In the face of all the madness and uncertainty that’s currently making up the modern world, I have found myself leaning into a sort of comfort food mode, deciding to read and watch things that are familiar, and that can kind of help me escape from everything going on. Which is why more than likely the majority of the books I’m going to be reading this year are sci-fi, fantasy, and other such genres, the sorts of books that got me interested in reading when I was a kid, and helped define my tastes. So, after the vaguely fantasy Dresden Files book I read a couple weeks ago, I decided to switch back over to sci-fi, and opened up a recently released sci-fi book written by a writer that I have a great deal of affection for. You may know Robert Brockway from his former stint as an editor and writer at Cracked, or perhaps for his trilogy of fantasy/sci-fi novels, the Vicious Circuit, the first book of which I featured back in the earliest days of the site. I’ve been reading Brockway’s writing ever since he was working on a blog back when I was in high school, and have tried to keep up with him ever since. He’s a tremendously funny writer, and so far everything I’ve read of his has been terrific, saturated with a wonderful sense of humor. So, I was a little caught off guard when it turned out that his latest novel, Carrier Wave, was a sprawling and more or less serious tale about end of the world as we know it. Maybe not the most relaxing read I’ve had during the pandemic, but it’s probably the best thing he’s ever written, and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.
The novel is largely a series of vignettes, peaking in at various groups of characters over the course of several years as society begins to collapse around them. Sometimes these characters survive, and sometimes you get a story where everyone ends up dying in the end. And, it all begins with a small CETI laboratory in the 1980’s, searching for alien transmissions in the stars. And, they do come across something, a series of sounds that instantly warp the minds of those who listen to it. People have different reactions to the sound, some becoming mindless creatures full of rage, some gaining at catatonic state until given stimulus which causes them to awaken and attack with superhuman speed and strength, some are driven psychotic and attempt to merrily kill anyone around them, some are driven to spread the sound of the signal as quickly as possible, and some become obsessed with rules and laws. The sound infects quite a few people, but ends up getting swept under the rug after everyone who had been exposed dies in a fire. However, in modern times a hard-drive with the sound on it winds up in the hands out a guy trying to make some electronica music, and he accidentally unleashes a viral hit song which manages to infect the entire world, quickly causing the destruction of human society.
We then follow around a series of characters as they try to survive the ensuing madness. A very slim amount of people seem immune to the effects of the sound, and are thus left alone to live in a world where their fellow humans have become murderous monsters. They also have to deal with a small pin-point of darkness that appears in the skies, slowly spreading until it eventually covers the entire world, plunging the Earth into a sort of eternal night. We follow survivors as they attempt to make their way in the world. Sometimes it’s hardened military soldiers trying to find order in the world, sometimes it’s children left without their parents, sometimes it’s people trying to help others, and sometimes it’s people doing their best to hide. But, slowly but surely, we start to learn that there’s no stopping this madness, but humanity has given their best shot at a settlement in Washington, and we eventually see all of our surviving characters make their way to this last stand for humanity, surviving against hordes of maniacs, and the slow understanding of the unthinkable cosmic beings which are responsible or this, all because humanity dared to listen to the stars.
Like I said, this book ended up not exactly being what I was expecting. Sure, there’s humor to be found in the story, because Robert Brockway is a very funny person, and that’s probably always going to feature. But, this is the first thing of his I’ve read that I wouldn’t really classify as a comedic take on a genre. It’s just straight up horror. And, incredibly effective horror at that. I have rarely felt the type of dread and panic that I did reading some of these passages, especially when you realize that the rug is about to be yanked out from under some of these characters, often at the same time that they are. The style of building novel out of a series of vignettes and short stories gives the chance to look in on all sorts of different types of characters, and see how various people would be reacting to this horror, all caused by the proliferation of a catchy techno song.
I thoroughly recommend this novel, even if this particular moment in time makes it slightly more anxiety enduing than it normally might. Especially a story specifically about a sort of plague that attempts to end the human race. Albeit, and auditory plague, something that I found to be incredibly clever. But, as the story goes on, and kind of leaves the plague imagery behind, sliding into a sort of zombie apocalypse sort of thing, before ending up at something approaching Lovecraft, I was incredibly blown away by this glimpse into the way that human beings will cope with the end of everything they know. Some of them hold onto the past, trying to act like things are normal and forge some simulacrum of normal society, while others try to completely change who they were, and create a new way of life. It’s a story that at times feels incredibly bleak, especially after we see these characters fail time and time again. But, by the end of the story we get a glimpse at a sort of positive ending, an idea that no matter what humans will survive. We may have to completely change everything about the world we had before, but we can still strive to survive and improve. It’s just a lot of work.
Carrier Wave was written by Robert Brockway, 2020.
Categories: Page Turners