In the fifties, William Levitt changed the world. Realizing that the surging population wanted a private backyard with a white picket fence, he used quick manufacturing techniques to deliver millions of homes for cheap. In Max Brooks’ Devolution, a billionaire tries to reimagine Levitt’s vision for community by using modern conveniences like drone delivery and green tech to create an off-grid utopia, called Greenloop, for telecommuters. It’s a seductive vision that combines backcountry beauty and peace with modern living. Insulated from a turbulent American landscape rife with protests, riots, and market volatility, the inhabitants find themselves an afterthought of the outside world when Mount Ranier erupts, sending boiling lahars cascading over the countryside. Cut off from the outside world, they must battle an unknown foe and an unforgiving wilderness to survive.
Using familiar tools, Brooks creates an eerie journalistic tone through interviews and journal entries as the outside world moves on from Greenloop, creating a scenario ripe for horror. Know-nothing therapists and supermodel yogis find themselves woefully unprepared for not only how to handle other people during a catastrophe, but to deal with Brooks’ eventual natural consequence of marauding Big foots. The novel strikes at the idea of altruistic tech billionaires fighting against the inevitable results of human greed on the natural world.
Fast-paced and full of the kind of research and critical thinking that made Brooks famous for The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, Devolution is a horror delight that borders on near-future sci-fi, which is what really makes it stand out. The tech is here. We just need someone like billionaire Tony to put their financial back to the wheel.
I can’t imagine being a billionaire. I’d spend my money solving homelessness, helping people plant trees in arid climates to fight climate change, and introduce a global non-profit health insurance program that anyone could buy into. In other words, I’d eat all the pie in the sky and burn through money faster than an evangelist preacher can dunk the newly converted. The billionaire in Devolution, Tony, smacks of Elon Musk’s single-minded determinedness to use his resources to make the world a (somewhat) better place.
Musk is certainly no savior, and every billionaire philanthropist is problematic, but it’s clear from the way people seem to worship Musk that the zeitgeist has a desire for a billionaire savior. It’s unfair to demand billionaires do anything with their money; but it sure would be nice if the majority of them woke up to more world-changing, altruistic goals to ensure the prosperity of the human race. Brook’s novel suggests that even the brightest, most talented of these is no match for humanity or mother nature.
Whatever you do, don’t follow any savior into the wilderness.
“It’s great to live free of the other sheep until you hear the wolves howl.” (Brooks).