‘Devolution’ was an extraordinary reading experience: I found it to be compelling and totally immersive. Each page made me want more.
This caught me by surprise as I’d half-expected the documentary style of storytelling to become a little tiresome. I was impressed by Max Brook’s ability to weave together a journal giving a first-hand real-time account of the Greenloop massacre with interviews with a Park Ranger and reviews of relevant research in a way that didn’t kill the pace of the story or come across like some ‘ghost hunter’ faux-documentary reality TV cliché.
The way he presents these two storytelling streams actually increases the tension. The research adds credibility to the increasingly desperate narrative in the journal. Nesting the very tense, edge-of-the-seat journal narrative in an investigative journalism ‘How Did This Disaster Happen?’ framework, added a sort of fatalistic air that you only get from hindsight. A regretful, head-shaking tone that is part empathy (What a terrible thing to happen) and part incredulity (How could they have been so unprepared) and part worry (Could this happen again? To us this time?). The framework adds to the plausibility and the significance of the story in the journal. It establishes the participants as victims of an extraordinary set of circumstances and then uses those circumstances to reveal weaknesses that we all share and strengths that we hope we might have.
I loved the characterisation of the West Coast tech industry that has so convinced itself that any problem can be solved by the creative use of technology and a commitment to positive thinking, that It has blinded itself to the vulnerability of the digital world and the opportunities for abuse that it offers.. I know from my own experience in Palo Alto that software engineers often struggle to imagine the criminal and military applications of their work (e.g. Blockchain/cryptocurrency an enabler of a global criminal economy or those cute Boston Dynamic dog robots as a way of automating ground warfare to increase kill rates and lower casualties.). Max Brooks did a great job in setting up Greenloop as a showcase for the dream lifestyle of the digital faithful, giving a small, rich group all the convinces of the city while letting them be at one with nature. and then showing how quickly that tech-enabled lifestyle fails when the tech goes down.
The inclusion in this West Coast Tech Eden of the artist Mostar, a survivor of the siege of Mostar and the atrocities committed by both sides against the civilian population there, was inspired. She is both a credible character and the embodiment of an atrocity survivor mindset that sees the world in a way that people who have never known hardship resist accepting as real. She helps to make visible in the others a very human reaction to adversity: denial bolstered by intellectual self-deception that serves either to hold fear at arm’s length or to mask moral cowardice.
I loved watching the change in power dynamics once the idea of a community of households united by a desire to for an in-harmony with nature existence with all the conveniences of the digital age is replaced by a collaboration based on the need to work together to survive.
At its heart, ‘Devolution’ is a horror story, not an essay on technology fallacies and the vulnerabilities they bring. It’s about fear and violence and death and rage. The journey towards the final blood-soaked conflict is made compelling because we see it through the eyes of a woman who, at the beginning of the story is struggling to cope with her anxiety and her failing marriage, is energised and transformed by an immediate and urgent purpose and is finally consumed by violent, insatiable rage.
I was totally absorbed in ‘Devolution’. It was a story filled with horror but it was also a reminder of reality. that I found sobering and fascinating.
Now, I have to read Max Brooks’ earlier book: ‘World War Z’.
Max Brooks is an] is an American actor and author best known for rebooting zombies in popular culture.
He started with a satire The Zombie Survival Guide (2003).His second novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006). set in the ten years following a zombie apocalypse, was made into a movie by Brad Pitt.
He wrote The Extinction Parade (2014 and 2015) zombies vs vampires graphic novels in and two Minecraft novels.
He is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. He is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point,
4 thoughts on “‘Devolution’ by Max Brooks – highly recommended”
I’m psyched that you enjoyed it so much! I did too. 🙂
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Thank you. I picked this up partly because I’d heard you say good things about World War Z.
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