World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters, is a sad and beautiful story about a good man trying to live a decent life a few days before the world is due to be destroyed. Literally destroyed. An asteroid is heading straight for the Earth, and the human race and other higher life are going to be wiped out in about a week.
The people of the Earth have known the asteroid is coming for two years, and have had that time to try to deal with the imminent death of everything. World of Trouble is the third and final book of a trilogy. The first two volumes, The Last Policeman, and Countdown City are among the best books I’ve read recently, and World of Trouble lives up to that standard.
Like the other two books of the series, World of Trouble is told in the first person by Hank Palace, a police detective from a small city in New Hampshire. Like the other two books, Palace in World of Trouble has a mystery to solve.
Palace is a natural-born detective and conscientious public servant. He’s articulate and fair. He’s rather humorless, but that’s not a flaw in a cop. He’s the introspective son of a couple of humanities professors, and that shows in his writing style and thought processes. He’s a likable protagonist to spend time with, and a true hero, even though he does bad things. Palace is a fundamentally decent and courageous person in a world going insane.
The first volume of the trilogy, The Last Policeman, takes place six months before the predicted end of the world. Everybody knows when the asteroid is predicted to hit — down to the minute — and where.
In the course of investigating the mysteries in the three books, Palace explores New Hampshire and travels on foot and bicycle to Ohio. The US government reverts briefly to a police state to keep order, and then evaporates. Local governments hang on longer, then they unravel as well. Civilization itself is coming apart, as the world rolls on knowing the precise minute it will be destroyed.
People react to threat of imminent destruction in all kinds of ways. Some lose themselves in drugs and orgies. Others commit murder. Some abandon their families to run off to Tahiti. Some steal. Others try to continue with normal life as best as they can, going to work and even sending kids to school. We see a Utopian commune at a university that will (if the dire predictions work out) never have a chance to fall apart, as Utopian communes inevitably do given time. Some members of that commune spend their nights and days watching movies. Others just read, eating in the library and relieving themselves into deskside containers so they don’t have to spend an unnecessary minute away from their books.
Palace is in the group of people trying to hang onto normal life. He’s an apprentice detective, but, if the world ends as predicted, he will never get a chance to master his trade. The criminals he apprehends will never be brought to justice. Soon enough, the US government disbands his police department and Palace is no longer a cop, but he’s still a detective.
And this is as far as I’m going to go without dropping big spoilers. More after the cut.
World of Trouble tells the story of the last eight days of the world from Palace’s perspective. By this time, everybody left standing, Palace included, is insane, barely hanging on to the ability to function. Palace learns his sister has been murdered, and sets out to learn who did it, and why, and how his sister spent her final weeks. There’s really no point to investigating the murder. The event will be rendered moot when the world ends in a few days (if the predictions prove true). But Palace is driven to keep going. His detective nature has become his madness.
Palace’s partner in World of Trouble is Cortez, an amoral petty thief and hustler who is Palace’s mirror image. Like Palace, Cortez’s work is his nature. Like Palace, Cortez’s work is now futile. There’s no point in stealing anything a few days before the end of the world. No hustle is going to have enough time to pay off. And yet Cortez, like Palace, is compelled to keep on.
That’s how all the surviving characters are. They’re all compelled to keep acting according to their natures. These include a demagogic drug dealer, leader of a small Amish community, and a couple of amiable rednecks with just enough chicken and beer to take them through the end of the world.
The ending of World of Trouble is true to the premise and satisfying. It takes us to verge of the moment of the end of the world, but not beyond. Henry is finally at peace, sitting down for a final meal with an Amish community whose leader has deceived them about their fate. They have no idea the world will end in moments. The think they have their whole lives ahead of them. And Henry goes along with the ruse.
The premise of the story is laid out in the first book of the series: The end of the world is inevitable. There will be no last-minute rescue, no team of astronauts setting off a nuclear bomb to destroy the asteroid and save the world. Everybody’s going to die. The ending of World of Trouble is true to that premise. But it’s also just a bit hopeful. Henry has sealed a young woman in an underground bunker with plenty of food and water. No way she’ll survive. And yet maybe she will. The series is told from Henry’s point of view. He will never know. And so neither will we.
The Last Policeman series reminds me of a few stories about the end of the world. In On the Beach the characters talk about being reunited with loved ones in the afterlife. These are not religious people. They’re deluding themselves. There’s no such discussion in this book.
Another end-of-the-world novel, Level 7 is, like the Last Policeman books, told in the first person. They’re literary puzzles. They break the literary equivalent of of the fourth wall. If a memoir takes the main character up to the moment of death, how does he have time to write the memoir? If the main character is the last person on Earth, who is the writer writing for? Who is the fictional reader?
But the Last Policeman books seem most thematically similar to the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Both stories are about people living in a world without a future. If nothing you do matters in the long term, can you make what you do matter?
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On the Beach, the movie, with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins [DVD from Amazon — also available on DVD on Netflix).