Aliens invade. The world population is down to a guesstimated one billion. Everyone else is dead, be it by plague, by flood or by sniper. What’s left of humanity fends for itself. Among those last few survivors are Cassie, Zombie, Sammy and Evan. This is their story.
The story: One day, an alien spaceship appears over Earth. No communication occurs, but it’s soon clear that these are not friendly aliens. They unleash four waves of destruction upon humanity. First, there’s an electromagnetic pulse that disables all of Earth’s electronics. This is followed by a flood that annihilates the coastal cities. Birds that are infested with a plague take care of even more humans. What’s left is being hunted down by snipers and drones. In this world, Cassie has promised her brother that she’ll come find him. Evan Walker has fallen in love. Zombie almost forgets who he is and Sammy gets his army training at five years of age.
While the basic plot of Rick Yancey’s book is usually very predictable and hardly re-invents the genre of dystopian fiction, the author does many things right that other authors neglect.
The book isn’t focussed on one main character. While Cassiopeia – usually called Cassie – is the first character we get to follow, the there are others taking center stage in following chapters. Thus, Mr. Yancey avoids the “Girl in Postapocalypse”-trope that plagues so many books of this genre these days.
What Mr. Yancey also does is that Cassie is not just a “strong young woman”. While she certainly has a lot of conviction and survival instinct, she’s not reduced to these traits. First and foremost, Cassie seems scared and confused. She competently makes her way in a world overrun by alien invasors due to girlscout-like training she once got, very rudimentary weapons training and karate classes. It’s not much, but the set-up works. And Cassie does make the hard choices, shooting a man in cold blood. Whereas other characters would never touch a weapon again, Cassie still clings to her guns and uses them. Cassie is also shockingly stupid, at times, while crafty given other circumstances. This makes her a very flawed, very relatable and very human character.
The 5th Wave suffers from the clichéed coincidences. Of course Cassie’s crush from high school survives. Of course that crush gets stuck with Cassie’s little brother. But neither the brother nor the crush are handled in a stereotypical way. They’re a prime example of how Mr. Yancey breaks with taboos. Both of them are trained to be soldiers, even if the brother is five years old. He’s trained to kill, along with other characters in the book.
These characters are also almost all broken. The character of Ringer – a traditionally beautiful girl whose story as well as real name is still unrevealed – never smiles, never puts any intonation into what she says and generally feels very inhuman. Other characters crack under the pressure and die. These are just some of the aspects that makes the world of The 5th Wave feel more like an actual work.
The writing is solid. While Mr. Yancey still isn’t re-inventing a genre with this book, he avoids many of the pitfalls. Another small aspect that makes the book feel as if it’s set in our world are the pop culture references. Whereas other books go out of their way to not name names such as “that black robot-looking guy from that movie”, The 5th Wave gets to the point: “Lead the way, Vader!”
To make things more varied, Mr. Yancey shifts voices, depending on which character is currently the focus of the story. Cassie is not an accomplished writer, so her parts read a lot like a movie script at times. Zombie’s (yes, that’s the guy’s name) has a lot of military staccato in it, Sammy’s parts are full of the naive view of a child.
All in all, The 5th Wave is an outstanding dystopian novel. Surprisingly serious, very cruel in places and it has a nice flow. It’s an easy read that has some nice twists and turns.