Max Brooks gave himself some pretty big shoes to fill with World War Z. Let’s find out if he’s managed it with his new novel, Devolution! This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.
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Devolution is Max Brooks’ first novel for adults since the phenomenally popular World War Z, which detailed (with a scary level of insight) how the world coped in the wake of a large-scale zombie outbreak. Brooks has changed up the subject matter this time around though, with nary a shambling corpse in sight. Turning his attention instead to the perpetually camera-shy Bigfoot, the action centres around the fledgling eco-community of Greenloop, established in the woods surrounding the nearby Mount Rainier and largely made up of telecommuters. Prior to reading Devolution, I knew nothing about Mount Rainier, so for anybody in the same position as I was: it’s an active volcano near Seattle, considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world because of the amount of glacial ice covering it. Should it erupt and this ice be disturbed, it’s thought that it could produce huge lahars (highly destructive mudflows) that could cause widespread devastation and loss of life.
Of course, Mount Rainier blows, trapping our principal narrator, Kate, and the rest of the community in their fancy new digs. I call Kate the principal narrator because Devolution is written in a similar style to World War Z, though is more of an epistolary novel, using Kate’s journal as a starting point and supplementing it with interviews with experts. The eruption itself is familiar territory for Brooks, a natural disaster making not only a perfect narrative device with which to trap his characters but also allowing him the opportunity to demonstrate the prodigious research skills that make his work feel so real. I looked up some of the facts that Brooks features in Devolution. They’re real, at least the ones I checked. Whilst the community itself and the eruption are entirely fictitious, they both feel entirely plausible too, with fiction and fact once again blended seamlessly.
But the eruption has other, entirely unanticipated consequences for the high-minded idealists of Greenloop. Driven out of their habitat in the wake of the eruption come another community quite unlike theirs, and they are hungry. It’s a classic horror movie setup really, except with sasquatches instead of, say, hillbillies, and brought bang up to date with its Green New Deal espousing protagonists and their technology reliant way of life. Struggling to survive without the regular grocery deliveries by drone and driverless electric van that they’ve come to expect – as well as having to rely on their own knowledge rather than their smartphones – puts Kate and her neighbours in a precarious enough position as it is. Being set upon by a tribe of ape-like monsters tests them to breaking point. The explanations that back up the idea of the sasquatches themselves, along with the supporting verifiably true facts I mentioned earlier, mean that this is not only just as visceral as World War Z, it feels just as believable. More so, if anything. Speaking of getting visceral, it’s not a spoiler to say that things get pretty bloody – the tagline for the book, after all, is “A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre.”
But exactly how this unfolds is what makes this a deeper reading experience than you might initially think, going by the description alone. It’s not as simple as “Monsters come, people get killed horribly.” Focusing on a relatively small cast of characters, Devolution is much more of a character study than I expected it to be. How the characters interact with one another, the shifting of roles in their group dynamic, how their own personal histories inform their decision-making processes; all of these are carefully built up and feel utterly believable. The way the group cope (or in some cases, fail to cope) is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies or The Beach, with their circumstances forcing them to make difficult decisions in order to survive. “Devolution” refers to much more than just the savage creatures hunting them, with desperate times calling for extremely desperate measures. It’s societal collapse, in microcosm. Thankfully, nobody is stockpiling all the toilet paper, otherwise it really would be too close to home.
With a nuanced cast of characters, an engaging format and his usual enviable ability to craft a wholly believable story out of the fantastic, Max Brooks has breathed new life into one of the most enduring urban myths in the world. He might not be the most prolific author out there, but when his books are this good, I really don’t mind waiting.
Devolution is out now, published by Cornerstone, and you can order your copy through this affiliate link.
Mount Rainier photo by Siddhartha Gupta on Unsplash
Woods photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash