Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review - Dark Dawning by Auguste Dinoto

Short review: A nonsensical plot with a nonsensical central character. The ludicrousness is leavened with heaping helpings of misogyny and paranoia.

Brick the manly man
Lives in a oil poor world
Ludicrousness ensues

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: In general, one can usually find at least one good thing to say about any book. For this book, here it is: This book is short. This is a merciful element, as the story is so awful it isn't even laughably bad, the characters are offensive, the writing is weak, and the setting is both ludicrous and poorly researched. In short, there are no redeeming characteristics of this book other than the fact that at 189 pages of large sized text it shouldn't take more than a couple hours to finish, assuming that one wants to devote a couple of hours to reading a really crappy book.

Dark Dawning aspires to be a near future techno-thriller set in the future in which a cataclysmic earthquake has caused the world's supply of oil to be dramatically reduced, resulting in a Fascist movement taking control of the U.S. government and declaring war on Mexico to gain control of its oil fields. Striding across this oil-free dystopian landscape is the protagonist Brick Saunders, a manly man who is so very manly that one wonders how he walks anywhere without tripping on his enormous manly penis. Brick is an investigative reporter living in San Diego, which seems to be one of the acceptable occupations for manly men, along with airplane pilot and football player. Oddly, Brick doesn't seem to much like his job, and it is implied that he was assigned the job by a government agency. This isn't entirely clear, because, like so many other elements of the book it is mentioned in passing and then never referenced again. Brick's job doesn't really matter much, since he doesn't spend a whole lot of time doing it, instead spending his hours getting drunk and high, trying to scrounge up gas so he can get out of San Diego, and having sex with almost every female character who crosses his path.

If one thinks that Brick seems a little bit like a Mary Sue character, then I would agree with you. However, Brick's manly wish-fulfillment nature is only a small part of the problem with this book. The book is riddled with typos, misspellings, and awkward or incorrect grammar. For example, several characters say "comon", when what what intended was for them to say "come on", or possibly, "c'mon". In addition to the poor quality of the writing, it is apparent that Dinoto simply didn't do much research when writing the book. The enormous earthquake that sets the stage for the book is reported as being a "15.5 magnitude" earthquake. The largest recorded magnitude for an earthquake was the 9.5 scale Valvida, Chile quake recorded in 1960, the equivalent of 2.7 gigatons of TNT. But the Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning that each time one increases the magnitude of a quake, one increases the intensity multiple times. The largest quake that geologists think is possible is a magnitude 10 quake, which would be the equivalent to about ten gigatons of TNT. The Yucatan Peninsula impact that created the Chicxulub crater 65 million years ago and may have wiped out much of the life on Earth is estimated to have been the equivalent of a 12.5 magnitude seismic event, resulting in the release of the equivalent of 100 teratons of TNT. A 15.5 magnitude quake is virtually impossible, and even if it did happen, it would probably crack the Earth into pieces like a shattered egg. This sort of sloppiness and lack of attention to detail is evident throughout the book. At one point the reader is told that the Mexican forces have sunk a pair of the U.S. Navy's "two hundred thousand ton destroyers". The largest military ships ever built have been some of the U.S. Navy's supercarriers, which displace just over one hundred thousand tons. The largest ships ever built are enormous and clumsy oil tankers and bulk container ships, that have displaced more than two hundred thousand tons. Modern destroyers, on the other hand, generally displace between 7,000 and 10,000 tons. Given that the book takes place in 2036, it seems implausible that destroyers will grow twenty times as large as they are now. Several references are made to the use of "nuclear grenades", a weapon that seems like it would be as dangerous to the user as it was to the intended target, and as a result, adds a distinctly cartoonish flair to the story.

The story doesn't even seem to believe in itself. The cover quote says that the price of gasoline rises to $500 per gallon. References are made in the book to the price of gasoline rising into the tens of thousands of dollars per gallon. I suppose if all of the Middle-Eastern oil reserves were made unusable that this is marginally possible. But other than severely restricting consumption of fuel, the universe Dinoto created seems not to react at all. The government still uses tanker trucks to haul gasoline from place to place, people take gas, which costs upwards of a half a grand per gallon, and put it into cars to drive around. To conserve fuel, no one has hot water, and electricity is shut off every night. But most electricity in the United States is not produced using oil. Seventy-five percent of the energy currently produced in the United States comes from non-petroleum sources such as coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar. Losing access to oil would certainly have negative consequences, but the world would react in ways other than simply shutting down the hot water heaters. Why are people still shipping goods using trucks, which consume valuable oil? Why are they not using much more efficient diesel trains, or even pulling steam engines out of mothballs and shipping goods using coal power? Where are the electric cars? While renewable energy sources like wind and solar power might or might not be economically feasible right now, if the cost of oil skyrocketed as it is posited in this book, they certainly would be. So one has to ask, where are the wind farms and the solar fields? Why has the U.S. not embarked on a building program to bring numerous nuclear reactors on line? It seems that Dinoto didn't even stop to consider any of these elements in his rush to create an oil-shortage driven fascist government for the United States. The author didn't think through the implications of his own hypothetical future, leaving the reader to wonder why humans became idiots when the oil vanished.

But those are just background details, and the fact that Dinoto gets them hilariously wrong is only distracting, and not fatal. The author's lack of research shows in the political setting that is imagined to result from the oil shortage. As one might expect, the result was chaos, and apparently one man named Alib Deeds "shouted loud and long" for order, and as a result ended up in charge of the country. Not as President, but rather as Chairman of the "Oil Appropriations Committee". Given the name, one might expect that the OAC was a Congressional committee of some sort, which would make Alib a Congressman or Senator. But as the book goes on, it becomes obvious that Alib is not part of Congress, nor is the OAC a Congressional committee. Perhaps Dinoto meant for the OAC to be a powerful executive agency and just misnamed it a "committee" rather than a "commission" or an "administration". But that would place Deeds under the authority of the President, and that is decidedly not the case, as Deeds orders the actual U.S. President around any time the two of them show up together in the book. The OAC just doesn't seem to fit anywhere in the structure of the U.S. government, but since the actions deeds is supposed to have taken included federalizing all fuel producing companies, Dinoto seems to think it should. The OAC is supposedly backed by a paramilitary group called "Fledgling One", but they don't seem to fit in the government anywhere either. Late in the book, after the OAC has been overthrown, one of the characters remarks that the U.S. is "going back to a civilian government", but since the OAC is not the military, the U.S. never had a military government to begin with. The net result is that nothing about Alib Deeds' takeover of the U.S. government, the OAC, or Fledgling One makes any sense at all. It seems that Dinoto decided he wanted a fascistic government to take over the U.S., but he didn't understand anything about the U.S. government at all, and just came up with a lazy and somewhat silly story. And because the author clearly doesn't care enough about the story to strive for at least something plausible, or to give an explanation that is more than simply saying "Deeds waved his arms and yelled louder than anyone else", the reader doesn't have any reason to care about the story either.

Oddly, Brick isn't actually involved in much of the political machinations surrounding Deeds, the OAC, or the small coalition of Senators that forms to oppose them. Nor is Brick involved in any substantial way with the war between the United States and Mexico, other than living in San Diego near the border. Brick does some perfunctory reporting at parts of the story, uncovering the fact that the government is only pretending to ship oil to the San Diego fuel depot, and that the government is covering up the military successes of a particularly brutal Mexican general, but like pretty much everything else about the plot that involves Brick these revelations don't really go anywhere. Brick does decide to try to scheme his way out of San Diego, and much of the book involves his machinations aimed towards that goal. A cartoonish goon named Shlevert is provided as an obstacle, as is Cannon Leeds, who is ostensibly Brick's boss at the news station, but mostly exists in the story to harass Brick at work once in a while. And to be perfectly fair to Leeds, Brick is a pretty lousy employee: he spends most of his time at work sharpening pencils when he is not staring lasciviously at the female staff members, he shows up to work drunk or hungover multiple times in the book, he fabricates reasons to use the company vehicle. We're clearly supposed to side with Brick because Dinoto has painted "EVIL" on the ruling government in great big red neon colored letters, but the truth is that it is difficult to root for Brick because he's a horrible person.

Among Brick's many reprehensible qualities, the most glaring is that he is, bluntly, a misogynist in a book that wholeheartedly approves of his misogyny. Brick lusts after his beautiful coworker Tyra, and she is smitten with him as well. But when she suggests that maybe they should spend the night together as equals because, as she says "women are free", he glares at the stack of "feminist magazines" and turns her down before storming out to engage in an internal monologue about how women run society and whining about how men have to follow rules laid down by women. While still mooning over Tyra (and trying to figure out how to get her away from her "feminist magazines"), Brick fills in the time by having a drunken night of sex with their other coworker Blanchie, who reads romance novels, which seem to be on brick's list of acceptable reading material for women. A no-strings attached night of sex with Tyra is apparently offensive to Brick's "men's rights" sensibilities, but to show he is still a manly man, it is okay for him to have a no-string attached night of sex with the disposable Blanchie. But the misogynistic tone of the book reaches its height when Brick and Tyra scheme to get Shlevert out of the way in order to make their escape from San Diego. They cook up a plot that involves tricking Shlevert into an amateur sex club where Leeds' daughter Denise is a regular performer so they can take photos of Shlevert having sex with Denise to use as blackmail material. Of course, both the club's owner Roz and Denise find Brick irresistible, and he has sex with both of them. Apparently having sex with the boss' daughter is fine, so long as you don't get photographed doing it. Both Roz and Denise aren't so much characters in the story as they are two walking sets of breasts equipped with vaginas who exist to serve as wish fulfillment fantasies for the author and provide a plot point that turns out to be mostly irrelevant to the story.

And this last point highlights the final failing of Dark Dawning: Despite containing a lot of motion, the book doesn't contain a lot of plot. The various characters do a lot of things, but most of the things they do end up being more or less irrelevant to how events proceed. Brick, Tyra, Shlevert, and the rest of the characters in San Diego have no effect one way or another on the political struggle, or the war between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. Brick and Tyra spend a lot of time scheming to get out of the city, but in the end their plans collapse to "drive really fast in a car and shoot anyone who gets in our way". Despite the fact that the Mexican army is imminently going to sack and despoil San Diego, Brick isn't even able to manage the simple goal of broadcasting a warning to the citizenry. In the end, the only people who manage to leave before the incoming invasion are Brick and Tyra. And in a way that is a fitting end for this terrible book: A horrible self-absorbed narcissist flies into the sunset accompanied by the arm-candy he managed to browbeat out of considering herself to be his equal. In the end, Dark Dawning is a terrible book in almost every way that it is possible for a book to be terrible, with bad writing, a bad story, an implausible setting, and despicable characters that are somehow still two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. There is really no good reason for anyone who is not Brick Saunders to ever read this book.

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