Thursday, January 12, 2012

Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh

If you've seen the films Requiem for a Dream or Funny Games you'll know what I'm talking about when I say that I thought Soft Apocalypse [2011] was really good, but I'm not entirely sure I can recommend it. It's difficult, sometimes outright upsetting, but really compelling.

Soft Apocalypse is about Jasper, who is an ordinary college-educated American kid, living during end of the world. This isn't the catastrophic apocalypse of all-out nuclear war or total environmental collapse. Instead, it's the slow, relentless decline of climate change, resource shortages, never-ending armed conflicts, sustained economic retreat, and (bio-)terrorism, all piling up.

The book starts in the near-future -- Spring 2023 -- and things are already bad. Jasper's parents were killed in water riots in Arizona, and he and his cohort are having to face up to the fact that their sociology and English literature degrees are worse than useless. Jasper is homeless, hungry, and has no prospects for employment. It only gets worse from here.

I think this book is about whether, and to what extent, it's possible to maintain your humanity while the world slowly comes apart around you. Jasper and his friends aren't gun-toting survivalists, they're just ordinary people. If you put aside finding the next meal, Jasper's pre-occupation is the perfectly average search for someone he can love.

With a few notable exceptions, I'm not really a fan of post-apocalyptic novels. I have trouble suspending my disbelief when it comes to civilisation being wiped in a single stroke. I wasn't raised with a fear of nuclear armageddon. Even if I can swallow the premise, I often can't relate to the characters. They're like superheroes whose special power is self-reliance.

Soft Apocalypse has neither of these issues. The end of the world is perfectly believable (if not necessarily in the specific details, then in the general form), and the characters are perfectly average. That makes it chilling. McIntosh doesn't pull any punches, either. Sometimes that makes it difficult to read, but I don't think it's really gratuitous. Is it possible for something to be necessarily gratuitous?

I'm not sure that I'm selling it very well, but I think this is a really good book. I'm particularly keen to hand it to a non-SF-reading friend, to see how they respond to it. I think the impressive prose -- bleak and naturalistic -- would be perfectly at home in a mainstream literary novel. Nevertheless, the book does contain some fairly science fictional ideas (largely as set dressing), and I'm fascinated to know if somebody unfamiliar with the genre would find them jarring.

If you hadn't already guessed, I'll definitely be nominating Soft Apocalypse for the Best Novel Hugo Award this year. I don't think it stands any chance of winning -- it's published by a small press, and it is a confronting read -- but it absolutely deserves to be on the ballot.

(Interesting little aside: much of the book is set in the city of Savannah, Georgia, which was also the setting for John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)


  1. I agree so hard. The book is great but hinestly I cannot get past the fucked up bit at the wallmart. It isnt even close to the end and I'm overwhelmed

  2. Cheers, Ryan. I think putting the book down when it gets to be too much is a perfectly valid response. It doesn't get any less difficult. It does stay really compelling right to the end, though!