Cooped up inside my house by the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve found myself preoccupied with dystopian movies and books. We know we live in an alt-world of dystopian fiction, but have you thought to look the word up in the dictionary? Dystopian characterizes “an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.” All right, that’s hardly an imagined condition in our lives these days, which means it’s reflected in our art and literature. In the same way the 1950s were angst-ridden over fear of the hydrogen bomb, invaders from outer space, and Communist spies in our government. (What goes around comes around? Isn’t it really about the Kondratieff cycle when you get right down to it?)
Anyway, I watched “12 Monkeys” a few nights ago, with its cryptic and utterly ironic message.
It had been a while and, boy oh boy, it got me just like it did the first time. Soon after, I caught a reference to 1984’s “Night of the Comet” in a newspaper article about our virus and, after great trouble, found it as a free stream on IMDB. Due to its low-budget production it really seems to miss the point, but how can you jeer at a movie starring Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney as teen sisters? If you’re serious in that other way about rogue comet movies, watch Lars von Trier’s masterpiece, “Melancholia.” I was deeply moved, both times.
But I digress.
Still looking for something dystopian to read, I contemplated re-reading Albert Camus’ The Plague, but turned my attention instead to writing my own (dystopian) short story about our current state of affairs. Yet I still needed something else to stanch the craving for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, so I downloaded the Audible version of Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, and it is this work I shall review today.
I was, by this point, on Won’t-You-Please-Stay-Home watch, talking and texting with my friends and family in California who are still on lockdown, when I began listening to this novel about a bunch of people who get, you know, infected (sorry, no spoiler alerts from me) and gather en masse to begin a long walk from Indiana to somewhere, uh, else. Like “Night of the Comet,” we find two sisters headlining this horror show, the younger a wanderer, the older a “shepherd” trying to stay with her afflicted sis. Needless to say we get caught up in a whole bunch of other peoples’ dramas as we learn why there’s a pandemic and try to figure out what caused it.
If you’re a human resident of Planet Earth you know that fear of death is the greatest of all plagues, and so does Chuck Wendig. And if you know anything about plagues, you know this one ain’t our first rodeo. And so does Chuck Wendig. But! Now it becomes inevitable that I must invoke a spoiler alert: because this is the first pandemic caused by a computer! You’ve probably noticed that the A.I. computers poking into our personal lives on the internet, and even your own li’l personal computer at home, seem to be getting smarter and smarter all the time. They seek to anticipate and satisfy our every need, want, craving and curiosity, even before we know why we’re poking at the keys. Wendig knows it, too, and his computer, named Black Swan (a concept which dates back to Juvenal but is best known from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s eponymous book subtitled “The Impact of the Highly Improbable” which certainly gives it a dystopian feel), is the root of all evil. Black Swan knows what’s best for the human race, and that’s to obliterate it.
So there’s the setup, and it’s intriguing for who and how humanity will defeat Black Swan, the most powerful computer ever built, a computer that for sure won’t open the pod bay door? But Wendig has a lot on his mind—(or the tip of his pen? His fingertips? Did his computer let him write this dystopian diatribe against and in spite of its kind?)—telling story after story about all those wanderers and shepherds and their problems and love lives and even their nasty enemies—and he takes his time getting there.
The hardcover book weighs in at 800 pages, and the splendid Audible version is some 32 hours. Dominic Hoffman and Xe Sands are superb voiceover actors; Xe’s portrayal of older sister Shana was extraordinary: eleven stars out of ten. After this one, I think (1) I’ll listen to something shorter and (2) I’ll need new batteries in my iPod and earbuds.
For all that, the novel is a bit pedestrian. Wendig unearths some—actually, quite a few—commonplace tropes and themes, from religion to relationships, and how we struggle to find meaning in one or the other or something else (but not a computer). We suffer, seeking meaning, but it’s elusive. As Procol Harum’s Dalai Lama says, “Life is like a beanstalk . . . isn’t it?” Technology, to be sure, isn’t the answer, but then again, what was the question?