In the same way that individuals have nightmares, societies live out their deepest fears in
their 'disaster' literature, most notably in cinema in the last few decades. After a spell of
fearing totalitarian take-over (1984, Brave New World) and nuclear Armageddon (On the
Beach, Fail Safe, World War Three) and more recently manmade environmental disasters
(Soylent Green, The Day After Tomorrow, Ice, Waterworld), the dominant concern of the
comfortable West at the moment seems to be the idea of annihilation by a cosmic event
beyond anyone's control, such as a large asteroid or meteorite hitting the world
(Armageddon, Judgment Day, Tycus, Deep Impact, Asteroid).
What Shapiro has done in his ninety-one pages is take this current science fiction theme
and turn it into something fresh and engaging by the simple expedient of taking it seriously
and trying to imagine what the anticipation of Armageddon would really be like, rather than
applying the nick-of-time rescue formula or some other plot device to make such
imaginings palatable to a readership weaned on comic book all-American super-heroes
and invincible technical fixes for everything. I must declare an interest in that I tried to do
something similar with the 'computer-comes-to-life' theme in my novel Sirat; that is, look
beyond the cliché by asking the question: What would it be like if it really happened?
Where does the story go if we don't apply one of the standard escape clauses?
Shapiro refuses to become involved in the technicalities of the event or in possible
avoidance strategies, or to offer us any kind of global perspective. Instead he offers a first
person response to the certainty of impending death from one very ordinary, thoroughly
flawed American college boy. Through his eyes we witness the reaction of others and the
breakdown of civil society in the face of the unthinkable. The question that he obviously
wants to pose is: Do we buy this? Is this how people would really respond to this situation?
A very interesting question it is too. There are few real-life precedents for whole
communities being certain that their lives will be terminated on a specific day in the near
future. The closest I can think of would be the Warsaw Ghetto in the Second World War,
but even then the exact moment of the genocide remained uncertain until it actually
happened, and there must always have been a faint hope that (for example) the Russians
would get there first. Shapiro in fact holds out one very slender blade of hope in the notion
that perhaps 60,000 people, out of the whole population of the earth, are going to survive. I
don't know why he does this, perhaps he feels a duty to offer some prospect of human
continuation, but my own feeling is that it weakens the book and shouldn't be there. In real
life it would surely change people's perception of the looming event – we would all doggedly cling to a one-in-a-million chance if it was offered – though in the book it
seems to make little difference.
This is also a 'road' book: most of the action takes place on a journey across America, and
most of the characters are people the narrator Sean meets on this Odyssey. In the high
tradition of the genre the hero is also pursuing a goal, which is to reach his estranged
college girlfriend in time to have sex with her before the world comes to an end. Each time he gets diverted into some act of minor heroism or caught up in the lives and problems of people he meets along the way, we find ourselves worrying that time is going to run out before he can make his dream come true. Naturally I'm not going to spoil it for you by telling you the ending.
It's easy to raise quibbles about the details of Shapiro's vision of the earth's final hours –
for example I thought that (especially in America) crank religion would have played a far
bigger part, and I wasn't sure about the way the suicide thread was introduced and
explained – but overall the emotions rang true and, speaking for myself, while I was
reading this brief tale my involvement was absolute.
Considering the desolate nature of the theme, the feeling that the book leaves you with is a surprisingly good one. When you think about it, we are all caught up in a minor version of Sean's
predicament, we are all going to die, we all have dreams we want to fulfill and we are all in danger of never getting around to the things that really matter. It's Only Temporary serves as a wake-up call. Its final message may be trite, but that doesn't make it any less true: Live and love now while stocks last, it's only temporary.
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