Man versus nature at center of new Max Brooks novel
Bigfoot. Say the name and the reaction you get will range from outright derision with the word hoax being liberally thrown around to people who honestly believe there is a bipedal ape-like creature roaming the North American forest with a specific concentration in the Pacific Northwest. In Max Brooks’ new novel, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, the cryptid plays a major role in this story about a fictional tech-driven community called Greenloop that winds up becoming isolated in a remote part of Washington State after nearby Mount Rainier erupts and strands the residents.
But to call Brooks’ latest project a Bigfoot book is an oversimplification. The California resident masterfully weaves in heavily researched perspectives on society’s over-reliance on technology, the clash caused by development encroaching on nature, compost-driven horticulture, primate behavior and even the Balkan genocide of the ’90s. And it all stemmed from Brooks’ obsession with this controversial subject dating back to childhood.
“This fascination started with fear of Sasquatch as a kid,” Brooks explained. “Just being a Gen-Xer growing up during the first wave of Sasquatch mania and watching shows like In Search Of, Mysterious Monsters and all of these faux documentaries and being absolutely terrified and never having that leave me. I always wanted to write a Bigfoot book. But it was only when I got older and figured out how to do what I was doing and knew the right way to write this, which was to talk about the big stuff that I’m also fascinated by like supply chains. And trying to anthropomorphize nature and how people are not ready for disaster. I put it all as the backdrop because I found the best way to educate people is to tell them a story—don’t lecture ‘em.”
The plot is driven by the journals of resident Kate Holland, which were recovered from the town’s bloody wreckage. An investigative reporter with the surname Morgan drives the story along by interspersing diary entries with research on the subject and extensive interviews with forestry department first responders. But what makes this all so compelling is that were you to swap out blizzard, flood or hurricane for Bigfoot, the degree of unpreparedness would be no less realistic, particularly given the benign spin pop culture tries to put on nature.
“This is the problem I have with urbanites trying to anthropomorphize nature,” Brooks said. “With many of my experiences, I’ve seen human beings bringing their [Disney-informed] knowledge of nature into the real wilderness and people get killed. Think about in our regular life as children, how many of us were bitten by dogs that we tried to hug? It was only after some of us got half our faces bitten off that somebody told us you never put your face in a strange dog’s face. We think it’s cute. We think we’re in a Disney movie and the dog thinks it’s under attack. That’s the disconnect I was going for.”
Not unlike fellow late novelists Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy (a major Brooks influence), fact-driven probing is what defines the 48-year-old author’s creative approach, a trait that has carried over to prior projects like World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide and Minecraft: The Island. This analytical intellectual rigor has also led to his holding dual fellowships at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the Modern War Institute at West Point. For everything he’s written, Brooks admits that “…research always takes 10 times as long as the writing does. I have to do people learning…book learning…and field research.”
For Devolution, he ventured into the Rainier area to see how treacherous the terrain was (“I had to go to the place where I planted my fictional Greenloop and see if my characters could walk out. If you can walk out, then I don’t have a book.”), planted an indoor garden like his characters did and monitored how long it took to grow (“my fear was writing about the shoots coming up in the book when these shoots wouldn’t have come up for another two weeks”) and creating makeshift arms (“I had to physically make some of the weapons to see if they’d be makable with some of the tools our characters would have at their disposal.”)
While Brooks has not had a Sasquatch encounter, he’s not ready to outright dismiss its existence.
“I’m with Jane Goodall—I will believe in Sasquatch when I see the physical evidence,” he said. “But until I see that evidence, my scientific research has taught me there’s no reason Sasquatch couldn’t or wouldn’t exist. For the longest time, European explorers in Africa heard about these monsters from the natives. But of course, they dismissed these stories before eventually discovering the gorilla. Where I am in Southern California, at our natural history museum, there is a prehistoric fish as big as my bed that was hauled out of the ocean near Catalina Island that’s millions of years old living in the ocean depths. So we’re not done yet.”