Summer of the Apocalypse is to date the only novel by James Van Pelt (I promise to stick with the US spelling of his name but why on earth do people feel the need to change the V in van into a capital once they leave the Netherlands?). Van Pelt is a prolific short story writer, his website lists almost a hundred of them and it looks like that list hasn't been updated in a while. I read only two of his short stories, The Last of the O-Forms, which can be read here, and A Flock of Birds, which used to be available online but isn't any more. Both of them impressed me in different ways. I am going to have to check out one of this collections sometime next year. Right now I have several collections of short fiction on the to read pile so I settled for the novel instead. It turned out to be a good choice, the novel does not disappoint.
Eric is fifteen years old when a disease wipes out ninety-nine percent of the human population. He may not have seen it coming but his father surely did. It turns out a hideaway near their home in Colorado has been prepared in the last few weeks and when everyday life breaks down as a result of the spread of the disease, Eric and his parents go into hiding. Eric's mother catches the disease anyway and quickly follows countless other people into the grave. To make matters worse for Eric, his dad undertakes an expedition to town and never returns. Eric decides to go out and look for him.
A second story line is set sixty years later. Eric is an old man and one of the few survivors of the Gone Times still alive. He sees the community he lives in slip further into illiteracy and primitiveness and attempts to at least teach the town's children to read. Their parents, the first generation to grow up and not remember the Gone Times, do not see the importance of it. To Eric reading is key to relearn lost knowledge and technology. The world may have fallen an long way, it is not beyond rebuilding. At seventy-five, Eric is not as tough as he used to be but he thinks he still has one long hike left in him. A trip to Boulder Colorado, where he hopes to find the university library still in tact. A repository of knowledge that just might set his community on it's way to rebuilding rather than living on the leavings of a dead society.
Van Pelt does not spend a lot of time detailing the causes of the apocalypse and the collapse of society. Other than some basic descriptions of the symptoms of the the disease we don't learn much about it's origin. His story is focussed on the people who live though it. In this relatively short novel Van Pelt manages to create a very convincing main character in Eric. Separated by sixty years there is a great sense of connection between the young, insecure and traumatized Eric trying to survive the end of the world and the old but spirited Eric, refusing to give up is fight against ignorance.
One particular thing that struck me about Eric is the way he questions whether or not the apocalypse was actually such a bad thing. Sure, a lot of people died but with them most of the evils of modern society died as well. Are people better off now? Should he really be trying to regain lost technology? It's a question that upsets the seventy-five year old Eric severely. One thing he doesn't consider but would have been interesting to explore is whether or not Eric can actually answer it. After all, he lived through the apocalypse before being and adult. His exposure to the big bad world has been limited and his memories are far from fresh. Perhaps the decision he makes is not altogether surprising in this light.
As I mentioned before Van Pelt does not really go into the mechanics of modern technology failing. One things he does mention is how plenty of technology is still available but almost none of it works. Partially though lack of power and fuel but also because not all of its components have the same life expectancy. Shelf life, as one of the characters puts it, is a major problem sixty years after the apocalypse. With no goods being manufactured and old stocks running low or decaying the world is rapidly loosing its technology. This is not a concept I have found in other post-apocalyptic writing (I will admit to not being all that well read in this particular sub genre) but it makes a lot of sense. It does make one wonder how other parts of the world are doing though, a questions that weighs on Eric's mind at one point in the book.
I very much enjoyed reading this book. Eric is a wonderful character and showing him as a boy and an old man really makes this book work for me. Do not expect a great epic story a world collapsing, that is not what the book aims for. Van Pelt describes the apocalypse on a personal level if you will. It's one of the better books I have read this year. Summer of the Apocalypse has been on my wishlist for a while. After having read it, I regret not getting it sooner.
Title: Summer of the Apocalypse
Author: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press
First published: 2006