In most science fiction, technological advances are not shown to advance humanity. However, it would be tough to find a more negative view of a future world than The 5th Wave, which chronicles an alien attack on our weak and vulnerable planet. Depressing as it is, the story raises some vital questions about humanity, like the best science fiction is uniquely qualified to do (and one reason why C.S. Lewis was so fascinated by it). And the movie version opens this Friday, which is a good reason to re-post our review from two and a half years ago:
The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey. Putnam, 2013, 457 pages.
Reading Level: Young adult, ages 15-up
Appropriate for: Ages 15-up
Bottom Line: Aliens attack the earth in this action-packed sci-fi novel that hooks the reader in a downward spiral of bad news while pondering what it means to be human.
It’s no fun to be the last person on earth, and Cassie doesn’t know why she was chosen for that dubious honor. But after she killed the wounded, crucifix-clutching soldier in the convenience store, she’s the most solitary person she knows–especially since her little brother has been kidnapped and she has no idea whether he’s even alive. No one was expecting this when the aliens first appeared, their mothership hovering over the earth in a way that might have been benign. “Maybe they were angels,” says Cassie’s little brother, “like in the Bible when the angels talk to Abraham and to Mary and to Joseph.” Then it started: first the ElectroMagnetic Pulse, then the inundation of the coastlands, then the Red Death, then the Hunters who look just like humans. That’s four major offenses—what will the 5th wave be? Whatever it is, there probably won’t be a 6th because these aliens are serious about sweeping the planet clean for colonization.
Of course Cassie isn’t as alone as she thinks, or there wouldn’t be enough material for one longish novel, let alone the next two or three. The action doesn’t let up, the voices (of Cassie and her co-protagonist, nicknamed Zombie) never ring false, the tension keeps cranking. Unlike The Hunger Games, 5th Wave takes place in a world we recognize, with a culture and religion contiguous to our own. That makes it especially strong meat—have you ever wondered what an all-out alien assault on the order of Independence Day would really be like? The 5th Wave fills in the gaps, and it isn’t pretty.
What makes us human? How is humanity lost? Where (as more than one character plaintively asks) is God? And where is love? Beyond staying alive, that’s Cassie’s main challenge:
I can’t believe. I have to believe. Is this the Others’ ultimate goal, the wave to end all waves, stripping our humanity down to its bare animalistic bones until we’re . . . as solitary as sharks and with as much compassion?
We sense that Cassie’s determination to rescue her little brother is driven as much by a desire to stay human as it is by love. But that desire is even more evident in another character, who appears to be both human and quasi-divine, who possesses qualities that border on the supernatural, as well as the capacity to lay down his life. With its infrequent raw language and unremitting bad news, this series is definitely not for everybody, but the questions it raises about the nature of humanity may make it worth pursuing into the second volume. (Update: the second volume is The Infinite Sea, published last November. The Last Star, rounding out the trilogy, is set for publication in May 2016.)
Cautions: Violence, Language (a few vulgar words), Dark
Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)
Categories: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Life Issues, Character Qualities