This nerve-wracking sci-fi thriller set in the not-too-distant future begins three weeks after a big solar storm – a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – hit the earth. The damage was immense: some 25,000 had died from exposure, lack of medicine, and lack of clean water. But it turned out to be only the beginning.
At the Goddard Space Flight Center, scientists were monitoring the sun closely. The sun had thrown off another CME which was due to arrive soon and which would again peel back the Earth’s magnetosphere. The magnetosphere generally protects the Earth from solar emissions. Some 48 hours after the next CME, however, an additional and even more dangerous solar event was expected to erupt: a Coronal Proton Ejection, or CPE. (Scientists also call this a Solar Proton Event or SPE.) If this high-energy, lethal burst of radiation hit the earth without the protection of the magnetosphere, it could create what scientists call an Extinction Level Event, or ELE.
[Unfortunately, all of these events are actual scientific phenomena, not just fictional creations. Usually a CME and CPE do not occur in the sequence happening in this novel, however. If a CPE hit without a CME or before a CME, the Earth would still have protection. But given the cycles of solar events and the rotation of both the Earth and the Sun, it is not impossible for the sequence to happen in reverse, and in fact scientists think such a “perfect storm” might have happened earlier in the history of the Earth.]
The rest of the book is devoted to considerations of what to do about it, and specifically, who will get admitted into the shelters deep in the earth that have been prepared for government officials in the event of catastrophes.
[Again, this premise in the book is not made up. In fact, both the federal and state governments have what are called “continuity of government” (CG) plans involving secret bunkers stocked with supplies. They began to be built during the Cold War in the late 1940s, and received renewed effort and enthusiasm after the 9/11 attacks. For example, in the book Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself – While The Rest Of Us Die by Garrett Graff, you can read about a facility not far from Camp David in Pennsylvania called the Raven Rock Bunker. It is a massive hollowed-out mountain stocked with food, medical facilities, and other necessities that can hold as many as 5,000 people in the event of an emergency.]
So who gets access to these survival facilities? In the novel, one of the characters explains the protocol [again, similar to that in place in real life] to two of the main protagonists, Darren and Darla Brooks:
“Come on, you two, wake up! Anyone who has pull, a friend, a connection gets in to the deep shelters. Big donors to the right party, political friends, friends of their friends, mistresses, lots and lots of self-important bureaucrats, we all know the type. They get in, then the doors get closed. Do you read me on that?”
Darren asks what will happen to the rest of the population. His information source says:
“Fuck ‘em. . . . Darren, did you hear me? Extinction-level event. The select have already been selected. If this thing is as bad as I’m being told, those with the right tickets will scramble in and then lock the doors. . . . This ain’t some Titanic fantasy of lifeboats for women and children first. This is captain and crew and their families first, then afterward tell everyone else the ship is sinking. The rationale, the balm on their souls? Why, it’s all about continuity of government and ‘Gee, sorry, folks, no more room down here; just head to your basements, or dig a hole, or sit back on the surface and have lots of 100 SPF sunblock.”
[Of course, neither basements nor sunblock would help protect life on earth from solar radiation without the magnetosphere to blunt the effects. Under those circumstances, when a CPE hits, everyone on the surface of the Earth would die within minutes.]
Those with knowledge of the coming events, including the President of the United States, grapple with deciding on the best course of action. There is always a chance that the timing of the solar explosions would differ from projections, and that most of the energy from the sun would not hit the Earth. As they discuss options among themselves and pray, they are reminded of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that chapter of the Bible, Abraham argued with God:
“What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? . . . What if only ten can be found there?’ [God] answered, ‘For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
How do they reconcile a possible destruction of the Earth with their faith? Are there not even ten righteous people [above ground at any rate] to save? And what about the fact that those who do get in the shelters are not necessarily the “righteous”? As everyone struggles to handle the news, the tension in this thriller accelerates tremendously. And as one character commented, “In the hours ahead, we are all going to see the best and the worst of what we are as a species.”
Evaluation: This is a frightening cautionary tale, but also a gripping, exciting read that gives you plenty to think about. What would you do if you believed you had only some two days yet to live?
A Forge book, a trademark of Macmillan Publishing Group, published by Tom Doherty Associates, 2018