The twin threats of climate change and global pandemics have made post-apocalyptic fiction an undeniably thriving and popular genre.
From Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road to the Eleventh Station to Emily St. John Mandel,” not to mention countless others, writers never tire of Imagine what will happen after the end of the world as we know it – it doesn’t seem like readers will get tired of reading it either.
With each new evocation of our modern life, upended by wildfires, floods and droughts, the relevant question is not whether the latest post-apocalyptic writing is well written, but whether newcomers to the category are add-ons. In the case of award-winning science fiction author David Yoon’s Orange City, the answer isn’t easy.
The book differs from the famous post-apocalyptic setting in that the protagonist remembers nothing. Adam Zhang woke up and found himself in the middle of nowhere. He only remembered that he was on Earth. He doesn’t remember his name, whether he had a family, what he used to make a living, and perhaps most importantly, how the world ended, the details of which are kept in the dark throughout the novel, limited to incomplete explanations. Like the following in the character that meets Adam:
“I mean, first the whole financial crisis, then all the investors pulled out, and then the fires started. The flames were unbelievably big. Is this river the only thing that keeps us from burning like a firebreak? . That was about half a year ago. . .
Adam is Tom Hanks in drifting no Wilson volleyball, although there is a talking crow. Adam had to find water, cook and forage. Adam spends most of the book piecing together his past through flashbacks while figuring out how to survive. His backstory is a tragedy. Before the end of the world, his wife and young child were killed in a car crash, hit by a leading police officer in a high-speed chase at a traffic stop. The flashbacks are designed to bring readers closer to Adam’s existence before the end of the world, without feeling the sum of their parts as the book progresses. We don’t learn much new information about Adam’s family in the second half of the novel, only Adam is still grieving.
What he did and didn’t remember also seemed arbitrary. Adam’s inner monologue occasionally slips into ’90s slang. Adam observed one survivor “going crazy in the film,” a popular expression for the 1993 Cypress Hill song of the same name. Later in the book, however, he had trouble remembering the financial term “underwater” and first thought of the literal meaning of the word.
In the midst of the survivalist plight, the city of Orange raises an interesting question about man-made climate disasters. Adam once thought:
“If man is inherently evil, then evil is only an inevitable part of nature. Man creates tools, discovers fire, jumps to the top of the food chain. He creates culture and science. . . If man is inherently evil, this end times are truly worth mourning ?”
However, the story doesn’t answer that question. Adam has nothing to do with the apocalypse, and the apocalypse has nothing to do with losing family members. The metaphysics of humanity ignoring its responsibility for the survival of the planet is not addressed by the theme or the characters in the book.
Only when Adam meets a teenager named Clay does the novel begin with some surprises. The boy lives in a solar-powered model home with video games and simple electrical wiring. Clay turns on the news to show Adam that the end of the world he thinks has happened may not happen to everyone, anywhere. When Clay’s mom shows up in a van to take her son to her sister’s house, it’s clear that for some, the world might be all right.
Perhaps the most memorable scene occurs near the end of the book, when Adam meets a man on a sea kayak equipped with “72,000-calorie durable rations in an airtight container and below-deck Water Purifier”. This guy wants to boat from Orange County to Hawaii. Orange City could have used more inspired surreal exchanges like this one to move beyond the post-apocalyptic genre tropes that the novel tends to redistribute rather than reinvent.
Leland Cheuk is the award-winning author of three nonfiction books, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and more.