Aftermath, Charles Sheffield

Bantam, 1998, 452 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37893-7

The great thing about modern civilization is that every few days, we find new ways to bring it down. Take an electromagnetic pulse, for instance. In theory, it’s an energy reaction that simply produces an massive influx of electrons. The consequences, however, are devastating on modern machinery: They overload electronic circuits -frying them permanently- and wipe out magnetic storage formats. This well-known phenomenon -which can be caused by nuclear explosions, among other things- is slowly becoming the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our modern electromagnetic civilization.

EMP wouldn’t have been a problem a hundred years ago. Even as late at 1975, the consequences wouldn’t have been as dramatic. But nowadays, a large part of our financial, communication and media networks increasingly rely on complex electronic devices easily damaged by electromagnetic pulses. It’s going to get worse. Aftermath is a novel that takes place after a freak astronomic event has created a massive electromagnetic pulse that completely devastates Earth’s electronics…

Three cancer victims begin a hunt for a scientist who can continue their longevity treatments. The president of the USA is besieged by personal and national issues. Astronauts from the first Mars mission arrive near Earth to find that nobody can come and get them. Yet another fanatic religious group arises..

If you suspect a disaster novel, then you’re right: Though Aftermath is definitely SF, it takes place is a future far closer to ours than Sheffield’s other novels. The time is 2026, and in spite of a few fancy new gadgets, there really isn’t much there to tantalize the SF fan. It actually looks closer to 2010 than anything else. Like many disaster novels, Aftermath also sacrifices ideas for lengthy plotting, which is where Sheffield begins to lose control over his book.

I’m of the opinion that sex is absent of most hard-SF writer’s work because they end up looking silly if they try it, (which isn’t to say that sex in non-hard-SF works isn’t pretty silly either!) and Aftermath pretty much proves my point. Nearly each characters discourses at length about his sexual (in) capacities, from homosexual congressmen to pedophiliac scientists to impotent heads of state. I believe I speak for a sizeable proportion of the North-American population when I say that the less said about the president’s sex life, the better. 

All of this ties into a bigger complaint, which is that Aftermath hasn’t got a recognizably normal character in its dramatis personae. No one to identify with, no bird’s eye view of the action and disaster. I’m all for originality in characters, but when overdone it reads a lot like your average daytime soap opera.

Fortunately, Aftermath has a bit more meat than the usual melodrama, and it’s one of its virtues that it steadily becomes more interesting as it advances. Be prepared for a rather average start. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes obvious that the novel’s plot lines won’t be tied up by the end of the book, and so Aftermath ends on a note strongly suggestive of at least one sequel. It would have been decent for Bantam to at least acknowledge this on the dust jacket…

This lack of closure, coupled with the humdrum nature of most of the novel and the sometime-ridiculous sex-driven character dynamics make Aftermath a less-than-commendable choice. Sheffield has done much better in the past, and we can only hope that he’ll come back to form soon.

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