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Friday, September 6, 2019

Wanderers: It's the End of the World As We Know It

If there's a cooler, more fun, more terrifyingly accurate to our times, more immersive book out this year than Chuck Wendig's new novel Wanderers...well, there's not. This book is incredible — an 800 page novel that's at once a tribute to Stephen King's classic The Stand, but also wholly its own thing. While it is an end-of-the world novel, it feels fully possible, fully real. That's true because Wendig is terrific at conveying how messed up our current society is. The truth these days may be stranger than fiction, but Wendig is brilliant at fictionalizing the zeitgeist to match the craziness of the real world today.

The main question we start with is, given the fractured nature of our current moment, what would cause it to break? A mysterious affliction takes over a number of people, who basically begin sleepwalking in a pack — they don't react to any stimulus, don't have to stop for food or the bathroom, and are basically "locked in" to their sleepwalking. Constantly, they head west. A group of "shepherds" — family members of the ever-growing flock, including our protagonist Shana, whose sister, Nellie, is the first sleepwalker, follow the flock to protect them.

Meanwhile, it's an election year, and the culture wars are in full throat, as a Trump-like candidate named Creel attacks President Hunt, a decidedly Hillary Clinton-like figure, for being "weak" on the sleepwalkers. He stirs up his base by arguing the sleepwalkers should be wiped out because they represent a security risk, they're the tool of the devil, etc. Sound familiar? And the crazies fall in line, including a rural Indiana preacher named Matthew, who is sort of co-opted into a celebrity when he makes a particularly damning homily against the flock. One of his parishioners, a guy named Ozark, who is a gun-toting far-right-winger, and who will play a more prominent and nefarious role later in the novel, also brings Matthew into his fold.

So the sleepwalkers are the catalyst for an advanced stage of the culture wars. But the question really is: What's causing the sleepwalkers to sleepwalk? Is it a mysterious comet that passed over? Is it a disease? Are they actually demonic robots? No one knows, but it's up to a disgraced CDC scientist named Benjamin Hunt to find out. Through a mysterious woman named Sadie, he's introduced to an artificial intelligence, Black Swan. Sadie led the team that designed Black Swan to gather data from all over the world to predict disease outbreaks before they turn into epidemics.

But then, in addition to the sleepwalker syndrome, a mysterious fungal infection pops up, and begins to spread rapidly! This only adds fuel to the fire of a society that is already breaking down. How are the sleepwalkers related, if at all, to this new disease? Will Benjamin and Sadie be able to stop them in time?

That's really the bare bones of this plot. There is SO much more to this book, highlighted by Wendig's writing, which is so much to fun to read. If you don't already follow him on Twitter, do that now. This this book certainly reflects his Twitter persona, which is about as entertaining as it gets. But beyond that, there are lot of thorny questions here about religion and science, belief and facts, and about the increasingly contentious culture wars. Wendig isn't interested in answers about what'll bring us back together. Rather, he wants to stress test our already fragile culture. And here he has a few answer for what will finally break it.

I read the last 300 or so pages of this novel in two sittings. Could not put it down. I can't recommend it more highly — definitely a contender for my favorite book of this year.

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