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Denver is Missing

Denver is Missing by D.F. JonesDenver is Missing
Berkley Medallion Books, 1971
Price I paid: 90¢

A scientist reports to a stunned world: “The whole earth may be shrivelling up like a punctured balloon.” The flight from cities at high altitudes—whose nitrogen gas accidentally released from the earth’s core is gathering to cause mass death—to the coastlines creates political chaos and violent anarchy. But worse is in store for mankind—for the coastline holds only temporary haven.

The great oceans of the world are about to deliver destruction on a scale never before envisioned even in nightmares of nuclear holocaust. Two men and two women in a flimsy yacht in the Pacific may hold the key to the earth’s survival…

It happened again! I pick a book that looks like it’ll be a fresh new author for me, and it turns out I’ve read him before! D.F. Jones here turns out to be the author of the awful Earth Has Been Found, a fact I didn’t realize until this morning when doing a little research on the guy. I guess my forgetting might have something to do with the fact that D.F. Jones isn’t a particularly memorable name, but it could very well be that my mind attempted to blank the former book out.

I’m actually glad I didn’t know it was the same author, because that might have stained the experience I had with Denver is Missing. See, I actually enjoyed this book. It had some flaws, but on the whole it was a rollicking disasterpocalypse tale that worked pretty well. The premise is a bit odd, but passable, and the characters were at least intentionally unlikable for the most part. Looking back, though, I can see similarities between the two novels that only come to light in the knowledge that it’s the same author. They both have that same sort of hopeless cynicism and criticism of bureaucracy that makes it so strange that D.F. Jones was an English writer writing about events taking place in America.

Incidentally, this book was released in Britain with the alternate title Don’t Pick the Flowers. I prefer the American title, although it’s not in the least bit accurate. That’s interesting unto itself. Both of these books had titles that someone, somewhere, figured wouldn’t sell in America, so they cast them aside for something more bombastic and eye-catching. I think it sums up a lot about what Britain seems to think about America, or maybe what America seems to think about itself.

So our hero, Mitch, is a geologist. We follow the entire book through his first-person eyes, but he’s on the spot when crap starts to go down. He’s working on a project led by a guy named Suffren, who really comes across as the cranky wise old man character from so many Heinlein novels. Mitch, on the other hand, is just a competent dude with a boob fetish.

This book had so many references to boobs in it.

But first, though, there’s the project that he’s working on. It’s pretty simple: drill a big hole. It seems to be related to the ill-fated Project Mohole of the sixties. The first page of the book is an exposition dump, designed to get us up to speed on what the inside of the Earth looks like. You know, crust, Moho, mantle, all that jazz. One bit caught my eye:

Now there is a theory, which looks good to me, that the crust is not fixed, but actually slides around on the mantle. This theory is called Continental Drift, and suggests that there was once one large land mass, and that the continents became detached.

I had to do some research because I wasn’t sure if this bit of narration was out of date now or just wrong at the time. Looks to me, based on some Wikipedia scavenging, that Continental Drift was pretty accepted at the time of this book’s writing, and even more than that it was actually replaced by the more accurate Plate Tectonics model in 1958 and was widely accepted.

So our geologist hero is on the fence about Continental Drift. Either bad research or unreliable narrator, take your pick.

Anyway, Mitch is helping to drill a big hole when something goes wrong. There’s a lurch and everybody is afraid that this expensive drill has hit something and broken. Turns out it didn’t. It pierced through the rock into a giant pocket of air. The ocean starts a-bubblin’ and everybody figures it’ll run out soon.

It doesn’t.

Mitch heads back to San Francisco to have a talk with Suffren and to introduce us to Bette. Mitch has a major crush on Bette, mainly because she’s busty. This gets emphasized. She’s also blond and a doctor. A significant portion of the book deals more with Mitch and Bette than with the disaster that’s wrecking the world. Especially here at the start of the book. Long story short, Mitch and Bette go on some dates, she confesses some previous sexual trauma that makes her need to take it slow, Mitch is a gentleman about it, and then we meet Bill.

All the while, this hole in the ocean, which has been named SARAH for some reason (it’s an acronym, but I don’t remember for what; I’m not sure it’s even mentioned) is spurting out gas. Mitch goes for a ride on a Navy destroyer to study it, and at one point the ship is almost lost when the crew and Mitch nearly suffocate. It turns out that the gas coming out of SARAH is pure nitrogen, which isn’t poisonous but does tend to displace the oxygen in the atmosphere, causing problems.

Again, everybody figures it’ll burn itself out soon enough.

It doesn’t.

Back in California again, we learn that the US government is keeping this thing under strict wraps. They’ve closed down shipping lanes in that area, but that’s about it. Mitch, meanwhile, is making headway with Bette, and she introduces him to Bill. She’s obviously got some kind of crush on Bill and over the book it becomes reciprocal (oh god so much of this novel is soap opera with a backdrop of the destruction of civilization). Bill has a yacht named the Mayfly and Bette has this thing for the sea. Also he’s handsome and British. It’s the accent.

Kind of odd considering that the author of the book is British too.

Also on board is Bill’s lady friend, Karen, who is also busty and pretty.

The cloud of gas is starting to hit America and shows no signs of slowing down. Panic starts to increase. Bette gets called to Denver to do some doctoring. She stays for a little while and then comes back very shaken. It turns out that at high altitudes, this nitrogen cloud is causing some real trouble. Children and old people are especially vulnerable, but Denver is under martial law and people of all stripes are just going nuts, mainly trying to get out.

She, Mitch, Bill, and Karen all decide that the thing to do is to get the heck out. So they do. They take the Mayfly on a trip across the Pacific. A lot of this chunk of the book is just survival, making sure that food and water are available, for instance. Trouble starts when Karen tells Mitch that Bill and Bette are doing the nasty. He has trouble believing it, but suspicion starts to creep in.

That’s most of the book.

They go to Hawaii and see that it’s become a refugee camp full of people fleeing the mainland. There’s not much hope there.

At another point there’s an ad for Kent cigarettes.

They get news that there’s been a major seismic event in the vicinity of SARAH. It might be the hole collapsing in on itself, in which case that might mean that it’s actually running out. I think it turns out to be true, but the problem is twofold. First, the nitrogen cloud is already stretching across the United States and heading for Europe. Second, there’s a series of enormous tidal waves heading across the Pacific Ocean.

The crew finds an island and manages to weather through the waves, which are pretty darn big. At this point Mitch and Karen huddle together so tightly that he leaves a hand-shaped bruise on her boob. Classy. When the immediate danger is past, they all listen to radio reports from Australia (which is where they’re headed) which tell them the worst: places like Japan are hit badly and there are lots of casualties, entire islands are wiped out, and just like the mystics and statistics said it would, California slid into the ocean.

Shaken but not beaten, our heroes continue across the ocean. Sometime later they see a lifeboat and it turns out to be inhabited by a single person, an eighteen-year-old named Sandra. Her breasts are deemed “unimpressive.” She is also a horrible, selfish beast who sets about destroying what little peace there was on this boat. She uses up water extravagantly, sets people against each other, and on the whole makes things pretty miserable.

Mitch is still suspicious of Bette, especially considering how she’s been treating him since the tidal waves. He’s feeling pretty low. Both Karen and Sandra put their moves on him, but he turns them down.

Things get so bad that Bette snaps and just starts slapping the hell out of this girl in abject rage. That scene did an okay job of showing how tense things were getting. I fully expected it to end in murder.

Finally they find an island, Pago Pago, which has a naval base on it. The navy guys are quite happy to see them, since the island itself is pretty boring and they haven’t had much news from outside their little world. Sandra is a big hit. She ends up sleeping with most of the base, usually in exchange for money. Mitch, feeling lonely, wanders around for a bit and talks to some folks. Finally he makes up his mind (which, to be honest, might be the first time in the book that he does so). He writes a letter and says he’s taking the first plane back to the mainland United States. They’re going to need a lot of help out there, and he’s willing to put in the work. He wishes Bette and Bill a happy life together and leaves.

California is in even worse shape that he’d imagined. It’s martial law, the dollar is completely useless, and the Army has shoot-to-kill orders on anybody so much as thinking about stealing oxygen, which is now a precious resource. People are encouraged to avoid killing plants of any kind, even walking on the grass, since these things produce valuable oxygen that might save the species.

Fun fact time: cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) pumps more oxygen into the atmosphere than all the green plants on Earth combined, as well as doing wonders for pulling atmospheric nitrogen into the soil to help those green plants grow. The world might have been saved if the book knew that.

Mitch puts in some hard days. His specialization as a geologist grants him a few privileges, but on the whole life is miserable. Bodies are piling up, California is in ruins, and it seems the nation is collapsing. Maybe the rest of the world with it.

But then Bette shows up again. She tells Mitch that he was a dumb jerk for thinking that she could give herself to any man but him. Funny that she doesn’t mention that he could have talked to her about it. I swear, the seventies. Anyway, there’s this long thing about how she really loves only him and stuff and it’s all mushy. She presents a letter from Karen stating that she’s sorry for getting all jealous and trying to wreck things and how she met this fabulous guy. The book ends with the two of them embracing as the world collapses around them (figuratively).

Well, there you have it. As a soap opera with a disaster backdrop, the book actually worked pretty well. It had heart and the characters were actually believable. Sure, all the running around moaning about love-lives wore thin after a while, and Mitch’s description of most women by giving their hair color and bust size was a bit offensive, but at least the latter can be put down to characterization and not overtly sexist writing. And he does mention somebody’s butt once, so he’s not entirely one-dimensional.

The ending was flat but it wasn’t all that bothersome. I was happy that it didn’t turn out that they figured out a way to disperse the nitrogen or plug the hole or anything to save humanity. Something went wrong with a scientific experiment, a disaster occurred, and now humanity needs to rebuild. There wasn’t any deus ex machina ending and that was somehow satisfying. Things are bad, but they might get better.

One thing I took away is that D.F. Jones (for some reason I keep wanting to type his middle initial as L and I don’t know why. Thought you should know.) really knows a lot about sailing. Man, this book could have been a crash-course in dealing with the ocean. I learned a lot about atolls and doldrums and how to deal with tidal waves. All of that information came from Bill. Mitch, on the other hand, was not an especially useful character most of the time. Sure, he was a geologist who was now out on the ocean, so there wasn’t much he could do, but he sure spent a lot of the time moping about his girlfriend. His one time to shine came when the tsunamis were on the way and he used his expertise to pick an island to save them all.

The book had a lot of cynicism to it, but not as much as Earth Has Been Found. The government didn’t come across as entirely incompetent in this one, mainly because there wasn’t much that could be done, but they also didn’t jump to weird conclusions about God or whatever before throwing up their hands in despair. People in general came across as selfish and horrible, but in a survival situation like this, it wasn’t outrageously so. It was about what you’d expect in a situation this hopeless.

I don’t know enough about the composition of the Earth to tell you how ludicrous a giant pocket of nitrogen below the Earth’s crust would be. Maybe somebody else can help me there.

The title, of course, only made a little sense. Sure, Denver was mentioned as a particularly hard-hit area, but it’s not like it just disappeared mysteriously or anything. None of the action actually took place there and everything we know about it comes from either Bette’s short tenure or radio transmissions. Other places got it worse, up to and including the coast of California. Focusing the title there was an odd choice.

Really, though, I enjoyed the book. Pretty crazy, I know.


2 Comments

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Ah yes, it was his birthday recently so I posted about him on twitter… He wrote the “famous” novel Colossus which was turned into the SF film The Forbin Project. But other than that he isn’t that known.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to say, Earth Has Been Found/Denver is Missing would make for an awesome Ace Double pair based on title alone.

    Liked by 1 person

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