Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book Review: The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman: A NovelThe Last Policeman: A Novel by Ben H. Winters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, I think I've found a novel I'm willing to nominate for a Hugo. I took a break from novel reading for a few days to read the novella Barry's Tale, which was nominated for a Nebula. I finished it thinking, "Wow, if this is one of the best novellas of the year, maybe I should just admit that there's not a lot of good science fiction out there." The Last Policeman helped restore my faith in sf.

I finished this book very quickly, and even when I wasn't reading it, I spent a lot of my time thinking about it -- both are evidence of how compelling the book is.

The short-hand version of the story is that a police detective tries to solve a possible murder case while an asteroid is bearing down on the Earth.

Why is this book so compelling? I really like the way it explored all of the ramifications of the impending planetary doom. Many of the characters wonder why it's so important to solve a murder (or do anything else) when we're all going to die. But we're all going to die anyway, asteroid or no, so the question is not just an asteroid-scenario hypothetical. Like the best of science fiction, The Last Policeman connects an interesting hypothetical future with meaningful thoughts about humanity.

The book mostly does not explicitly tackle the "big questions", which is probably for the best, but here are two quotes I particularly liked that come close.
"You know what I'm doing right now?" I say, watching the muddy liquid rush toward the edge of the table. "I'm thinking: Oh no! The coffee’s going to spill onto the floor! I'm so worried! Let's keep talking about it!" And then the coffee waterfalls over the side of the desk, splashing on Andreas's shoes and pooling on the ground beneath the desk. "Oh, look at that," I say. "It happened anyway."
"Can I tell you something? You can follow this case forever, and you can discover all its secrets, you can build this man’s timeline all the way back to his birth, and the birth of his father and his father’s father. The world is still going to end."

The one part of this book I didn't feel worked so well involved the narrator's interactions with his sister, Nico. Part of the problem is probably that the character seems meant to appear later in the trilogy, but she also seemed more like a collection of characteristics -- good-at-math, chain-smoker, etc. -- that I had trouble fitting into a larger whole.

I think if Goodreads let me give half-stars, I'd give it 4.5 stars. Then again, I would probably give 90% of the books I read 2.5, 3.5 or 4.5 stars, so maybe it's better than I'm forced not to be wishy-washy and give it five stars.

A couple of notes. First, I ended up reading this book because it was on Locus' 2012 recommended reading list, and available for download from my public library (I have started to have difficulty making myself read books on paper lately). So yay for Locus and libraries.

Second, I've complained about other books that are "not really sf/fantasy" but instead mainstream fiction with a small sf/fantasy element. I suppose you could see this as a detective novel set in the present day with an asteroid headed towards Earth. Because it is. But I think that the "what if" element places it fairly strongly in the sf camp. I have the same feeling about alternate histories such as Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which won both the Nebula and the Hugo for 2007. I don't think The Last Policeman is as good as Chabon's work, but I think it's much better than the winners of either award in many recent years.
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