Soft Apocalypse is a scary, suspenseful page turner. It depicts an America in collapse, mired in economic depression and plagued by environmental calamities, where both the middle class and effective government seem to be absent. The narrator, Jasper, and his “tribe,” are underemployed kids with master’s degrees struggling to survive in this “new normal.” The scenario sounds all too familiar. But in trying to depict the effects of these calamities, Soft Apocalypse strays into the realm of the unbelievable.
The story takes place over ten years, from 2023 to 2033, depicting in a series of vignettes the country’s slide toward total collapse. Even as he tries to stay alive, Jasper keeps looking for love among the ruins, and many of the vignettes center on his relationship woes. Life goes on, despite the world crumbling around him.
When the novel opens, things are already unrecognizably bad. Jasper and his tribe of homeless friends are camping near the highway and charging solar batteries that they can exchange for food. In the first chapter alone, they are bullied by desensitized cops, chased by a mob, witness the outbreak of a horrific genetically engineered virus in a small town, and commit murder while rescuing their friend from being raped in the suburbs.
Because so many of the events that take place in the opening scenes are shockingly violent, for each subsequent section, the author must ratchet the horror up a notch to demonstrate that things are constantly getting worse. The violence in Soft Apocalypse is unceasing and relentless, and it left me (a long-time horror reader) with a sick feeling in my stomach. To be honest, some of the events that take place later in the novel are so shocking as to be fairly unbelievable.
It doesn’t seem realistic to me that anarchy would come about as quickly as it seems to in Soft Apocalypse, or that people would let go of the civilization they had enjoyed their whole lives without more of a struggle. I also couldn’t really accept the premise that so many amateur bio-engineers were releasing genetically engineered viruses into the populace, just for the sake of causing more havoc and meaningless death.
The sheer overwhelm of all these terrible events frankly kept me from fully engaging with the story and its characters. I think Soft Apocalypse would have been a more effective story if the book had opened in a time we could recognize as normal and the slide into collapse had been more gradual and insidious. That might even have been a scarier book, since it would have seemed more like something that could actually happen.
Despite this flaw, Soft Apocalypse is a fast and compelling read, and a worthwhile entry in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, although I’d recommend it for readers with strong stomachs only. In fact, I’m somewhat grateful that the novel didn’t come across as entirely believable. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the world that McIntosh has imagined here.