“Aliens are stupid.”
Only, in Rick Yancey’s post-apocalyptic thriller The 5th Wave, aliens aren’t stupid. They’re so far beyond humans that humans can’t even comprehend how much more advanced they are. This is due in part to the fact that humans haven’t even seen or communicated with these aliens, these Others, even though at the opening of the novel the Others have already wiped out roughly 7 billion people with three waves of attack, all carried out from their mothership in Earth’s orbit.
First wave: an electromagnetic pulse that effectively cuts the power for the entire world. Second wave: triggering a series of environmental disasters that wipes out another large chunk of the population. Third wave: an Ebola-like plague carried by birds.
We start our journey from the point of view of Cassie, a teenage girl who is living alone in the woods, trying to survive long enough to rescue her little brother from the hands of the baddies in the midst of the fourth wave, in which sleeper agents indistinguishable from humans are prowling the world, taking out the few survivors left after the first three waves. The narrative weaves in various points of view that all converge as the fifth wave of attack begins and humanity prepares to defend its existence against a seemingly unstoppable foe with limitless intelligence.
I’ve been booktalking this title to students for the past year via the above book trailer without actually having read it, and I don’t really know why because god damn is it fun. The prose is nothing spectacular and there’s not a whole lot of substance going on but that doesn’t stop it from being a hugely entertaining, cinematic jaunt through the end of the world.
I particularly loved the whole aliens wearing human faces element, as it had distinct notes of Battlestar Galactica and if you know anything at all about me, it should be that I love the god damn shit out of that post-apocalyptic space opera. Cassie’s paranoia as she tries to determine whether or not she should kill or grant mercy to every human she meets is an infectious reading experience, and her inner torment as she tries to determine if her thirst for survival is worth anything in this horrible fucked up world is harrowing and well-wrought. I appreciated that Yancey included some passages from the perspective of one of the Others; I love a nuanced bad guy, and in seeing the end of the world through the eyes of one of the beings that destroyed it, that being becomes more sympathetic, complex, and difficult to hate. Moral ambiguity almost always gets a gold star from me, and Yancey does this quite well.
Of all the points of view that interweave throughout the novel, I always found Cassie’s the most compelling, in part because she is the most well-developed character. She’s simultaneously likeable and a total pain in the ass, but never veers into being so obnoxious that you stop rooting for her to persevere. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I didn’t enjoy the other perspectives, I did sometimes get a little backed off by the whole military boot camp narrative, in part because I found the characters whose perspective we shared in that part less sympathetic. Not because he’s a shitty person (though he did do a seeeeeeeriously shitty thing), he just wasn’t developed as well and I also just…didn’t totally care about his side of the story, even though it is very important to the overall narrative. I guess I always wanted to get back to more survival in the woods and less puke-eating maggot shit, ya feel me?
Once the story kicked into fast-paced action Yancey lost me just a little bit, in part because I didn’t always totally understand what was going on. There were a lot of convenient events that fell into place with little explanation, and “plans” that were vaguely glossed over, maybe so the reader didn’t have to worry to much about them actually making any sense. I’m also just not as into action/adventure as I am into the quieter narrative of what we, as human beings, do and feel and think in the face of annihilation. That said, it did get suuuuper intense, and the convergence of all the different perspectives in an INSANE final fifty pages meant I practically tore the pages out of the book I was holding onto it so tightly.
A few reviews I’ve read mentioned predictability as being a drawback, and yeah, I pretty much predicted all the plot twists well before they were actually unveiled, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride for a couple reasons. One, I really wanted to keep reading to see if I had it right. And yes, I did have it right every single time, but the reveals weren’t my main motivation for reading. There’s enough meat to the characters and the connective tissues holding the plot points together that the story is captivating even if you’ve got it all figured out. Two, I’m an adult. This book is not written for adults. I have roughly fifteen years more experience consuming narrative than the intended audience does, and so, yes, I am pretty competent at picking up clues in a text meant for teenagers. I don’t think this is a problem with the book itself, and to all you adults who bitch about figuring out books meant for kids long before the end: get the fuck over yourselves. You’re adults. You probably should be able to figure these books out before the spectacular reveal. That’s not to say that there aren’t books for young people that haven’t totally dumped me on my butt – there are! – but those books are special and mind blowing and whatever. My point stands: get over yourselves.
I feel compelled to mention one very minor plot point that bugged the shit out of me. At one point Cassie is taking a stroll in the woods that surround her refugee camp, and this super douchey teenage dude follows her out there and basically attempts to sexually assault her. She slaps him so he backs off and then says something ridiculous like he knows she’s a virgin because otherwise she wouldn’t have slapped him. Now, what’s ridiculous isn’t the fact that he said that, because that is in line with that character, but what’s ridiculous is that this vignette, seen through the eyes of Cassie, doesn’t give us any sort of reaction to that fucked up statement on her part. Because, no, the reason she slapped him isn’t because she’s a virgin, it’s because he was trying to assault her and deserved to have his nuts kneed through his brain cavity. I’m not sure if this was intentional or what on Yancey’s part, since it could be argued that Cassie is a kid and so maybe her own insecurities about sexuality could make her swallow that line without questioning it, but the way that scene was written screamed rape culture to me.
Now, I feel like I have to point out that this story of the end of the world is pretty white-washed. There was one character that I was fairly certain was Asian, and a lot of the other characters could theoretically be imagined as whatever race you so choose, but I still couldn’t help but notice how white these apocalypse survivors were. If you’re looking for a representative, diverse read, this is not your book.
Verdict: this is a compelling post-apocalyptic alien invasion story and if you like those things then you will probably like this book. I am 100% going to read the next book in the trilogy, The Infinite Sea.
For music I am going with one of my favorite Misfits songs, “I Turned into a Martian” for all those pesky sleeper agents/Silencers who struggle to reconcile their human experiences with their alien consciousness.
Where I got it: ARC that a friend picked up for me at some ALA conference or another many years ago.