2012’s After the Fires Went Out: Coyote (Book One), Regan Wolfrom, is one of those rare Canadian post-apocalyptic novels, to be shelved with such works as The Last Canadian1 and Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse. The comet came, the effort to divert it failed, a lot of people died, and now that the dust has settled, visionaries like Ryan Stems have a grand ambition: to give the people of the Mushkegowuk Nation a place safe from the marauders and biker gangs that have overrun much of what was once Northern Ontario.
Which would be great if this book was about Stems or even members of the Mushkegowuk Nation, but it isn’t. It’s about the Mushkegowuk Nation’s neighbors over by McCartney Lake, who are led (for reasons that are never really clear) by Robert “Baptiste” Jeanbaptiste. And while Baptiste means well, he’s not what you would call super-competent.
As the book opens, Baptiste is trying to juggle a number of issues. The supplies of the heart medication Baptiste needs are running out, along with everything else. The regional mutual aid pact to which his group belongs is beginning to fragment, since the cost of defection is less than the cost of staying in. Some unknown group ambushed and murdered Ant, a member of Baptiste’s inner circle. Baptiste is still mourning his wife and child, presumed lost with most of the population of Southern Ontario. He is involved with a woman named Sara, but he’d also like to have sex with Kayla, something of which Sara seems likely to disapprove.
Local hothead and all-round jerk Justin is quite vocal about his belief that the masked marauders who murdered Ant were Stems’ men. While Baptiste loathes Stems, he also doesn’t think the murder is the sort of thing Stems does. Stems, like Baptiste, is just trying to keep his people alive, not become some sort of warlord. Baptiste is canny enough to see that Justin’s insistence on the bad guy being Stems is just part of Justin’s strategy to replace Baptiste as the community leader.
Whoever the marauders are, they’re still in the region. The bandits avoid confrontations with anyone who can put up a fight, but they’re a significant danger to anyone that they can ambush. The sensible thing for the locals to do would be to hunt the raiders down — but the forces driving the small farmsteads and households apart are stronger than the desire for mutual defense.
Stems and his Mushkegowuk Nation do have a plan for defending their land and there is a place for McCartney Lake in that plan. Stems is diplomatic enough to use the term “buffer state” but a better term might “redshirts.” He hopes that McCartney Lake is enough of a threat that the headcases up at Detour Lake will need to take McCartney Lake out before moving on to the Mushkegowuk Nation. Realistically speaking, McCartney Lake has no hope of surviving an attack from Detour, but they might be able to last long enough to give their Mushkegowuk neighbors time to prepare.
Thus far the McCartney Lake survivors have survived thanks to luck and supplies left from before the fall of civilization; now the supplies are running out and so too, it seems, is the luck.
Like the future in William Gibson’s famous quip, in this novel, the apocalypse seems to have been unevenly distributed. While the borders of civilization are now far from McCartney Lake, Quebec at least seems to still be functioning, as is Boston and enough of Britain for there to still be a BBC. The novel doesn’t go into details regarding the disaster and its aftermath, but I have the sense that the survivors’ problems are due to massive depopulation and insufficient transportation infrastructure2. For the moment, the governments of the south lack the determination and ability to control the north, leaving a power vacuum for others to fill. It’s good news for the Mushkegowuk Nation, but not so good for the people they don’t care about.
As I read this, I was reminded of Robert Kirkman’s popular graphic novel series3 The Walking Dead, which also features a band of desperate and traumatized survivors who gravitate to a leader who never shows any particular talent for the job. The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes seems to attract followers who are spellbound by his fancy hat. Baptiste has no such hat, so it’s not clear to me what it is about Baptiste that convinces people to follow him. It may be his previous job as a community safety consultant, something at which he does not seem to be all that good. Or it could simply be that he’s the right age to serve as a father figure for the people of McCartney Lake.
This novel has many elements to which I habitually object. The prose is … serviceable, Baptiste starts off with not one but two fridged loved ones, the violence level is higher than I like, and the female characters for the most part are hostages and victims. For some reason I didn’t dislike this novel as much as a dispassionate analysis of my tastes suggests that I should have. I think it’s because Baptiste distracts me from those features I should dislike.
My interest was held by the thoroughness with which Baptiste bungles virtually every task he undertakes, from working out who his true enemies are to simple monogamy. It’s not idiot plotting; I got the sense that the author knows Baptiste is a fuck-up, even as Baptiste struggles to come to terms with his own incompetence. Baptiste has a really impressive assortment of weaknesses, from uncontrollable anger issues to misplaced trust, a determination to stay in charge coupled with a curious hesitation to act decisively, and they work to sabotage him as he confronts the various challenges facing McCartney Lake. I don’t think his ineptitude is unrealistic, but it sure is hard on the people depending on him.
Now that I think about what Baptiste does well (and there are things he does well), I think the issue is that he’s a tactics guy who was handed a strategy problem. Fire fights, he’s good at, and if you need quick improvisation, he’s your man. Just don’t depend on him to provide functioning long term plans.
There are, it seems, at least three more books in the series, which are available here.
1: Also published as The Last American, presumably for the US market. The title is not technically inaccurate, since the main character is an American-born Canadian by choice. Well, except that Canadian or American or American-Canadian, he’s hardly the only survivor wandering around North America.
2: To put it in universal terms, it’s the difference between what happened during the Red River Rebellion (when the rails weren’t able to deliver troops in large numbers to the Red River) and the North-West Rebellion (when they were).
3: On which Frank Darabont’s TV show The Walking Dead is based. I couldn’t say if the TV show maintained Grimes’ horrid command style because I gave up on the show about the sixth time Grimes did something that should have got him killed, which (by the way) was within the first hour of the pilot episode.