Michaela Roessner
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Vanishing Point

Tor, © 1993, 381 pp, ISBN #0-812-51672-9
Reviewed June 1997

Vanishing Point has a science fictional hook and an episodic style reminiscent of John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids: One night, 90% of the Earth's population suddenly disappeared. In the wake of the Vanishing, the survivors try to build a new world, but with rioting and the formation of various Vanishing-based cults, it's not easy.

The novel opens 30 years after the event, and takes place largely around the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. In real life, the House is a crazily-constructed assortment of pieces jammed together around an old barn. In the novel, after the Vanishing, the House becomes home to dozens of individuals and a nexus of the Bay Area community.

The novel focuses on two people: Renzie, a woman born shortly after the Vanishing, with the shiny hair characteristic of post-Vanishing children, and Nesta, an older woman doing research into the cause and effects of the event. Nesta arrives on the scene during the course of the novel, while Renzie grew up in the House. The story therefore focuses partly on life in the world after the Vanishing (largely Renzie's story), and the mystery of the event itself (centering around Nesta).

The former element is where Vanishing Point excels: Roessner's examination of the local and greater community is very realistic, in much the same way as that of Kim Stanley Robinson's novel The Wild Shore is. As you might expect in a world where nearly every individual lost several loved ones in the event, Renzie's family is severely damaged, and she is on poor terms with the rest of her family, except for her brother, Tuck, to whom she is close.

The reactions of individuals to the Vanishing are well-conceived: Many, of course, band together into groups and cults. The Homers believe that the vanished people will return someday, and they must preserve these peoples' homes for this time. At the other extreme, the Heaven Bounders believe that the vanished went to heaven, and that those remaining must repent in order to follow them. However, it's all or nothing: If anyone doesn't repent, then none of them will go. So the 'Bounders are inclined to kill anyone who doesn't see eye-to-eye with them. And, of course, there are many reactions in-between, including the folks in the House, who are simply trying to build a new world in the wake of catastrophe.

The other end of the story, exploring the cause of the Vanishing and its ramifications, is less successful. The means by which the Vanishing was accomplished are posited, but only in broad and unsatisfying terms. And the Vanishing has long-lasting repercussions (other than the social ones), although why these repercussions are caused by the Vanishing is also left hazy. Moreover, it's barely even considered why only people seem to have been taken. (Presumably if trees or rocks also vanished, the survivors would have found many large holes - and possibly volcanic eruptions - in the post-Vanishing world that had not been there before.)

This pseudo-scientific explanation didn't convince me at all. It would have been more satisfying to have left the reasons completely unexplained, much as in the film The Quiet Earth (another "almost everyone on Earth vanishes" story). Moreover, though some of the repercussions of the Vanishing are interesting in and of themselves, they're used mainly as a plot device to deal with one of the challenges thrown at our heroes rather than making them have to deal with them directly (and more messily). Early in the novel there is a suggestion that Earth has been "poisoned" by the Vanishing in a way that it altered the nature of reality, changing it into something less comprehensible. I would have preferred that Vanishing Point had pursued this angle rather than the one actually taken.

So although Vanishing Point handles its humanistic issues well enough, I found the speculative underpinnings of the story far less rewarding than I'd hoped. Though the book is worthy for avoiding some cheap emotional trickery (its emotions are rawer and more honest), it seems like it could have been better.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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