Thursday, March 12, 2009

Book Review: 'Population Doomsday' by Don Pendleton

3/5 Stars

‘Population Doomsday’ (192 pp., Pinnacle Books, 1970) was originally released as ‘1989: Population Doomsday’. The cover features a man wearing a gas mask standing in front of the presidential seal; the artist is unattributed. This ‘gas mask’ theme of Eco-catastrophe SF was to be employed for the cover of John Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Look Up’ issued two years later.

Don Pendleton was the author of the very popular ‘Executioner’ series of action novels. He was inspired to write ‘Population Doomsday’ after reading Paul R. Ehrlich’s book ‘The Population Bomb’, and in fact ‘Doomsday’ has a preface consisting of a letter to Ehrlich from Pendleton:

But if your population bomb is science, Dr Ehrlich, then my population doomsday is prophecy and as valid as any educated projections of the best scientific information presently available.

‘Doomsday’ is set early in 1989, when Ehrlich’s predictions have come true, and America is in the grip of an Eco-catastrophe. Most of the population of 390 million are forced to wear gas masks to cope with the dense smog in urban areas. Food and water are rationed and people resort to profligate drug use to try and escape the depressing circumstances of their lives in a grossly overcrowded, polluted nation.

As the novel opens, Bill Vance, a newspaper editor and reporter, attends a news conference given by his friend and newly elected President, Royal Hackett. Desperate measures call for desperate solutions: Hackett is banning use of all motor vehicles save for those required for vital services. It’s just one of a number of quasi-dictatorial measures the President plans to unleash in an effort to prevent a disastrous breakdown in the social and economic order.

It looks like too little, too late as Vance soon finds himself invited to cover a disastrous smog event in Gary, Indiana. In a scene reminiscent of ‘The Andromeda Strain’, where the medical team first explores the eerily quiet town of Piedmont, Arizona, Vance and a detachment of troops don NBC suits and venture into the stricken city. As a result of a lethal combination of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid, most of Gary’s inhabitants are dead. There is so little sunlight penetrating the ghastly chemical cloud over the city that flashlights are needed to negotiate streets in daylight; mounds of corpses cover the streets; and the ever-dwindling numbers of those still alive desperately need clean air…and there’s none to be found…

Within a matter of weeks other disastrous outbreaks of lethal air pollution begin to roil the US. President Hackett implements drastic measures to rein in the national economy, including a cessation of all heavy industry, mass layoffs, government-sanctioned euthanasia, and even tearing up airport runways to plant food crops ! But are these measures enough to prevent the extinction of mankind ? Or will Hackett be forced to take even more dramatic measures to ensure that some remnant of humanity survives ?

Like his contemporaries Louis L’Amour, Evan Hunter (‘Ed McBain’) and John D. MacDonald, Pendleton earned a living by writing at least one, more often several, short novels a year (this in the era before word processors). Like those authors, he was skilled at delivering an engaging narrative within the confines of genre novels of 200 or fewer pages. The first 10-20 pages of such novels are used with great efficiency to give the reader necessary orientation in the setting of the narrative, and familiarity with the main characters. After that, the plot takes over and the story flows rapidly to its conclusion. Lengthy expositions revolving around plot points, or in-depth passages designed to showcase character development, simply weren’t included.

Readers looking for a more thoughtful and contemplative treatment of Eco-catastrophe SF may find ‘Population Doomsday’ a bit superficial compared to the novels by Brunner or Harry Harrison. But Pendleton's novel has its merits in its fast pacing and economy of style – something I often wished Brunner had employed when I was plodding through some of his chapters. ‘Doomsday’ is a worthwhile example of how one writer of ‘genre’ fiction was influenced by the apocalyptic tenor of neo-Malthusian tomes such as ‘The Population Bomb’.

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