One of the ideas that has haunted me for as long as I can remember is this one: what would the world be like if most of the people went away somehow? Written out like that, it sounds a little bit unabomber crazy, which isn't what I mean to imply. Instead, it grows from a fear of being alone. I have a feeling that when I was young I read a book with this plot line; although I can't remember now which one, it was a little seed that grew in my imagination. There would be perks, of course: less traffic and shorter hold lists for library books, and think of the environmental benefits if most people simply vanished. But it's the survival part that draws my curiosity, and the sheer aloneness. What would it feel like to wander the abandoned landscape? How would those who remain survive and make a life, and how would they feel about it? What devastation would cause the world to empty and how would the survivors work around it? What human concerns (beyond food and shelter) would be altered, and how?
There are so many "what ifs" in this scenario, it's no wonder that the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of speculative fiction is both wide and deep. I recently read the novel Immobility, by Brian Evenson, which explores the very landscape I live in (Utah and Salt Lake counties)—only it's been devastated by The Kollaps, which involved several nuclear bombs. One of my co-librarians told me about it, and while I am generally wary of LDS writers, this didn't sound fluffy or predictable or gentle or faith/prayers/service/sacrifice-will-always-fix-everything-esque, so I gave it a chance.
Like the novel The Road, this isn't a book I'd recommend to just anyone. It is dark, and redemption is scarce on the ground. I hated most of the characters and at one point I absolutely detested Horkai, the protagonist. In the beginning, the story is jumbled and confusing and as a reader you're not quite sure what is happening; by the end, no clear resolution is found.
Yet, two weeks after I finished it, I cannot stop thinking about it and wanting to recommend it to someone.
Horkai's story starts with a sensation of waking from a long sleep, and soon we discover that's exactly what is happening: he's been Stored for roughly thirty years in a cryogenic sleep. Rasmus, the leader of the small group of survivors that's been taking care of the sleeping Horkai, has woken him up because there is a job for him to do. Horkai, it seems, is not exactly like the humans around him. During the Kollaps, he was changed; he is nearly hairless, and his skin has a sort of glow; he is nearly impossible to kill with violence and he can walk around the irradiated world without dying. He's paralyzed from the waist down, however, and he can't remember most of his life before he was sleeping.
The job Rasmus asks him to do seems, while not exactly simple, like something he should be capable of. He will be carried by two "mules"—who also seem to be not exactly human, but in ways different from Horkai—to a cavern in the mountains, where he will take a cylinder which has been stolen from Rasmus and return it to him. Horkai feels vaguely uneasy about this job, as he can't remember much of anything and so has to take Rasmus's slight story about his history as truth. Rasmus convinces him, however, and he sets off on the shoulders of the mules, Qanik and Qatik, across the devastated landscape.
The traveling part of this book was fascinating to me, as they traveled through the valley where I live and into Salt Lake valley. It's all ruined, of course, full of dust and radiation and destroyed buildings. Reading a post-apocalyptic version of my own landscape gave me shivers, tapping in, as it did, to that primeval what if fear. Or, as Horkai sees this landscape itself, "everything seeming at once familiar and utterly foreign." As they travel, Horkai begins to understand some of this new world he's woken to, about how rare a creature he is and just how thoroughly mankind's ability to destroy was unleashed. With adventures along the way, he finally arrives at his destination: the Granite Mountain. This is a real place, built by the LDS church; a repository for genealogical records, it is carved into the side of a granite mountain (hence the eponymy).
The story moves from there, an adventure of dust and painful miles and betrayal and possible truths. It plays with the idea of human concerns, post-apocalypse, and what it means to be human and moral (or immoral); what morality might be, really, in such a world. Is humanity itself worth trying to save? Rykte, a character with the same physicality as Horkai and my favorite being in the book, explains that we might not be. "We're a curse, a blight," he says. "First we gave everything names and then we invented hatred. . . If we want anything at all to go on, humanity should die out." Despite his bleak pronouncement, however, he realizes it isn't an objective choice. He has the power, strength, ability, and weapons to destroy what is left of humanity in the area, but he chooses to leave them alone.
I am not going to lie: this is a bleak novel. It is very close to being completely hopeless, in fact. Yet it is also hauntingly optimistic in the world's ability (not humanity's) to progress forward, despite. Like all good speculative fiction, it shows a possible outcome of our current path and then asks what if we keep moving forward, towards this? By placing you in the destroyed landscape, it forces you to ask yourself whether or not this outcome is possible, and what side of humanity you might be on.