Devolution is quite different from my normal reads. I have to be honest, it was Max Brooks himself that piqued my interest in this one. I’ve never been interested in cryptids that much, especially not Bigfoot. But hearing the author himself talk about his inspiration for the novel and what he hoped people got from it at the Del Rey 2021 Virtual Showcase was so interesting that I had to read this one for myself.
Please note before reading this review – I will be discussing elements of the book which may remove some of the “magic” of the book. If you don’t want to know whether the events of this book are real or not then please do not read this review.
Violence, blood, dismemberment, trauma, war, PTSD, extreme weight loss.
As I mentioned what intrigued me about Devolution was actually the way Max Brooks talked about it at the Del Rey Virtual Showcase. During his interview, he was asked what he hoped people got from his books and cage way he talked about using fiction as an education tool was quite inspiring. I wanted to see for myself what he had done with this book to bring science and useful information to people via a fictional format. I’ll be honest, I’m not that curious about Bigfoot in general so I’m going into this with very little knowledge of that mythos. That’s going to give me quite an interesting standpoint I think.
The first thing that I noticed about Devolution was how flawlessly Brooks writes from a female perspective. I was able to slip into the mindset of Kate Holland easily without recognising that it was a male author writing a female character. You’re probably thinking that gender shouldn’t play a role and you’re right, it shouldn’t. But I’ve read some truly awful books written by male authors with female protagonists where it’s clear that it’s important to them and was on their mind when they were writing the book. In the case of Devolution, Brooks’ narration just flowed completely naturally. Whether it was from Kate Holland’s journal entries or interviews with her brother or Senior Park Ranger Josephine Schell.
The bulk of the book is made up of Kate’s journal entries and told from her perspective, with each chapter packaged with interview snippets to add context. It’s like watching a film; you get to see what every character is doing. Unlike a film, this is set up like a documentary with Brooks acting as a researcher who is putting all the evidence together in one book. Even the synopsis reads as though this is a real encounter that happened, and considering the level of research he has put into this book, it’s quite easy to believe it. The Greenloop community does not seem to actually exist – yet. Sustainable living communities are already happening worldwide and that’s not the only piece of real-life information that Brooks has woven into his story. The USGS’ (The US Geological Survey) budget was cut under the previous Presidential administration, putting lives at risk as Brooks discusses in the novel and the new US administration is putting money back into it in 2022 for just that reason.
In general, I was quite impressed with how many random facts and thought-provoking points Brooks managed to ease into the narrative without seeming as though he was flooding the reader with facts. Unlike hard science fiction authors, everything came naturally as part of the character’s design and conversation. Greenloop is not a prototype, but it is the first of its kind created by the Cygnus company and it’s not cheap to get a house in the community. The residents are primarily academics, people who don’t need to live in the city to work and have made a fortune being smart. It provides Brooks with the perfect platform to offer information up to the reader without seeming as though that is exactly what he is doing.
There were a few things that bothered me about the book and the first is the format of Kate’s diaries. She writes down word for word every single conversation she has with her neighbours, and I’m sure some readers probably thought “ah well, she’s just got a really good memory!” and excused it. The problem for me is that I do have a really good memory, as close to a photographic/eidetic memory as is actually possible (spoiler: no one has a fully photographic memory, no one’s Batgirl). Even if you can remember the majority of a conversation you can’t remember it word for word. If you were writing in your diary it would be more like “And then Joe Bloggs said something about the weather and Mary Sue was like, well the news reports are always wrong….”. There’s a degree of uncertainty, of ad-lib. It’s not word for word perfect which is what is exactly what is found in Devolution. The interviews are written with more realism, it’s just the diaries that are too perfect and read like fiction.
It broke the illusion that this might have happened even more for me, which in turn meant that I couldn’t really take any of it seriously or become connected with the characters. That leads me to my other biggest issue; how they choose to defend themselves against the monsters. Brooks does an excellent job of explaining why certain methods of defence are not possible, however, other very obvious ones are completely ignored in favour of going for the most bloody stereotypical horror survival showdown. We already know a massacre happens; it’s in the book synopsis. So readers expect it. It’s why they picked up the book and Brooks delivers it. It’s well written, it’s terrifying and I’m still sitting there reading it thinking X why didn’t they use that?! Perhaps that is Brook’s entire point; when faced with a predator that puts us lower down on the food train we stop thinking like an intelligent and resourceful species as devolution takes place.
In a way being who and what I am, someone with an academic and research background, I ruined this book a little for myself. While fact-checking some of the auto-searches that kept popping up was “did the Green Loop Massacre happen?” and “is it real?”. I didn’t check that, I went straight to Mount Rainer’s wiki page and checked when it last erupted. I also googled GreenLoop to see if it existed. As soon as I knew those two key pieces of information were false I knew that the rest was elaborate fiction, and that takes away a huge part of the magic of Devolution. Brooks’ craft is writing believable docu-drama fiction, and if I hadn’t known any better I would have been sucked in. The huge amount of research that has gone into this book is amazing, and then you get to the character creation. Every single character is unique, and completely believable, including the witnesses that Brooks interviews. The Senior Ranger Josephine Schell especially is written so well that I actually wonder if Brooks did interview a ranger from the United States National Park Service as part of his research for this book.
Despite knowing that the massacre is not real, I came away from Devolution educated. I learned things which is what Max Brooks wants. I learned that coconut water is the best natural hydrator in the world, for example, which I never knew. I learned about homes being build from recycled materials and got curious enough to look to see whether they had already become a reality. I’m sure I won’t be the only one, so I got plenty from Devolution even if I wasn’t a huge fan of the story. So give it a shot, see what you learn 🙂
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Over to you
Thanks for reading my review for Max Brooks’ Devolution! I considered skipping the research elements of this review but that would not have been true to my experience as a reader. I apologise if anyone feels that ruined it for them, I did put a warning before the review for that very reason.
Have you read Devolution? What was your experience of the novel?
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