Book Review: “Soft Apocalypse” by Will McIntosh

Apocalypse fiction has been around for many years, usually in the form of a cataclysmic event — asteroid impact, nuclear bomb, giant space squid — that destroys a good chunk of the entire planet and leaves the survivors to fend for themselves in a world gone mad.

But after reading Will McIntosh’s new novel Soft Apocalypse, I can tell you that sitting in the belly of an intergalactic Sarlacc might actually be better than the road we’re on now.

Soft Apocalypse is the story of Jasper, a college graduate with a sociology degree, no job, and nowhere to live. While that does sound like the fate of many liberal arts majors these days*, where Soft Apocalypse differs is that it begins in 2023, ten years after an economic depression that has left 40 percent of Americans unemployed. The story begins in Metter, Georgia, about half a centimeter** east of the midpoint between Macon and Savannah, where Jasper and what he calls his tribe are harvesting wind energy from cars passing on I-16***. A policeman drives the tribe away, and after a short while they end up in Savannah, where Jasper grew up.

But this is not the Savannah you and I know, or the Savannah you saw in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. No, just like larger cities, Savannah is in the midst of its own troubles. Jasper gets a job at a convenience store and a house with his friends Colin and Jeannie, and he starts trying to eke out a life during this soft apocalypse.

As the novel progresses, Jasper does things that we might, in saner times, say that no human should be forced to do. He changes residences, lives as a nomad in east Georgia, falls in love with a woman who is extremely wrong for him — and everyone else — and is forced to watch a friend die in a scene that is both hideous and inventive.

To my mind, the main theme of the novel is “just how much of your civility are you willing to hold onto when no one else is civilized?” Most of us have said we’d be willing to kill to protect those we love, or if we were forced into a kill-or-be-killed situation, but for Jasper it’s harder than he expected. Still, he’s pretty lucky, compared to people who’ve succumbed to manufactured diseases, gangs, drugs, or even simple starvation. And he has friends, too — friends like Cortez, a fighting man and natural leader, and Ange, his off-again-on-again lover.

McIntosh projects the future of Soft Apocalypse in a thoroughly realistic fashion, and although world events occur relatively tangential to Jasper — they don’t really affect him as much as local ones like the Wal-Mart closing, but then, how many of us**** feel like the tragedies in Japan or New Zealand, or the regime change in Egypt and the unrest in Libya, really have an impact on our lives? Most Americans wouldn’t even know something was happening in Libya if it wasn’t making it more difficult to fill our gas tanks (or if their favorite Monday night shows hadn’t been pre-empted by the President on March 28). The future of Soft Apocalypse is much harder than anything we’re going through now*****, and McIntosh acknowledges that while also making some so-obvious-it’s-hard-to-see commentary on the present. (He has a great line about starving people, expensive cars, and oil.)

Overall I found Soft Apocalypse to be an engrossing read, as well as a fast one — I read 60 percent of it on a plane flight to Minnesota****** — and I attribute the latter to a combination of good pacing and the story’s ten-year timeline. Though it’s not a happy book, there are moments of win peppered throughout, and the ending is both satisfying and thought-provoking in exactly the same way the rest of the book is.

How far would you go to protect your tribe? Maybe after reading Soft Apocalypse, you’ll think a little harder before you answer that question.

Note to Parents: this novel contains explicit language and graphic violence, as well as sex, occasional torture, and mature themes. I don’t recommend it for anyone younger than 15, and only to highly mature teenagers between 15 and 18. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

Special thanks to Night Shade Books for providing a review copy.

* I know, I know, low blow. But I’ve worked in academia and employment and let’s just say the prospects aren’t good.

** According to Google Maps on my phone.

*** I’m not really sure how much they’d be getting. I’ve been on 16, and there were very few cars. My guess is that people were commuting from Macon to Savannah.

**** By “us” I mean the average American citizen, not the average sci-fi consumer, who is generally more in-tune with world events.

***** Interestingly, many of the difficult lessons Jasper and his tribe learn are covered in Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love, under the “things every man should be able to do” heading.

****** Don’t worry; I won’t make you do a word problem. It’s about three hours of air travel from Atlanta to Minneapolis, but since I read on my iPad I can only use it at safe cruising altitude, or on the ground. I read the 60 percent noted above in about two hours. For reference, you can figure out how fast I read when I say that I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 5.5 hours.