Jasper and his tribe of formerly middle class Americans describe themselves as nomadic rather than homeless: they travel around the Southeastern U.S., scraping together the bare minimum to survive by spreading out solar blankets or placing small windmills by the highway to collect energy from passing cars, then trading the filled fuel cells for food. Fewer and fewer people want to deal with the "gypsies" who use up dwindling resources, and often they meet with indifference or even violence. Jasper was a sociology major, but those skills are no longer in demand in 2023, about ten years after an economic depression set off the Great Decline and society as we know it gradually began to fall apart. So begins Will McIntosh's excellent debut novel, Soft Apocalypse.
One of the most interesting aspects of Soft Apocalypse, and something I've rarely seen done so well in a dystopian novel, is the fact that it shows society in the early stages of dissolution. Many post-apocalyptic stories show a finished end product, an established dystopia in which the Earth has already been torn apart and people are trying to survive the aftermath. Other stories show the events right before and during the actual earthquake/meteor strike/plague, with people trying to make it through the disaster as it happens. Soft Apocalypse instead happens during a period of gradual but inexorable decline: as the back cover says, the world ends "with a whimper instead of a bang." If Robert Charles Wilson's excellent Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd America is set in post-collapse U.S.A., when enough time has passed for society to fall back into established structures and classes, Soft Apocalypse could almost be set in the same world, but a couple of centuries earlier and during the gradual collapse of the previous system.
"Gradual" is the key here: Soft Apocalypse shows normal people clinging to the shreds of life as they knew it, while things slowly go from bad to worse. Many still hope that the economy will pick up and life will go back to what it used to be. Even though the streets are filled with homeless people and unemployment stands at 40%, others can still drive a car to work. Walmart still operates its stores, even if they raise prices to extortion-like levels whenever there are reports of a new attack or designer virus. When they can afford the electricity, people still watch cable news to find out about wars and disasters abroad, and even if there's a developing pattern of widespread war, it's all distant enough to seem unreal--until it starts getting closer and closer.
Soft Apocalypse consists of ten chapters and covers about ten years, with anywhere from a few years to a few months passing between chapters. Jasper narrates the story in the first person, dividing his attention between his struggle for survival in the slowly disintegrating society and his attempts to find love--because even during a slow apocalypse, people still crave romance, improvising dates and respecting the social niceties. When it comes to his love life, Jasper sometimes reminded me of a less music-obsessed version of High Fidelity's Rob Gordon: a generally nice, sensitive and intelligent guy who isn't aware of how clueless he occasionally acts when it comes to women. Throughout the novel, Jasper tries to find love while doing his best to survive the dangers of the collapsing society around him.
Negatives? Very few, if any, and definitely all qualified with a solid "but." Early on, the novel feels more like a collection of connected short stories because so much time passes between the chapters, but Jasper and a well-drawn cast of side-characters pull everything together until a plot emerges, and even before that happens, the story is hard to put down because of the gorgeous but bleak descriptions of life during societal collapse. Also, "bleak" may be too mild a term for some of the horrors that Jasper and his friends encounter: there were a few times I just didn't expect Will McIntosh to push things that far, but at the same time, you have to admire him for not shying away from scenes that would surely be cut from the Hollywood version. The plot sometimes seems driven by random, often violent events, but then again, life in this novel's environment would probably be full of random, violent events. More importantly, even though it may not seem that way early on, all of them have a meaningful impact on Jasper's personality, leading to an ambivalent ending that I'm still coming to terms with.
Soft Apocalypse, while not perfect, is a great achievement for a debut. It took me by surprise early on and never let go. It's a short, effective dystopian novel that should go down well with people who enjoyed the aforementioned Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd America by Robert Charles Wilson or even The Rift by Walter Jon Williams. (Maybe not coincidentally, Will McIntosh participated in Williams' Taos ToolBox workshop in 2008.) The real sadness of Soft Apocalypse is seeing normal people operating under the illusion that life will still go back to what it used to be. They try to hold down a job or complete a post-grad degree, and even though the world falls apart around them, the changes are too gradual for them to lose hope completely. It's like watching rats in a maze, unaware that their paths are slowly being closed off around them and the maze is starting to catch fire at the edges. A soft apocalypse, indeed.
I loved this book because it is one of the best disaster and post-apocalyptic novels. Most of them tend to describe some sudden and drastic disaster (plague, comet, bomb, whatever) and how humanity copes afterwards. What makes this novel different, fresh, and interesting, is that it considers the different and more likely scenario that human civilization will slowly collapse under the weight of overpopulation, increasing scarcity of natural resources (like oil), and derivative causes like famine, disease, and criminal breakdown of social order. Although such a scenario seems slow and mundane, the author manages to actually make it very vivid through the eyes of the narrator and interesting cultural vignettes.
The novel is set in and around Savannah, Georgia, in the late 2020s through 2030s. It features a mix of all elements you could possibly expect in a novel about the collapse of civilization: global warming, peak oil, epidemics (with human-designed viruses), rampant gangs, curfews, breakdown of large organizations, genocide, propaganda, fringe groups forcefully pushing various agendas, guns, gold, nomads, urban tribes, civil war, and so forth. There are even some romantic and sexual relationships to keep just about any reader interested :) Overall, the mood in the book is grim. The future world starts recognizably similar to our society, except that most amenities are gone from common people's lives, out of reach of anyone but the wealthy. Unemployment, poverty, and crime are rampant. The way people live, travel, feed and entertain themselves, is not nearly as easy and pleasant as today. There is a sense of profound loss: from major characters who gradually leave or die to the mere lack of what we today consider normalcy. In fact, merely surviving in that future world is rather hard; life is brutal. So this novel is to some extent similar to the Road, only more varied and much easier to read. Yet hope remains throughout, and especially at the end.
Overall this is a page turner and a relatively short book. I found it very well written - I like the author's style, the way he describes scenes, the metaphors he uses, the characters's speech, the way this short novel is well paced and covers so much ground.
Definitely one of the top three apocalyptic fiction books I have ever read, up there with Lucifer's Hammer and better than most of the so-called classics of the genre. Plus very interesting and thought provoking - what would you do to avoid such a future?
on July 17, 2012
Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh, which is based on a previously published short story by McIntosh, is a very frightening book about the end of civilization as we know it. The most frightening aspect of the book is that this apocalypse is precipitated not by environmental or science-gone-wrong scenarios, but by an economic collapse and succeeding depression and then the social chaos that follows. The story begins in 2023 as we experience the life of our protagonist, Jasper. He and his tribe are jobless and homeless, as are millions of other people. The tribe scrapes by selling whatever services and goods they can provide, just as other tribes do the same. Although there are still wealthy people, who have jobs and homes, the vast majority of people are homeless and struggling to survive. This downtrodden class are shunned and persecuted by those who are better off. Although Jasper eventually gets a job in a convenience store and some other members of his tribe also find menial employment, the situation for all classes of people continues to decline. Unfortunately, the dire situation is exacerbated by social movements that believe the only way for society to recover from this downward spiral is to create chaos and severely decrease Earth's population by engineering the deaths of billions of people. The story follows Jasper's struggles to cope with increasing starvation, disease, and violence. It also focuses on his attempts to maintain his humanity and caring relationships with others in a world that offers no succor and little hope. Jasper and his tribe are resilient and determined to continue to survive while searching for a better life. This is a very grim tale that extrapolates real problems and concerns about our civilization to a catastrophic result that could be disturbing to many readers. I found it to be a very engaging story and I recommend it strongly.
on March 16, 2014
We all love a good zombie apocalypse or alien invasion or superbug... but let's face it, that's generally not how societies collapse; they stretch themselves beyond the point where they can function, the haves have too little motivation to change, and over a couple of generations, they vanish. It's happened to empires and kingdoms throughout human history and "Soft Apocalypse" is set in a near future US where such a collapse is finally gathering some steam. While we're never told what the precipitating events are, they seem to be extrapolations on what we see happening already: environmental damage that threatens the food and water supplies and an increasing gap between the haves and have-nots that threaten social stability.
So if you're looking for a straightforward action story of a dramatic end of the world, this is the wrong book for you. But it's the right book in so many ways.
With story skips across years so we see things just getting gradually worse and worse around the characters, who do what most of us do - get by day to day in an ever more difficult world. At some point, of course, anybody living through this collapse has to finally admit to themselves that it's not getting better and their options are diminishing - and then, faced with unthinkable choices, what do they do?
Some of the reviewers here have complained that the book is grinding a political axe - I'm actually quite struck by the lengths that it goes to not to do that. Or that it's boring - well, only if you find people boring, I think. What McIntosh does fantastically here is let us get to know the people in the book, and see how they get to a place where they have limited and desperate options to survive. It reminds me in various ways of both Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake books and the character-driven aspects of "The Walking Dead."
The trip is beautiful and haunting, as grim as it is, and the ending is tragic and hopeful all at once. What McIntosh has achieved here just blew me away.
on October 18, 2014
I think my feeling about this book is a matter of taste. The apocalypse that happens itself is believable and terrifying. The writing is hit or miss. The author does a few things I don't think are good to do in a good story (for instance, I believe that an author should never save the character with a random act of luck, if a character can't get out of the situation realistically, it shouldn't be in the story) I feel like this book is a blend of a 5 star story and a 2 star story. There's some really good stuff in it. At the same time I got exasperated with a lot of it. Women are all characterized first by how attractive they are which gets old for me as a female reader, but a male reader might actually get a kick out of it. It's a bit overly romantic for my tastes, which you know, some people might love. I just found the love story to be a good part of the story, it just got too much air time to the point that it was distracting. Halfway through the book I was rolling my eyes from how obsessed with women the main character was, as the world blew up around him.
on August 19, 2011
There are so many reasons why I dislike this book that I decided that a point by point review would be the only way to organize it efficiently.
-Pacing: It's awful, plain and simple. When something is "fast-paced" that is a positive term, meaning it draws you in and never lets you go. This book is erratic and convoluted, like the author just grabbed his short stories and stitched them all together in some horrific literature version of the human centipede. An example is when the main character leaves a club, arrives at an art gallery, gets held up and then is forced to eat a fetus; all within the span of a few pages. It's like a 7th grader's imagination of what he'd consider sadistic.
-Main character: Is weak, unlikable, and detached. His world is collapsing around him. He insists food and safety is rare, and survival unlikely. What does he do to prepare and ready himself? Does he grow harder over time, more astute to this new playing field? No. The entire book focuses around his jump from one boring relationship to another. It seems to me that the author, realizing he created a character that is too aloof and weak to be believable, suddenly shoved new personality traits on him. His sudden fascination for foraging and aptitude for violence toward the end felt like mere Band-Aids for weak character growth. His insights were uninteresting and weak as well (reflecting the author I suppose).
-Side characters: All low quality, all bland. Worse yet? They all felt like they were in some little club blessed by grace. They complain bitterly of gangs, war, super-viruses, shortages, and yet get along fine. It seems that their impervious to everything bad happening to those around them. The amount of pain and destitution they see does not in any way logically come close to the amount they actually suffer
-Hip/Liberal feel: It all felt forced, horribly forced. I'm not saying there is a "bias"; the author can write whatever he likes, and a well-thought out left viewpoint is always interesting. It's that he makes these bland liberal opinions that are baseless, lack research, and say nothing about political or social theory. For instance he said at one point in the book: "When they had to choose between oil to make food or oil for cars, the choice was obvious; the oil went to cars".
Oh really? Is that so? That when food prices would skyrocket people would actively pay extravagant amounts of money to fuel their cars while they starve? As if those rich people who own vehicles actually had the ability to dictate where the oil was going; it's ridiculous. People of color and the poor are constantly shown in a kind and caring light. Whites, the rich, war veterans, are all shown as rapists and inhuman.
-"soft apocalypse": There is nothing original at all about this apocalypse and nothing soft about it either. He doesn't give you any reasons, even hint of reasons, of why this collapse occurred. This is a horrible weakness to the story as all post-collapse fiction I've read have usually interesting and well-thought out economic, societal, or religious reasons for the their collapses. Next, it's unorganized. At times the apocalypse seems to be driven forward by economic decline. Then if feels more that social strife and gang violence are the cause, only later to be replaced by the ridiculous and out of place super-bamboo. This is all peppered by "super-viruses" that don't seem very super (none of the character's die, doesn't feel like a well-done or realistic portrayal at all of what it be like to live through an epidemic).
There are no interesting, conflicting factions in McIntosh's vision of a collapsing America. The Jumpy-Jumps were colorful but overdone. I was always nagged by the idea that they could realistically be able to build the vast membership the author hints to. A fascist or communist power party taking control of America seems more relevant and possible to me. An army of clowns and costume wearing sadistic thugs does not. He turns the fire-departments into a gang as well (why not I guess). The government is portrayed as nothing more than the classic gas-masked soldiers coming in to exterminate entire populations. There are no ideologies speaking on how to rebuild the nation, no sense of rational organizations fighting for the remnants of America: unclear, unimaginative, underwhelming.
The sci-fi elements are weak as well. There is no research behind it, nothing felt believable. The super-bamboo, and why the main character found himself involved with its perpetrators was far beyond believable. How the world population is able to sustain itself at the levels the author hints to while all arable land is covered by bamboo makes little sense either.
If you like post-collapse books that explore themes of earth's indifference to humanity, of hope within the ruins, of learning to live simpler, or of the human ability for evil, then read such works as: Earth Abides, a Canticle for Leibowitz, A World made by Hand, and Lucifer's Hammer. (just to name a few).
If you want to read a book about a grown man with the insight level of a teenager, this book is for you. If you want an adventure about a character travelling across a United States filled with bad guys straight the imagination of a 6th grader right after saw the Circus de Soleil, this might be for you. Better yet, if you like your main characters to spend every waking moment concerned with adolescent love relationships that mean nothing and in no way are pertinent to plots revolving societal collapses, then by all means pick up this "Soft-Apocalypse".
on June 20, 2011
In Will McIntosh's debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, the world as we know it ends with a whimper, not a bang. The end of America and the rest of the world comes out of our over indulgence, use of resources and all of the problems in society reaching a dull roar that tears down the world as we know it. This story takes a small cast of characters and looks at them over a much longer point of time than more novels, providing a unique perspective on what the future might hold.
Unlike most post-apocalyptic fiction, there's no dividing line between what was then, and everything afterwards, where stalwart survivors push on to rebuild a broken landscape the day after the world ends. In this future, everything is far more subtle: there's one instance that changes everything forever: no nuclear attack, change in the climate, overbearing governmental officials driving society into the ground, but a multitude of small factors (including the ones just listed) that drags society down into the depths, and takes the main characters, Jasper, Colin, Sophia, Phoebe, Cortez, and Ange, (and the various others that come and go) along with it.
Starting in 2023, Soft Apocalypse stands out because it takes its time to tell the story over a much longer period of time: chapters jump ahead days, weeks, months, hours and years at a time, pulling the characters along as they work to continue living in this new world as the world falls down around them. There are a lot of speculative fiction elements here: science, dystopian and post-apocalyptic parts are all here, as well as some intensely personal stories from the vibrant cast of characters that rotate in and out of sight. This is a story that takes a lot of the big events and science and shoves it into the background in favor of a strong character story.
McIntosh's story here is frightening because it feels like it could very well be one of the more realistic end of society (not necessarily the world) stories that I've come across. Barring major political screw-up, we're no longer likely going to be blown into dust by nuclear annihilation, and climate change is more likely going to have more of a gradual impact on society, rather than something sudden and jarring. People will survive, adapt and work to rebuild. What McIntosh demonstrates here is the biggest change that people will need to readjust to: finding a new set of realistic expectations for their standard of living. As the United States faces ecological and criminal elements, everything changes.
Amongst this new world, we follow Jasper, a sociology major, and some of his friends. He isn't an influential figure in the world, or even someone who's prepared for the new world, but is caught up with the events, capturing energy from alongside highways and the sun and trading charged batteries for food. We follow him and his friends over the course of a decade, as they take comfort in themselves and with others that they come across, falling in and out of relationships, gangs, and ecoterrorists along the way. Genetically engineered viruses decimate the human population as corrupt governments attempt to control populations, crazy social scenes open up, crime runs rampant, and a bunch of rogue scientists engineer a strain of bamboo designed to overtake infrastructure to slow down the government and its practices.
From this perspective, we get an interesting story, especially over the time that this post-apocalypse takes place - a decade. The book starts off a bit mixed, and if you'd asked me after the first chapter, I would have described it as a story about a hipster at the end of the world trying to continue some form of shallow existence, but after moving through the book, it's clear that that's a vital starting point, and by the end of the book, the changes that all of the characters go through is very clear: most of the trappings that they (and by extension, we) have become accustomed to, are superficial and won't help us in the basics of life. There's some rather pointed commentary here throughout the story, which makes the book all the more relevant. Considering this year, we've seen things like a nuclear disaster, a distrust of executive authority and other natural disasters: this book could very well be underway.
Soft Apocalypse also tracks an interesting progression in society that also helps it stand out: not everything collapses equally: throughout the novel, we see the activities (often corrupt) of police, fire, military, civil defense and gangs, and there's certainly a shift in how these organizations interact with the public. Once again, the slow death of America here turns this style of story on its head, and by doing so, it tells some stories that might not have otherwise surfaced.
Particularly interesting throughout the book is the way that people adapt and rebuild, even as everything comes down. Jasper and all of the other characters continue to run into each other over the years, not just out of coincidence and for story convenience, I think, but because they need some level of normalcy: Jasper likewise seeks some sort of romantic interactions with various people over the years, not because of the sex, but because it's normal, something to distract him from everything that's going on. At the end of the book, we see people adapting to a new life: there's new political and social structures, pushed because of the onslaught of bamboo outbreaks and genetically engineered viruses that change people's minds. Rebuilding and society occurs because it's natural, just as it seems particularly natural for a collapse to wipe away some of the darker things that we've done as a society.
By the end, Soft Apocalypse is certainly one of the better books that I've read all year, which surprised me quite a bit for an impulse buy, one that's given me quite a bit to think about, fitting in with a lot of things that have been on my, and the general public's mind, for a while, especially when it comes to consumerism and waste in society. The book is a triumph in linking together the story and themes into a cohesive, strong character driven narrative.
Originally posted to my blog.
on July 28, 2012
In the end, this is an action story. Although it is the end of the world (and the human race as it has evolved) there is no specific villain just as there is no specific hero. Instead it is a deeply personal story of the wanderings of one young man after some sort of financial meltdown. If anyone is looking for specifics (like in Atlas Shrugged) or zombies or long philosophical treatises on why we debauched our currency, created mountains of debt then fell victim to our delusions, this is not the book for you. Perhaps the least asked question is "why?"
Anyhow, the world of the future is populated with with bands of roving soldiers and ragamuffins eking out a living with temporary jobs, a black market, bartering and a drastically lowered standard of living. The tale centers on Jasper and his associates / friends who appear and disappear along the way. All the while (the great incongruity) science continues on its merry way and a portion of the population lives likes kings. The scenario whereby a few prosper great;y while everyone else wallows in misery is a familiar fictional tale that remains mostly fictional.
In this future, the fear is that (for unknown reasons) the US will start a war. Thus, rebels develop a cure to this way of thinking, a cure that most surely saves humanity and condemns it to simply exist like the other species on the planet. Jasper's future philosophical lassitude is a mirror of mankind's.
on April 20, 2014
I pictured myself throughout this book and imagined how I would have handled the end of the world as we know it. Most of the characters develop quickly as the book skips several months at a time. It can be a little graphic at time, but it makes it more believable that way. I enjoyed Will McIntosh and plan to read "Hitchers" next.
In the not so distant future resources are scarce and jobs are even scarcer. Water is a commodity. Biological agents are being released around the world and society is slowly degrading into tribal-like groups just out for survival. Anarchy is reigning over everything as society looses their way and Jasper is just trying to find his way through it all and hopefully a girlfriend.
Will McIntosh, winner of the Hugo for best short story, has certainly impressed me creating a believable future and understandable characters. Soft Apocalypse is McIntosh's horrifyingly realistic debut of an apocalyptic nature. Only he turns the idea of an apocalypse a bit on its ear by showing it through the rise of the everyday unprepared people rather than the survivalist who instinctively "knows" what to do and frames it around the love life, or lack thereof of one character skipping ahead through time by months and sometimes years to see how he and the world develops.
The reason apocalyptic stories rarely get stale for me is because of the human factor and unexpectedness of the characters reactions during conflicts and McIntosh loads Soft Apocalypse with conflicts aplenty. I mean, does everyone know what they would do if their friends were being attacked by a crazy group of militants? Most would think they'd like to help, but when the things gets real many would just turn and run.
Soft Apocalypse really gets inside the head of its main character Jasper. We slowly see how each situation he finds himself in changes him from a very naïve post-grad leading him into what he becomes and why he makes certain decisions. At times he can seem like a wimp or a pushover yet he isn't faced with easy choices, but Jasper is, generally, able to move on and find the resolve to do what needs to be done. People faint of heart should beware. Soft Apocalypse is often an unsettling book in many ways. People and animals are dying all around, many of which happen from unspeakable acts that occur daily.
Soft Apocalypse is made in the mold of Earth Abides by George Stewart yet even more believable. Thoughts of a prequel in the world of Mad Max also come to mind. McIntosh shows that even in the worst of times life goes on, but it is ever changing. While not perfect Soft Apocalypse is an absorbing read right up to the somber ending. McIntosh has a heck of a career ahead of him and has already signed the contracts for his second novel Deadland with Night Shade that will probably be out in 2012.