Author Chuck Wendig, a self-described resident of “Pennsyltucky,” met a standing-room-only crowd at the Doylestown Bookshop in July. He rattled off a list of the issues occupying his thoughts: climate change, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the rise of white nationalism. Grim subjects, but the mood was light, even jovial, at the release of his latest novel, Wanderers.
It’s an 800-page epic with the pace of a graphic novel, encompassing all these topics and more, set against the backdrop of a zombie-esque apocalypse.
Opening the window
Wendig isn’t so much holding up a mirror to society as he is opening the window. The apocalypse is not set 20 minutes in the future, and the story is concerned not with its aftermath but with the fact of its occurrence. Despite the fact that the story opens with a singularity event, the ultimate downfall of humanity is not a disease pandemic or the uprising of robot overlord, but that we are so fundamentally human—our detriment and our grace. People use the onslaught of devastation to push their political agenda, even in the face of extinction. People sacrifice health, happiness, and basic comfort to watch over their loved ones, even as they are powerless to change the outcome of a predetermined fate.
At another time, and in the hands of another writer, many of these characters—unpopular woman politicians, slimy bureaucrats, good-ol’-boy billionaires, right-wing militia leaders—would be cartoonish and one-dimensional, but since reality doesn’t conform to character development, they are just recognizable enough to send a chill racing up the reader’s spine and make you consider that a life lived under the guidance of machines might be preferable to our current reality.
The world as it might be
The most interesting characters, however, are Shana and Benji. Shana is a surly small-town teenager, a recent high-school graduate who intends, however ruefully, to manage her family’s Pennsylvania dairy farm for the rest of the foreseeable future, leaving the family’s limited energy and money to be devoted to the ambitions of her charismatic, intelligent younger sister Nessie. But Nessie kicks off the story by shuffling catatonically down the road in late spring, leaving Shana with no choice but to follow and protect her and the others who join them in a strange somnambulist plague.
In contrast to Shana is Benji, a grown man who sacrificed his career on the altar of conflict between ethics and morality, a disgraced scientist brought in to make sense of the senseless plague that drives Nessie and the other walkers forward. Both Benji and Shana are miasmas of mistakes and unripened potential, but they find purpose, meaning, and redemption at the end of the world. Both of them become quasi-religious figures, a prophet and a messiah for humans when the age of humanity is over.
The world is changing, and we may not survive the changes, but Wendig offers hope in his searing portrayal of the world as it might soon be: a planet that pushes past its own dissolution and keeps the best of humanity intact.
Look for signed first editions of Wanderers at the Doylestown Bookshop.
What, When, Where
Wanderers. By Chuck Wendig. Del Ray, July 2, 2019. 800 pages, hardcover; $28.99. Click here.