(Warning, this review contains spoilers.)
Survivors, A Novel of the Coming Collapse, James Rawles’ sophomore fiction novel, is both better and worse than his first, Patriots. I didn’t realize it prior to reading the book, but Survivors is a prequel to Patriots. This seems to limit the world-state of Survivors and the ability tell a vibrant tale, as the story feels bound by the mythology of the first book. The novel, while technically (much) better written than Patriots, suffers because of it. For example, the climax which links the two stories is not nearly as powerful as the original. Plus, unlike Patriots, there were many loose ends, and I had to wonder whether this was because of the author’s desire to write another novel in the series or something else, such as page limitations. Finally, as with Patriots, Rawles’ leaves open the questions of human nature which could have provided power to the story, instead opting to go with Ayn Randian one-dimensional character models, i.e. every character is either good or bad, and no one has any inner battles or demons to conquer.
The opening of the book is similar to Patriots, with an imminent economic collapse forcing the characters to try to get to their respective home bases or bug-out-locations while collecting supplies to live on. In Survivors, this is complicated by the fact that the main protagonist is serving in Afghanistan and will need to find his way home. Luckily, the character is just about to leave active duty as the collapse occurs, and with the help of $20,000 in gold coins he has with him, proceeds to make his way across the globe to his home in the American southwest. Other major and minor characters are introduced as well. They are a decent cross-section of society and range from a southern grandmother, a trio of Hispanic orphans and one of the antagonists of the story, a mid-western gang member.
One aspect of Rawles’ writings one must get used to is his heavy use of technical and military acronyms and jargon. While some of this is useful for those who want to reference topics after reading it, much of it is distracting. For example, while the detailed explanations of Ham Radio usage which appear in the books could be a good jumping off point to someone interested in pursuing Ham communications, the esoteric rules and regulations of US Army discharge procedures probably has less value for most folks. However, this technical knowledge does provide some realism to the story, and it appears that is what Rawles strives for. Plus, the overall writing quality of the book is a vast improvement over Patriots, and Rawles seems comfortable telling a story, something I wasn’t convinced of with his first effort.
The main failure of the novel is the same as in the prior…one-dimensional characters and storytelling. There is no emotional component to the characters, and they are all too good to be true. They always do the ‘right’ thing. Their one-sidedness makes them forgettable, and in many cases, interchangeable. All the main characters pray regularly and act with virtue; there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is they are never put into a situation where they might have to make a decision that may be morally questionable. For example, the character who is striving to get home from Afghanistan is lucky enough to have his tour end just as the Crunch (the apocalyptic event) occurs…meaning there was no tough moral choice as to whether he went AWOL to get back to his family, as many others in the story did (though no actual characters). He is lucky enough to have accumulated plenty of gold coins with which he barters his way across Europe, South America and the American Southwest…bypassing the need of the character to find food and water, or heaven forbid, steal them. After the character becomes injured, he is taken in by some random strangers who nurse him back to health…again avoiding any actual storytelling where the character may have had to make difficult choices to survive.
And it wasn’t just this character, but all of them, that seem to have providential protection which prevents them from ever having to make judgement calls. The orphans are turned out from their orphanage with skills, guns, horses and plenty of food. The couple that takes them in finds guns, ammunition and pounds of silver coins hidden in a barn, making their stay in the post-apocalyptic world fairly comfortable. While every story can survive some deus ex machina and Dudley Do-Right characters, in general those are not the interesting ones. Show us the reactions and the soul-searching of these survivors if they were bereft of their food, their guns, and their safety. Would the main character have stowed away on a ship if he couldn’t buy passage on one? Would the orphans have maintained their belief systems if put out with nothing but their clothes? And if they did, how would they have survived? Would they have become conscientious bandits, stealing only what they needed to survive day to day?
As a prepper and survivalist, I would like to see what Rawles’ thinks it would take to survive if all our preps were not available. Would even the most devout characters turn to theft or violence to survive? Would they try to live off the land, only to perish with their values intact? Those are the stories begging to be told in apocalyptic fiction. The greatest characters in the genre struggle mightily, with their consciences as well as with the outside world. Mad Max, the father from The Road, and the struggles of those in The Walking Dead.
For all my criticism, I enjoyed the story. Survivors was a much more human tale than Patriots. And while the ‘love story chapter’ seemed a little forced, I appreciate that Rawles’ tried to flesh out his characters a little. To me, that shows he is growing as a writer. However, he still has a way to go in his world-building, particularly in regard to the forced ‘black and whiteness’ of it all. It is easy to make good choices in comfortable situations, but it makes for poor storytelling…good fiction asks characters to make difficult choices in uncomfortable situations.
With the dearth of good survival fiction, you’ll likely want to pick up Survivors, even with its flaws. Rawles is a mainstay of the survival community, and his contributions, especially the knowledge gathered at his blog, is considerable. Overall, I give Survivors 3 of 5 stars.