There is something horrifying and mesmerizing about him doing this in front of us, almost as if he were performing a sexual act or a murder.

As a mystery, it stands alone, but what is truly remarkable about this series is the setting: the dissolution of civilized society in context of impeding disaster. As such, understanding how resources and people change in just a few short weeks is critical to enjoying the story. I encourage reading in order, and all the way through. Next up: World of Trouble.

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Science fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Countdown City by Ben Winters. The more things change…

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I have been super curious about this trilogy. I’ve seen good things about it pop up from time to time, but I can’t quite commit myself yet. I think this will be one I end up reading 10 – 20 years later, haha.

  2. thebookgator says:

    They’re fast reads and the themes echo the old-school sci-fi you enjoy. Too many books, not enough time…

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