Friday, April 15, 2016

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Title: Countdown City (Last Policeman Series #2), Author: Ben H. Winters  Sometimes while I am in the middle of something enjoyable, I get pulled out a little and find myself thinking how great the thing that is happening is. It's like I'm in the experience but at the same time I'm outside of the experience watching myself enjoy it, like I'm unintentionally (or maybe it is intentional) storing up the memory for future use. Such was the case while reading Countdown City by Ben H. Winters. I so enjoyed reading it and every so often I would find myself pausing and saying in my head (and occasionally out loud) something like, "This is so good!"

Countdown City is the second in a series, the prior book being The Last Policeman. It's a mystery in the middle of the pre-apocalypse. The world is going to end in 77 days. An asteroid nicknamed Maia is on course to crash into Earth and there is nothing to be done it. No way to divert or destroy it before it hits. Such a scenario raises the question, how would you spend your last days? That death is months instead of days away seems to make this question harder to answer and the whole situation harder to bear.

Some people opt to end their days sooner rather than later. Others "go bucket list." Many get real religious, presumably in an attempt to secure their position in the after life. Some refuse to accept their fate, insisting that there is some way to save the earth. Some keep on keepin' on. Detective Hank Palace falls into this last category. In The Last Policeman Palace set out to solve a suspicious death that by all accounts appears to be a suicide. By this time suicides have become commonplace and people have stopped asking why someone would kill themselves because everyone knows why: Maia. Palace persists anyway, convinced that the suicide is really a murder. Now with 77 days left till life as everyone knows it ends, the Concord police force is operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department and Palace is out of a job. Even if Palace were still a cop he wouldn't have been doing any detecting. At this point the police are not worried about solving crimes or even really preventing it, they're simply trying to keep people alive and relatively peaceful. Nevertheless when his childhood babysitter Martha asks him for help with finding her missing husband Brett, Palace takes on the case.

Repeatedly Palace is asked why he's doing this, why he's looking for this missing man. After all, lots of people are disappearing, usually of their own accord, usually to "go bucket list." There is nothing to suggest that Brett did not leave of his own accord. Still it is odd that he would just pick up and leave his wife. By all accounts Brett, a former state trooper, was a stand-up guy, the kind of man who sincerely and earnestly always strove to do the right thing, who took his responsibilities and promises seriously.

At first Palace has a hard time answering why he is helping Martha and looking for Brett. Martha isn't paying or giving him anything. All he can think of is how he sat across from Martha at her kitchen table and promised her. Eventually he comes up with an answer:

"Because a promise is a promise, Officer Cavatone, and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that's all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form."

I recently read Station Eleven. One of things that interests me about that book and this book and apocalyptic fiction in general is the precise and various ways society breaks down. Many, probably most, stop going to work. The worth of a paycheck and money quickly lose their value in the face of impending doom. Still I can't help but think it would be beneficial for all if some people kept working or if all people worked to make sure certain things kept working. Maybe we can live without cable and shopping malls but wouldn't it be nice to keep the water running, the lights on, and the hospitals open till the end days?

At the beginning of Countdown City society is still holding it together, but barely. Cracks are starting to show and it is only a matter of time. In all likelihood the world will come crashing down long before Maia does. Under the circumstances Palace's insistence on following through with his investigation might seem foolish, but I get it. It's like when you go on vacation and it's great but there comes a point when a part of you is eager to get home, sleep in your own bed, and get back to your regular routine. Three months till the world ends, that's a lot of time. Have to spend that time somehow. If you like what you do, why not keep doing it? Routines can keep a person sane. Also, I hope there are some Palaces left in the world, people who will keep trying to do the right thing even when there is no payoff in sight.

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