I’m delighted that Etienne is here today to tell us a little about his latest release—his 34th!!—which hit bookstores on the 13th July. Etienne and I came into contact over some of my own stuff, and he was incredibly helpful when I was ironing out those final finickity typos and inconsistencies. It’s a real pleasure to host him here today, even though I’m definitely a bit Wow! over the notion of ever being even half as productive as he is. Putting all feelings of inadequacy aside… welcome, Etienne!
When the apocalypse happened, it was nothing like anyone expected. Josh Reynolds has to find a way to survive when all the computer chips in the world stop working. But he doesn’t have to do it alone. He has his man by his side, and together they can overcome all odds.
I’ve always been fond of the post-apocalyptic theme in books and movies. It’s been done many times in both print and film, many of which I’ve read or seen and enjoyed.
When it comes to movies in the genre, 1971’s The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston comes to mind. As does a 1975 film starring a very young Don Johnson, titled A Boy and His Dog. The latter movie is based on a book written by science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who recently passed away.
In the realm of books on the subject, there is none better than Wolf and Iron, written by noted science-fiction writer Gordon R. Dickson in 1990.
By definition, when one is considering writing a post-apocalypse novel, there has to have been an apocalypse, and therein lies a dilemma. Should it be nuclear war? No—that one has been done to death. Or a plague? I don’t think so—that, too has been a much-used scenario.
So, I came up with the idea of a massive and previously unknown type of solar activity that caused all of the computer chips in the world to stop working. It’s plausible—solar flares are known to have an effect on electrical things on this planet. When you think about all the things you use every day of your life—things that rely upon computer chips—the list is almost limitless. From the smartphone you depend on to the car you drive, just about everything mechanical in your life is either controlled by, or uses, computer chips in one way or another.
This excerpt from Chapter One of the book spells it out…
“The world ended three years ago, on May 20, 2020,” Josh said, “and these days everybody refers to it as 5-20-20, or sometimes simply as ‘the crash’.”
“That’s not precise,” Randy said.
“Okay, the end began when the earth entered a massive amount of unusual solar activity on that date. And the end was complete when the entire planet had rotated through it.”
“That’s better,” Randy said. “Ever wonder why the scientists who spotted the solar activity didn’t say more about it?”
“What was there to say?” Josh said. “It was unusual activity, and they watched it closely, not knowing what it meant—until it caught up with them. They must have been shocked when their instruments stopped working.”
“Of course the world didn’t really end.”
“Yeah, but it might as well have, given that every computer chip on the planet stopped working when it hit that solar activity.”
“Right, and I wish we knew more about that,” Josh said.
“I’d like the answers to a bunch of questions—including, but not limited to: a) was the damage permanent? I mean, when the solar activity stops—if it stops, that is—will computers start working again? and b) if not, will some smart people begin to develop computers using regular transistors instead of miniaturized ones? Oh, shit!”
“What if the solar activity has already stopped? How the hell would we know?”
“Good point,” Randy said, “but one thing’s certain—solar activity stopped or not, the computers are still dead. I tried to boot my old laptop the other night, and… bupkes.”
“Wait a minute?” Josh said. “If the world had actually ended, wouldn’t we, by definition, be pushing up daisies?”
“Okay, so it wasn’t the end, just an apocalypse.”
“An apocalypse—but we’re not going to let it be the end of us.”
“Apocalypse—not,” Randy said. “I like that.”
“That makes two of us.”
It had, in fact, been a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. Airplanes in flight for example—as airplanes entered the zone of solar activity, their computers had stopped working. Which meant that the pilots suddenly had little or no control over their craft, and tens of thousands of people had died in the ensuing crashes. An airliner had actually crashed in a county adjacent to theirs, and they’d made their way to the crash site to have a look. Similarly, ships at sea had stopped moving, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine the plight of thousands of cruise ship passengers stranded at sea with dwindling water and food supplies. Trains stopped running—as did automobiles, causing more than a few car crashes on the interstate and other highways as drivers lost control of speeding vehicles.
“At least, we still have transistor radios that work,” Randy said.
“Yeah, but the transistor radios in old cars can’t find any stations on the air. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to have one of the older ham radios, you can communicate with others. Although, their numbers are few and far between.”
“Yeah, but we still get a bit of news that way.”
“Right. I just loved hearing about food riots and other horrors in the inner cities.”
“Sarcasm noted,” Randy said. “Besides which, there hasn’t been any news that you really could call good.”
“Frankly, I’m just as glad we don’t know the details of every tragedy that happened during that period. My overactive imagination doesn’t need any prompting along those lines.”
“Which is why we’re riding along the highway in a 1975 Ford Econoline Van that’s nearly two decades older than we are.”
“Thank God for old vehicles, and the people who keep them running,” Josh said.
“We both qualify in that respect.”
This was something of a departure for me since I don’t read a great deal of dystopian fiction, but I was interested in the premise of this one: what would we do in lives so controlled and trammelled by computer-driven technology if every computer in the world failed catastrophically? Everything stops. Power generation, transport, communications, medicine… everything these days is managed by computers, and Etienne’s base notion here is that deprived of that, first world society falls apart.
I’ll admit to being wryly amused at the thought that for millions of people in the so-called undeveloped nations, life would barely change at all. But for us, for the first world, being deprived of our privileged lives means that we’ve forgotten how to survive with nothing. Take away the ability to order takeout by phone app and computer, and we starve.
Except for Etienne’s bands of survivalists scattered across a US devasted by the loss of our ability to twist and manage life to something of our choosing. It starts with members of one such band, Josh and Randy out on a foraging expedition. Josh ends up foraging young Jake and Randy, sadly, doesn’t survive a hostile encounter with some bandits. Josh takes Jake back to the half-hidden valley where he lives in a community of like-minded, independent, tough individualists. It has the flavour of the Wild West about it, to be honest: a group of people not just making do, but making a virtue out of thriving against adversity, rebuilding society from the bottom up in the wilderness.
On reflection, not a great deal actually happens in this book. Etienne takes Josh and Jake on foraging missions where they restock the valley with essential tools, vehicles and fuel. They rescue and adopt a couple of kids, and start the long process of building links both with other communities and with a group of traders who have managed to use the ancient, non-computerised railway stock to travel. And in the midst of all this, Josh and Jake come together.
Etienne has a spare, rather unemotional style of writing. Used as we are to deep PoV where the reader is pulled into intimacy with the characters, I initially found the much lighter, shallower level that Etienne uses a little disconcerting. It keeps the characters at a distance from the reader, who gets to watch the events of the book but isn’t invited in deeper to share them. Josh’s grief at Randy’s death is there, but the reader isn’t pulled into it, observing but not feeling it. There’s also a little too much inconsequential dialogue for my personal taste, and some of that too expositionary, but these are relatively minor quibbles.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book. It is an interesting take on what will happen when society breaks down around our ears. And given the looming menace of Brexit, I’d better take this book as something of a prophecy and start stockpiling the things I’ll need to survive it…
Etienne lives in central Florida, very near the hamlet in which he grew up. He always wanted to write but didn’t find his muse until a few years ago, when he started posting stories online. These days he spends most of his time battling with her, as she is a capricious figure who, when she isn’t hiding from him, often rides him mercilessly, digging her spurs into his sides and forcing the flow of words from a trickle to a flood.