Century, 2020, Hardback, 304pp, £12.99, ISBN 1-9848-2678-7
This book review was written in 2020 for Vector, the magazine of the British Science Fiction Association.
For anyone born in the 1970s, Devolution is a strange hybrid of the old and the new. Old because this is a book about Bigfoot. Bigfoot was one of the perennial B-list mysteries, behind UFOs, psychic powers and ghosts, and paraded endlessly in books and TV series such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, which were all the rage back then.
Despite the best investigative efforts of my nine-year-old self back, the mass availability of high quality digital cameras on smartphones and the wider realisation that camera images often cannot be trusted, many of the wonderful mysteries of my childhood have largely disappeared, and Arthur C. Clarke had to find other lines of work…
Alas! If he could only have held on until 2020, when Max Brooks was able to reveal that Bigfoot is real after all!
For those that don’t know, Bigfoot was a legendary ape-like creature reputed to live in the northern wilds of the US; a cousin of the tongue-twistingly named Abominable Snowman (or yeti, as my investigatory nine-year-old self was grateful to discover, was its more pronounceable local name). Blurred pictures and short snippets of film have been snapped of Bigfoot, but no other proof had been found – until now.
In Devolution, Max Brooks takes this rather moribund “missing link” and makes it scary and all too real, as he did with zombies in World War Z (the book, not the disappointing film). Devolution mixes historical sources and after-the-fact reactions, but most of the book is taken from the journal entries of Kate Holland, who has joined an experiment in ultra-modern rural living, out in the middle of nowhere – and in the US, unlike the largely tamed UK, the middle of nowhere really is nowhere.
Fortunately, the tiny community of Greenloop has all the latest conveniences. The brainchild of a Silicon Valley techbro and his wife, Greenloop is a high-tech communal village that enables its rich inhabitants to enjoy country living without all the inconveniences country living entails.
Journal writer Kate is a rather insecure and nervous thing, in therapy for… well, she’s in therapy. Along with her man-child husband, Dan, a former “entrepreneur in the digital space”, she’s hoping to make a fresh go of their disintegrating marriage.
They’re joined by a host of wonderfully dreadful caricatures: the hosts and creators of Greenloop are tanned, wealthy, charismatic and Californian (a PhD in Psychosomatic Illness Therapy, anyone?). Another couple have brought their traumatised, mute and over-protected daughter, who they rescued from an overseas orphanage. There’s a “male, pale and stale” writer of pop philosophy books who has an answer to everything; a seemingly sweet old retired couple, and a forceful, no-nonsense artist who works in ceramics and is a “character”.
Chaos erupts in the form of a nearby volcano, just as the group are beginning to get to know each other. Not close enough to be an immediate threat, but close enough to close roads, break phone lines and occupy rescue services for weeks, if not months, Greenloop is left catastrophically isolated.
The local fauna also run to escape the effects of the volcano, but there seems to be something unusual moving with them that hasn’t been seen before – or at least, hasn’t been seen properly before. And it has very large feet…
Devolution begins with some vicious social satire that may not be everyone’s cup of tea; the characters are cringe-worthy, annoying, unpleasant – or all three! That we eventually end up rooting for (some of) them is a testament to Brooks’ writing, and its slow, inevitable build-up to some real horror. The eventual appearance of the Bigfoot was so well done that it made me shiver, and horror which genuinely manages that is a rare find at my age.
If there’s a weakness to Devolution, it’s that the journal device of the narrative doesn’t really work – I can’t imagine being this scared and sitting down to write pages and pages about the experience.
Follow-ups to World War Z have some very large shoes to fill, but Max Brooks has found a pretty snug fit with Devolution.