Yesterday, someone whom I did not know very well walked up to me and asked, “I’ve been hearing about this post-apocalypse thing. The The Windup Girl was too gnarly for me, Seed sounds like an agriculture text book, The Stand is eleventy billion pages too long, and The Hunger Games makes me want to eat a sandwich, what should I read to see what all the hubbub is about?” It was a fortuitous moment as I had just a few days prior finished reading Stephen Wallenfels’s Pod. That’s because Pod is easy to stomach, has aliens instead of seeds, clocks in well under 300 pages, and tells an extremely authentic story about some teenage kids. Sure the novel uses some well worn tropes, and contains a veiled political message I’m not terribly jazzed about, but the final product is an expertly fashioned young adult appropriate novel that I could not put down.
Set in what appears in all respects to be the modern day, Pod begins with the arrival of giant spinning black balls in the sky. An alien presence, or some kind of watcher from beyond, the balls strike dead anyone caught outside. They also seem to have a penchant for automobiles. An observant reader will quickly pick-up on Wallelfels’s undertones that seem to suggest the invasion as a response to the Earth’s current condition, and humanity as a herd that needs to be culled. As the novel goes along the characters notice new ‘earthy’ smells and wild animals returning to the world. It isn’t judgmental, but hovers right on the edge, a fact that may turn off some readers. I found the whole thing a little unnecessary.
Narrative wise, Wallenfels tells his story from two perspectives: a hard luck twelve-year-old girl named Megs trapped in a hotel parking garage and sixteen year old Josh stuck at home with his borderline obsessive-compulsive father. Not surprisingly, the hotel quickly devolves into an authoritarian regime that Megs has to navigate for survival. Guns, drugs, and food are scarce resources. Josh, on the other hand, is staving off a different kind of crisis — teenaged angst locked up with an overprotective father. It’s in this setting where Pod shines best. Wallenfels perfectly captures the teenage boy psyche as Josh and his father try to relate to one another.
All told, Pod tells a simple story with simple themes — human nature is selfishness and aliens probably aren’t going to show up to make friends. It eschews the grand apocalypse story that’s become so popular in recent years, choosing instead to tell an intensely personal one on a minuscule scale. For the experienced post-apocalypse and/or alien invasion reader, there’s very little new to Stephen Wallenfels’s debut. But that shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean it isn’t worthwhile. Pod is an excellent example of the subgenre and something I would encourage everyone to share with their favorite teenaged reader.