Max Brooks Endangers the Techno Hippies
As often as it is clamored for, true freedom and independence is something most people aren’t willing to trade the comforts and safety nets of society for. After all, how free and independent can we truly be when we depend on societal structures to have shelter, food, clothing, and so on? The only true freedom might be found in life so far away from society self-sufficiency is the only option.
In Max Brooks’ latest novel, Devolution, we are presented with a strange commune somewhat different from the ones we’ve grown accustomed to. Though they do essentially live away from society, these people are profoundly immersed in their technology, to the point where they lack firearms or even tools necessary for actual work.
One day, the most disastrous scenario they could have possibly imagined strikes out of nowhere: a natural disaster leaves them isolated from the rest of the world. It’s already terrifying enough for them to have to depend on nobody but themselves, and things get a whole lot worse when they catch a glimpse of the monsters roaming the woods.
What happened to the commune remained a mystery to the outside world for quite a while, but once rescue operations finally made their way there, all they found were rubble and ashes all around. They did manage to recover the journal of a local, Kate Holland, and the pages within document the unspeakable terrors she and her friends had to face.
Though her tale is part-horrifying and part-inspiring, the question stands: how much of her account is actually real? And if all of it is, the implications ought to change our perception of life on Earth for as long as we exist.
The Slow Start of Devolution
The first thing I believe needs to be addressed in regards to this novel is the rather slow beginning we are treated to, lasting roughly for one-third of the book. I can definitely understand why some people would find it off-putting, and while it probably isn’t the author’s best piece of writing, I think the meandering pace does have a reason and meaning in the story.
For starters, we are discovering virtually all of the plot from the journals of Kate Holland… however, before they can be used to really advance the story, they need to given a sense of authenticity. In other words, we need to be conditioned to accept the journal how it is presented, rather than seeing it as a framing device for the author’s narration.
The slow burn isn’t simply there to pad the pages and show us in great detail the relatively boring lives of the people in the commune. It’s also an opportunity to try and understand the characters, and where their relatively off-putting mentality comes from… Brooks is slowly laying the foundation for their further development.
Thus, we learn about Kate’s life in the commune, the people in it, their daily tasks and routines, and so on and so forth. Now, I will admit this part did go on a bit too long for my liking, but I can’t say it hindered my enjoyment of Devolution all too much, especially since the pace starts to pick up quite noticeably once the disaster is introduced.
While a traditional narration would have made this part feel more out of place, I feel like the epistolary format chosen by Brooks fits this decision quite well and is something very much worth bearing with for the eventual pay-off.
The Unexpected Depth of a Monster Story
At first glance, the premise for it all seems rather simple and pretty obvious from the get-go: isolate a bunch of incompetent people who depend far too much on technology, and unleash monsters onto them to see what happens. However, as I got further and further into the book, it struck me I was reading more than just a fun novel about monsters in the woods hunting down people.
Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty enough “monsters vs. People” action to be found in the pages of Devolution, but somehow, it never felt like it was truly at the forefront of the author’s mind. Rather, it seemed to me like he was attempting a thought experiment which ultimately turned into a Bigfoot monster story.
For starters, the people we’ve been introduced to in the first third of the novel are slowly but surely beginning to develop and evolve from completely hopeless and helpless, to only mostly hopeless and helpless. There is definitely something interesting, comical and inspiring in seeing the incompetent become competent in the face of mortal danger.
Though we definitely cannot treat this is any form of documentary, Brooks does make some interesting observations about how he believes humans behave during this sort of very particular and isolated crisis. Rather than trying to impart on us his personal conclusions and perceived truths, he does something much more valuable: he pushes us to think for ourselves.
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In addition, there is some relatively obvious commentary about our ever-growing dependence on technology, and the progressive distancing from self-sufficiency and independence. Thankfully Brooks never beats you over the head with it, and allows it to be formed as a natural result of the direction the story is taking.
The Final Verdict
Devolution by Max Brooks is definitely a much more profound monster novel than what we’re used to in the genre, and despite the slow beginning, I do very much believe it is worth reading for any horror fans looking for a monster story with a bit more depth than usual.
Max Brooks is the son of legendary comedy filmmaker, the unforgettable Mel Brooks. However, unlike his father, Max always had a keener eye for darker stories with a penchant for the terrifying.
He wrote the infamous Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z and even appeared on-screen for numerous productions as an actor.