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Viral Airwaves Paperback – November 25, 2016
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"During the first half of the novel, Arseneault subtly slips in small details that help you connect with the characters on a deeper, personal level (for example, Henry eats pretty much nothing but instant noodles). In the second half she proceeds to systematically and deliberately rip your heart out using those very details and character quirks you'll come to love so much." - Paper Droids --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Author
Believe me, its origin story is just as odd as the book. A friend and I were having fun matching two songs together and creating pitch lines from them. At its very beginning, Viral Airwaves was "Criminal Mind" from Gowan and "Hot Air Balloon" from Owl City, mixed together into "A hot air balloon driver must fly a criminal across the frontier."
The novel changed tons since then, evolving along with me. A lot of elements and themes in the ending appeared after a large student strike we had here in Quebec in 2012. I grew frustrated with the apathy and hero-worship (or hatred) and it seeped into my finale.
Q: So ... what genre is this?
All of them. No, but really. Viral Airwaves is a science fiction novel that draws from dystopia, post-apocalyptic, and solarpunk. The world was ravaged by both sudden oil disappearance and a plague, and communication between places has been reduced to a government-controlled radio. In short, a lot has been destroyed and what's left is solidly into the hands of the ones who did it. It is set in a world where old-fashioned radio stands alongside solar technology and advanced genetic engineering, and in many ways can be called the beginning of solarpunk. I wanted to say something about the importance of individual actions, of taking part in the change you want to see, and of accepting and building upon past mistakes.
And solarpunk? Well, solarpunk is a tiny sci-fi subgenre for fiction that are hopeful, green, and community-centered. And Viral Airwaves is all about banding together to build a solar-powered, just and equal future!
Q: I heard your book featured LGBTQIAP+ characters. Is that true?
You bet it is! They're more than featured: they're over half the heroic crew! The two most important might be Seraphin (bisexual) and Vermen (gay), but several support characters also fall into the good old QUILTBAG, and the world itself acknowledges the existence of identities not represented directly (by referencing to non-binary genders, for example). Henry himself is written as asexual, in great part because I was drawing from my experience. This was always incredibly important to me, both as an asexual writer and as someone friends with so many other LGBT+ folk, and I fully intend to continue starring our people.
Q: Will there be a second book? Is Viral Airwaves part of a series?
As of now, Viral Airwaves is a standalone novel. It does have a prequel novella, The White Renegade, which centers on Seraphin and the events leading him into hiding. This background has so much influence on Viral Airwaves' storyline, I wanted to spend some time on it and unravel how Seraphin became the rebel leader you meet in Viral Airwaves. You can read Viral Airwaves and The White Renegade in any order, too! Neither will spoil the other's story.
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Henry Schmitt is our entry into the story. He's one of the last occupants of a town dying after its tourism trade dried up. He just wants a quiet life and he's ill-equipped to deal with the disruption when he gets swept up with a gang of rebels who knew his father. These characters view him as cowardly, and perhaps he is. Henry's desire for normalcy and his tendency to eat when stressed made him very relatable, even as I was cheering for him to grow beyond these.
He's one of two asexual characters mentioned in the book and the only one that gets time onscreen. However, much like his stress eating, this part of his character isn't framed as a defining characteristic, but is rather simply part of the background. Diversity of race and sexuality is likewise a casual part of the story throughout.
The second POV character is Andeal, an electrical engineer who is one of the founding members of the rebellion. He's an important friend to Seraphin, the leader. He was also imprisoned with Henry's father, and the pair were experimented on by a government scientist. The result for Andeal was blue skin and an overriding fear of being imprisoned again. This fear provides an interesting counterpoint to his incessantly (and sometimes foolishly) optimistic personality.
The last POV character is Captain Hans Vermen. He deserts the army in his quest for vengeance against Seraphin for killing his brother. Hans is xenophobic and has some strongly internalised homophobia. At first glance, he's a repulsive character but he became one of my favourites as I discovered his motivations and watched him struggle with his prejudices. In fact, it was a joy to watch all of the characters battle with their flaws and make new connections with other people.
It is never specified whether the story is set in our world or some close parallel. What is clear is that the world has been through some kind of apocalypse. Bacteria has destroyed the world's oil supply and the population has been decimated by a plague. Oil-driven technology has been replaced: solar panels abound and government vehicles are all electric. Mass media has been reduced to radio, which is controlled by the authoritarian government who came into power in the wake of the plague. The setting feels at once modern and old-fashioned. While this mostly worked there were a couple of places where it jarred.
The pace is quite slow, particularly in the beginning. However, this was important for establishing the relationships that are at the heart of the book and there were occasional bouts of action that helped keep things moving forward.
The story bills itself as a hopeful one, but readers should be warned it gets dark in places. There is torture and character death, so tread with caution.
Overall, Viral Airwaves was a thoughtful, character-driven story that did a good job of drawing me in.
* * *
...At this point I'm going to stop even pretending I can keep it to one-sentence headers. ESPECIALLY WHEN IT'S BOOKS I LOVE THIS MUCH. I DON'T EVEN KNOW HOW TO START, I'M JUST LIKE.... AGH (this is a good sign really)
Uh I'm honestly just kind of. Staring into - I HAVE BEEN SITTING HERE FOR LIKE 7 MINUTES trying to figure out what to say and how to Word about how great Viral Airwaves is and not just have it be incoherent yelling (my notes/highlights are full of that enough). Like the rest of my reviews today have been all pretty with actual complete sentences and structure, and this is just going to be me screaming bc THIS IS HOW I GET WHEN I REALLY LOVE A BOOK, i can't even think like
Uh ok let's try a list. Good things it has:
* Revolution against a horrifically corrupt and brutal government (including a truly intense/terrifying/realistic protest toward the end, with the kind of retaliation you'd expect here. and in reality)
* Gorgeous scenery descriptions (this is Solarpunk, our revolution will be green, inclusive and optimistic even if it's a terrible struggle getting there)
* Hot air balloons and secret radio channels and deadly plagues like seriously this is an original-ass premise, are you tired of your standard Revolt Against The Bad Government stuff with the grimdark and the depressing trope-rehash, then yes, pls pick this up
* I mean the fact that it's solarpunk and ultimately optimistic doesn't mean it's not BRUTALLY EFFECTIVE and sometimes DEVASTATING, and also terrifying (the plague, and *everything* about Andeal and the labs, please hug Andeal while we're at this), like this is not a sugarcoated thing, it's borderline-dystopia, HOWEVER, even as it shows the real horrors of life under an oppressive dreadful government and the fight for survival/freedom, it's different/better than like 90% of media because MARGINALIZED PEOPLE AREN'T TORTURED/MURDERED FOR BEING THEMSELVES, TO BE TRAGIC OR 'INSPIRING.' (there is some torture/murder bc they are up against actual human monsters, but THERE IS A DIFFERENCE and that's IMPORTANT.)
* Like, Viral Airwaves is about regular people being extraordinary because they have to, like the starter quote says, and it has a wonderful array of LGBTQIA and just, people you don't get to see in mainstream fiction, being amazing - such as cute ace noodle-nerds and awesome ladies, one of whom really likes to make things explode, and an all-guy love triangle with the BEST-DONE ENEMIES-TO-LOVERS I'VE EVER SEEN, like it's not even fair man, and one of em's bi and an actually realistic albinism portrayal and im still not over them having to go to a pharmacy and replace his busted glasses, like yes this is my Aesthetic, like that one "who's gonna handle the braces if all the dentists are dead in the apocalypse" post, I find this both hilarious (possibly irrationally so) but just so great bc it's REALISTIC AND YES THIS WOULD HAPPEN -
Yeah see, I dissolved into barely-coherent screaming, but it's really hard not to, because I JUST LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I LOVE SERAPHIN ESPECIALLY BUT I LOVE THE WHOLE THING, just, Viral Airwaves is so good, and I feel personally attacked, and that's a Good Thing, because he and this entire thing was like, tailored/specifically-crafted to make me INVESTED AND CARE REALLY HARD before the author even knew me, and now I will smile every time i make top ramen. got dang. GOT DANG.
The end, go read this book and scream about it with me.
I really like the cast of characters here. Henry's growth is wonderful to read (and he's adorable), Maniel is amazing and terrifying, and Andeal is brave and committed and principled (but also not perfect, which I appreciated a lot). Hans also grows a ton, and his commitment to the people who become friends is my favorite thing. And then there's Treysh, who dyes her hair green and takes delight in making things explode.
This is a book about a resistance movement, about how and why people join such a group and go to incredible lengths to fight for what they believe is right. The group argues, splits up, starves, gets injured, gets captured. It felt difficult and sometimes brutal, but the cast is so bright and also there is a hot air balloon with propellers and secret radio broadcasts and a lot of instant noodles.
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