Devolution – Max Brooks

I wanted to like this. I expected to like this. I pre-ordered it, after all, when Audible brought it to my attention, and listened to it soon after buying – I almost never do that.

(Beware of some spoilers later on.)

That was mainly because I thought World War Z was something extraordinary. It was also because the book description listed Nathan Fillion and Mira Furlan among the full cast of narrators, and that was an automatic buy for me. I was also looking forward to Steven Weber and Kate Mulgrew, and Kai Ryssdal and Terry Gross playing themselves – but the chance to spend more time with Mal Reynolds and Delenn? Priceless.

The third – distant third – reason was that I survived the Astonishing Legends series on the Patterson Gimlin film: six podcast episodes totalling fifteen hours and fifteen minutes. I’ve never been terribly interested in Bigfoot stories, but after that much conditioning it was almost automatic to click on a book about Bigfoot.

But I really did not like this. I disliked it enough that I returned it to Audible, which isn’t something I do often. It went beyond being a disappointment to, by the end, being something I actively hated.

It all started with, somewhat ironically, the narrator. Those names I listed above, among my reasons for wanting this? They had very little to do (though Nathan Fillion had I think the second biggest role; it was good to hear his ruggedly handsome voice, but he didn’t have a chance to show much personality). But the narrator voicing Kate, the author of the journals the whole thing hinged on, was Judy Greer, and her voice made me want to claw my ears off. It was the voice of an irritating teenaged girl, stopping just short of upspeak, a performance better suited to a quirky YA romance than the account of the gory Rainier Sasquatch Massacre. It got a little better when things started happening, but it was never a pleasant voice to listen to.

Even Terry Gross and Kai sounded more stilted than I expected. Between NPR and his podcast, I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of Kai Ryssdal (hence being on a first name basis with him), and this didn’t sound like him.

The fact that the main character herself was pretty unlikable didn’t help. Her situation should have evoked sympathy, but … sorry, no. If nothing else, she should have gotten her lazy SOB of a husband off his couch to help her bloody move. Any person, man or woman, who is physically capable of lifting anything and who lets someone else do all the work is a worthless piece of flesh, and I kind of hated her for going with that flow. She seemed afraid of him, afraid to poke the bear … but in this story he wasn’t a bear. Her trepidation around him made me expect him to have a hair-trigger temper, to explode into violence, whether verbal or physical – and that never, ever happened. He struck me as a kind of a surfer dude. Then, his turnaround was too abrupt. It made little sense. Maybe a POV from him would have been useful – don’t know. I don’t think I cared enough in the end. Her abrupt tumble back into love with him was a little hard to swallow, as well. Basically, both those characters – hell, all of the characters – were less than believable.

The plotting was the other main issue I had with the book, aside from the insurmountable narrator. I mean, the subtitle of the thing is “A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre” (and it’s by the man who wrote WWZ), so you know it’s not going to end up with Kate and company and a bunch of Bigfoots toasting marshmallows around a campfire. There will not be peaceful coexistence. The volcano eruption that sparked and exacerbated the whole thing was a kind of a surprise, but barely affected Greenloop directly, apart from an ash fall – it was purely a plot device. When the Massacre does finally come along in the story, it’s compelling and violent and horrifying and fast-paced … and at some point in the middle I remembered that this was supposed to be Kate’s later journalling about the fight. And the illusion completely popped. The language was that of a novel writer, not of someone trying to put into words something incredibly horrible that had happened to her. It was too immediate – and too coherently descriptive. If it had been presented as a transcript of an audio diary, then maybe it would have worked – but to sit down with pen and paper and actually write this? First of all, when?? This was a point against several of the entries – she’ll talk about how busy she is trying to do a hundred things, yet she takes hours out of her days to write in her journal? It would be hours – I’ve done it; I know.

Why did some of the community members try to cover up what was going on? What was the deal with the psychotic breaks of the two community leaders? What was the deal with the benevolent mama ‘squatch referenced in the guided meditation session in the beginning – was that supposed to be anthropomorphism? Or a depiction of what the creatures would actually be like if approached when not starving and desperate?

Why did Mostar insist that the preparations she and the Hollands start remain totally secret? It made no sense that here they were in a situation that was at best very bad, and at worst deadly; it made no sense that someone (Mostar?) didn’t just step up and say “OK, look. Whatever you think about the noises in the forest and animals and whatever, the deal is that the bridge is out, we’re cut off, and we’re pretty far out in the boonies. It will take time for people to get to us. It might snow soon. Right here, right now, bring out all the food you’ve got – all of it, because if the group finds out you’re holding back there will be consequences. We will pool it in the community building, and work out rationing. Pick all the apples from those trees – stop feeding the damn deer, please, and maybe shoot one of them. Go into the forest (as long as it’s safe) and look for edibles. And every single garage should have a garden going by tomorrow.” Why did the one woman keep back potatoes just to cook? Why <I>did</i> those people keep feeding deer when any moron should have been able to realize food was going to become scarce (given the chance)?

There’s a barely legible review on Audible which makes (I think) a good point: basically, that Greenloop had it coming. It’s a nice idea, bringing together a tiny community, a microcommunity, to live not just a carbon neutral lifestyle, but carbon negative. But these were, every one, people who had no clue whatsoever about living where they were. They were city folk, who couldn’t choose an edible mushroom from a piece of bark, who could never light a fire without a lighter, who expect to keep living in the wilderness as they did in San Francisco (or wherever). (Mostar being always an exception to all of this.) They none of them (including Mostar) had any real supply of non-perishable food, depending on weekly deliveries by drones and self-driven cars. But – what about mundane bad weather? What about <i>winter?</i> You can’t tell me that in the remote spot they chose for this tiny village that deliveries would be able to continue regularly. And it comes out in the course of the story that none of them – not one – has so much as a hammer. I mean, I’m the least handy person I can name, and I have a hammer. (Somewhere.) Somewhere I even have a Swiss army knife with a saw blade. And if I knew I was going to be moving out into the wilderness, with only five other homes within miles, only one access road, and beyond them only forest (and a volcano), I like to think I’d have the sense to at least have a book about survival skills. And a hammer.

AND it was pretty annoying that not a soul in the group knew even the basics of how all the smart home technology worked. Nothing. Again, these people depend on people from the outside to take care of them. I expected there to be something about the smart tech that would contribute to the massacre, but I was wrong. I kind of wish it had happened. It felt just a little like a Chekhovian gun that never went off.

And I just don’t understand the criteria for the choice of the six people or couples (plus one kid NAMED PALOMINO) –

(NO. SERIOUSLY. PALOMINO.)

– to inhabit this teeny tiny town. They are none of them the sort of person you’d see on Survivor, for certain; their idea of deprivation is not getting the right kind of quinoa. They are not ready for a two-day blackout, much less a volcanic eruption, much less an invasion by Bigfoots. (After many hours of Astonishing Legends, trust me: the plural is Bigfoots.)

All in all, there was almost no tension in the story. I mean, again, it’s in the title: massacre. The main issue in question is who’s going to die in what order. I mean, between that subtitle and the chapter openers and the buildup it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen and even when. There’s just no doubt. If Brooks had pulled out some kind of twist at the end – like “no, as it turns out, the creatures weren’t going to eat anybody and that first guy was killed because he tried to hurt one of the young and no, really, they didn’t eat them they were looking for help and, poor things, Kate lied or exaggerated or was mentally ill, look here’s someone else’s journal telling what really happened, turns out they all integrated together and are now living in the wilderness in harmony”… Or something – if anything remotely like that had happened, I would have been <i>so happy</I>. But it didn’t. There was a vaguely surprising revelation at the end – but that almost felt like a cheat, not a proper conclusion to the book.

I hated very nearly everything about this.

Except for Nathan Fillion and Mira Furlan.

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