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Chuck Wendig's new novel Wanderers makes the apocalypse beautiful
All across America, an epidemic of sleepwalking has broken out. The walkers do not stop, do not talk, cannot be slowed down, and do not seem capable of waking up. They form a bizarre lock, coming together to follow the same path, and as their loved ones gather to shepherd them in their strange journey across the country, an apocalyptic vision of the future forms. In the middle of it all are a scientist with a checkered past, a rock star looking for a new narrative, a preacher caught in a web of escalating violence, and a teenager who refuses to leave her little sister.
This is Wanderers, Chuck Wendig's (Star Wars: Aftermath, Blackbirds) epic new novel of a dark future that weaves everything from social media to climate change to artificial intelligence into its complex, multi-viewpoint narrative.
Ahead of the book's release, SYFY WIRE talked to Wendig about its origins, writing about the apocalypse in an already dark time, and finding hope when it feels like the world's ending in slow motion.
What was the genesis of this book?
I had the idea, the core mechanic of this thing, in my head for years. Writers are the type where some of us consider ideas to be precious gems, but I have come around to the idea that mostly they're just sort of like beach glass. They're pretty, but they're not super useful. I just didn't have a story.
So, then the year 2016 happened, and it was a really interesting year. I won't get into the weeds on that one, but obviously, a lot changed and it was very easy to see a lot of anxieties. Not just anxieties about politics, but anxieties about climate change or gun control or nationalism. Pick one. Just kind of spin the wheel and pick an anxiety.
I felt sort of besieged by that, but then they kind of did me a favor and formed an anxiety Voltron, and it made this whole story make sense. And out of nowhere, I went from having just an idea to having a fully-fledged sort of thing, with characters and viewpoints, a whole thing. That is where the seed finally became a tree, so to speak.
What was it like getting into the heads of so many different characters?
I mean, when you're telling this kind of story, both from a character perspective and a plot perspective, you want as many lenses into the thing, first so it doesn't feel samey-samey for the reader, but also because that's sort of our job as storytellers, to have not only sympathy but an empathy for who these people are and what they want and what their problems are and what good or bad things they're willing to do to overcome their problems.
So, it's just good storytelling to do that, but also you want to make sure it's not too much of a burden on the reader. I really wanted it to stand out and be entertaining while also interesting and illuminating in some capacity. So, you only do that by finding diversity of voices and a pathway of ways into the story, and that's what they give you.
Did you read a lot of apocalyptic fiction before this?
I read some of the classics, obviously, whether you're talking about old classics like The Stand or new classics like Station Eleven, and I feel like this book is kind of in the middle of those things. Swan Song is probably my favorite apocalyptic novel of all time, by Robert McCammon.
I'm not like a student of the book; I don't seek [apocalyptic stories] out wherever they may come, but I do like them, sure, absolutely. I feel like it was one of those things where it was time to tell this story, sort of an update.
In terms of apocalyptic fiction and the tropes that come into play, were there specific things you were hoping to avoid or felt the need to focus on?
I wasn't really super hyped up about tropes. I try not to be when I get into writing a book because if I let those things define the book too early it makes it feel a little artificial.
So, the goal is stepping in to find the things that I think are interesting to me personally, not just about the genre but about the time in which I'm writing it. Some of it's kind of social media-driven, and certainly, I am an extremely online person, so having the aspect of social media on there and seeing how that both drives and affects the unfolding of an apocalypse is interesting. And obviously climate change.
I'm not going to get into spoilers or the weeds on this stuff, but the weather is literally part of the apocalypse in the book. It's an apocalypse that's slow-motion, that's kind of real, that I feel like we have to at least acknowledge. And it feels almost irresponsible these days to have a present-day or near-future science fiction book that doesn't grapple with that in some way, acknowledge it, you know what I mean?
Social media and climate change are two of the big things, but politics, the current era of very strange politics, felt like it needed to have a mirror held up to it.
What surprised you most about the writing of this story and where it took you?
That it took me so long to do it. I didn't expect it to be that big of a book. The story was just not finished and wasn't even close to being finished, and not like in a "Well, it's getting away from me." I felt on track, but also like there was so much more track to go. It's just one of those ways where the book is really different for me than some of my other books. I told my editor, "The deadline is coming up. I will make this work." And she was like, "Avoid all your instincts on that."
A lot of my books aspire to what you might consider thriller pacing. Here, the instinct of mine was to sort of lean back into that, and she wisely steered me away from that and just told me to keep going, and it will be what it will be whenever it's done. So, that was where I got really surprised, [where] it got really away from me in terms of what I expected.
Writing the book concurrently with watching the world from 2016 to now, what did you learn about the world and trying to view all of it through the context of fiction?
I think it gave me the instinct that, even if we're not all going to be okay in the sense that everything is "Fine," we have been here before, bad places.
Not to downplay any of those atrocities. They're bad, period, but there is also cause for hope in the sense that, at the micro level, some people are inherently good and will help, in that sort of Mr. Rogers "Look for the helpers" kind of way.
So, the key thing for the book for me was that I really needed to find a hopeful thing and not let it be just sort of a social media outrage. So, yeah, I really needed hope and heart in there — and humor. I needed the apocalypse to be contextualized with that hope and heart.
Maybe that's just medicinal for me. Maybe that's not real. Maybe that's not a true thing that I'm reflecting, but it feels true.
The last question was actually going to be "How do you find optimism when it feels like the world is ending?" but you basically answered it.
It's hard, but it's there. You have got to look for it.
Wanderers is available July 2.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.