Book review: Devolution by Max Brooks

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

For all its love of creature comforts and security, humanity does loves a good scare.

There is something soul-excoratingly visceral about sitting in your armchair or snug in bed reading about people in peril, especially when they are characters whose reality is not manifestly removed from our own.

The residents of Greenloop, Washington State, in the heart of the great forests of the American Pacific Northwest, who form the human heart of Max Brooks’ chillingly-immersive novel, Devolution, are living the epitome of the 21st century dream.

Ensconced in a community designed in step with the latest sustainability and eco-friendly principles, which is geographically remote but closely plugged into the digital world that defines society at the beginning of the century’s third decade, residents like Kate Holland and her husband Dan have the future of the world seemingly at their fingertips.

Food, ordered online, is sent in by drones or driverless van, frequent communal gatherings of the small number of residents are encouraged in the Common House that sits at the centre of the village and everyone seems to enjoy a shared sense of purpose and intent that is rarely found in communities anywhere these days.

Led by New Age-inclined couple Tony and Yvette, the tech mogul couple who is the brains and heart and soul behind the innovative community, Greenloop looks like paradise on earth, nestled in the forest surrounding Mount Rainier and ripe with hope and possibility.

But Mount Rainier, which is an active stratovolcano that sits uncomfortably close to 80,000 residents and withing damaging distances of places like Tacoma, erupts … and all hell breaks loose.

“To me, Greenloop was the Titanic, right down to the design flaws and the lack of lifeboats. They were extremely isolated, miles from the one public road which was miles from the nearest town. And, of course, that was the idea. With modern logistics and telecommunications, the world must have still felt very small. But then Rainier cut communications, and the world suddenly got very big.” (P. 60)

In this instance, that phrase sums exactly what happens to Greenloop, which is not so much affected directly by the eruption itself, but by the consequential fallout which involves something far more horrifying, if that is possible, that being rained upon by volcanic debris or swallowed up by lahars, which are pyroclastic mudflows which destructively devour everything in their path.

In the aftermath of the eruption, which cuts off the village’s access to the outside world, and exposes the life-imperiling deficits of the rampant optimism that underpinned its founding, the people of Greenloop find themselves besieged by a troop of Bigfoot who like many apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas exhibit a ferocity and frightening sense of purpose that is almost impossible to counteract.

Very much in keeping with the approach that made World War Z such a compellingly authentic read, Brooks invests what might sound like a pulpy over the top narrative premise with a sense of palpable reality such that you can imagine, in look-behind-you detail, what it would be like to be besieged by a creature who isn’t supposed to exist.

In a format that mixes journal entries found in a diary kept by Kate Holland which is found by much-delayed rescuers in the smoking ruins of Greenloop, with “factual” interviews with people like Kate’s brother Frank and a ranger who comes to believe that Bigfoot is real, Brooks conjures a sense of intriguing sense on every page of this utterly compelling book.

Max Brooks (image courtesy Following the Nerd)

So beautifully does he balance the intense, building tension of Kate and her fellow residents as they battle to survive a paucity of resources, their own initial self-protective impulses and their later battles to emerge alive from their confrontation with the towering apes around them, with explorations of whether Bigfoot might actually exist, that you are completely drawn into the hauntingly beautiful world of Devolution.

The pacing is immaculate throughout, with Brooks ramping up the ticking pressure of what might be lying out in the woods all while engaging in some masterfully engaging social satire that explores with unsettling incisiveness what happens to the perfect community when the chips really are down.

Answer: nothing that will cover anyone in glory.

At least, not straight away; as the bumps in the night and screams in the distance coalesce in a far more potent and tangible threat, the kind that can tear you limb from limb in heartstoppingly awful seconds, people, or most people draw together into a tightknit group as they do their best to survive until help comes.

In many ways, Devolution, the title of which refers to the fact that any living creature will depart from the upward trajectory of their evolutionary path is sheer survival demands it, is as much about who we are in the very worst of circumstances as it is concerned about telling a thrillingly scary tale of creatures of myth and legend emerging from the shadows and becoming very real and life-threatening indeed.

“The roar, I felt the warmth, the stink. It sent the troop into a frenzy. Jumping, dancing, throwing their arms up amidst those piercing shrieks. I didn’t think about what I was doing, just raised my arm as she reached one face-sized hand towards us. I don’t know if the javelin’s blade cut her deeply, or if it just bent around her closing fingers. The grip, that vicious hard tug. I can still feel the rug-born friction on my skin as she ripped it out of my hand, then tossed it, spinning, above our heads.” (P. 196)

Brooks’ ability to tell a thrilling tale that is as much about the people under attack as it is about the monsters themselves, the existence of which may not be so fanciful after all (the evidence is compelling in a decidedly non-conspiracy theory way), is on full display in Devolution, which manages to simultaneously keep you on the edge of your seat while titillating the mind with all kinds of thrilling “what ifs”.

One minute you are deep in the woods with Kate, who feels someone or something watching her even before it reveals itself, the first stepping stone to some very scary goings-on later in the story, the next you are reading an interview with someone who gives the Bigfoot legend substance and gravitas, elevating the idea of these creatures to myth and legend to something you could reach out and touch.

But would you really want to, even if they do, in fact, exist?

Likely not after Brooks is done with you; Devolution is classic, freaky horror, all goosebump-inducing build-up and unbelievably frightening payoff, that comes with a substantial side order of brilliantly-realised social satire and an almost Attenborough-esque discussion of what really lives in the dark woods of the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest, and what we risk exactly when we go into a world that is, for all our ideas of inviolable modernity, not actually our own and likely never will be.

You have been warned in thrillingly readable fashion.

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