The Road review: Bleak, Depressing, and Utterly Devoid of Hope — How the End of the World Really Looks

The 2006 Pulitzer-prize winning novel “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy is bleak, by any standard of the definition. If you want a glimpse of what the post-apocalypse really looks like, you’ll find it here. The story focuses on one man and his child wandering on a road south to escape the cold in a gray ruined world with a sky that never shows the sun or stops raining ash.

The world that once was will never be again. In the aftermath of the apocalypse there is no wildlife at all, and humanity is slowly nearing extinction as cannibalism becomes the norm. Those few details exist to let you know how hopeless the world is, but the central struggle is a father trying to keep his son alive and to find some meaning beyond the stretch of road he can see in front of him.

I would contend that this is the alpha of post-apocalyptic novels. There’s no respite from the natural elements and human dangers in a world that’s edging to oblivion.

There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead.

The story puts the reader right into its world. One example is the bitter relentless cold. I can remember back more than a decade to a nighttime Army exercise in winter with “cold to crack the stones,” to borrow a phrase from McCarthy. I can’t imagine living day-to-day not being able to get warm and being perpetually miserable.

They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold.

There’s a moral compass that the father tries to stay true to, and it’s his son that likely keeps him from giving in completely or to his darker nature.

What makes this book rise above others of similar ilk is the relationship and the conversations that the boy and his father have. What they talk about and how sparse their conversations are hit exactly the right tone for this world. There’s not much to talk about and they have very little energy to do it. The story is pure in the sense of a father and boy being able to rely on each other and live only for each other, and that in itself has some haunting beauty, despite the father knowing that they are on borrowed time.

Then there’s the gallows humor:

What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat into the road a bloody phlegm.

Getting up this morning, he said.
Really?
No. Dont listen to me. Come on, let’s go.

Every decision they make means life or death. Living that way for years on end would tear down even the most resilient of people. The father desperately needs to get his son to the coast, someplace warmer, but then what next? That’s a question he himself does not have an answer to. Don’t expect a traditional narrative arc where you’re given the answers at the end. I think the story, at least for me, is part fiction and part study for reflecting on your values.

The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.

I learned a lot from “The Road” — examining more closely what I have in life, the resilience of the human spirit, the fragility of the world, putting relationships first, and not giving in to your darker self, to name a few.

The novel is bleak, depressing, and utterly devoid of hope, but that’s what the end of the world really looks like.

5 of 5 stars

-Josh

p.s. I did an analysis of votes by Goodreads’ fans for top dystopian fiction by creating an interactive graphic. Design inspired by “The Road.” Check it out.

Paul Tremblay is at the Top of the Horror Heap for a Reason | Survivor Song Review

Survivor Song

One of my standing rules when writing book reviews is no spoilers up front. Half the garbage on the Internet launches right into telling you what the book is about. If it’s not in the description, I don’t wanna hear it. Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay might be the exception to this rule. But let me at least try the traditional spoiler-free approach first:

I went into this book knowing exactly zero about what it was about. (I didn’t even read the description). I just heard Paul Tremblay was at the top of the horror heap, so I said “why not?” I was not disappointed.

This is a story about an epidemic, potentially world-ending stuff in the form of a virus left unchecked. With all the chaos, no one knows what it is. Zombie invasion, biological warfare, super rabies? But what caught me almost right away was this feeling that this…could…really…happen.

It didn’t feel like a piece of fiction where I was safe to observe. Putting myself in the characters shoes terrified me because the story was just this side of plausible.

The author was stingy with details, and it served to create this uneasy feeling where, as with the characters, you don’t have a complete picture of what’s going on. The wave of internet noise and news reports starts to cause more chaos and despair, accelerating the decline of civil order.

This story made me feel connected to other people and more empathetic, which might be one requisite for success. I think a more important achievement is that it brings together many lessons we could learn in our current pandemic with COVID-19.

SPOILERS

There is tremendous loss throughout this story, and it doesn’t feel like characters, but rather actual people who are dying. It was a bit hard to read it in that regard. But at first, with no idea what I was getting into and dutifully plugging through the opening scene with pregnant wife Natalie waiting for her husband Paul, it was a bit of a yawner. I thought these were the extras about to die horribly to establish how scary things are before moving on to the main characters. My expectations were immediately flipped on their head and we find Natalie — who in fact loses her husband from a man-gone-mad biting and bludgeoning him to death — driving frantically through Boston to find her best friend, who happens to be a doctor. Natalie has been bitten and needs help before she becomes a rabbid mindless vegetable. The atmosphere feels authentically creepy because what we’re dealing with is a super rabies and the city is essentially infested with rabbid mammals of all kinds that succumb to the disease within hours.

There are parallels to the current COVID-19 crisis but it could also be a timeless story about certain groups of people who are in denial about the scale of the crisis or conspiracy theories running rampant and the breakdown in the system, whether it’s government services or social order. And you ultimately see, like in any situation where fear and chaos rule, people die unnecessarily. So there’s that subtext, but it doesn’t beat you over the head or get in the way of the narrative focus, which is the relationships and encounters in the journey.

Many characters in the book think that this is the end. A real zombie invasion. Or a deep state government conspiracy to release a virus and then make money off the vaccine. Take your pick.  While some kids think they’re fighting zombies and go looking for trouble, you have rational adults trying to reason with them and let them know that things will be OK. There’s a lot packed into the relationships between the two sets of best friends who meet up (the two adolescent boys and Doctor “Rams” and Natalie ). I love the kids because they’re dropping pop culture references and movie quotes and it’s just hilarious to see how they basically, like all youth, think that they’re young and indestructible. They reference zombie movies and the tropes in the genre, notably how the heroes come across random people or “randos” who eventually die. It’s a bit of clever foreshadowing about the boys, who think they’re the heroes, but who ultimately don’t make it. Their demise is a particularly somber section of the story.

The quartet comes across an animal control posse that basically is looking to kill all the pets in the neighborhood, and that goes horribly wrong. This is when one of the boys gets bit by a relentless coyote that tracked Rams and Natalie in the ambulance. Rams has to get Natalie to a safe hospital to deliver the baby, and they part ways with the youth, who go into the woods and accept their fate, with the healthy boy choosing to share the same end as his friend. They battle wild rabbid animals and when the infected friend attacks, the other boy chooses to evade and not fight him. In the end they both go quietly into the night.

So the women’s relationship and the realization that Natalie won’t make it takes on this urgency as they focus on making sure Natalie’s baby has a fighting chance at life. Natalie tries to hang onto this fragile hope of having a child, knowing full well that she will herself die. She begs Rams, who doesn’t want a child even of her own, to promise to be the baby’s caregiver.

In keeping with the book’s you-feel-like-you’re-there feeling, at the very end when Rams has to somehow subdue Natalie, who has “turned,” it’s truly a tragic and arresting experience that will define the rest of Rams’ life. The actual medical procedure of a C-section to try to get the baby out alive is told with great detail so you feel like a doctor who has a person’s life in your hands. It’s a visceral experience and a climax that effectively caps what has become an emotionally draining experience for Rams and the reader. Kudos to Tremblay for this final nailbiter sequence. The baby isn’t breathing when the doctor finally delivers the child, and it’s not until 10 years later in the fast forward epilogue that you find out that little Lily did make it and Rams has tried to honor her friend’s request by raising the daughter.

I loved this apocalypse/not-apocalypse tale. The fact it was written during a real-life pandemic helped me experience it through a different, more empathetic lens. It’s a tightly written, emotionally anchored read that shows you the human side to pandemics and perhaps reminds us to never forget what we’re really fighting for. 4 of 5 stars

-Josh

Sci-Fi Nominees, and a Winner, from the Goodreads Choice Awards 2020

So what book tallied the most votes in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2020 for science fiction? (The winners were announced Dec. 8.) I think a much more interesting question is “How did the number of award votes compare to the lifetime ratings for each book?” Well, it’s not hard to browse and find out, but I wanted to do a more direct comparison and see how books published across the year stacked up.

Fans of books published in the first quarter remembered their love and came back to vote for Q1 books (Riot Baby and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories). Midyear books (April-July) were strongest for both lifetime ratings and award votes. But the books that faired the best for voting season came out in August and September. Three of the four books with the most votes had at least twice the number of votes as lifetime ratings and were published in August or after. These include Harrow the Ninth, The Space Between Worlds, and the genre’s award winner To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. To see book details, explore the interactive data graphic. – Josh

Dark Matter Matters

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Black Crouch’s Dark Matter is a tale of “what if” told in grand fashion and with science as the star — what if you had made different choices in life; gone to a different school, chose a different career, fallen in love with a different person?

Dark Matter uses quantum physics to answer the question of what would it be like to live another life. It focuses on a physicist who chose to marry the woman he loves over a career that could have redefined science. But this is only one reality…

Crouch knows how to set up a mystery and focus on what matters. This story could have been derivative of a Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, but it puts science front in center to drive a tale that takes the reader through a truly mind-bending experience.

Spoilers:

What does experiencing the multiverse do to one’s psyche? What lengths would shadowy government agencies go to in order to possess the key to traverse multiple realities? How could you control such a technology? All this and more are answered in this science thriller.

Jason Dessen has his life stolen and when he realizes he’s not in his world, he can’t accept this new reality he’s been booted to.

It’s one thing to be lost in a world that’s not your own. Another thing entirely to know you’ve been replaced in yours.

Fake Jason, who went on to figure out how to travel to another reality by unlocking the secret of quantum physics, puts real Jason into his world where FJ’s government coworkers haven’t seen him in about 14 months. Real Jason trusts his instincts not to reveal that they have the wrong guy and he tries to piece together if he’s going crazy. Fake Jason gets the wife he always wanted and has little concern that anything will disrupt this new life.

The thrill-a-minute spectacle kicks off when real Jason escapes in the quantum box into the multiverse with his very own Doctor Who companion, lab mate Amanda, as he tries to get home.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
Amanda looks at me.
Einstein’s words, not mine.

It’s near impossible to find the grain of sand that represents your world on the beach of the multiverse, but Jason finally figures out to get home you have to think of the world you want. This revelation comes courtesy of Amanda who is thinking of a whiteout snowstorm from childhood and they end up in one when they exit the box. And they almost die that world in sub zero temperatures. A hail mary in the form of a compass that points toward the magnetically charged box helps them find it and uncover it in snow that accumulated over night. They are almost doomed several times and just thinking of your home doesn’t necessarily get you there. You have to be perfectly emotionally in sync with your intentions and feelings.

It’s a troubling paradox — I have total control, but only to the extent I have control over myself.
My emotions.
My inner storm.
The secret engines that drive me.

With little time and quantum juice left, Jason makes the leap home. It gets crazy when other versions of him, who made different destination choices in the box, start showing up and all of them technically have a claim to their wife Daniella. It gets funny scary because all the Jasons know what each other will do so it’s a stalemate. The sole reason chaos doesn’t break out between the Jasons — who are willing to kill each other — is that they don’t want Daniella and Charlie caught in the crossfire. Real Jason tries to think of something he would never do and ends up pulling a funny stunt of smoking in a restaurant and refusing to quit when a cop asks. He ends up in jail and Daniella and him end up together and they flee with Charlie to a cabin north of Chicago. Charlie goofs big time to call a girl and they are tracked down. In a bloody confrontation, fake Jason dies in the cabin and real Jason takes his family to the quantum box in his world so they can escape the others. Many of his doppelgangers are already at the box, but while many are desparate, others are rational, and the family is allowed to pass. To avoid from being followed by a disgruntled double, Jason tells Charlie he’ll be choosing what world they go to live in. The end.

We’re so clearly at the end. Everything we have built — our house, our jobs, our friends, our collective life — all gone. We have nothing left but one another, and yet, in this moment, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

Bigfoot is real, and really scary

REVIEW

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

Max Brooks is in top form with Devolution, his first major disaster thriller after the acclaimed World War Z. I had expectations for the novel, given how stunning World War Z turned out, a tale that cemented itself into the well-worn zombie genre with oodles of sophistication. Like that tale, Devolution is about survival, not just the horrors that tear the world down. It’s about making a gut check and figuring out whether you will fold or fight when society itself crumbles.

The tale is structured similarly to World War Z which was told through eyewitness accounts of a global war. Devolution centers on the recovered journal of one of the characters who lived through the horror of being trapped in the Washington state wilderness after Mount Rainier erupts and cuts off her small eco-community. Surviving the winter becomes secondary to surviving against beasts thought only to lurk in folklore and legend. That’s right, Bigfoot is the boogeyman here, and what the creatures do to this small group of stranded homo sapiens is truly terrifying.

The story is all muscle, no fat – the couple’s arrival to their new home off the beaten path, the introduction of this eco-community as a new sustainable American way of life, the volcano disaster, and then the slow horrifying realization that the wilderness is bigger and darker than they ever imagined.

I love how the story sets the stage with the indictment of society with its willful destruction of the planet so that people can simply maintain their lifestyles. The Green Revolution promises a modern solution that delivers both comfort and sustainability. Americans can’t live without the former before committing to the latter. But we find out soon enough the reality that people can’t make nature adapt to them, they must adapt to it. There’s no middle ground. You adapt or die.

The book asks the reader to decide if the journal is part of a large-scale hoax or the most detailed account ever recorded of Bigfoot, an animal dismissed as the product of crackpot theories over the years. The author then does something even bolder at the risk of losing the reader’s interest – no survivors were found, just the journal, so we go into the story without having even the hope of an ending where the people we read about are still alive.

Without spoilers, there’s a reason for this, which I found out at the end, and Brooks brings it home full force with a satisfying conclusion.

The book’s title is clever and speaks to why Bigfoot hides and thrives still today, and the regular interludes in the book describe actual recorded behavior of primates in the animal kingdom. This lends credibility and creepiness to the horrors that play out. This book immerses you if you let it, and it serves as part cautionary tale, part survival guide, and part character study on society and what we individually are really made of.

I highly recommend it, especially to fans of Brooks’ other survival work, and for those who want to make that gut check.

The Spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Brooks sets up the narrative arc with creepy foreshadowing. There are interludes where experts describe certain animal behavior. You get one description of chimpanzees hunting in packs and disemboweling smaller primates. Gruesome and it lets you know what’s coming.

Brooks knows how to introduce the horror in slow drips. I remember the first encounter Kate, the protagonist, has with a Bigfoot. She thinks it’s a boulder in the middle of the road:

Then I saw the rock move. It shifted in place, grew, then disappeared behind the trees. I also thought I saw it change shape, lengthen, narrow, even spread out limbs like a tree. Arms? I rubbed my eyes, blinked hard.

Fast forward to some truly tense showdowns when there is no longer any doubt that these creatures exist. The sasquatches mangle one human to draw out the others and then when it fails, they, in horrific fashion, tear the man apart.

One of the monsters’ key tactics: rocks as artillery. The houses take a beating when cantaloupe-sized rocks shatter the mostly glass walls of the homes, exposing the humans even more.

The Alpha turns out to be a female, a monster behemoth, gruesomely scarred and relentless in her pursuit of her prey. All the other sasquatches show absolute deference to her and when she kills the community’s founders, it’s a squeamish scene that strikes a primal fear in you.

Kate claims her own status as the alphas of the human survivors when trapped in a bathroom, close to imminent death, she wraps a towel around her hand and lights it on fire just as the Alpha sasquatch shatters the bathroom door to make Kate her next snack. Kate punches her, putting her fist straight into the beast’s mouth for a barbeque surprise. Truly badass.

At the same time the humans use what was once a weakness with the glass exteriors to create a minefield of shattered glass to slow down the predators from getting to them inside.

It almost works but one of the bravest characters doesn’t survive a one-on-one showdown with a beast. Mostar is a survivor of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and she is the catalyst to get this American group to act early once she understands they are being stalked by something unnatural. At her end, she draws the beast in and stakes it through the heart as it smashes her with the weight of its lunging body.

There’s a lot of tactical play that takes place throughout the third act, and it’s absolutely delicious. The final showdown is screen worthy and plays out in vivid technicolor ultraviolence. Kate embraces her leadership role and the group makes an Alamo-type last stand where the humans finally unleash their inner killer instinct and bring to bear everything they have in their arsenal of homemade weapons and traps in a gambit to outlast the bigger, stronger tribe. It’s bitter to see the humans fall one by one in this battle of attrition, but there’s the knowledge that this is the only way. It’s truly a contest of survival in the basest sense – kill or be killed.

Kate’s boyfriend Dan is gruesomely stomped to death by Alpha after his melee attack with his custom coconut knife misses her heart, but Kate hurls herself at the beast in the very next heartbeat. Using her aluminum-covered shield to distract the monster, she drives “the Damascus blade through skin and muscle, heart and lungs.” It finishes off the matriarch and solidifies victory for the humans, all two of them.

In the epilogue, Brooks plants the seed of an idea in your head. We don’t actually know if Kate and her now surrogate daughter Palomino survived the winter that followed – we only have Kate’s recovered journal – but the narrator suggests several theories, the most interesting that some primal instinct took over Kate and she made it her mission become a predator herself and hunt down the remaining sasquatches so that those horrors would never come back. So, yeah, she’s somewhere in the wild, a stone cold killer of Bigfoot. It’s chillingly good and fits right into this tale of survival of the fittest.

4.5 of 5 stars.

– Josh

EP. 77 Mars is for Badass Marines, Venus is for Creepy Alien Cities | Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey

Polish cover of Caliban’s War featuring badass Martian Marine Bobbie Draper (2018)

There is a lot to love about James S. A. Corey’s fully realized Expanse universe. It just might help you forget about how bad Star Wars has been derailed and make you fall in love again with sweeping space sagas that can deliver on what the sci-fi genre is capable of.

We’re slowly making our way through the solar system with this series, which concludes with book 9 in 2020 or 2021. We’re in for the long haul though. This second entry brings us to Mars, and introduces a character that I love as much as the Rocinante crew. Bobbie Draper is one tough Marine and takes everything the Martians, Earthers, and Belters throw at her. Listen to our break down of the book.

-Josh

Social Divides in the Solar System

illustrated by Jun Cen

Try turning off all the lights at night, moving through your house in total darkness, through interiors where no ambient light reaches, feeling your way down familiar hallways, counting the steps on the stairs until you reach the landing above and moving deftly around corners as the walls guide you. I did this as I went from my basement reading spot to bed, getting a sense of the life Chocky lived, with only four senses instead of five. But I did this only, as the author of the story might put it, in a touristy sort of way.

The Tourist” by Alex Sherman (on Tor.com from free) creates a world that more than sufficiently immerses you in its scant 16 pages; it feels plausible. Just like in James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series, moving out into the solar system creates social divides, haves and have-nots, and the Morlock-like denizens in the belly of this hostile far-flung rock in the desert of the solar system are at once fascinating and pitiable.

The tourist is studying for a Ph.D., hoping to learn more about what is essentially a lost civilization deep in the Amazon forest of the stars.

Like any speculative fiction of note, this story turns the reader’s expectations upside down in the best of ways. The tourist can’t see what’s going on (literally) and is dependent on the local guide to help find what he came looking for. But Chocky isn’t just introduced as a device to help the tourist along – he has his own needs, desires, and fears.

The tourist only has a short time to be with the moles/Squatters (as they are called), but in that period he discovers more about the society than any before him, and perhaps gets more than what he bargained for.

This story could be allegory for how we might treat whole segments of society — whether it’s Blacks, the poor, the elderly — and ignoring their pain and suffering, conveniently placing it in the dark. Or perhaps that’s just me projecting in the time of covid-19 and social unrest after the murder of George Floyd by police.

Either way, I can see myself as being both the disenfranchised and the privileged — Chocky and the tourist — and wondering that if their roles were reversed, would things be any different.

4 of 5 stars

Josh

Opposing the Devil Requires Plan A, and Plan B

The Hugo-nominated novelette “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll is a riot. The opening scene sums up the hijinks readers can expect:

“The whole asylum is his, and let no demon forget it! For he is the Cat Jeoffry, and no demon can stand against him.”

The story is brimming with personality, and I love its layers of depth told in a simple fashion from Jeoffry’s perspective. I don’t have a cat, but I’ve seen enough America’s Funniest Home Videos to know the author captures feline habits and quirks perfectly. 

Jeoffry has no equal and can smite imps and chase down devils who would dare oppose him or torment his human owner. That is until he comes up against Satan. It is nothing short of a battle for the soul of humankind and it’s up to Jeoffry to resist the devil’s temptations and outwit the father of lies. It gets hysterically good. 

When you’re done, you won’t soon forget Jeoffry and his human. And of course, there’s “NIGHTHUNTER MOPPET!” along with cursing cats. 

5 of 5 stars.

Read for free at Tor.com: https://www.tor.com/2019/07/10/for-he-can-creep-siobhan-carroll/

– Josh

Enduring Favorites Make Apple’s Sci-Fi Best Sellers List

The Corridors of Time.jpg

The 1966 Corridors of Time by Poul Anderson hits the #1 spot on Apple’s sci-fi ebook best sellers list this Memorial Day weekend. After coming off the incredible time-travel novel Recursion from Blake Crouch, I’m looking for another book in the same vein to grab my attention. The description of The Corridors of Time has me fairly jazzed up:

The corridors of time connect the ages to each other. Through them, one can travel backwards and forwards over the history of man. But rival factions have waged war for centuries: the gates onto time are bitterly fought for and jealously guarded.

📊Explore the full rankings of science fiction best sellers from the weekend in our interactive graphic where you can change the view and get deeper insights.

Several authors had multiple books, with John Scalzi having a whopping six best sellers.

John Scalzi

  • THE LAST EMPEROX
  • THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE
  • THE CONSUMING FIRE
  • OLD MAN’S WAR
  • THE GHOST BRIGADES
  • THE LAST COLONY

James S. A. Corey

  • THE BUTCHER OF ANDERSON STATION
  • LEVIATHAN WAKES
  • THE CHURN

Pippa DaCosta

  • TRUST
  • ESCAPE
  • TRAPPED

Becky Chambers        

  • LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET
  • RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW

Cixin Liu & Ken Liu     

  • THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM
  • DEATH’S END

Messing With Time Is Just Complicated

Spoiler-free review.

Blake Crouch creates a compelling time-bending story that keeps readers invested and guessing all the way through. It takes a disciplined mind to bring to life a story where the implications of time travel are thoroughly considered and brought to life in vivid fashion.

Every change in the timeline wreaks unintended consequences (but that’s every time travel story). Then the characters get a shot at resetting and fixing things (again, every time travel story).

But the fashion in which Crouch shapes these tried and true tropes is brilliant and beautiful. It’s a heart-breaking tale of hope, regret, and sacrifice.

Recursion lives up to its name (and book cover art) with a never ending loop of ‘what ifs’. It’s tight, complex, and demanding of your attention.

The experience is immersive too. I was trying to play out the scenarios along with the characters, working through the implications of messing with the past. But I was helpless, as the characters are, when the best laid plans fail.

Many stories falter or stumble in the third act, but Recursion shines, bringing our protagonists through harrowing trials and never taking the easy way out. This story is extremely good and could sit firmly in a top 10 list of time travel stories in any media.

5 of 5 stars

– Josh