Fiction Reviews


Aurora

(2022) David Keopp, HQ, £14.99, hrdbk, 292pp, ISBN 978-0-008-36410-6

 

Aurora is catastrophic thriller. Here, the catastrophe comes in the form of a Solar mass coronal ejection event sending plasma to Earth which knocks out electrical systems in most of the developed world save for those nations around the equator. It is this catastrophe that provides the SF element and is largely constrained to the novel's first quarter with the rest being a survival thriller.

Solar mass coronal ejection event are real: there is nothing fictitious about them. We have only had a couple of such incidents with the greatest one being in 1859 but back then electrical infrastructure was minimal and so the societal impact was next to zero. Today, things are different. Most of the world is hugely reliant on electricity and increasingly so with things like the mad, myopic rise of the cashless economy. Today, a major mass coronal ejection event hitting the Earth would have a far bigger impact than, say, the recent CoVID global pandemic.

While Keopp is not a scientist – as evidenced by not knowing that rigor mortis has a time limit, woops – yet he handles the science and impacts of such a mass coronal ejection event with sure-footedness. Indeed, the afterword reveals that he approached a few experts for help and they clearly succeeded on keeping him on the right track.

As for the set up, there are a number of ways to plot a catastrophe novel and most commonly it is to follow a protagonist who is either attached to the governmental response, hence has a good view of unfolding events, and/or an average bod caught up in immediate impacts with the catastrophe in the background. Here, what Koepp has done is to take two related people, siblings, who have a dysfunctional yet deep-down caring relationship, make one a billionaire with ample preper resources and the other a struggling sister getting over a bad marriage and see how they both ride out the ultimate of all blackouts. As a plot set up, this works well. The billionaire discovers – as we would expect – that money does not buy everything including loyalty and love. The struggling sister finds inner strength and (largely) gets by. The billionaire with his governmental and research contacts helps provide something of an omnipresent view; the sister presents a grass roots perspective. But it is the journey that counts. Here we get quite a ride.

David Koepp is a screen writer and one behind the first two Crichton Jurassic Park adaptations (cf. The Lost World) as well both adapting and directing the film of Matheson's A Stir of Echoes among others. And so we have more a cinematic structure to the novel with three acts: the SFnal coronal mass ejection, its impact on the characters, and finally a conflict resolution. All standard stuff but it works. Further, Aurora is an easy read: no cast of thousands to keep tabs on even if the world is affected by events. Indeed, it is such an easy read that I devoured it in two sittings.

This is a perfectly serviceable thriller with an SFnal backdrop and is bound to do well. It is also a post-CoVID novel with the recent pandemic mentioned a few times and comparisons drawn. That governments do not invest in systems protection and dealing with 'black swan' events is one message signalled early on: 'black swan' events being rare events but events that can take place nonetheless. Other black swan examples might include a computer virus taking out national and international systems, pandemics, meteor impacts and super volcano eruptions. So, black swan events are something of an SF trope, though that term has not much currency within the genre community. Here, I must take time out of this review to recommend any putative author of such stories first to read Letwin's non-fiction Apocalypse How: Technology and the threat of disaster . But I am beginning to stray from Aurora.

Aurora is almost, what the author Brian Aldiss might call a 'cosy catastrophe'. Most of the suffering occurs in the background, cities are seen burning in the distance, there is talk of lawlessness: for the most part (though not always) the principal protagonists are unscathed. Unlike, say, The War of the Worlds written in part as a comment on British colonialism, this is a novel written for entertainment. Now, there is nothing wrong with this, just don't expect to come away from this thinking 'hey, I never thought of it that way': this is an adventure novel pure and simple. However, I did particularly like one scene in which a criminal exhorts a victim that there was a 'before' and an 'after' the lights going out way of thinking. Aurora would, though, make for a great film, but then here the author has something of a track record. Let's hope it happens before we get a mass coronal ejection event for real…

Jonathan Cowie

 


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