The premise behind ‘Aurora’, a solar flare causing a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the Carrington Event, that blows out the electrical power grid globally, causing damage that would take months or perhaps years to repair, is a scarily credible idea. At the start of the book, David Koepp uses relatable scientist characters at NOAA and elsewhere to lay out what the geomagnetic storm is, what it would do to the United States and the rest of the world and how ill-prepared authorities everywhere are to respond to the crisis. I was reminded of Michael Crichton at his best.
Unlike Crichton, David Koepp doesn’t go on to look at how a brave team of omnicompetent scientists will work together against the odds to mitigate the catastrophe. Instead, he follows a small group of people, connected in complicated ways that are not immediately apparent, and looks at how they react to the world as they have known it, going away and maybe never coming back. Some of these people are quite hard to like but they’re very easy to believe in. We have: the narcissistic, control-freak, people-blind, tech-genius billionaire who is so prepped for a catastrophe that he’s actually looking forward to having the opportunity to deploy his planned response; the billionaire’s sister who suffers from low self-esteem, is recovering from a failed marriage and who dislikes playing parent to her ex-husband’s moody teenage son; her gambling addict ex-husband who clings to magical thinking to solve his problems and leaches off friends and family when that doesn’t work.
Part of the power of the book comes from David Koepp’s ability to climb inside the heads of these people and some of their associates and demonstrate how they think. In addition to the insight into the individuals, Koepp uses their reactions to demonstrate the pros and cons of different approaches to disaster: prep and plan so that you can wait out the disaster with minimum disruption of your personal comfort, or decline to plan, adjust to the new situation and find people to collaborate with to make the best of things, or continue to scavenge on the fringes of society and take what you can.
I liked the way he allowed just enough introspection to examine the different approaches and understand why people might choose them and how they might succeed or fail, without losing the page-turning momentum of a thriller. He keeps up the tension through a mixture of unexpected obstacles, slowly revealed relationships and backstories, flashes of violence and a growing foreboding about the threat the ex-husband poses to everyone, including himself.
Along the way, he also takes the time to reflect on how big discontinuities like COVID or a global Geomagnetic Storm, change people’s expectations and their hopes, He even draws on quotes from Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ to frame the discussion.
I had a lot of fun with ‘Aurora’, it delivered as a thriller without me having to work at suspending my disbelief, it was populated with people who felt real and it invited me to consider the hopes and fears that drive us when we are powerless in the face of a major change.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Aurora’. Rupert Friend‘s narration lifted the book for me.
‘Aurora’ will be coming to Netflix
Adapted by David Koepp himself and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.