Posts Tagged Will McIntosh

Disturbing Dystopia: Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse”

Rarely have I read a book as thoroughly disturbing at Will McIntosh’s SOFT APOCALYPSE.  In it, we meet Jasper, a formerly middle-class man who’s hit the skids in a big-time way.  Jasper has fallen in with a bunch of others in similar positions to his own and has formed a “tribe” which is nomadic, lives in tents, and does its best to gather power from windmills and solar panels in order to fill fuel cells and sell them to the remaining places that need this energy to survive.  But society has more or less collapsed, reasons unknown or untold, and Jasper’s tribe is having a very tough go of it, partly because the people who are still working (anywhere from 60 to 70% of the population are employed at the start of this novel) look down on folks like Jasper with distaste and scorn.

Now, the first question I had was, “Why is so little empathy being shown here?”  Because wouldn’t some of these folks think to themselves, “There but for the grace of God go I?”  Yet they don’t — instead, most people hate Jasper’s tribe, and others like them, right off for no good reason whatsoever. 

Next, we meet Jasper’s erstwhile lover, Sylvia, a woman who still has a job.  Sylvia and Jasper have a more or less platonic affair because Sylvia still loves her husband; apparently Sylvia’s husband just doesn’t excite her any more.  Sylvia’s help and money are the main reason Jasper’s tribe has survived to date.  Sylvia is important to the plot because she’s found Jasper a job in Savannah, Georgia, in a convenience store and brings Jasper a clean, white shirt for the interview.  So there’s at least one good person left; this helped me settle down for a while.

Moving on, as this book is told in a series of vignettes that move in time from weeks to months or years, we see Jasper trying to date as he’s given Sylvia her freedom now that he has a job and has been able to put up his tribe in a one-bedroom apartment. (Nine or ten people living there would be cramped, methinks, but McIntosh skims over this rather quickly.)  Jasper meets an upper-class young woman who gives him reason to go visit a club, something he hasn’t done much of since falling so far economically, only to have this gal reject him once she’s around her friends.  This makes Jasper sting — he can’t help it he’s fallen so far — and he ends up going home in disgrace.

In another vignette, Jasper’s still trying to date (and is thankful he still has his job at the convenience store as unemployment has now risen to 60%), and meets the one woman who’s truly worthwhile in all 256 pages of SOFT APOCALYPSE — Maya, a paraplegic.  Maya is smart, funny, down-to-earth and an economist; she says with conviction that there’s no chance that America will come back and we believe her.  However, Jasper can’t wrap his mind around the concept of dating a disabled woman and we don’t see Maya again, which is a real shame: while she was involved with Jasper, this story made sense and was enjoyable.  But Maya’s involvement here is, at best, four pages in length; obviously she cannot carry this novel.

SOFT APOCALYPSE meanders from place to place, and some of what happens is intensely disgusting, especially with regards to animals.  First, we see one of Jasper’s friend’s dogs getting killed due to being used as an innocent, road-side bomb carrier because, apparently, anarchists are everywhere and they like doing stuff like this to dogs for fun.  Next, we see another bunch of anarchists (or possibly paramilitary men) shooting up a bunch of people who’ve exited an art gallery showing, but they don’t kill Jasper because they know he’s poor.  However, they instead force him to eat a cat fetus, which they’ve apparently been carrying around on the off-chance that they’ll get their chance to torment some benighted soul like Jasper with it, which doesn’t make any sense.

The only real themes here are that Jasper can’t relate to women, nor can he really articulate what the Hell has happened to him or his society despite being a former sociology major in college.  These two things are not enough to carry this novel.  Further, all the terrible stuff done to animals seemed at best exploitative, and at worst was nonsensical; you’d think that with society having utterly collapsed that the only bad thing that would be likely to happen to most animals would be to be eaten rather than tormented or made to carry live bombs for the pleasure of some sick anarchist somewhere.

As for the characters, I didn’t like Jasper at all.  I found him whiny, self-centered, unable to process what had happened whatsoever even though this book spans ten years (this also is nonsensical), and unable to find many good people to help him rebalance his life.  I did like Sylvia, for the most part, and I definitely liked Maya, but they didn’t have that much to say or do in SOFT APOCALYPSE except play off Jasper’s complete incomprehension; maybe if this story had been written from their viewpoint, it would’ve made more sense.

Next, we get to the biggest problem of all in SOFT APOCALYPSE, that being the lack or omission of important details.  Consider that Jasper starts off this novel walking.  The other members of the tribe mention how hard it’s been to keep clothes on their back, but they never mention the shoes on their feet.  This is completely unrealistic, because if your only method of locomotion is walking, your feet are going to get bigger in a hurry — we know this from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, because peasants who did not have horses to draw carts had to get around by walking and their feet were often much, much bigger than any of the “civilized” Lords and Ladies because the latter group got to sit down for much of the day; the former group (the peasants) had to be standing up most of the time in order to do their jobs, then had to walk home afterward.

Then, there’s the lack of depiction, or any sense of strict delineation, between cities and the countryside in SOFT APOCALYPSE despite much of this novel being placed in Savannah, Georgia.  We should see that the suburbs are having trouble getting power due to all these anarchists (some of whom are called “Jumpy Jumps”) around causing randomized trouble, more so than just at the beginning of this novel when Jasper and the others are obviously floundering.  We should see “brown outs” in Savannah once Jasper is well-situated.  We should see problems getting good quality water.  We should see problems, period, and aside from the disgusting stuff with animals, we really don’t see much of that.

Finally, what bothered me the most about SOFT APOCALYPSE was the lack of there being any hope for the future aside from something that is really jarring — that of an engineered virus called “Dr. Happy” that makes most people calmer, more rational, or at least happier but doesn’t work for everyone.  (For those people, they tend to commit suicide, quickly, laughing all the way down — we see one of those suicides and it isn’t pretty.)  This doesn’t make any sense at all; in other dystopic novels I’ve read, including Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s classic A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ and Sam Landstrom’s recent MetaGame,  there were people to root for in the story as well as against.  There also were reasons to believe that at least a few people would learn from their experiences and become more empathetic; not everyone in these stories were good people, mind, but not everyone was a useless waste of space, either.

What I found in reading SOFT APOCALYPSE was this: it’s disturbing.  It’s depressing.  It’s obviously dystopic even for a dystopian novel, and it’s one of the most disgusting novels I’ve ever read due to the consistent abuse of animals throughout the course of the story.

Mind you, this novel has some fans in high places; Walter Jon Williams really likes this book and wrote a cover blurb for it.  Well-known full-time book reviewer Paul Goat Allen said this:

Bottom line: If Soft Apocalypse isn’t nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award, I will eat the entire book page by page…

And Tor.com wrote a glowing review for SOFT APOCALYPSE here during April 2011’s “Dystopia Week.”

All that aside, this is a dark, disturbing, depressing and disgusting work of fiction I’d have rather not read.  However, since I did, here are my grades:

Ambience: A-plus.  No doubt about it; this aspect was done well because the story’s depressing and it was supposed to be.

Concept: A.  The idea of SOFT APOCALYPSE, by itself, works.

Execution of story’s concept: F.  The way it’s told didn’t.

Writing: C-plus.  McIntosh told the story he wanted to tell, but missed some vital details that would’ve made this book stronger and more believable.

Plot: F.  Bad detailing.  Good characters like Maya and Sylvia don’t stay around long enough.  No real overarching plot except for Jasper and his friends fumbling around.  Worst of all, the plot was not believable much of the time.

Characterization: C.  Obviously McIntosh can write good characters to root for, as I loved Maya and Sylvia.  He also can write terrible characters to root against, like the anarchists and paramilitary types.  But he wasn’t ever able to give me one good reason to root for Jasper, and that’s a cardinal sin.

Overall Grade: C-, and that’s generous. 

My advice is to read this at your own risk unless you’re an animal lover.  But if you love cats, dogs, or other animals, please do yourself a favor and skip this book.  You’ll be glad you did.

– reviewed by Barb

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