Saturday, 26 January 2008

Straight from the airport lounge

Last Light by Alex Scarrow is a classic airport thriller with a difference. Rather than positing sinister events put into motion but ultimately set to rights with the world put back to normal, this novel has the idea of Peak Oil and the long-term consequences of this "Big Idea" at its core. Things are very much not back to normal by its end.

Structurally the novel follows a single family separated by vocation, marital difficulties and public school. Events in the outside world, the shutdown of oil production, conspire to fuel a crisis that rapidly spreads globally embroiling this family in a desperate fight for survival. One strand follows the oil engineer father as he struggles to return to London from the oil fields of Iraq. Another follows his wife as she struggles to return to London from a job interview in Manchester. Another follows his daughter as she struggles to return to London from UEA with an assassin on her tail. Can you see the pattern there?

While absorbing all of the elements of a classic potboiler, the novel is saved, to a degree, by its rather real-world premise and by its all-too-convincing exposition of what could happen if, suddenly, our energy supplies dried up. It certainly isn't saved by its writing, which reads, more or less, like a screenplay treatment. Characters serve only to advance plot or to introduce ideas the author wants to discuss (not dissimilarly to the Master Of The Potboiler: Michael Crichton). And the plot is simply a relentless drive forward through event after lethal event. Which isn't to say that it's not a compelling read. While it is slightly shorter than Brick Lane, I finished it in less than three days. Short, punchy chapters do help here.

I say "saved to a degree" because it does fluff it towards the end. While comprehensively managing to avoid the cliched happy ending, it does slip up in unfolding its sinister plot. Rather than making the plot a far-fetched-but-still-credible tale of contemporary oil/government interests, out of the blue it instead posits a rather ridiculous centuries-long conspiracy in which just about every event of the past 1000 years has been carefully choreographed by a group of unspecified "evil do-ers" (who, of course, see themselves as Mankind's saviours). This struck me as both preposterous and unnecessary. It's impossible to see how such a conspiracy could both massively engineer civilisation while remaining completely invisible. I can see how individual events in history could be stage-managed without leaving many fingerprints, but the whole of Western history? The novel would have actually worked better if the nature of the conspiracy was left unspecified.

Anyway, a compelling if trashy read. With a bit of luck, the message at its core will get a few more people thinking about how we cope with the end of oil. This is almost certainly within my lifetime, but it doesn't appear that anyone's really thinking hard about it. I fear that the Julian Simons of this world have got their message across too successfully.

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