Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
With its mysterious sleepwalkers, epidemics and AI framed against the back-drop of modern day America, Wanderers is a little more sci-fi than fantasy, but I was game for a change of scenery after Priory of the Orange Tree.
Now some of you might have heard of Chuck Wendig before, but I wasn’t familiar with any of his (admittedly prodigious) works beyond a link I was sent to his blog (Terrible Minds) which was titled 25 Ways To Kick Exposition’s Ass.
Spin on a year and I was hearing some good things about Wanderers, as well as a few comparisons to titles like King’s The Stand, so when I bumped into it in the bookshop I gave it more than a cursory weighing.
And at 780 pages it’s no lightweight.
What’s It About?
The titular wanderers are the bearers of some unknown force that has caused them to begin a sleepwalking pilgrimage across the USA. It begins with Shana who awakes to find her little sister has up-and-walked still dressed in her night gown. When Shana tries to stop her sister she finds it’s impossible, and has no option but to follow after her.
Thus the first of the flock finds its first shepherd.
As the sleep walkers multiply the Centre for Disease Control arrives to investigate (along with various other governmental agencies). Joining the CDC is Benji Ray, a disgraced former employee who is selected by artificial intelligence ‘Black Swan’ to help solve the problem.
These two characters form the core threads, along with a third as small town preacher Matthew Bird gets drawn into the machinations of a white supremacist militia looking to capitalise on the situation.
It doesn’t take long for the media to descend, for public opinion to divide, and for the wheels of political machination to start turning as the questions abound: is this the result of a recently passing comet? Is it a disease? Aliens?
Others claim that it must be the work of the devil.
But things might not be what they seem……
So, Should I Read It?
Wanderers is well written and it’s well paced. The author has also done his homework on the various aspects of disease and epidemics, making the specialists of the piece sound authoritative on the subject.
The book is heavily character driven with multiple points of view, giving it a series of layers as we see through the eyes of teenager Shana who’s got a stubborn streak and a lot of heart. The narrative switches threads to Benji who not only has to fight with his past but also the internal politics of the boffins, all mirrored in the wider world by political point scoring and the pressure to find out what’s happening.
Along the way a variety of other characters join the shepherds such as Marcy, the brain damaged ex-police officer who can “hear” the sleepwalkers through the plate in her head, and the wonderfully narcissistic rock star Pete Corley who is fleeing his commitments to both his family and his band mates.
On the flip side is the thoroughly convincing villain Ozark Stover. I genuinely felt intimidated when he stepped out of his truck and if one thing is made readily clear from the start it’s that there’s no backing out once you shake his hand.
There is also a host of little details. I liked the little snippets of social media that precede the chapters, highlighting the reactions amongst the public.
Here’s a little taster:
>fuck this shit, it’s aliens
>mark my words this is aliens coming down, and they’re taking control, in our stories we always thought they’d invade themselves in their ships, but what if they’re using *us* to invade?
>those zombies are their puppets
>they’re going SOMEWHERE, I wanna know where
Dude, they’re not aliens, they’re not possessed by aliens. It’s the Russians. they’ve hacked everything else: our elections, our powergrid, our social media. Now they’re hacking PEOPLE
There is also a strong ecological aspect that sits like a layer just under the narrative which becomes more pronounced as the narrative unfolds, sometimes in passing reference and sometimes not so subtly:
“Humankind was a disease. The earth was the body. Climate change was the fever.”
What Might Put Me Off?
It is perhaps this same environmental slant that will put off some readers – although my guess is that most of those attracted to this kind of story are no strangers to themes of science, climate, populations and civilisation. My only reservation is the solution Wendig’s narrative offers is a rather problematic one if carried to logical conclusion, but then I suppose it’s par for the course that the question is asked of who decides on the solution and how best to carry it out.
I won’t say more.
A more obvious problem might be that at 780 pages it’s a fairly long read, but if the length is no problem for you then the next consideration is the multitude of perspectives. I personally don’t have a problem with multiple POV but if you like to keep with a central character then this might not be the easiest going.
I’ve also heard some people have had nightmares after reading this. Make no mistake, this is a pretty apocalyptic book regarding the decline of civilisation via an epidemic, and the descent of society into its final throws is a petty heavy dose of doom and gloom.
There are also going to be those who don’t identify with Chuck’s social perspective, so if you’re a fundamentalist christian on the right wing who thinks the CDC are part of the Illuminati conspiracy to round everyone up into a concentration camp, then you’re probably going to want to look elsewhere.
(But again, I’m assuming that science fiction isn’t the most obvious genre for the above, although I could be wrong…..)
Finally, my main gripe with the book was simply my desire for it to come to an end. I found it dragged a little towards the end because although it was well paced it did wrap up at much the same speed. Still, I that could just be a bias as I had a whole stack of books and I was eager to read Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (which I had started at a music fest because Wanderers was too big to carry around).
At The End Of The Day
All in all this is a layered mystery that gradually reveals the various strata, but the further you go the more likely you are to guess what’s really going on.
It’s a well written, thoughtful sci-fi drama that makes some interesting commentary on modern American society. It’s character driven with lots of rich textures but ultimately a somewhat depressing tone.
It is also a fine example of the sort of quality writing that’s hitting the shelves out there.
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