Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book Review: The Last Gasp

Book Review: 'The Last Gasp' by Trevor Hoyle

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Last Gasp’ first was published in 1983; the Crown / Doubleday hardback (top) features a striking cover by Michael Booth.

The Zebra Books mass market paperback edition (above) was published in March, 1985 (the cover artist is unknown). Zebra Books was at that time a major publisher of the ‘Men’s Adventure’ novel genre (think ‘The Survivalist’, ‘The Warlord’, ‘Depth Force’, etc.) and so the publisher marketed this book to that audience, rather than to an sf readership........such are the vagaries of international publishing and marketing.

Trevor Hoyle (b. 1940) is a UK writer who published a number of standalone and series (‘Blakes 7’, ‘The Q Trilogy’) sf novels, in the 1970s and 1980s. He since has moved away from sf to focus on publishing novels that examine the darker side of the social order, and working-class life, in northern England.

‘Gasp’ opens in 1990 in Antarctica, at Halley Bay Station, where a young marine biologist named Gavin Chase is attending to some instruments. Chase is astonished to see a snow sled approach the station; on the sled lies a man, incoherent and near death from exposure. Chase brings the man into the station, where he is attended to by the medical team. When the man revives, Chase cannot converse with him, as the man speaks only Russian; however, before the man is evacuated, he scribbles a chemical reaction equation (describing the dissolution of carbon dioxide in seawater) onto a page of a notebook. Chase is mystified by the meaning of this act….what, exactly, have the Russians been researching at their outpost in the Antarctic ?

In the equatorial waters of the Pacific, marine biologist Theo Detrick finishes his latest measurements of phytoplankton populations in the warm salt water offshore of Canton Island in the Phoenix Island atoll. He finds the results disturbing, too disturbing to ignore: the population of the phytoplankton has steadily been decreasing. This portends disaster, for the phytoplankton are responsible for supplying most of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere………

Elsewhere in the Pacific, the research ship Melville is deploying a trawling net to sample the tiny flora and fauna lying just two meters under the surface of the water. Cheryl Detrick – Theo Detrick’s daughter – is astonished when the sampling net is submerged beneath an enormous field of red algae – a sign that the ocean ecosystem is being subjected to degradation…….

In Washington, DC, General George Nelson Wolfe and Lieutenant Lloyd Madden are heading a 'black ops' clandestine program, one conducted in partnership with the JEG chemical corporation. The program’s goal: develop potent new formulations for mass delivery of herbicides, including the highly toxic compound TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo para-dioxin). The purpose: to wage environmental warfare against the Soviets……..

As the later years of the 20th century unfold, all of these events will coalesce and bring about the greatest Eco-disaster in the history of the earth: the decline of oxygen in the atmosphere, and the gradual asphyxiation of every higher organism on the planet. Unless Gavin Chase and a small group of visionary scientists can alert the world to the coming catastrophe, all of Mankind inevitably will be taking its last gasp of breathable air………

With ‘Gasp’, author Hoyle is clearly trying to write the type of straightforward, didactic type of science fiction novel that Michael Crichton routinely produced in the 70s and 80s. This is not a bad thing; however, at 590 pp in length, ‘Gasp’ ultimately suffers from being too long and too unfocused. 

The myriad sub-plots and sub-sub-plots involve all manner of tropes taken from the thriller genre, including crazed, homicidal end-of-the-world Cultists; megalomaniacal military officers, who are happy to destroy the earth’s ecology if it means eliminating the Commies; greedy CEOs who are comfortable with carelessly peddling toxic chemicals for profit; super-computers at government installations whose data analysis points unerringly to the Coming of Doom; and a dwindling band of heroic and selfless scientists, who face a seemingly futile battle to alert the Powers That Be that time is running out.

What with the continual insertion of these sub-plots, the main narrative winds up becoming so diluted that most of the novel simply lurches along from one episode to another. 

In the final 100 pages author Hoyle finally seems realize that it’s time to restore some immediacy to the main plot, and does so with some entertaining – if contrived – mutant- and monster- action that would be right at home in the Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas video games. But after the meandering tenor of the novel’s first 490 pages, it’s a case of too little, too late to really enable ‘The Last Gasp’ to be a classic entry in the Eco-disaster sf genre.

What you’re left with is a book that requires considerable patience to negotiate…..but if you are a dedicated fan of the Eco-disaster genre, then this one may be worth tackling.

1 comment:

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