Michaela Roessner’s 1993 Vanishing Point is a near-future science fiction novel1.
Thirty years ago, 90% of the human race vanished. Alarm and chaos ensued, followed by a gradual return to stability. While the old world will never return, civilization, particularly that part of it in and around San Jose’s Winchester House, has prevailed.
Two unrelated crises are bearing down on San Jose.
Firstly, scientific research was largely sidelined by the immediate need to find ways to keep the world functioning despite the sudden absence of 90% of the population. The world being stable once more, researchers like Nesta (who has recently returned to California from Pennsylvania) have the resources and time to make a serious effort to determine what caused the Vanishing. Unknowns vastly outnumber knowns, not least of which is whether the phenomena involved stopped when the population disappeared or if human struggle to survive has distracted folks from noticing ongoing anomalies.
Complicating matters: science may hew to an objective ideal but the researchers are still human. There may be one correct model. Getting resources to prove it and then convincing other scientists to adopt the correct model, depends on human factors that are not always entirely rational.
There is also the matter of beliefs about the Vanishing that are not … um … science-based. Some Christians are content to leave speculation to the scientists. But others believe that this was the Rapture (while adopting many versions of just what the Rapture might be, or might have been). One California-based Christian sect, the Heaven Bounders, is convinced that the Vanishing was indeed a miracle and that the final trump is at hand. Everyone, believers and unbelievers, should be compelled to repent their sins and lead an upright life (as defined by the Heaven Bounders). God is poised to sweep the righteous up to Heaven the moment righteous unanimity is achieved.
According the Heaven Bounders, the most pressing issue the world faces is achieving righteousness. Engaging in long term planning for food production (and other such issues) is wrong-headed. If you’re worried about eating in the coming years, you’re obviously not focusing on Rapture 2.0. The Bounders have come up with a bold plan to save the unbelievers from themselves: they will destroy California’s infrastructure and force the masses to buckle down to salvation.
The vast majority of the people living in San Jose don’t want to be burned out of their homes and/or murdered by homicidal religious fanatics. The Bounders are vastly outnumbered. But … it’s not clear that a bewildered and traumatized majority can effectively resist a fanatic minority.
Animal harm warning.
This novel explores much the same sudden depopulation theme as The City Not Long After (1989) and A Mask for the General (1986) (not to mention The Wild Shore (1984), The Earth Abides (1949) and more distantly, Dark December (1960)), novels in which excessively exciting events greatly reduce California’s (and the world’s2) population, allowing the author to explore the world that results.
Vanishing Point had one of the tidier demographic implosions: the survivors at least did not have to deal with millions of human corpses or radioactive fallout. Even thirty years later it is clear that consequences were still very messy. Pets perished and firestorms raged unchecked across some communities.
This world feels much emptier than a world with ten percent of our population should feel. California post-Vanishing should have about three million people in it, roughly the population present in the 1920s. Communities seem more isolated, the state as a whole less populated, than that. Of course, how many of the ten percent who did not Vanish died in the aftermath?
Speaking of messy, that word would also describe the relationships in the novel. Apocalypse appears to have only facilitated the human ability to create needless complication through the application of incompatible needs and poor communication skills. Humans Are Problematic seems to be one of the themes this week. Many post-apocalyptic novels have the survivors accrete into a single community whose members agree on the important issues. This is not one of those.
The novel stands out in its very specific Empty California subgenre, an enjoyable tale I am puzzled it is not known better. I have no idea why this is out of print when so many less interesting books of similar vintage are easily available. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, Vanishing Point is currently out of print.
1: I would have bet hard cash that this was a Bantam Spectra novel and not, as it actually is, from Tor. I blame cover artist Bruce Jensen for the misunderstanding. More fairly, I blame my perception that he was primarily a Bantam Spectra artist, which does not seem to be the case.
2: One cannot rule out that this is a California-eye view of the excessively successful Project Flashlight as described in 1985’s The Quiet Earth.