Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Alex is preparing to enjoy a weekend alone. All by himself. Without his pesky little sister. His parents have decided he’s old enough to stay by himself while they drive off a few towns over in Iowa to visit relatives.

Unfortunately this is the weekend that the volcano underlying the caldera that we know as Yellowstone Park decides to release some pent-up tension, thus distributing several inches to several feet of ash across the majority of the United States.

Alex sets out to find his family, gone to a neighboring town that’s close enough if you’re able to drive, and a long hike in ideal circumstances. But cars can’t function with all the ash in the air, and the mix of ash and snow on the ground makes walking unfeasible. He slogs along on foot for a few miles, before he rigs himself a pair of skis, and traverses this newly transformed alien society, meeting a range of people. Some organized. Some scrabbling helplessly on their own. Some cruel. Some humane.

…and I’ll stop there, except to say that while the ending is not wholly bleak and inconclusive—he doesn’t find his parents and sister, but he does find a safe refuge, which welcomes the capable Darla on the pair’s own terms—it’s clearly a setup for a sequel or two.

I have to admit this was one of my favorite post-apocalypse books yet.

Mullin picked a more-or-less plausible trigger for the apocalypse. Yellowstone is a long-dormant but still-active volcano; hence all the pretty geysers splurting about. Its caldera is so huge that for decades and centuries, we’ve thought it was just a really wide indentation. He also thought through the physical effects of that much ash being dumped, with cataclysmic rapidity, into the upper atmosphere.

Anything with an internal combustion engine will cease functioning with appalling rapidity. Anyone who remembers driving through the ash cloud after Mount St. Helens erupted can attest to the effect that even a comparatively small amount of volcanic ash has on automobile engines, though in fairness to the likely readers, this is something that even their parents might be too young to remember.

The ash cloud’s effect on food crops and animals is also plausible. Plants can’t grow since the clouds block the sun permanently—no photosynthesis, not to mention the precipitous drop in temperature plays merry bleep with their ability to grow at all. Animals start getting silicosis as the ash erodes their lungs. Kale is the only plant that survives, and that only if the people are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse. (But I’ll stop there to avoid including spoilers in the review.) The absence of plants means the onset of something we haven’t seen since the advent of reliable canning: scurvy. I’m not entirely convinced that it’d get to the stage Mullin describes as rapidly as he describes it; he is, however, correct that it’s swifter than we might think, especially if the person’s diet hasn’t been great pre-apocalypse. Though I’ll draw a veil over the survivors’ solution again to avoid spoilers, I have to admit I think it’s an ingenious one.

I really liked how Mullin handled the relationship between Alex and Darla. (sorry. yes: that is slightly spoilerish) Darla’s not a screamer: she’s a tough survivor who has considerable mechanical ability.

I wasn’t too crazy about the FEMA camp; its corruption and pettiness is in disconcertingly stark contrast to the more plausible range of human reactions. It’s only a couple of months since the volcano erupted. I know we’re on more of a knife-edge, in terms of actual food supplies, at any given moment than most people realize. Also, there’s an issue of transportation: cars only go a few miles before the engines choke with ash. Rather, the rest of the book seems so well thought out, and so well realized, that stumbling into that morass struck me as a more than slightly unsubtle social commentary on the Woez and Ebils of Big Gummint. Especially since the local and municipal governments seem to manage to arrange things more peaceably and equably.