“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
– T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
Many apocalyptic novels are set in a world devastated by a sudden, unexpected cataclysm – a nuclear war, a meteor strike, a pandemic, etc. – but McIntosh’s end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it is decidedly soft. Set in and around a near-future Savannah, Georgia, the end of humanity arrives slowly, almost unnoticed by a populace too preoccupied by surviving in an America beleaguered by an almost 60 percent unemployment rate, frequent blackouts, water shortages, eco-terrorism, etc.:
“I wasn’t convinced that things were going to get worse. It felt like we had already hit bottom, or were near it anyway. It was hard to ignore police puking blood on the sidewalk in front of your house, but most of the talking heads on TV thought that things would get better soon – that the stock market would recover, the Jumpy-Jump [anarchist] movement would be crushed, the warm wars we were fighting across the globe would end, that we’d get a grip on melting icecaps. Things hadn’t gotten any better over the past five years, but they hadn’t gotten much worse. We just needed to wait it out…”
The story is narrated by Jasper, a destitute college graduate (sociology major) who is having a difficult time coming to grips with his radically changing environment. (“…we’re not homeless, we’re nomads.”) Living on the streets with his tribe of college-educated contemporaries, Jasper is more concerned with finding a girlfriend than in plotting a course for his long-term survival.
Written in a series of vignettes, Soft Apocalypse follows Jasper as he and his tribemates navigate a world slowly but surely going to Hell in a handbasket. After he finds work in a convenience store and gets a place to live, Jasper continues to slip back into his pre-Decline mindset, fixated with finding someone to share his life with. And the question persists: “What does love look like when the world is falling apart?”
But finally, after a decade of living in a kind of existential denial, Jasper finally sees his reality for what it is – and with the world literally falling apart, he must make some brutal decisions about his future…
The reason I loved this book is because I can so easily envision this happening – millions of people at home playing Xbox or getting high or obsessively watching reality television totally apathetic about the future of humankind. Who cares about the budget deficit or that the Middle East is on the brink of a bloodbath of biblical proportions, Jersey Shore is on! McIntosh’s vision of the future is so compelling because it’s narrative seeds are firmed planted in reality.
“What do we need to survive? We don’t need more hands, or two heads, or to fly. We need to be healed. Our violence, our sadness, our loneliness, our fear… they are a sickness that is killing us.”
Replete with extraordinary post-apocalyptic images (dogs pulling the skeleton of a car with a cardboard Taxi sign taped on the front) and provocative subject matter (a virus causing euphoria called Doctor Happy, bioengineered bamboo forests, etc.), McIntosh’s debut is a distinctly unique apocalyptic novel – with an equally unique ending that is ripe for speculation and/or discussion.
Bottom line: If Soft Apocalypse isn’t nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award, I will eat the entire book page by page…
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.
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