Novel: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig tackles the apocalypse in Wanderers (2019), a massive, multifaceted page turner that mixes broad speculative tropes with the author’s firebrand political sensibilities. The adventure begins in Pennsylvania, when young Nessie Stewart starts sleepwalking. Her protective older sister Shana follows her, initially just hoping to wake her up, but the situation is complicated by the arrival of more sleepwalkers, who join her in lockstep. Gradually, a “flock” forms, marching zombie-like across the American countryside. The authorities are unable to wake them, and they seem to have developed superhuman abilities, including catastrophic defense mechanisms against being impeded. Accompanied by an escort of “shepherds” looking out for them, the walkers become a media sensation, and eventually a political punching bag for right-wing zealots who brand them as foreign-seeded terrorists. Meanwhile, investigating the phenomenon is disgraced former CDC expert Benji Ray, who is recruited by Sadie Emeka, a representative of a tech company with access to an impressive machine intelligence. Guided by the insights of this mysterious AI, Benji, Sadie, and their colleagues work to uncover the truth about the sleepwalkers—who are in fact merely the tip of a world-shaking iceberg.

Wanderers is an impressive beast that builds from an intriguing situation to a global, civilization-threatening crisis in the span of eight hundred pages of multi-protagonist narrative. It almost seems the result of an authorial self-challenge: to write an epic “mid-apocalypse” novel, its dystopian lens focused on civilization’s demise itself rather than its run-up or its aftermath. Wendig starts from such a mundane place that much of the early slow-build reads like speculative intrigue: is this a supernatural event, or a scientific one? As the nature of the crisis evolves, the answer is revealed, but throughout there’s also an element of horror sensibility as echoes of the novel’s ancestors—Stephen King’s The Stand and The Last of Us both come strongly to mind—infuse the scenario. Wendig has a firm grip on his genre toolkit, though, and his voicy style and brisk pacing keep the pages flipping, making the novel feel shorter than it is.

Elements of Wendig’s writing rub me the wrong way; his conversational prose often feels calculated to be edgy and crass. As in Zeroes, he also displays a tendency to focus too much on annoying characters that are evidently just too fun not to write. But fortunately the book’s real stars—Shana and Benji—are accessible heroes, and there’s no denying the clever craftsmanship of Wanderers, an ambitious epic with a great hook, a complicated canvas, and a devious, compelling plot.

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