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Book Review: The 5th Wave

By (May 11, 2013) No Comment

The 5th Wavethe 5th wave

by Rick Yancey

Putnam, 2013


“Aliens are stupid,” claims Cassie Sullivan, the teen protagonist of Rick Yancey’s new novel The 5th Wave. “I’m not talking about real aliens,” she continues, totes hardcore, “The Others aren’t stupid. The Others are so far ahead of us, it’s like comparing the dumbest human to the smartest dog. No contest.”

Right. Okay. And if you happen to actually enjoy aliens and science fiction, ditch Cassie by the roadside now. She’s never seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Battlestar Galactica, or either of the first two Alien films. She does derisively mention “the slimeballs from Planet Xercon,” which could be the creatures from Independence Day. It’s hard to tell–if Cassie’s ever seen a brilliant sci-fi film or TV show, she probably texted her way through it.

But Yancey took copious notes on all the classics. He even gave characters names like Lisbeth and Zombie (and The Others, from Lost, yes?), gorging himself on the blood of a half-dozen mainstream hits. Then he used his teen novel–about five stages of alien attack meant to wipe out humanity–to incessantly mock the genre to which it’s indebted. Am I being too hard on The 5th Wave? Strap on your dingus-blasters, cadets, and we’ll find out!

The conceit that You-Can’t-Get-Realer-Than-This propels us into the very boring life of Cassie Sullivan, Average Teen. Her thoroughly unique name, bestowed by yuppie parents who knew nothing  of Greek myth, is short for Cassiopeia (“she whose words excel”). In a tedious deadpan, she tells us she’s, “Okay in looks. Okay in school. Okay at sports like karate and soccer.” But she’ll never appreciate her curly hair and the freckles across her nose because Ben Parish, the man-boy of her dreams, barely knows she exists.

Then, before anyone can inform Cassie that her boring life is the tragic result of her being a boring person, a gigantic spaceship arrives in orbit. Here’s how U.S. citizens reacted:

Some people nested. Some people ran. Some got married. Some got divorced. Some made babies. Some killed themselves. We walked around like zombies, blank-faced and robotic, unable to absorb the magnitude of what was happening.

Cassie goes on, in her stale, metronomic narrative, to say that the 1st Wave–an electromagnetic pulse attack that destroyed most Earth technology–killed half a million people. The 2nd Wave, giant metal rods dropped from space on major coastal cities, killed billions more with earthquakes and tsunamis. And at this point, while Cassie details the 3rd Wave (which is a plague that kills the remaining ninety-seven percent of humanity), you fully realize that Yancey has hijacked science fiction merely to dress his windows:

That’s when the Alien Empire descended in their flying saucers and started blasting away, right? When the people of the Earth united under one banner to play David versus Goliath. Our tanks against your ray runs. Bring it on!

We weren’t that lucky.

And they weren’t that stupid.

Sadly, those choice adjectives can’t help but describe the survivalist porn into which The 5th Wave quickly devolves. With her parents and younger sibling gone, Katniss–I mean Cassie–must use her wits (and M16 rifle) while trekking through a collapsed civilization. And the dangers aren’t anything even the smartest dog might imagine; the 4th Wave is actually just people.

People who have had alien minds “downloaded” into them (cue Battlestar theme). This makes trusting anyone, whether they’ve tried to kill you yet or not, really hard. It does of course help if said antagonists are super hot–a scenario backed by much more logic, heart and cultural relevance in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

But Yancey’s intended audience likely won’t scold him for being relentlessly derivative. His readers might even enjoy the few moments when the quality of his writing exceeds the content: “We share the day’s rumors and tell bad jokes and push back against the silence inside our own heads, the place where the never-ending voiceless scream rises like the superheated air above a lava flow.”

The intended audience, though, is this book’s biggest hurdle. The Hunger Games, and its admirable protagonist Katniss, rescued teens–and even more adults–from the execrable monotony of Bella and the Twilight saga. Yancey’s concoction serves no larger purpose than to make money from people waiting for Collins to write another Hunger Games novel. It, much like Cassie, hopes to survive a cut-throat world and see that brighter tomorrow.

Unfortunately, The 5th Wave hasn’t even got curly hair and freckles.