It’s a rare find: an 800-page novel about the end of the world that manages to be riveting and prescient while delivering thrills like a big summer blockbuster. But to a list that includes Stephen King’s The Stand, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, and Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we can now add Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers.
Some books offer a reader a window into cultural and political feelings of their time; reading them helps us understand history a little bit better. If any book does this for the modern era, it’s Wanderers—and with astounding clarity. Even living through today is confusing. This is a book readers can look into now for an understanding of American culture and politics, much as someone might do while reading it 100 years into the future.
If this sounds like grand talk for a book that’s only been on store shelves for a bit over 24 hours, stay with me.
The story begins with a girl, Nessie, and her sister Shana. Their mother left them under mysterious circumstances when they were young, and their father works on their farm overtime to keep them afloat. It doesn’t make for a great childhood for Shana, who fills the role of mother for her sister.
Until one day, when Nessie drops everything and walks out—and not like a disgruntled teenager. There’s something different going on with Nessie: She’s on her feet, but she doesn’t respond to sound or stimuli. Her movements seem purposeful, almost robotic. She’s going somewhere, or so it seems.
So Shana follows. Fairly soon, more people acting just like Nessie join them, as do their various family members. The walkers become the Flock, and their friends and family are their Shepherds.
As with any strange, widely occurring, and mysterious event, the Flock begins to attract a lot of attention. The media, the CDC, Homeland Security, right-wing fanatics, religious zealots, and even a bonafide rock god become involved along the way. But the most interesting figure among them is not a person but a machine: the most advanced AI ever created, called Black Swan. It singles out a former CDC scientist named Benji who left his job in disgrace after breaking the rules in order to do what he thought was the right thing, hoping to help humanity understand the Flock. He’s searching for the link between the Flock, who are impervious to all but bullets, and the emergence of a quiet but fast-moving fungal plague known as White Mask.
Most end of the world scenarios posited by books, television, and film display a “go big, or go home” mentality. Wanderers is different, in that everything that occurs within it is entirely plausible, and that’s what makes it truly terrifying. Even more terrifying is the ways the various factions that arise in the wake of the appearance of the Flock mirror ideologies found in real life.
The political unrest of the novel is the same flavor of upheaval we’re experiencing now. Some would argue the 2016 U.S. presidential election marked the beginning of an apocalyptic scenario for those who fear losing access to fundamental rights. Hate crimes appear to be on the rise. Right-wing extremists have become more visible than ever. And those who hate what they don’t understand are no longer afraid to show it. This is what the Flock represents: the inscrutable Other in our midst, a force either benign or alarming, depending on who is looking at them. This is the larger idea the novel explores, as Wendig (Star Wars: Aftermath, Blackbirds) argues that the only way to survive an apocalypse—both now and in the future—is to hope we can move past political extremism on both sides.
Wanderers is a page-turner featuring a diverse cast of characters, plausible science, cultural commentary, a dash of environmentalism, deftly developed politics, and a megaton of humanity. It’s a bit hefty for a beach read, but it’s a must-read book of the summer for anyone who cares about the future.