Novel * Ben Winters * Pre-Apocalypse * 2013
Countdown City, being the direct sequel to The Last Policeman (a novel I quite enjoyed), continues the story of ex-Detective Henry Palace as he makes his way through a disintegrating society in wait for final destruction. It’s good times. To recap, there is an asteroid named Maia on a collision course with Earth. However, this is not a Deep Impact situation. The rock will hit, somewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere, 77 days from the events of the novel. When it does it will be a catastrophe on the level with the extinction of the dinosaurs, which is to say that perhaps the human species will survive but civilization most certainly will not, and billions will perish. The public response to this information, as you might imagine, was not great. There was initial panic, followed by a period of subdued dread, and by the time of Countdown City society finally begins to shake itself apart. Like the first book in the trilogy, this novel isn’t interested directly in this social unravelling. Rather the story is told through the perspective of Hank, and he’s a weird dude.
Hank believes in doing his job regardless of circumstances, and this apparently includes the death of humanity. The first book did an admirable job exploring the impulses behind Hank’s desire to complete his investigation despite nobody else really caring. However, after he successfully solved his mystery, he was removed from his position as a police officer. While the dissolution of civil structure is always in the background, at the end of The Last Policeman Hank was finally caught up in the turmoil. Essentially, the government took over the city police department, fired all investigative personnel, and turned the cops into a kind of martial law security presence. Palace, now jobless, is forced to reexamine his place in a society that is slowly falling apart. He does this by finding a new mystery to solve.
Once again, Hank finds solace in helping others. In this instance, it’s an old classmate who has lost her husband. Actually, she didn’t necessarily lose him, he left her. With the onset of certain destruction, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Hank, however, can’t really help himself when it comes to helping others. The compulsion to find this man turns out to be as much of a character study as it is a plot. Certainly there is a mystery to be solved here. Unlike the first novel, however, it’s not a whodunit situation. The story of Countdown City is Hank tracking down his friend’s absent husband, and figuring out why he would abandon his wife. The assumption, of course, is that he emulated thousands of other people and decided to use the last few months of his life to revel in debauchery of some kind. Thankfully Countdown City does not opt for the obvious answer, and Hank’s investigation takes him to some strange places.
As with the first book, there are layers to the narrative that add a depth to the story. Hank’s sister, Nico, is off doing mysterious things with her hipster university friends which she insists is very important work. Hank’s other friends react to the dissolution of society in various ways, all of which have an effect on Palace. This is, after all, his story. Hank remains a likeable, if strange, protagonist who remains engaging throughout. He has some clear blind spots, but at the same time he is determined to do the right thing regardless of the dire circumstances. It’s admirable, even if he makes some curious choices throughout his investigation.
It’s difficult to properly identify with Hank, at least it is for me, because of his relentless pursuit of a concrete result in a chaotic, increasingly abstract world. From the perspective of those on Earth, the asteroid isn’t real until it hits. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. There is no way for anyone who doesn’t have access to an observatory to perceive the threat. It’s basically taken on faith that this very bad thing is going to actually happen. This isn’t to say logic isn’t involved. Why would any power structure willingly sacrifice itself if the asteroid threat wasn’t real? Yet there is still enough room for doubt, unless your name is Henry Palace. Other than practical concerns, Hank doesn’t really pay much attention to the Maia threat. He’s aware of it, obviously, but in the pursuit of his quarry Hank only recognizes the situation on the ground in terms of an obstacle to be overcome. People have become more unpredictable, so he has to take this new situation into account in order to accurately predict behavior. Humans are still humans, the asteroid only makes them more impulsive.
It is the abstract nature of the threat that provokes these impulsive behaviors, and it is Hank’s peculiar mental make-up that allows him to function somewhat normally. Nearly everyone around him makes impulsive decisions. One of his fellow unemployed detectives finally bails on the scene, imploring his friends to think about what’s going to happen when the water runs out. That, of course, prompted me to wonder why the hell people living within a few hundred miles of a coast aren’t relocating inland, but whatever. Meanwhile, Hank’s sister Nico is back and being obnoxious again. Her whole thing is that there’s some kind of vast government conspiracy at work. She’s convinced that the feds have the means available to deflect the asteroid impact but are choosing not to for… reasons. Something about the military being excited to rule over a decimated society. Again, because there is a lack of visceral evidence for imminent doom, the hopeful soul can conjure alternatives. Hank, of course, dismisses this as nonsense (and I’m going to be really annoyed if Nico turns out to be right. Honestly, where’s the motivation? Anyone with the power to suppress this kind of information is already in the power elite. And what will slightly more power do for you in a post-asteroid world? You get to live in a fancier cave than the rest of us? This, like most conspiracies, is dumb). Still, for Nico her Junior Conspiracy Team is a form of hope that keeps her from despair. Hank, with his dutiful pursuit of the concrete, doesn’t need such fanciful daydreams to cope.
Hank, of course, finds his man. As it happens, Brett is not unlike Hank Palace. Rather than responding to an abstract threat impulsively, Brett takes it upon himself to do something concrete that aligns with what he feels is right. In this case, he got himself some guns and was going to go on a mission to eliminate the Coast Guard patrolling the New England coast against refugee boats from the asteroid impact zone. Hank interrupts this mission, and Brett ends up dead. And whatever, because he wasn’t ever really important either. Nor was his murderer, a lovesick kid who had a crush on Brett’s wife. The missing man mystery was only ever relevant because it gave Henry a reason to keep going. It allowed him to be able to insulate himself from a civilization shaking itself apart even before the killing blow arrives. Once this motivation is gone, Hank is forced to come to terms with the situation at hand. In this he is assisted by one of his former policemen, a lady named Trish McConnell. Together with some fellow officers they create a stronghold in which to wait out the end of the word. Considering there is another book left, I think it’s safe to assume Hank has something else left to do. Hopefully it is as engaging as the first two books.