Night Shade Books, 2011, 256 pages
What happens when resources become scarce and society starts to crumble? As the competition for resources pulls America's previously stable society apart, the "New Normal" is a Soft Apocalypse. This is how our world ends; with a whimper instead of a bang.
New social structures and tribal connections spring up across America, as the previous social structures begin to dissolve. Soft Apocalypse follows the journey across the Southeast of a tribe of formerly middle class Americans as they struggle to find a place for themselves and their children in a new, dangerous world that still carries the ghostly echoes of their previous lives.
Written in a very direct, almost simple, narrative style that sometimes seems to buffer the reader against the horrors being described, this post-apocalytic novel is, as the title suggests, not about nuclear war or alien invasion or zombie plagues or anything like that bringing down civilization, but a slow slide into the sort of social and economic meltdown that preppers have been warning us is coming for years.
There is no one SHTF event in this near future. The first-person protagonist, who starts as a formerly middle-class dude just trying to get by, knows things are bad because as the book begins, he is one of a "tribe" of nomads wandering homeless through an American South where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is now patrolled by armed troopers, and the middle class is a vanishing sliver between the wealthy and everyone else.
Eventually, he finds a subsistence-level job and a place to live, and he and his "tribe" are, if not thriving, at least surviving, which makes it seem like things will turn around eventually, as everyone hopes. However, as he's warned at one point, things don't turn around: they just get worse.
There are science fiction elements in Soft Apocalypse like the infectious virus that turns people permanently happy, creating a sort of cult-like movement that could be metaphorically compared to zombies, though the degree of free will they have is an important point later in the book. There is also bioengineered bamboo that grows through everything, even concrete, in a matter of hours, bringing cities to a grinding halt and contributing to the collapse of industrialized civilization.
But these are all trappings in the story about one man and his friends trying to survive a "soft apocalypse" in which America has become just another third-world country with hordes of starving lawless refugees banging on the remaining gates of civilization.
There are, of course, some horrific events (not described in graphic detail, but horrible enough), and the narrator is not always likeable, particularly as he spends much of the book going through a succession of girlfriends and whining about how he can't find true love.
But the horrible events, because they are so believable and because they just happen without any dramatic setup, make this apocalypse not "soft" in the sense that it's nicer or less violent, just in the sense that it might sneak up on us. How do you know when you're in an apocalypse if there are no bombs or zombies or invading armies? Is it when the power goes out? Is it when food becomes scarce? Is it when you're in daily fear for your life? Even at its worst, the apocalypse described here is no worse than daily life for large portions of the world.
A quick, easy, page-turner, maybe not the most dramatic or memorable post-apocalyptic novel ever, but one that deserves its place in the genre.
Also by Will McIntosh: My review of Defenders.
My complete list of book reviews.