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The Aftermath

by Samuel C Florman

(St Martins, 323 pages, hardback, 2001, ISBN: 0-312-26652-9.)

Review by Peter D Tillman

cover scanThis is the worst novel that I've actually finished in years. I kept reading (then skimming) thinking, I guess, that it can't all be this bad. I was wrong. Let's see if I can convey the fascinating awfulness of this earnest, well-intentioned, and very, very bad novel....

In a nutshell, Earth's entire population has just been destroyed by the impact of a large comet -- except for a cruise ship full of engineers, and a few thousand inhabitants of nearby South Africa. After a few chapters of graceless scene-setting, the engineers settle down to rebuild civilization. They move ashore and build a new town, called, by popular vote, "Engineering Village". They appoint committees and subcommittees for each phase of their Grand Plan, and each distinguished engineer is given page after page to info-dump [1]. Whenever a question arises, a well-qualified historian, mining engineer or Army officer springs to life, info-dump at hand. Florman's done his research, and by God he's not going to waste any of it. Do I need to add that there are no real characters here?

Now, I (and most hard-SF readers) have a pretty high tolerance for literary awkwardness, especially when the author is a technical guy. But there are limits. For me, they were reached when the Bad Guys surface. Florman realizes he needs a little dramatic tension, and imagines a raid by pirates from Madagascar. They are led by their fearsome Pirate Queen, Mary Anne Appleton of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Perhaps you are thinking, at this point, that, hey, an African pirate queen from New Jersey could be pretty cool.... Maybe naming the town "Engineering Village" is, I dunno, some kind of satire? Nope. These (and many more!) are all written in earnest. Dead earnest. Deadly, soggy, dogged, dull (but earnest!) prose, pages and pages of it. Such moments of horrified fascination kept me reading (or at least skimming) on into this slow-motion literary train-wreck. So you may want to borrow a library copy, just to see how far wrong a respected writer can go in his first novel. No better inspiration for a beginning novelist could be imagined, than that The Aftermath could actually be published, in hardcover, by a reputable house. Yes, you can do better than this! Florman, a civil engineer, has written several well-received popular non-fiction books about engineering. The best-known is The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, which I recall enjoying, years ago....

Mr. Florman, I'm truly sorry to be so hard on your novel, which I was looking forward to reading. Engineers rebuild the world! Neat. But, frankly, it stinks. I think you should stick to nonfiction in the future.

Florman's novel got some pretty good notices, amazingly enough, including this one I saw in the NY Times that led me to pick it up. I should have looked at Amazon first, where it gets such reader's reviews as "Buy this for any engineer you strongly dislike."

[1] For example, here is the "Preliminary Allocation of Personnel Resources--A Report of the Joint Planning Subcommittee of the Coordinating Committee" at the End of the World (registration required). No, I'm not making this up. [...back to main text]


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