In this apocalypse the human race engineers its own extinction and possible salvation.
One hundred and ninety-seven pages into Chuck Wendig’s hefty apocalyptic tome Wanderers you begin to wonder where the Chuck Wendig novel is hiding. For the uninitiated, the best word to describe Wendig’s prose styling is propulsive. From his Miriam Black novels to his Star Wars series, he utilizes active verbs so visceral and sentences so clipped that he makes James Ellroy look like a Charles Dickens wannabe. Given the 769-page length of Wanderers, Wendig chooses a more reserved tact, moving his stock characters into place for what reads like fairly standard apocalyptic fare. He introduces the first family to be affected, the disgraced doctor brought onto the case only he can solve by forces beyond his control, the pastor who cares for everyone’s problems except for those of his family, the mysterious leader of a White Supremacist militia, the former cop looking for a purpose, the rock god searching for redemption and several medical and computer geniuses.
For exactly 197 pages, Wendig wanders – pun intended – from storyline to storyline, planting seeds in familiar ground and testing the patience of his most ardent fans. This is a writer who delivers. He not only writes wonderful, terrifying novels, but communicates about writing so ferociously that to read a post on his Terrible Minds blog or to read his books on writing, Damn Fine Story and The Kick-Ass Writer, is to wade in inspiration. Given all that established good will, you can forgive a man a dud, which surmises your capsule review of the first quarter of Wanderers. You look for a foothold, anything that will make you turn another page, and it comes with a sentence at the bottom of page 197.
“Trash like them had washing machines on their lawn and hate in their hearts.”
From that exact moment, Wanderers becomes the Chuck Wendig book you thought you picked up. Like the bottle thrown to create a riot a few pages later, that sentence catalyzes what follows, a mashup narrative about a very possible ending of the human race. Great apocalypse stories of the past used to rely on cultural anxieties like nuclear war and pandemics, and Wendig makes apparent influences like Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song. But those two works use fantasy elements like devil figures and reluctant saviors to weave their tales of mankind’s folly. Wendig eschews these devices, filling humanity with its own devils, angels, zombies and general masters of destruction. In this apocalypse the human race engineers its own extinction and possible salvation.
The intricacies of the plot become clear after page 197, and while not complicated, the novel could be easily spoiled, so details will be sparse. The story begins at a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania. One morning, 17-year-old Shana wakes to find her younger sister, Nessie, wandering in the driveway, barefoot and wearing her nightgown. She appears to be sleepwalking, but Shana can’t stop Nessie when she walks to the road on some predetermined course. The girl shakes violently when restrained and her temperature spikes to dangerous levels until she is released. Then other glassy-eyed, unresponsive wanderers start following her.
As the phenomenon grows, disgraced Dr. Benjamin Ray, formerly of CDC, gets contacted by Sadie Emeka, the architect of an artificial intelligence called Black Swan. Despite having tarnished his reputation by forging evidence against a factory farm, Black Swan wants Benjamin on site with the sleepwalker flock. Proximity forces him to deal with his former colleagues who were hurt by his past actions, and places him near Shana Stewart, who is first among the people who follow their afflicted loved ones, shepherds to the sleepwalker flock. The shepherds care for the basic grooming needs of the flock, but the sleepwalkers are nearly invulnerable. Their skin can’t be pierced by needles or knives and they excrete nothing. Restrain one and that person literally explodes. Nothing will stop the sleepwalkers on their cross country trek, though many will try.
The sleepwalker flock grows into the hundreds, expanding the American fervor for superstition and conspiracy theories. Residents in the towns the flock crosses become more aggressive toward the sleepwalkers and the shepherds. Fears that the walkers represent a new phase in biowarfare are only exceeded by those who see them as a sign of the biblical End Times. A Democratic president comes under fire for being soft on the walkers while a Trumpian figure, Ed Creel, lambasts her from the right. Benjamin must navigate the walkers through military intervention and vigilante attacks while another threat emerges when Black Swan directs attention to a strange death in Florida. Answers to mysteries come quickly and those stock characters gain dimension while the book steamrolls to its conclusion.
Extinction narratives and social commentary exist in symbiosis, one nourishing the other. A common thread throughout this canon is humanity’s fragile sense of mastery over its environment, and Wendig makes the case that we are both too arrogant and stupid to master anything. He critiques misinformation, religiosity, gun culture, toxic masculinity and political cowardice while offering heroes from marginalized communities: Benjamin, Sadie, Benjamin’s protégé, Arav, and former cop Marcy Reyes are people of color, Shana is a young woman, and rock god Pete Corley (a standout character along with Marcy) is a closeted gay man. These people exist in realms of love, intelligence and artistry, representing the finest qualities of the human condition. If we have any hope of survival in fiction or in the real world Wendig so aptly reflects, it is through people like them.
Today’s headlines included the Artic burning and another mass shooting by a radicalized White Supremacist. These could be storylines in Wanderers or interstitials that begin the chapters. Wendig offers a book that skirts reality with a fine edge that intensifies the horror in ways not seen since Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. It is a work of fiction and a field guide for the future. The worst kind of critique of anything falls under the “you got to get through the first season” rubric, but that is true for Wanderers. Make it through those 197 pages and be rewarded by horrors and wonders.