Monday, September 24, 2012

The Storytelling of Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

I write this with a bias toward the first half of the book, which frames this apocalyptic story in a wilderness survival story, a hiking endeavor that’s tense and harrowing even before the electromagnetic “zap” fries all watches, phones, pacemakers. I’m a fan of wilderness survival stories. Growing up, I loved reading The Cay, My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was my first Stephen King (and I’d bet money Ms. Bick has read it). 

Why set a zombiepocalypse story in the wilderness? Wouldn’t a city have more advantages: the contrast between the advanced civilization of city life gone to ruins, masses of people who can run about and devour and advance shock factor, Interstate crashes, etc.

From the wilderness, “the apocalypse” emerges more quietly and spookily. (Some slight spoilers ahead!) At first, Alex thinks the zap happened very locally, in a place with few people: The damage is horrifying, but not cataclysmic. From that vantage, the damage broadens like a cancer: From the mountain, to the mountain and the valley. From the mountain and the valley, to an 80-square-mile segment of mountainous Michigan. From the 80 square miles, to all of Michigan. From Michigan to half the United States.

The wilderness characterizes the horrifying extent of the zap’s power like no other setting possibly could: It is not a dropped bomb with a radius of radiation, or a virus to which one could be miraculously immune. It is not escapable. Even 25 miles out from the nearest ranger tower, it kills and infects.

That said, I've got just one more comment on Ashes' storytelling: I’ve heard numerous writers comment that smell is an underutilized and neglected sense in our writing. Naming how a place smells can bring it to life for a reader more than its colors ever could. Bick maximizes the olfactory, and I lahhv it. Exploit that competition’s weakness!

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