Max Brooks hit the sci fi big time with his debut zombie novel World War Z, still widely believed to be one the best zombie novels (and very different to the Brad Pitt fronted movie version). Which may not be a huge claim to fame as zombies seem to live larger (excuse the pun) on the big and small screens. The same could probably be said about the legends surrounding Bigfoot which seem to lend themselves to every “could-it-be-true?” docuseries or a monster of the week episode of the X-files (although apparently the X-Files never did a Bigfoot episode). Which puts Brooks at an advantage as he tackles what is essentially a global myth (he references Sasquatch, Yetis and Yowies) that has not had too much literary treatment and works this mythology into a survival horror narrative.
As with World War Z, Devolution is told through found documents. The reader knows the outline before the story starts – a community destroyed, the verdict on its destruction still open. The main tale is a contemporaneous journal but this is framed by a series of “author” interviews, news reports and quotes from academic articles about primate behaviour. This method grounds the enterprise and gives it a feeling of reality. As in: this is not just a story, it is the record of an exhaustive investigation. This is both a strength and a weakness of the book because it relies heavily on a journal that records the action and it is hard to think of anyone keeping a journal this coherent as their world falls apart so spectacularly.
The journal in question belongs to Kate Holland. She and her husband Dan have moved into a cabin formerly owned by her brother Frank McCray, in the extremely exclusive mountain settlement of Greenloop. Greenloop, as the diagram that Kate draws shows, is a community of six houses built around a common house in the mountains ninety minutes inland from Seattle. It is the dream of the Durants, a tech guru and his wife, and while Greenloop is wild it is completely on the grid, supplied by road and by drone. This setting gives Brooks plenty of room for social commentary, particularly when nearby Mt Rainier explodes and the community is cut off. As one of the local rangers observes:
Those poor bastards didn’t want a rural life. They expected an urban life in a rural setting. They tried to adapt their environment instead of adapting to it… I get how the hyperconnectivity of Greenloop gave the illusion of zero compromise.
But that’s all it was, an illusion.
After Mt Ranier explodes, the tale becomes one of simple survival with a group of disparate characters straight out of horror movie central casting. With winter coming on and limited supplies, only a resident artist called Mostar, who seems to have had experience surviving some serious action in the Serbian conflict, has any idea how to prepare and she quickly enlists Kate and Dan to help her. But surviving the cold is the least of their worries as the group soon find themselves under attack from giant, intelligent, ape-like creatures, themselves displaced by the volcano. From which point, the narrative becomes extremely tense but straight out cabin-in-the-woods survival horror. We know people are going to die, the question only becomes how and in what order.
The journal-style narration tends to drain some of the tension but there is still plenty of page turning action and cliff-hangers to go round. And while Devolution rattles along on through its horror-inspired engine, there is plenty of subtext here to chew on. Themes of living with or against nature but also the whole question of evolution, how humanity might have come out on top in the evolutionary race and what happens when we need to wipe away the veneer of civilisation. All of which makes Devolution, another winner for Brooks.