THE WORLD’S GONE.
WORSE, SO IS HER DAUGHTER.
Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Wearing unfamiliar clothes and having no idea how many days—or weeks—have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished.
And with her, nearly all of civilization. Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters—people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.
In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get her Ruthie back. Few people trust an outsider, let alone a woman who became a zombie and somehow turned back, but she finds help from an enigmatic outlaw, Smoke. Smoke is her savior, and her safety. For the Beaters are out there. And the humans grip at survival with their trigger fingers. Especially when they learn that she and Ruthie have become the most feared, and desired, of weapons in a brave new world…
I’ve always been a little slow to adopt new fashions. I know what I like, and I like to stay with what works. I was slow to get on the vampire train. (The upside of this was that there were lots of great series with several books a piece already written by the time I got around to looking for them.) Which is why I wasn’t surprised that, when I went looking for commentary about the popularity of vampires versus zombies, the article I found in TIME Magazine, Zombies Are the New Vampires, was dated April 9, 2009. That seems about right. Zombies were declared the official monster of the recession a year and a half before I eventually noticed them. Typical.
But better late than never, they say. The fact that zombie books are not only worthwhile, but on occasion highly enjoyable, has to rank as my number one literary discovery of 2010. And Aftertime, the first book in Sophie Littlefield’s new dystopian series, is one of the books that helped me see the light. I’m still a zombie newbie, though, so if you’re curious how this book stacks up against the conventions of the genre, I won’t be much help. Aftertime deserves to be discussed on its own merits, however, not just as an example of a genre.
Any history buff familiar with the Black Death will recognize many of the effects of the zombie apocalypse in Aftertime. The plague destroyed European feudal society in the 14th century and gave rise to what would eventually become our modern social order, which is destroyed in turn by Aftertime‘s government-sponsored zombie apocalypse. What sort of society will rise up from the ashes is still very much in doubt, however. The book opens several months after the world as we know it vanished completely.
Aftertime follows the quest of the heroine, Cass Dollar, to find and be reunited with her young daughter Ruthie. Cass was already separated from Ruthie Before (the way people indicate pre-apocalyptic time, as compared with the Aftertime in which the survivors are now living), and had just been reunited with her in the Aftertime when a catastrophe separated mother and daughter again. Cass survived, but comes to awareness in horrible shape in the middle of nowhere with no memory of how she got there, and only one goal: to get back to Ruthie.
Cass is a gritty, complex character, one haunted to a painful degree by her past. One of the central aspects of her identity is the fact that she’s a recovering alcoholic. Her history emerges slowly through a series of narrative flashbacks over the course of the book, both her struggle to turn her life around, and the deeper trauma that set her on the path to destruction in the first place. Littlefield’s handling of the psychological causes and effects of addiction, and the daily battle to conquer it, is impressive. Rather than dominating the plot to the detriment of the storyline, Cass’s backstory and struggle are the necessary clues to understanding who she is, slowly unraveled over the course of the novel. The slowly-emerging grimness of her former life gives Cass a realistic depth to her character, and Littlefield handily manages to avoid sounding like an after school special, instead creating a window into a world most of us are fortunate enough never to experience.
Cass picks up an enigmatic sidekick early in the novel, a man known as Smoke in the Aftertime. Although Cass’s history is fairly clear by the end of the story, only the barest facts about Smoke have come to light. He remains shrouded in mystery, both who he was Before and his motivations for his actions Aftertime cloaked in obscurity. What there is to learn about Smoke is revealed almost exclusively by his actions, and by the reactions of other characters when they meet him. Although Cass hadn’t heard of him before meeting him, Smoke is a man of some repute in the new order. (Yeah, he’s pretty badass.) What sort of reputation he has depends on who’s talking. Whoever Smoke is or was, however, it quickly becomes obvious that he has made it his mission to reunite Cass and Ruthie, despite how dangerous Beaters (i.e. zombies) make it to travel any sort of distance. Smoke’s devotion to Cass, and the lengths to which he goes to protect and aid her, are touching, and are one of the true bright spots of the novel. Hopefully, Smoke’s history will play a greater role later in the series. The hints that have been dropped about his so far are delectably contradictory and ambiguous.
Beaters, the zombified flesh-eating victims of government experimentation with the food supply, are not the only danger facing Cass and Smoke. The Beaters, while truly dreadful in their macabre, nearly humorous haplessness, are in some respects less threatening than many of the fellow survivors Cass and Smoke encounter. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the implosion of government and society has created a monstrous one (no pun intended). The old world order has been swept away, and there are competing visions about what new form, if any, society ought to take, and more importantly, who ought to be in charge, and to what end. It is deliciously ironic that, in a zombie infested landscape, factions of people are quickly emerging as the greatest threats. Various groups are grabbing for the reins, and people who want to remain free agents, like Smoke and Cass, are quickly caught in the crossfire.
This first installment ends with no verdict on who is coming out on top; will it be the fascist Rebuilders, the crazy religious cult, or the vice-peddling cartel? Tune in next time to find out, because Cass, Ruthie, and Smoke are sure to play a key role in the power struggle for one simple reason: Cass and Ruthie are outliers – the statistical jackpot winners who, for whatever reason, were able to recover from the zombifying fever. They and their immunity are of immeasurable value to whatever group can control them, but Cass isn’t interested in being a pawn to aid someone else’s agenda. She just wants to find her daughter and carve out whatever life is possible in this new landscape. But that may not be an option open to her.
As I believe all good stories of the coming zombie apocalypse must, Aftertime focuses on the survivors, not the victims. Post-apocalyptic stories of any kind are intricate thought experiments about what would happen to modern man when stripped of all the trappings and strictures of modern society. What would become of us all without laws, police, government, infrastructure, or the simple necessities of modern life? How would we survive the morning without a cup of coffee, and how, in the name of goodness, could life continue once the cell phone towers fell silent?
Aftertime is a psychologically fascinating examination of modern man abruptly thrown back to the most primitive conditions imaginable, surrounded by constant mortal danger of the most horrifying sort. Just like a search through today’s newspaper headlines, evidence of the best and worst mankind has to offer are on display. Acts of depravity, venality, cruelty, and cowardice are balanced by shining acts of selflessness, heroism, kindness, and love, all magnified by the fact that life is being lived at the knife-edge of survival. Aftertime is a gripping read; sympathetic characters operate in a detailed, realistically shattered echo of modern society, and the emotional journey is as harrowing and absorbing as the physical one.