Soft Apocalypse Paperback – Apr 1 2011
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About the Author
Will McIntosh is a Hugo Award winner and Nebula Award finalist whose debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, was published by Night Shade in 2011. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s (where his story “Bridesicle” won the 2010 Reader’s Award, as well as the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), Strange Horizons, Science Fiction and Fantasy: Best of the Year, and others. A New Yorker transplanted to the rural south, Will is a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University, where he studies Internet dating, and how people’s TV, music, and movie choices are affected by recession and terrorist threat. In 2008 he became the father of twins.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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?
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.