Any notion of friendly alien encounters is chucked to the fire with Rick Yancey’s new young-adult sci-fi thriller, The 5th Wave. A looming spaceship appears in the sky. It sits; it waits. Humans sit; they wait. Nothing much happens—no Others asking to be taken to our leader, just eerie quiet. Then, through four waves of extermination (elimination of electricity; tsunamis; plague; snipers), the Others strategically annihilate their only threat: humans. It becomes clear that these aliens aren’t on a close-encounter tour of goodwill; they mean to claim Earth as their own. As the Others hasten toward victory, a scant population of humans struggles to survive, denying human sensitivities in order to live through the night and, hopefully, the impending fifth wave. Like many optimistic characters in the book, readers might wonder: Why can’t we all just get along?
The arc of science fiction follows societal trends, each generation bringing their own interpretation based on personal experience. During the ’40s and ’50s, paranoiac fear inspired by the Cold War was reflected in sci-fi films. In the ’60s and ’70s, audiences saw many an alien as a presence cloaked in light and love. Yancey, an admitted fan of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), has explored the contemporary threat of otherness. "After the ’90s slipped away and we got into, particularly, the post–9/11 world with this idea of otherness and you're never safe anywhere, I think there's been this swing back, this fear of ‘we don't want someone to find us,’ ” Yancey says. Or maybe, if they do find us, we want to be left the hell alone.
Yancey has the upper hand when it comes to understanding when someone doesn’t want to be found. Before success as a writer, he worked for the IRS for 12 years. He’s quick to say that he wasn’t a tax man–turned-writer, but rather a writer who happened to fall into a government job to pay the bills. In fact, his 2004 nonfiction book Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man’s Tour of Duty Inside the IRS is the result of his IRS work (his author name on that book is Richard Yancey). “The happy byproduct of having that job was it honed my lifelong interest in what's interesting about characters,” Yancey says. He observed firsthand “ordinary people in very trying circumstances." Saying that human extermination is a trying circumstance here would be as understated as saying E.T. was a neat pet.
This post-apocalypse/alien invasion/survival story amalgam is told primarily from the perspectives of 16-year-old Cassie and 17-year-old Ben. Before the first wave, charismatic Ben was Cassie’s high school crush, and common Cassie was someone Ben passed in the hall. After the waves begin expunging humanity from the equation, high school trivialities are exchanged for a syllabus of murder, plague, filth and humiliation. A horrifying theme throughout is that the otherness is virtually undetectable—the Others have taken human form. Cassie quickly learns that “you can’t trust people are still people. But you can trust that your gun is still your gun.” It’s this lack of trust and certainty that breeds a frantic inability to hesitate in an either/or world: Either I shoot you because you’re an alien, or you shoot me because you’re an alien.
Solitude and second-guessing on a barren landscape are exhausting. The Others hone in on what humans thought made them special, using it against them in a calculated genocide. “It’s a precisely targeted strike,” Yancey says. “If aliens did come, I don't think they would come with guns. I think they'd be very careful and methodical and understand their enemy better than we understand ourselves. And have means and a method and a plan in place where they would be able to manipulate us….” Missiles and dictators are solid threats to be challenged and defeated. How can you defend against manipulation? And what does it matter, particularly if you’re the only human left?
After an announced first printing of 500,000 for The 5th Wave and the acquisition by GK Films of its film rights, what’s the formula for garnering such hype? “It’s like when you’re asleep, and you have this great dream, and you wake up in the middle of it, and you have a nice feeling from the dream, but you also have kind of a sinking feeling because you know if you fall back asleep, you probably won’t pick up that dream again,” Yancey says. “That’s the kind of feeling I like to create. I never have an agenda except to entertain.”
Witnessing a world where human extinction is the end goal doesn’t make for a Pollyanna cakewalk. There’s blood, guts and kids with weapons that a '90s Schwarzenegger would brandish. Even though humans are the endangered species here, their determination to survive, ability to laugh and love, and yearning for a decent cheeseburger make their goal to avoid the fate of the dodo a multifaceted adventure—one that will fortunately extend into a trilogy.
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator and sometime photographer living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macarons.