Spanning the course of a decade, Soft Apocalypse charts the end of the world as we know it. But unlike most apocalypse novels, it details a societal collapse as it occurs. This isn’t a fantasy scenario of what the world might be like if a magical catastrophe rid the planet of all but the most heroic and villainous archetypes. There’s no implausible dystopian society to rebel against or monstrous threat to evade. It’s a story of ordinary people struggling to survive as all the things they took for granted disappear.
The novel begins in 2023, and Jasper, the narrator, is already homeless. He travels the road on foot with a tribe of other college graduates and working professionals. They survive by scavenging useful items and collecting energy in solar batteries to trade for food, though people who are better off rarely want anything to do with them. Jasper’s only lifeline to normalcy is a cell phone paid for by his girlfriend Sophia, but even that’s a source of misery. Sophia’s married, and though she’s clearly infatuated with Jasper, she’s in no position to swoop in and save him.
She does arrange for Jasper to get a job at a convenience store though, which brings him back to the city for most of the book. Judged purely on incident, Soft Apocalypse is not the most exciting story. Jasper and his tribe have their share of demoralizing encounters, but they’re stock events of literary apocalypse fiction. What’s unique is the amount of thought Will McIntosh has put into the setting. He imagines different tribes at various levels of poverty and offers occasional glimpses into the lives of the terrified rich. He shows how Jasper tries to keep his store in business as supply lines dry up. He imagines terrifying epidemics of apathy leading to madness and domestic terrorism. On the lighter side, he also shows how awful dating would be during the apocalypse. But for the most part, this a book about people suffering as they realize that things are never going to go back to the way they’re supposed to be.
It’s easy to wipe the world clean with an unexplained disaster, plop a series of disparate characters onto it, and have them fight out the final battle between good and evil. But it’s also dull. In Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh takes on a real challenge– not to make up a world after everything’s changed, but to show what it might be like during the collapse of all our safety nets. It’s ambitious, intricate, and bleak.
I loved every page of it.