Author: Graham Masterton
Genre: Action / Science Fiction
Famine is a book I read years ago when I picked it up from a bargain bin at my local book store after it seemed to have enjoyed a mass-market paperback run. I remember enjoying it, but threw the copy out during a clean-up on the misguided notion that ‘I won’t want to read this again’. Well, after deciding that I did want to read it again and paying far more money than it’s worth to import a copy from the UK I can happily report that it’s still a very good read.
This book was written in the 80s to play on American fears of the Soviet Union; although the Cold War is long over it still works very well as a pseudo-alternate history and provides some good guidelines for crippling a nation without having to drop bombs on it.
Ed Hardesty is just your typical New York actuary-cum-down-home Kansas wheat farmer trying to get by with hard work, honesty and plaid shirts that reveal a testosterone-driven hairy chest. His wife Season is a New York socialite with a taste for caviar, marijuana and affairs with sophisticated men, and his daughter Sally thankfully isn’t old enough to have developed a personality. It’s up to the three of them to keep the family and the Hardesty farm going.
Of course, this could be a little difficult given that a blight is sweeping over the farm and rotting the wheat right off its stalk. Shearson Jones, a Senator more corrupt than an African dictator, offers to step in and raise funds to help the poor, stricken Kansas farmers (and line his own pockets at the same time), but even his enormous girth and political influence can’t save America from the looming famine.
You see, you can’t live off grain reserves when nuclear rods have been dropped into the silos to irradiate them, and you can’t rely on canned food when a good proportion of them have been contaminated with enough botulism to down an elephant. With all sources of calorific intake effectively destroyed, the American people are about to turn on themselves.
As the entire country descends into anarchy Ed must accompany Della, an FBI agent out to bring Shearson Jones to justice, to the nearest FBI office while trying to make his way to California to rescue Season (who went off to find herself just before everything went to crap) and Sally from the growing rampaging mob sweeping the country.
It’s all about to get a little hairy.
The Writing Style
One thing I’ll say for Graham Masterton, he’s not one to mince his words when it comes to describing unpleasant situations. Need a starving woman eating dog food? You’re gonna get a very vivid description of every gravy-laden chunk. Want to hear what people look like when they’ve died from an extreme case of botulism? You’re gonna be able to smell it by the time you’ve finished reading the paragraph. Didn’t want to have a picture of a Hollywood citizen being raped in your head? Too bad, because you’re gonna be able to feel the olive oil lubricant dripping off you soon enough.
This isn’t a negative, however. The book is meant to look at just how badly people behave in the face of disaster, and just how terrible a death by starvation can be. It isn’t meant to be pleasant, and it gives you a very good idea of just how good life is right now.
The only thing to bear in mind is that this book was written in the 80s, which at times lead me to either laugh at a moment intended to be very sincere (for example, when pastel blue Japanese silk pantsuits are considered the height of fashion) or cringe (because it contains a suitable amount of good old-fashioned 80s American racism). This doesn’t detract from the overall story, but you do need to remember the time period you’re dealing with.
What I enjoyed about Famine so much is just how uncomfortable it made me feel at times. In the event of any natural disaster there’s the possibility that if you survive the initial shock you can somehow rebuild and get back to a state of normality. But what do you do when there literally isn’t a scrap of food to eat? Food isn’t something that we can live for months without, and when the options are either starvation or death by botulism you really have to wonder which is the worse way to go.
What I also thoroughly enjoyed about this book was the way it examined American entitlement (which can be extended to anyone, really). In the face of an unprecedented crisis the reaction is not to stand together and make it work, but rather to screw over your friends and neighbours and watch them starve, so long as your family doesn’t go without. This is particularly true when the looting starts and everything except the essentials are what people load up on. A 10kg bag of rice will go a long way, lawn chairs and foie gras will not.
I doubt that Graham Masterton intended this to be a thought-provoking and soul-searching novel when he published it, but it definitely made me think a lot about the things I take for granted and the things I deem to be essential that really aren’t. For that Mr Masterton, I give you points.