Devolution: nature is not your friend

Book cover: Devolution - Max BrooksWhen Mount Rainier erupted, the remote community of Greenloop was nominally deemed to be in a safe zone. Three weeks later, rescuers found no survivors. But the volcano was the least of Greenloop’s worries…

Max Brooks returns to faux non-fiction with “a first hand account of the Rainier Sasquatch massacre”. Vampires are sparkly, werewolves are all the rage, but I don’t feel I’ve seen many books about Bigfoot. I’ve got a sneaky fascination with cryptids so I was excited to see what Max Brooks made of them.

The novel is presented as the diary of Kate Holland, a resident of the butchered community, alongside interviews with the park ranger who found it and with Kate’s brother, who is determined to make the story public. We’re warned from the start that it may be a fake, but we’re invited – dared even – to read “with the eyes of a six-year-old… that flick constantly from the terror on the [page] to the dark, rustling trees outside the window.”

I’m not going to lie, I was hella glad I don’t live in the forest by the time I was halfway through.

…but then, there were many reasons I was glad not to live in Greenloop. A tiny community deep in the hills, it has unrivalled eco-credentials and is crammed full of top-of-the-line tech. Greenloop may be self-sufficient in terms of energy, but it relies on two to four service workers per person to keep it running. The founder, Tony Durant, likes to talk about how Greenloop in terms of inclusivity and trickle-down sustainability, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is an elite country retreat for the privileged.

If Tony is totally bought into his own sales pitch, the other residents are either rich and right-on (the lesbian child psychologists who have adopted a Rohingya orphan; the retired vegan foodies; Yvette Durant, who livestreams yoga and guided meditation classes) or acerbic loners (Balkan artist Mostar, self-absorbed academic Reinhardt) brought in by Tony to add to the community’s prestige. The result is a tiny cluster of dysfunctional humanity you couldn’t rely on for a cup of sugar, living in a settlement that is so dependent on its invisible support staff that they don’t even have a hammer between them.


Oh, that’s right – a volcanic eruption and a Sasquatch invasion.

While I struggle with horror, I love inevitable catastrophes. I am happy to giggle through corny disaster movies (Dante’s Peak trumps Volcano, fite me) and I’ll grant way more leeway to paper thin characters and predictable tropes than I do with any other genre. If you don’t, you may find Devolution considerably less entertaining than I did.

Max Brooks does just enough to flesh out anxiety-ridden, conflict-averse narrator Kate and Mostar, a fierce older woman with uncompromising common sense, while the supporting cast are distinct if fairly flimsy. However, everyone gets space to develop, playing out Mostar’s comment that adversity reveals people for who they really are. Some arcs worked better for me than others (I couldn’t quite buy into the Durants), but – however predictable – I was thoroughly invested in the relationship that developed between Mostar and her half-willing adoptees, the Hollands.

The Hollands have barely settled into Greenloop when Rainier erupts and their priorities shift from unpacking to figuring out how to make two weeks of groceries stretch through the winter. The community fractures almost immediately (although I was delighted that it never becomes ‘other people are the true enemy’). As the people bicker, Brooks slowly cranks the tension, allowing his Sasquatch to make noises off while the foolish humans dismiss their fears and make terrible choices.

Devolution may be a fast-reading thriller, but Brooks seasons it with spicy commentary on victim blaming and the fragility of the western world (all the saltier for reading it in the context of a pandemic). Tony Durant is a pointed satire on the tech entrepreneur, all big ideas that ignore the notion of failure (hope is not a strategy, Tony). But it’s Frank McCray’s unexpectedly supportive commentary that really hits hardest right now:

FEMA doesn’t stockpile. Too inefficient. They contract out to the private sector, who don’t stockpile either… The whole country rests on a system that sacrificed resilience for comfort

Arguably the only thing Brooks gets wrong is the emphasis on comfort rather than profit. But while Max Brooks wants you to understand just how easily our world can tilt on its axis, he’s only scoring political points in passing.

Even without the explicit warnings, it’s obvious how poorly prepared Greenloop’s residents are to deal with Bigfoot. Brooks’s Sasquatch are terrifying: huge, strong, clever, hungry. Somehow, he still makes them almost relatable (almost – I can only have so much empathy for creatures who like a Hulk smash and disembowelling). Borrowing heavily from research into great apes, this Bigfoot is a recognisably close relative. As our small band of humans try to shed their civilised restraints to deal with them, it’s easy to end up a leetle bit conflicted (if only a little bit).

The outcome may be inevitable, but the novel is a compelling tale of resisting the odds. I found myself rooting for the little community in spite of knowing how it was going to end. Sure, there’s a lot of familiar tropes as Mostar shapes our malleable narrator into a final girl, but it’s very well executed. Just don’t read it home alone in the mountains at night.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

DEVOLUTION is out now in the US and will be released on June 16th in the UK.