the Little Red Reviewer

Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh

Posted on: May 24, 2015

ea_SoftApocalypseSoft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

published 2011

where I got it: purchased used

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I’m not sure if this is the most recent book I finished,  but this is the book that got me out of the funk I’ve been in lately. I’ve barely been able to concentrate on a book for more than 15 minutes for the last few months, and Soft Apocalypse gently took me by the hand, and led me to a quiet room where there was no e-mail or texts pinging, no phone ringing, and no deadlines I’d missed. As the story was giving me the escape I so desperately needed, it coyly whispered in my ear “I’m going to give you something to care about. And then I’m going to make you watch it die”.

Soft Apocalypse was an experience in enforced escapism. And it was devastating.

And I did so desperately need this experience of escape. This is the book that forced me to put my perspectives back where they belong. Well done Will McIntosh – with your story of a society in denial, you talked me off my own ledge. Well done indeed.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Robin Hobb deconstruct a character beyond the point of  no return (Forest Mage, I’m looking at you), Soft Apocalypse feels a bit like that at times, with McIntosh putting his characters through increasingly harrowing and disturbing events. And since everyone in the book assumes things can’t get any worse, they keep living their lives as if next year, or maybe the year after, everything will start to turn around.  But it doesn’t.  Things just keep getting worse, but so slowly that from day to day people barely notice. Resources slowly become scarcer, people become more afraid of strangers, and the police threaten people more than they help them.

Fun fact: the etymology of the word apocalypse comes from “apo”, meaning “from”, and “kalyptein”, meaning “to cover, conceal,”. The original meaning of the word “apocalypse” was “insight, vision, or hallucination”, “cataclysmic event” is a modern meaning.

(online etymology dictionary)

The book follows 20-something Jasper and his friends over the course of ten years.  I loved that Jasper wasn’t the standard tough guy hero, he’s just a regular 20-something guy who likes dating girls and would love to have a steady job.  He’s not a hero, he’s not a killer, he’s not violent. Within the first 30 pages of the book, he’s still not a hero, but he’s crossed the threshold towards the other two.  Does the end of the world walk in step with the end of our humanity?

Like any normal single straight 20-something, Jasper is really into dating.  How does one date during the end of the world? Candlelit dinners of whatever you scavenged? Romantic walks through the ruins? It was refreshing to see so much romance in a book with a male main character. When we first meet Jasper, he’s dating the beautiful Sophia. Maybe one of these days, Sophia will leave her husband. Maybe one of these days, Sophia will give up her apartment that has electricity and come live with Jasper’s commune tribe that often sleeps rough. Yeah, like that’ll happen.  He’s then introduced to a singer named Deirdre, and their whirlwind romance begins. Deirdre reminded me of Nicki Minaj’s over the top stage persona – larger than life, and too hot to handle.  It’s true that Jasper can’t keep up with her, but maybe what Deirdre needs in her life more than anything is time spent being normal, doing normal things.

Against the backdrop of a smart young man looking for love is a viral disaster. A polio like disease sweeps through the country, followed by a genetically modified invasive bamboo that rips up highways and kills anything in it’s path, and another disease that could truly be the end of humanity as we know it.  It was jarring, having Jasper come home to his roommates and learn about events of eco terrorism, and then he hops on a bicycle to go pick up his date.  it was jarring and weird, but made him seem cute and vulnerable.  There is so much normal in this book, it makes the scary scenes that much  more horrific.

So,  how does one survive the end of society? From day to day, how do you decide what food to scavenge, and what to steal? How do you decide who to trust, and who to fear? And when you’re given a way out of it all, a way to save yourself and everyone you love, a way that seems too good to be true, do you take that path?

If you’ve read any McIntosh, you know he’s got a way with words. Deceptively simple, but unexpectedly powerful, he writes scenes that burrow into your mind, grabbing hold of whatever they can grab inside you and biting down hard. You rip those teeth out, you lose a piece of yourself in the process. There are a number of scenes in Soft Apocalypse that will never leave the back of my eyes. It’s a good thing I zipped through this book in 3 days, otherwise I’m afraid I’d dream these scenes. I could survive reading them, I don’t know if I could handle dreaming them. One of those scenes involves a lost dog, a gruesome sabotage, and a disease induced apology. The other scene involves trying to steal an animal from a farm that’s surrounded by a bamboo forest, and an event that I hope one day I’ll be able to forget. Both scenes left me sick to my stomach and I know I’ll never, ever forget them.

So, this is not an easy book to read.  But in a way, it was easy to read. Jasper is a likeable guy. He’s vulnerable, sometimes an idiot, and sometimes clueless. He has a good heart. You want the best for him. You want him to get out of this okay. His friends are likeable people. Everyone is, or tries to be, so damn normal. But what society is going through doesn’t allow them to be normal any more. Choices are made, paths are taken, the meaning of “normal” and “acceptable” changes.

I read this book at the perfect time. I was letting myself get stressed over things that were outside my control and abilities. I was in a funk like I haven’t been in for years. Looking over my bookshelves, I yearned for a book that wouldn’t make me think, wouldn’t ask anything of me. Remembering how much I enjoyed McIntosh’s Defenders, I pulled Soft Apocalypse off the shelf. The book stole my weekend. I was so worried about the characters that I couldn’t put the book down.  It was so nice to fall into a book and not even try to get out of it. As I was running out of pages, the characters were making more and more desperate decisions, doing things they’d never have done in their younger years. McIntosh hadn’t painted himself so much into a corner as painted a world so bleak that I was no longer sure there was any way to end this story.

The ancient meaning of the world apocalypse crashes into the modern. When society breaks down, we certainly do get an insight into who we really are and what we’re really capable of.

Suffice to say, I went back to work on Monday with a whole new perspective on the things that had been stressing me out. Sure, I might have to sit through meetings all day, and deal with this or that, but at least I had a job, a car, and a gas station that still had gas. I had a smartphone and an outlet to charge it in, and money to pay for the phone plan. I had food in the fridge, a fully stocked grocery store up the road, and neighbors who I hope would treat me kindly if the worst were to happen.  Soft Apocalypse put my perspectives back where they belonged, it got me out of what was becoming a dangerous funk.

Dear Will McIntosh:  Thank you for Soft Apocalypse. I can’t imagine you meant for this book to be medicinal, but it was the cure for what was ailing me. This is the book that got me back to where I wanted to be. But it’s not fair that those characters had to go through what they went through for me to get to where I wanted to be.

6 Responses to "Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh"

Ok, this sounds cool🙂

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Boy oh boy, I’m not sure I could stomach this one. Writing may be good, or even very good, but the gut reactions, I’m not so sure. I liked Station Eleven quite a bit (I mention it because it also has a pandemic in it, and I recently read it), but this sounds like more, bitter, bigger, scarier…a different kettle of goop entirely. Goop I think I’ll skip. This is a fine review, just not one that makes me want to follow in your footsteps with the book.

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Totally understandable. I’m happy to be your canary in the coalmine for this one.🙂

If you are interested in trying Will McIntosh, give his Love Minus Eighty a try. No pandemics, no goop.

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Wow, that’s a powerful review – I was scared reading it – never mind the book! Although I will add this one to my list – so thanks!
I didn’t know you were in a funk! I feel like a bad blog buddy now! 😦
Well done McIntosh for helping out with that though.
Lynn😀

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He is an extremely talented author, that is for certain. I need to read this one. Glad it got you out of the funk. I’ve had a few months like that too, mostly because of the stress of both work and outside of work responsibilities. But I’ve recently got a renewed reading energy and I’m glad to have that desire back.

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Thanks for the review, I put Love Minus Eighty on order. It sounds more my speed.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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