Rating: 5 out of 5
Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers: A Novel blew me away. 17-year-old Shana wakes up one morning to find that her 15-year-old sister, Nessie, has started walking off down the road for no apparent reason. Nessie’s eyes are blank, and any attempt to restrain her goes… badly. Soon she’s joined by more walkers–about one every two hours. Needles and knives won’t break the walkers’ skin, so they can’t be sedated, and blood and tissue samples can’t be taken. (But are they bulletproof? No one wants to find out.) The “flock” starts in Pennsylvania and heads west, state by state, growing all the while. Meanwhile, people like Shana join the flock as “shepherds,” people who tend to and watch out for their loved ones. The CDC comes in, and Dr. Benjamin Ray, a previously disgraced member of the CDC, is urged to help by Sadie Emeka. Sadie works for a company that has created a predictive machine intelligence called Black Swan, and Black Swan believes that Benji is needed. As the flock moves inexorably onward, all of America (and the world) is drawn into the question of what is going on. A pastor named Matthew Bird becomes a polarizing presence on the air waves. The president seems to vacillate depending on what the polls show at any given time. The president’s challenger, Ed Creel, takes advantage of people’s fear to whip the hysteria of white supremacy, igniting the fires beneath a particularly well-armed militia group. America has more to fear than the flock–much more–but as Benji’s about to learn, it’s all tied in together.
Full disclosure: I thought this book sounded cool when I heard about it, but the sheer hype over it worried me. How could anything live up to that? Also, I kept hearing that Wanderers was a real novel-of-our-times, touching on all the madness of the day, and, well, I prefer escapist fiction. But so many reviewers whom I trust said good things about the book, and I know Chuck is an excellent writer, so I gave in and grabbed a copy. And I’m so very glad that I did.
Biology had at its core a keen and singular horror that made all the bogeymen stuff as scary as a preschool playroom.
There are definitely some interesting moral quandaries in here. For instance, Benji was disgraced and forced to leave the CDC because he faked data against a company. But he did it because he could see that the company’s practices were headed in a very dire direction. There is no easy answer provided to this dilemma.
While it’s true that nearly every aspect of the dumpster fire that is currently raging is brought up and introduced in some way, Wendig doesn’t fall prey to the urge to sermonize. He just lets things speak for themselves. The police, for example, are called in early in the flock’s movements. Of course the police escalate things in unnecessary ways and cause the first real tragedy of the flock. When white supremacists start an uprising, there are police who join in and who obviously are white supremacists. A billionaire amusement park developer blows open some bat caves and ends up sickened by the bats. Pastor Matt tries to teach tolerance and love, explaining the Bible as metaphorical, only to end up manipulated into declaring the flock to be the “Devil’s Pilgrims” by his eagerness to make people happy and become a well-known and well-liked figure. Climate change gets drawn into the picture as well.
There are so many fascinating details to the flock. For instance, they’re traveling via roads, avoiding major highways and not going as-the-crow-flies, which seems to indicate some sort of intelligence to their actions. When an ex-cop named Marcy comes across the flock, it suddenly relieves the pain and confusion brought on by a head injury she had. (See, not all cops are depicted poorly. The book has much more to it than that.) She becomes one of the shepherds, and has some very interesting roles to play. The clues related to the flock come at the reader steadily–Wendig doesn’t play coy or try to draw things out overly far. I felt like I was constantly going, “oh my god!” as I read.
Dreams were not made on the internet; they were killed there. By mean, nasty little shits who were all looking to one-up each other.
Content note: slurs (not surprising when some of your characters are white supremacists), white supremacy, sex, animal harm, rape, and torture. I should note that this is one apocalyptic novel that does not use the apocalypse as an excuse to constantly depict women being raped, which I for one am grateful for.
There were two points in this book where I found myself crying for the characters. Things definitely get emotional. I should note that this book manages to avoid almost all of the standard scenes you see in apocalyptics, and the ones that do happen have good reasons for being there.
This is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and that’s saying something.