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World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (2014) 307 p.

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Time’s up. The Last Policeman took place about eight months before an asteroid was scheduled to strike the earth and wipe out all life, with the veneer of civilisation still mostly holding up in Concord, New Hampshire, the hometown of our protagonist, Detective Henry Palace. Countdown City jumps forward to three months before the impact, and sees things really start to fall apart, with Palace and some of his fellow police officers eventually abandoning an increasingly lawless Concord for the safety of a rural farmhouse. World of Trouble, the third and final volume in the trilogy, brings us into the very final week as Palace strikes out for Ohio to take on his final, self-imposed detective case: tracking down his missing sister.

The first two books in the series had the fascinating allure (and accomplished execution, on Winters’ part) of seeing how society begins to crumble when everybody is faced with the knowledge of their impending extinction. World of Trouble is the point at which that morbid fascination begins to turn properly, bleakly desperate. There’s a pervasive sense of loneliness; despite the title, the novel takes place almost entirely in a mostly abandoned town, with only a handful of characters compared to the larger casts and backdrops of the previous two books, the presence of any kind of government or civil society reduced to a repeated and frankly redundant message on the emergency broadcast system: “Do not drink the water in the Muskingum River watershed…” There’s a sense of the world holding its breath, the calm before the storm, the last few days of dreadful anxiety before it really, finally happens.

World of Trouble caps off the trilogy more relevantly than just taking us into the final days of the ever-present countdown. Palace’s younger sister Nico is his only living relative and it makes sense for his final “case,” such as it is, to focus on tracking her down, combining his personal story and his truncated career as a detective in a rather satisfying way. It’s also important because it’s a loose end in the broader plot: for the first two novels, Nico claims to be part of an underground organisation which believes it can help free an imprisoned scientist who can then travel to Britain to adjust a nuclear missile to destroy or divert the incoming asteroid. Palace maintains this is wishful thinking bullshit (why, he asks, would the US government not want to do this itself?) but it can’t be denied that in his limited contact with Nico’s organisation, he’s seen for himself that they have access to impressive equipment in this deteriorating world: namely, a functioning internet connection and a helicopter. Clearly something is going on, and Palace is no more immune to desperate hope than anybody else. Might Nico have been right all along? He mostly just wants to see his sister again, but for the reader, the real driving force in the narrative is the question of whether it might just be possible to save the world after all.

Obviously I won’t spoil the answer to that, but I will say that I found the conclusion to be satisfying, affecting and well-earned. The trilogy as a whole is an accomplished work of science fiction which is greater than the sum of its already very compelling parts. Highly recommended.

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December 2019