by Will McIntosh
Cover Artist: Nonie Nelson
Review by Benjamin Wald
Night Shade Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597802765
Date: 19 April 2011 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
What if the end of the world didn't come all at once, with a meteor or a plague, but instead slowly ground the world down through global warming, resource depletion, war, and starvation? In other words, what if it all ends not with a bang, but with a whimper? This is the Soft Apocalypse of the title of Will McIntosh's first novel.
The story is told from the point of view of a regular middle class man over the course of ten years, as the world slowly goes to hell. McIntosh's characters are sympathetic and engaging, and his close focus on a small group of characters striving to survive gives the large-scale catastrophes a personal impact. However, the novel falters in portraying the impact of the steadily worsening situation on the characters. The protagonist's voice and outlook remain steadily middle class throughout the novel, despite the horrors he is exposed to. This makes him easy to relate to, but it also made it more difficult for me to believe in the world he inhabited.
The novel begins with the protagonist homeless and poverty stricken, part of a tribe of other homeless Americans who move from town to town selling energy they collect from solar blankets and portable windmills in exchange for food. Other more fortunate individuals deride these nomads as gypsies, and they live side by side hordes of illegal immigrants who are even worse off then they are. I found this an interesting set up, and would like to know more about it. How did these tribes form? Where did they get the windmills and solar blankets? Unfortunately, we don't get to learn any of this.
After setting up the scenario and showing the prejudice the tribe faces from police and locals, the scene shifts to eighteen months later, with the protagonist having found a job in a convenience store and able to afford an apartment he shares with some former members of his tribe. This sets the pattern for the book; each chapter leaps the story ahead some number of months or years, and each time we find the situation a little bit worse. McIntosh creates interesting snippets of how the world might look at various stages of its decay, but I found these snippets distressingly short. We never really get an in depth look at any of these future situations, which left them feeling a bit thin and insubstantial.
The protagonist is a rather bland college educated individual. His main concern throughout the novel is finding a girlfriend, a surprisingly mundane pursuit given the chaos he finds himself in. While I suppose people would still date even during an apocalypse, I found it odd that this aspect of his life is both so central to the novel and so ordinary. He asks girls out on dates, even when the only place to go is abandoned ghost towns, he worries about rejection, gets tongue tied, and so on. In general, the characters seem remarkably unchanged by the ten years of struggle they undergo; they seem to keep the same core middle class values throughout. This changes a little in the very last chapter, but it's too little too late. Thus, while McIntosh shows us how the apocalypse affects society as a whole, we don't really get any sense of how it affects individuals. His characters face hardships, but aren't really changed as people. This seems like a missed opportunity.
I enjoyed reading this novel; McIntosh creates a likeable group of characters, and its easy to see oneself in them, which makes the hardships they endure quite powerful. However, the characters seem too unchanged by the changes in their society, and that society itself is portrayed a bit too patchily, for the apocalyptic future that McIntosh paints to feel authentic.