In mid-March, I was supposed to meet with Max Brooks while he was in Seattle to talk about his forthcoming novel, Devolution. But coronavirus hit, so our in-person meeting turned into a phone call.
What a phone call, though.
That morning, an editorial written by Brooks had appeared in The New York Times titled, “Social Distancing May Be Our Best Weapon to Fight the Coronavirus.” While he’s best known in book circles as the author of the zombie apocalypse mega-seller World War Z, Brooks is a nonresident senior fellow at Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, with a focus on crisis management and national security. He is also a senior nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.
The day of our call, Seattle seemed to be holding its breath, awaiting the next coronavirus blow. A week before, major companies in the area, including Amazon, had requested that employees work from home if they could. And only hours after my call with Max Brooks, I was notified that the city’s public schools would close the next day.
As it turned out, it was the perfect time to talk about Brooks’ novel Devolution and how to recognize and survive a crisis.
When I got on the phone with Brooks, he asked, “Do you have everything you need for food? Like, two weeks, maybe a little bit longer?”
After assuring him my family was fine and after we chatted about why one shouldn’t stockpile lentils for emergencies unless one actually liked to eat lentils, I asked him about Devolution.
“Devolution is a straight-up Sasquatch horror novel rooted in very real research about natural disasters,” he said.
Devolution centers on the found journal of Kate Holland, who lives in a high-tech community called Greenloop located deep in the mountains of Washington State. When Mount Rainier unexpectedly erupts, the dozen residents of Greenloop are far enough away that they are not directly affected by the pyroclastic flow. But they are cut off from civilization, their weekly grocery deliveries stop, the internet is out, winter is coming, and almost everyone in Greenloop except Mostar, a survivor of the Bosnian War, is in denial about how dire their situation is.
“I really wanted to drive home the fact that so many of us don’t have the tools and the skills and the knowledge to survive if this thread that we call the first world suddenly is split. And I really wanted to get through the fact that we are building a society meant for comfort and not for resilience,” said Brooks. “Believe me, I love all the tech that’s coming out. I love drone deliveries and I love driverless vehicles. I think it’s all amazing. But as we go forward, we also need to think about what could go wrong.”
Brooks further explained, “My characters in the town of Greenloop are presented with actual problems. What do you do when your drone delivery stops, and what do you do when the handyman doesn’t show up? Do you have the tools to fix your house? Do you have the knowledge? Do you have enough food in case you have to be isolated?...[In the United States] we’ve had over 50 years of real peace and prosperity to the point that we just expect that peace and prosperity to continue, and we don’t know how to take care of ourselves anymore.”
But forced isolation isn’t Greenloop’s only problem. Soon a hungry troop of Sasquatches, displaced from their usual territory by the eruption, arrives. And the clash is gory.
At first, the Greenloop residents’ relationship with nature seems benign. When the journal-writer Kate comes to Greenloop from southern California, she finds the very fact of walking through the woods to be a healing experience. But nature doesn’t exist for her sake; nor does it bow to human philosophies. Said Brooks, people often try to “put their own morality and their own sense of good and evil on wildlife, and the truth is nature has its own rules. And when you forget that—when you put down nature’s rule book and try to write your own—really bad things happen.”
Brooks relied on facts in crafting his plot. “I do years of research, and a lot of times the research will determine how the story plays out, because I always go facts first.” He looked to primatology experts who studied bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas in order to create a believable Sasquatch: “a realistic animal, because that’s what Sasquatches in my story are: not a myth, not a legend, not a god, not a demon, but an animal.”
While Sasquatches and volcanic eruptions might seem fantastical, ultimately Brooks’ focus is on helping readers recognize and survive a real-world crisis.
“I really do want to educate and inform, and I find that the best way to do that without boring people or scaring people away is to tell them a great story. You bring in a fictional catalyst like Bigfoot or zombies, but at the same time, how you respond to that catalyst is exactly how you would respond to a real life crisis.”
He added, “If you start to prepare, then you don’t panic. Panic comes from denial. I did that with my characters: They deny…they deny…they deny…and then suddenly it’s upon them, and they’re not ready. And that’s when panic sets in.”
When we look back on the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, how will we categorize those who stockpiled toilet paper and cans of beans: as the ones who panicked or as the ones who prepared? I recall shamefacedly telling friends on the day of my call with Brooks that I had picked up an extra package of toilet paper while at the store the evening before. Less than a week later, shoppers were as unlikely to find toilet paper in a store as, well, Sasquatches.
We’ll probably never come to an overall conclusion about who was prepared and who was panicked. And that’s not a bad thing, because it means we dodged catastrophe once again.
Devolution was named by the Amazon Books editors as one of the Best Books of the Month in June 2020.
Author photo copyright Michelle Brooks
“Devolution” and “World War Z” author Max Brooks talks with the Amazon Book Review about how he uses fiction to show readers how to prepare for real disasters.