The dream that I've been having, about my high-school sweetheart, is not really about my high-school sweetheart, when you get right down to it. It's not a dream about Alison Koechner and our lost love and the precious little three-bedroom house in Maine we might have built together, had things gone a different way. [...]
When I'm dreaming of Alison Koechner, what I'm dreaming of is not dying.
If you knew that the world will end in a few months, this time for real, and you had all the proof, evidence and confirmation needed from the scientific community, what would you do? Would you quit your job so that you can focus on your bucket list? Would you keep working so that your family can be well-off during those last few months? Would you give in to the stress, worries and depression that engulf you and your family/friends and commit suicide? Or would you try to do something positive, something spiritual, something rewarding for every single remaining day of your life?
Ben Winters' The Last Policeman focuses on the above question. When the book starts, the world had already been informed of its impending doom, and had just around six months of Earth left. There is a monstrous asteroid on its way to collide with the earth and bring about all kinds of devastating climate changes. Surprisingly, a considerable number of people at that point have already accepted the inevitability. Not that it's not true - the hopeful reader, like me, expects to turn around a corner and have some character yell "Aprils Fool" at me. But that is not to happen, at least definitely not in this first book of a trilogy.
Where this book excels is in the portrayal of its characters, with each dealing with his or her own reaction to the news of the collision. There are countless people killing themselves every day, unable to bear through the drastic decline of living conditions and the stringent laws spun out every day to handle the "new" status quo. There are others who live with a lot of hope that something or someone someday will save the world. They spend their hours scrutinizing the videos released by the scientists to show the projected path of the asteroid, in hopes of spotting some wrong calculations. Many people stop paying bills and many others have quit their jobs, primarily to be able to finally tackle their bucket list. Then there are people like Henry, who put in more than ever into their jobs, into any kind of crime, simply because he believes it is his job to do it.
Henry is an odd character. It becomes obvious early on that investigating a crime religiously is his way of dealing with the end-of-the-world news. He doesn't cry, he doesn't quit, he doesn't go surfing. He just works, day in, day out. Through Henry's seemingly detached eyes, you see a world that is living on edge, almost at the verge of destruction. In front of him is a city where drug use is rampant, and people are killing themselves left, right and center. A certain man tells Henry that he is not able to sleep well because whenever he tries to sleep, he gets plagued by the thought that he is wasting his few remaining months on earth.
As for Henry, he is just doing his job - the way it should be done. This doesn't go well with his colleagues though. The people he talks to just want to spend some quality time during the days they have left. Dr. Fenton, for instance, gets irritated with Henry when he calls her in for an autopsy for what she considers an obvious suicide, because she had to miss her daughter's recital in order to help him. When people start opposing his requests for help, he keeps retorting that "A man is dead" - very ironic considering that in a few months, the entire world of men and women are going to die. In any other book, I would say that Henry is a good man, doing respectable things. In The Last Policeman, he is still a good man doing respectable things, but in his quest to solve a suicide/murder, he hurts a lot of people and intrudes on their last days.
What fascinated me most was my reaction to this book. The Last Policeman is at its core a mystery. But, take this mystery and set it against a totally different backdrop where the world was not ending, and the ending could have been a little different - I may have even whooped when the wrong-doers were handcuffed. But, the world is soon ending and when the wrong-doers get the punishment they deserve, it is hard to feel relieved. These criminals did something wrong because they were desperate and didn't know how else to deal with their situation.
I picked up Ben Winters' The Last Policeman from the library, having never heard about it (I love you, serendipity.) The questions this book raised are certainly well-worth thinking about. Every time the world does a Mayan calendar, it becomes the butt of several jokes. Every time, I watch an apocalyptic movie, I am transfixed by the graphics. But, I've never really paused to wonder what I would do, if I were told that the world would definitely end very soon. I can't say I have an answer now either - it's one of those questions best addressed when faced with it. But this book did however lead me to the B612 Foundation, which was a whole intriguing resource to explore.
I borrowed this book from the good old library.