RogerBW's Blog

The Last Ship, William Brinkley 18 March 2014

After the total nuclear war, the captain of a missile destroyer leads his crew through the irradiated world and towards a new life.

I am going to talk about plot details, so if you care about not knowing that sort of thing you probably shouldn't read this review.

This book is from 1988, but the immediate comparison it invites is with Nevil Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach, which I re-read last year. In this version of the end of the world, at least a tiny bit of humanity can survive.

The major problem with this book is that it's terribly long-winded. I haven't met any American destroyer captains, but I should be surprised if they were as a class so prolix and prone to use of words like "liquescent" and "caliginous" as this narrator. The result is that while exciting things happen, they take an awfully long time to do it; in particular, since the bulk of the action is referred to in the first section and then told in flashback, this is a book with very few surprises. Every major plot element is heavily foreshadowed, and can be seen coming so far in advance that it loses much of its power.

On the other hand, some of the descriptive sections do work well, and the description of the ship's passage across the equator as a localised nuclear winter sets in is particularly effective.

The narrator reflects very extensively on the nature of the female crew and their role on the ship, quite separately from (or at least prior to) any considerations of "repopulating the world". This may have been more relevant in 1988 than it is now; it comes over to me as more creepy and gynolatrous than anything else.

There's also an awful lot of Dune-style annotated conversation: someone says a sentence of a few words, and the narrator spends a paragraph mulling over its hidden meanings. This sort of thing is an easy target for parody (Langford did it well), and while I can see that Brinkley's trying to portray a captain judging the mood of his men he never quite pulls it off.

It doesn't help my suspension of disbelief that a significant plot point deals with the refuelling of the (nuclear-powered) ship (and of a Soviet missile submarine). Your humble blogger is unfortunately aware that the refuelling of ships of these types is absolutely not something that could be conducted by the crew without facilities: they're full-scale dockyard jobs, involving major surgery to the hull and taking months or years, and such hard work that more recent nuclear-powered warships have been deliberately designed never to undergo refuelling but to have reactors that will last the full twenty-plus-year life of the ship. A suggestion buried deep in the book that these ships have been designed in the opposite direction, for ease of refuelling by unskilled crew, simply breaks plausibility for me.

Similarly, the author clearly thinks he's been terribly clever in designing that Soviet submarine to operate through Arctic ice (in exactly the same way as the Improved Los Angeles that was being built while this book was being written), whereas this capability had been a design feature of all Royal Navy submarines for some years before that.

So although this book carries some of the trappings of the technothriller, with lots of talk about specific types of missile and so on, the research is lacking and it all comes out rather thin. This is far more a psychological study than anything else. Unfortunately, in the end, it's so protracted and foreshadowed that it forgets to be engaging.

Apparently there's a television series of this name coming out this summer. As far as I can see, it shares with this book only the name of the captain.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 09:33am on 18 March 2014

    'Gynolatrous'? A new word! I learned a new word! Today is not entirely without merit!

    And I have acquaintances who would regard gynolatry as de rigeur...

  2. Posted by John Dallman at 06:54pm on 19 March 2014

    Operation through ice has always been a standard feature of Soviet/Russian missile subs. And most US ones before the Los Angeles class.

    Designing a reactor to be easy to refuel is going to be expensive in the rarest of all currencies aboard a sub: space.

    This chap just keeps digging, doesn't he?

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 12:25am on 20 March 2014

    My guess is that he wanted to write a psychological book about the end of the world, and wasn't really terribly interested in the technology, which is fair enough; but for whatever reason he felt the need to insert vaguely plausible-sounding technothriller-ish passages. (To appeal to Tom Clancy fans? Because that sort of story has to be to some extent about what you can do with the resources you have, and the ship's capabilities are among those resources?)

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