Out with a Whimper: Soft Apocalypse

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.