"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, June 20, 2020

“Siri, should we be worried?” Devolution by Max Brooks (2020)

"Adversity introduces us to ourselves"

Devolution by Max Brooks (Del Rey, 2020)

When the supports of everyday life collapse, Brooks gets going as a novelist. He revels in all the ramifications of a cascading disaster following from the want of a nail.

In Devolution, Brooks sets up a large-scale disaster: Seattle and Tacoma and environs sink into chaos and collapse when Mount Rainier erupts.  But while the Devolution protagonists get snippets of news about the big cities and the fiasco of government response at all levels, Brooks focuses on a smaller, isolated group whose world also falls apart: "....while the rest of the country was focused on Rainier's wrath, a smaller but no less bloody disaster was occurring a few miles away in the isolated, high-end, high-tech eco-community of Greenloop."

Greenloop was designed for members of the cosmopolitan meritocracy wanting a way to have their cake and eat it, too: a solar-powered, sustainable, isolated HOA connected to the world with fiber-optics.

Perfect, until the volcano blows.


Katie Holland, who recounts via diary the Greenloop massacre, begins as anxious and indecisive: "I can't see death. You know that. I've told you about that time in New York when I couldn't walk through Chinatown with all the ducks hanging in the windows. I told you about how I can't even eat at any of those restaurants with the lobsters in the tank because it feels like death row. I told you about when Dan and I went out to Catalina for Valentine's Day and I got seasick down below because our spot on deck had this dead fly crusted to the railing with one of its wings flapping in the wind."

Devolution explores Katie's adaptation to the new world of permanent crisis. Does she evolve or devolve? Spurred by the example of an older neighbor, Mostar, she does both: planting a garden in her garage, learning to trap and skin rabbits, forging home-made weapons.

Brooks spends the first half of Devolution measuring the ways his characters rise - or fail to rise - to the occasion. Conscious exchange of work for food, rationing, and marshalling resources to face the coming winter take on a life-or-death edge.


October 6
     Animals! They're everywhere. Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits. I get little guilt shivers whenever I see rabbits look over at me, like they know I helped chop up their sister. There are deer too. I've seen half a dozen. I can see their ribs. They look thin, hungry. And nervous. All the animals seem skittish. Three times I watched them freeze. Every single one. Like someone hit pause on a movie. And they all stared back in the same direction, toward Rainier. At first, I thought it might be something with the volcano. Animals are more sensitive to that stuff, right? Aren't house pets supposed to know when an earthquake is coming?
     It didn't. Have anything to do with Rainier, I mean. Nothing else happened each time they froze.
     Are they afraid of something besides the volcano? They're all moving in the same direction, migrating, it looks like, away from the eruption. But the freezing. Are they being—okay, I just had to stop before writing that word. It sounds melodramatic, but…
     Are they being chased like that rabbit that time? I keep thinking about what chased me. If it wasn't in my head. A bear? I'm kind of two minds about that. Being pursued by a real bear would mean I'm not totally losing it or…or I'm just totally wimpy to run from a dust speck in my eye. But the first option would also mean there's a real bear out there. Do bears attack people? What was that movie where Leo gets mauled by one for, like, twenty minutes? Was it based on a true story? If there is a bear out there, I can't blame the animals for being scared of it....

And then:

....We headed out the back door and up onto the trail. I could see Palomino watching us from her upstairs window. Not creepy, expressionless. But not smiling either. She kept glancing at the woods behind us, like a lookout, I think, and gave us an "all clear, good luck" wave.
     And Vincent gave us a thumbs-up when we passed his house. I'm sure he meant to be encouraging, but his nervous face, the way he darted from the window afterward. I took it as, "Better you than me."
     "Wait!" We stopped at Mostar shouting from down the trail. She came huffing and puffing after us, carrying her javelin. "Here!" I could see that she'd cleaned and tried to straighten the blade. "I'm making a better one," she said, and stuck it into my hand. Looking at Dan, she said, "Don't stay out there too long."
     The stink hit us as soon as we crossed over the ridge onto the downward slope. Strong, pungent. I smelled it on the palm of my hand, coming off a tree I'd just touched. I put my nose to the bark. Rotten eggs. My hand also came away with something else. Plant fiber, probably. It was long and black. Thick like a horse's mane. I'm not sure if it stank, it could have just been my fingertips. Animal hair?
     Then we saw the white specks, standing out in a patch of turned-up earth and reddish leaves.
     Reddish from blood. It was everywhere. On the bushes, the bark, soaked into the ground, mixing with ash into these solid, rusty pebbles.
     The white specks were shattered bones. It was hard to even recognize them at first. Most were just chips. They looked like they were smashed with a hammer. I found a few rocks, nearby, with blood on one side. Not splatters. Deep, thick stains mixed with fur and bits of flesh. And this is weird, but they looked, okay, painted? I know that sounds funny, but the blood on the rocks, on the trees and leaves, there were no droplets. Other than in the ash, all the other stains looked like they'd been smeared with a brush, or a tongue. Like whatever killed the cat went around licking every last spot.
     Even the bones. They were clean. The marrow'd been scrubbed out. In fact, there wasn't any meat anywhere. No organs, muscle, brain. I found what had to be the remains of the skull; just a curved, polished fragment next to a collection of broken teeth. That's how I knew it had to be the cat. Those yellow fangs. I found one, intact, still stuck to a piece of upper jaw.
     What could have done that?
     If my mind wasn't already shaken by what we saw, Mostar's reaction made it worse.
     She just listened, without judgment, eyes off to the side, taking in every detail without the slightest reaction. It scared me, scares me, that she didn't immediately respond with, "Oh well, what you saw was…" She always has an answer for everything. That's why I didn't like her at first. Bully. Know-it-all. "Go here, do this, believe me when I say…" This is the first time I've seen her genuinely perplexed. No, that's not right. The first time was when I'd been chased, when she turned her eyes on the woods.
     Does she suspect what I'm trying to dismiss? The smell, the howls, the large "boulder" I'd seen on the road. Now this. I'm sure I'm just trying to come up with an explanation for something that doesn't make any sense. That's me. A place for everything and everything in its place. I'm just grasping on to what I've heard. And I haven't heard much. I'm not into that stuff. I'm the practical one. I've never been interested in things that aren't real. I've never even watched Game of Thrones. Dragons and ice zombies? Really? When Yvette was going on about Oma, she was speaking metaphorically! It can't be real or else everyone would know. That's the world we live in, right? Anyone can know anything. We'd know about this.
     And yes, I know I saw something. We both did. But knowing you saw something is different from knowing what you saw.
     I spotted the first one, the first clear footprint. It was next to the skull fragment, so deep it pressed right through the ash into the soft earth. It couldn't be a wolf or another puma. The shape was all wrong. Maybe a bear? I don't know. I've never seen a bear track, so maybe that's the simple answer. But the print looked almost like a shoeless person right down to the five toes. But it couldn't have been. Dan took off his hiking boot. He wears a size 11. He took off his sock as well, and placed his bare foot right next to the print. The toes matched, the overall shape. But the size. That's impossible. It must have been a trick of the ash, or maybe the way it was planted.
     Nothing could have such a big foot....


Devolution is a collage of diary entries, interviews, and media snippets. It is on a smaller scale than World War Z, but that is appropriate: the novel's subject is not world war but social devolution and a kind of species blood vendetta.

Unlike most survivalist novels, Devolution has no easy answers. There is no neighbor v. neighbor guerilla warfare or middle-class moralizing. 

In the end, Katie's brother tells an interviewer:

....I'm not talking about revenge. This is deeper, more primitive. What if those poor dumb brutes flicked a switch in Kate that's waiting in all our DNA?
     What if she didn't stop at driving those creatures away? What if she went after them?

Who will devolve in time? 

20 June 2020


When I saw that novelist and defense dept. think-tanker Max Brooks had a new novel coming out called Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre I thought: Ah, a novel about the supposed "Ape Canyon" skirmish of 1924.

Lads of my age know about Ape Canyon from the freshet of Bigfoot films, tv shows, and paperbacks of the 1970s, when we were kids. 

In sixth grade I came into possession of a 200 page package of Mead 3-ring binder notebook paper, color purple. On this paper, in 1978, I decided to write an Ape Canyon novel. The motivation did not last long: I knew nothing about primates, the locale, or miners. 

It turns out Max Brooks did not write the great Ape Canyon novel, either. Devolution, however, does the old In Search Of segment one better: it gives us (as hindsight) interspecies [class?] warfare between a petty bourgeois HOA and creatures some might term indigenes


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