Devolution - Max Brooks
Devolution – Max Brooks

3 cans of chickpeas is not a ‘stockpile’

Pros and cons in this. Brooks’ Devolution is not up to the nail-biting suspension-of-disbelief level of his bestseller World War Z, but it’s a good read nonetheless. And it’s a timely warning to think about risk.

The story in a nutshell: Mt. Rainier volcano outside Seattle has erupted. A small, very remote eco-community, Greenloop, has been cut off from contact with the outside world. This is the story of how they survive (Or DO they? Cue Twilight Zone theme…)

Like World War Z, the story is presented as a record of true events, revealed largely through journal entries. It’s well done and makes for good pacing. Brooks is a skilled author and it’s a well-written book in terms of structure, plot, dialogue, characters etc. Nothing really stands out as worthy of mention, but nothing jars either.

When things go wrong

As social satire, it’s hilarious. Let me explain… Most novels about any apocalyptic-type disaster (especially American ones) are a prepper’s dream: as soon as things go skew-ways, everyone seems to have at hand and be able to gather together — within minutes — a bug-out bag, supplies of food and water, weapons (lots and lots of guns), etc. etc. It’s all part of the genre.

Things are different here. Greenloop is a small, get-back-to-nature community comprised of well-heeled urbanites; 6 houses, mostly couples, just one child. They hike in the surrounding woods, but only on the prepared trails circling Greenloop, with their hiking boots and Nordic walking poles. Food (lots of fresh meat and veg) and other necessities are delivered by drone. Frequently. The closest thing they have to a weapon is an expensive Japanese kitchen knife.

They are ill prepared for an erupting volcano and being cut off from their supply route. So what’s the first thing they do when panic starts to set in?

They get together to meditate.

I hereby award Brooks 5 stars just for that. Much of the story is about how completely useless these people are. It’s very entertainingly observed. However, some of them do pull themselves together to face the threats to their community. (The book is being marketed as a Bigfoot thriller, so no points for guessing what the immediate threat is.)

What makes this book particularly interesting is timing. It hits the shelves in the middle of a global pandemic. And points the finger squarely at all the non-preppers among us. Meaning, virtually the entire world. Like ‘what part of we saw something like this coming did you not understand?’.

Because of course, most of us don’t live in an area regularly threatened by volcanoes, hurricanes and the like, so most of us don’t need to even know the meaning of ‘bug-out bag’, never mind have one prepared. Most of us have never lived through a global pandemic, so we (and our governments) didn’t think we needed stocks of masks and other protective equipment, etc. And of course we’ll never run out of toilet paper, or bread flour, when there’s a store just down the road, will we?

The optimism bias

OK, so I’m not turning this into a diatribe about how we all need to become preppers (I kind of want to, but I won’t). But Devolution does highlight how blindly trusting humans are that just because something was working today, it will go on working tomorrow. We have an in-built conviction that no matter what happens, chances are that I’ll be OK. No matter how much experts may warn us, and small outbreaks may scare us, we can still manage to convince ourselves that we are safe from a pandemic and do nothing to prepare for it. Pandemic, catastrophic weather, act of god or act of war… I’ll probably be fine, actually.

We don’t like to face the question: what is the true risk and how should I/we prepare?

If there’s one thing this pandemic is showing us, it’s that the world is divided between the risk-takers and the risk averse. Some might say, between the mentally-well-balanced and the anxiety-prone. Others, between the foolhardy (or egocentric) and the realists.

Optimists and pessimists. The former underestimate risk, the latter overestimate it. Our entire world view, and our behavior in a crisis, is dictated by where we fall on the scale of risk acceptance, which is inextricably linked to our level of optimism bias.

Optimists believe that if the shit does hit the fan, things will work out. Governments will take care of things, and I’ll figure something out for myself and my family. Pessimists would say we’re all screwed anyway, so let’s just get on with today and try not to think about what might happen. The people at Greenloop feel safe so they do not prepare for being cut off from the world, despite the obvious risks (only one road out, remote location, etc.). They feel safe because they were told they were safe, and they chose to believe what they heard.

Just like we trust that our governments are well informed about the risks we might face and have measures prepared in case things go wrong. Until we find out that they didn’t.

Personally, I can finally turn to the family members who were infuriated by or scornful of my stockpiling tendencies and say I told you so. And that’s always satisfying.*

Of course, instead of selfishly stockpiling, we might start thinking about who we’ll vote for. The people who prioritize short-term benefits or the ones taking the difficult decisions for a better long-term outcome.

*Note: I still don’t see how anyone could call 3 cans of chickpeas and a spare jar of beetroot a “stockpile”. But, whatever...

My thanks to publisher Century, the author and Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.

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