47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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?
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.