Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Hunted: A gonzo racial class for OSR-style games.

Originally published in the People section of Secret Santicore 2014.


Those who have ventured into the deep forests often speak of the songs of the giants. Deep moanings can be heard, loud enough to be felt in the chest. The travel hundreds of miles, vibrating trees and sending the ears of animals up at the sounds. The forest itself seems to sing with deep sounds of the wandering giant tribes. But rarely is such a giant seen, even as the sound seems to emanate from right next to the travelers.

So rare are the sightings that some modern scholars insist that giants to not exist, that they are hypothetical inventions to explain the natural sounds the forest makes. 

The giants are real, however. They not only have their songs, but also language and culture. They stand as tall as two men and as wide as three. They travel in small, disperse groups through the forests, foraging for the moss, lichen, and bark they call their food. They can be violent, but they never war amongst each other. For the giants have a secret that few men know, a secret that is contained in the slow songs they sing to each other.
In their slow songs, the word the giants use for themselves is “Hunted”.

Background Information

The Hunted are a nomadic race of humanoid giants that live in seasonal forests, foraging food from their surroundings. They are a thoughtful, plodding race, and one that serves as a bit of a thought experiment: What would a conscious, cultured race look like that is not at the top of the food chain?

Because of their dangerous surroundings and solitary existence, the Hunted are hunted by the apex predators of the forest, particularly wolves. Because of this, they have developed a culture that both fears and venerates the Hunters, who they look upon as avatars of god’s divine wrath. They have  developed a culture that minimizes the risk that any giant, particularly young giants, will be brought down, but have developed a religion that helps them deal with the fact that most giants do meet a violent end between the teeth of their god.

The Hunted live and travel in large tribes of individuals, but because they require so much space to graze, they often will spend weeks not in physical proximity of each other. In order to stay in touch, to share information about the weather, predator movements, and just not to get lonely, the Hunted sing a low, deep, slow song that can travel hundreds of miles through the forest. This song contains information, but not in the form of words that make up sentences—rather, the information is contained in the grammar of the song, the way they sing it with each other, the musical points and counter-points of the various participants. The song is a low slow lumbering thing that holds multiple layers of meaning, much of it just out of the conscious awareness even of the Hunted. 

The Hunted are phenomenal bushcraftsment. They can predict the weather days and weeks in advance, can track any animal over long distances, can tell from the sounds of the forest where packs of wolves or other predators are. In spite of their size, they can hide well in any forest, and even their slow singing will not give away their location. It is only through an excellent sense of smell or by happening upon an unsuspecting (usually very young or very old) giant that one will be found.

The Hunted navigate the north-south length of the continent every year. The summers they spend in the North, taking advantage of the abundance of food and lack of predators in order to congregate for two months as they give birth and raise their calves to the point that they can make the long journey south. In the winters, they again congregate at the southmost reaches of the seasonal forests, doing their best to help each other find food until the worst of winter relents.

They thus spend most of their time traveling, and only travel through the forests. As the forest is not unbroken, many have wondered how the Hunted make it from the top of the continent to its inner reaches without ever being seen.

In each of their semi-permanent settlements is a convent for the very old. Those few Hunted who have managed to live to the point where they can no longer travel settle in these areas and become the spiritual leaders of the Hunted. The Old Men live in the South, and the Nans live in the North. As such, two separate versions of the Hunted’s religion have formed, which the Hunted believe simultaneously.

The Old Men tell of the importance of accepting what is in a philosophy not unlike Buddhism. The Wolf comes for everyone, and so accepting Him when He does come, regardless of his incarnation, is an important point of growth. Once the acceptance of things as they are has been made, a Hunted can himself sense better, communicate better, and survive longer. The Old Men promote doing willfully and experiencing mindfully, and teach meditation techniques that help all the Hunted live better in the world. 

The Nans, those who have grown up charged with protecting their young, do not take such a laissez-faire attitude towards the Wolf. They teach that The Wolf is an unthinking force of nature as much as he is a cruel god, and as such the techniques that the Old Men teach are just as useful for understanding its ways in order to work around them and even challenge them. They teach the importance of sacrifice to the Wolf in order to satiate it, and the ways in which a Hunted can fight back with both intelligence and strength.

The Old Men and the Nans communicate between each other only through slow songs: at the beginning of each migratory season, as the Hunted leave a resting ground, those who will not be coming with them start a new slow song that will be sung that entire season. In this slow song is information that the Hunted will need to safely make it through the season, and when they arrive at their destination those Hunted who lived out the whole year since their last leaving will take in the song, help them sing it one last time, and then begin composing a new slow song for the traveling season ahead. Thus, the Nans sing to the new mothers and fathers of how to protect their children, while the Old Men sing to the young children of how to do well in the woods on their own and how to interact with society. 

How to Play

In order for the players to play as a Hunted, they must be willing to play a large smelly beast of a humanoid, a giant covered in green mossy fur and rough bark-like skin, with paddle-like hands of ridged leather that they use to scrub lichen off rocks, who will attract unwanted attention wherever they go. In return, they will play a creature that does not fear physical attack, has heightened senses, and can travel through the woods as easily as a whale through the ocean.

A Hunted can be played as a gentle giant, a dim-witted warrior, or a cunning barbarian druid. The player should know two things about the Hunted character: Why has the character left the tribe, and why has the character left the forest? These question can be answered in many ways: maybe a whole tribe has left the forest to live with men or halflings, perhaps he was exiled for wrongful conduct and chose to leave the forest for self-punishment, or perhaps she lost her first young child and in her grief forgot the ways of gliding between the forests and actually reached the edge.

For examples of how to play a Hunted player character, look at the “further reading” section at the end.


In game terms, the Hunted are a racial class that takes elements of Fighters, Halflings, and Dwarves and combines them with a large size and several custom abilities and disadvantages. I will be using Lamentations of the Flame Princess for reference, but rather than giving exact stats I will be explaining how to construct the Hunted class for your game using your chosen ruleset.

First, the size. Hunted require a minimum strength modifier of +1 and constitution modifier of +1. In addition, they receive a racial bonus of +1 to their strength or constitution modifier, as the player sees fit. So in most old school systems, if a player does not roll at least a 13 on both Strength and Constitution, they cannot play a Hunted (unless a kind system or GM is willing to let them swap stats after the roll). 

Hunted are good fighters with long reach. Male hunted take a +2 to the base melée to-hit bonus, and females a +3, although progression from there continues as a Dwarfs (in LotFP, to-hit never increases, in others it increases by the minimum amount per level). In addition, they all have a d10 hit dice, and a minimum HP of 6 at level 1. Finally, their tough hide gives them a +1 AC bonus for having “natural armor”.

However, the Hunted are not often trained warriors. Most know how to use a stone spear—it has fantastic reach even in melee (treat as a spear), does impressive bludgeoning damage (treat as a mace or warhammer), and can even be thrown (again, treat as a spear, although with no bonus to ranged to-hit), but cannot use any other weapons without training. In addition, any non-custom armor will do more harm that good by preventing the +2 to-hit bonus, and only increasing AC by 1/2 the usual amount. Custom-made armor does not have such restrictions, but costs 5x the normal amount due to added materials costs and the difficulty in sizing it properly, and can only be made by a master craftsman. 

In addition, while the Hunted are strong and hearty, they are not agile, lucky, or accustomed to magic. They have the saving throw progression of whichever class has the worst in your ruleset (the Fighter in LotFP), and start with the saving throws of a level-0 character even as they are level-1. This can often be role-played as the Hunted simply accepting the world as-is, as the Old Men teach.

The Hunted also have three special racial abilities, described below, and a special racial disadvantage, described below that. The players can invoke the abilities whenever they make sense. The GM should invoke the disadvantage whenever it makes sense, and play it out to its logical conclusions.

Ability 1: Slow Singing

Wherever other Hunted are in range, the character can slow sing to communicate with them. This slow singing is available regardless of their relationship with those particular Hunted—the truth of the slow song does not follow the petty conscious social boundaries of regular speech. 

Slow song does not work like speech. There is no back and forth, not even symbolic concepts underlying what is being sung. The character sings along with the others as if in a trance, and like tapping into an animal collective unconsciousness, comes out knowing certain things. 

In practical terms, a certain length of singing will give the character certain knowledge. If the character would simply like to broadcast important information (“the forest is on fire!”, “the big baddie is coming!”), it takes only a half-hour of singing to broadcast it to others who will then incorporate it into their song. This song will continue to travel at a very rapid rate, upwards of 500 miles per day, but only to other Hunted.

If the player would like to know the answer of a yes/no question, they must simply sing for an hour, and then will know what the other Hunted communicated with them—although it may simply be “I don’t know”, and this they won’t know until after finishing the song. Singing for a longer period of time is more likely to result in a solid answer, as the song will have traveled a longer distance across multiple participants. 

If the player would like to know the answer to a more complicated question, it’s likely that they will have to sing all day. Traveling is a prime time to sing, and so the GM may choose to make this easy by simply letting the Hunted’s player ask one question for each day of travel where the Hunted did not engage in any encounters or speak with the other players (to simulate their focus on the Song). The GM should answer in a way that is helpful but cryptic, and if the Hunted asks a question that the other Hunted wouldn’t know they may receive an unhelpful reply back. The more relevant the question is to the life of the average Hunted, the more specific and useful the answer will be—so asking where the wolves are or how warm the summer season will be is going to be more straightforward than asking the movements of men through the forest or the goings-on in a forest village, and asking about the political situation in a kingdom far from the forest will likely result in confusion or laughter rather than answers. 

Ability 2: Bushcraft and Hiding

The Hunted excel in nature, particularly the woods. Whenever foraging for food or water, attempting to know the weather, or find their way through unmarked nature, they have the same chance of success as a ranger or halfling of the same level (so starting at a 1/2 chance in LotFP). This is true of all skills that could be construed as being “bushcraft” skills.

The Hunted can hide incredibly well when in the forest. They have no chance of being found by men when they put their mind to hiding, and a 1/6th chance even while they move and/or sing. If a druid, ranger, or dog is doing the looking, the chance of staying hidden decreases by 1/6th

If, while hiding, the Hunted makes a successful melée attack, that attack counts as a “sneak attack” under whatever rules you’re using. Or, if you’d prefer, the attack is a critical hit with all that implies under your system (acts as a roll of a nat 20, so it does full damage or roll on a special benefits table or whatever). 

Ability 3: The Word for World is Forest

The Hunted travel only through the forest, and have found a way to slip from forest to forest along magic lay lines, so that they never have to set foot in open plains even when any conventional travel route would take them there.

Slipping between the forests only works when groups are singing the slow song. They do not have to be in particularly close proximity, and indeed it is the slow song itself that anchors the Hunted to the forest.
To many Hunted, the space between the forest is but a myth, a sort of geographical boogymen that mothers tell calves in order that they not stray out of range from the safety of the song. To those who have seen it, it haunts them all their lives—either through fear of approaching it again, or through curiosity of what lies beyond.

A party with a Hunted can slip through the forests with it, as long as they’re singing a song as they go. Any possessions they are in contact with will come as well, as will any beasts that sing along—such as dogs howling, donkeys braying, or cats purring. The song, once it’s been taken up, is infectious, so this should all come through course. The hardest part is getting the party to sing together in the first place. It is only through a mindful but unselfconscious singing that they will align with the Hunted. The forest knows whether the song is sung sincerely or with only personal gain in mind. 

The GM might want to prod the players into actually singing along the first time. There will be hemming and hawing, but only once everyone is in harmony (as poor a harmony as it might be) and have found a song they can sing together can the adventure continue. The song itself does not matter. 
Traveling in this way does not cut down on the travel time, distance traveled, or resources required, but it does force all encounter rolls to be done on a forest table, the party has no chance of encountering settlements of any kind as they travel this way, and only druids, forest elves, and other Hunted will be able to track them. 

Disadvantage: What Is that Smelly … Thing?

The Hunted aren’t readily accepted in human company. They are large, somewhat smelly, awkward, scary creatures. Their hands are flat and ridged, their brow sticks out past their snout, and their mouths are wet and gummy and full of rows of tiny molars. They can speak the common tongue well enough, although it sounds not unlike if an elephant were to speak English out its snout—deep, sonorous, and undignified. To men, they look like terrifying alien creatures, more animal than human.

And as such they are treated. Most who meet with the party will assume that the Hunted among them is either a beast of burden or a slave. They will cause villagers to run into their hovels or band together to drive it out, they will often not be allowed within city gates, and the best lodging they can expect at an in is in the stables—and only if there are no horses there to be frightened (other animals besides dogs will largely ignore the Hunted and goats may even befriend them). In some of the more baroque cities, association with a Hunted may be a mark of social good amongst the nobel classes, but only as men of high standing in Europe used to keep on “savages” as boarders—they are a mere curiosity to be paraded in front of their friends, and are still regarded as less than human. 

Hunted generally do not feel comfortable in the presence of man. Man is, after all, an apex predator himself, one who was able to conquer all other predators and even domesticate the Hunted’s god. 

Speaking of which, the Hunted have a fearful venerations of dogs bordering on insanity. Female Hunted will often attack them on sight, unwilling to stop until the last one is dead (or they are). Male Hunted will do their best to hide from them, and if seen will pray loudly to the dog in hopes of a good clean death. Of course, many human-bread dogs are more scared of the Hunted than the Hunted are of them—although packs of dogs or well-bread war dogs will often attack the Hunted, or at least get very aggressive in their presence. 

Being Hunted in a human world is not easy nor comfortable for the Hunted, and while the party might be quick to befriend a strong, intelligent, and skilled giant to help them on their quests, most of society will not react similarly.

Further Reading / Works Cited

Much of the society and behavior of the Hunted is based on real life behavior of the giant grazing mammals of the oceans, and the general concept for the slow songs is based on the mysterious songs of the humpback and blue whales. Any documentaries about humpback or blue whales are worth watching if you’d like to know more. I particularly like David Attenborough’s BCC documentaries, such as Ocean Deep or Life

The old communal language of the dolphins in Startide Rising by David Brin was an influence as well.

A possible backstory for a Hunted player character can be found in the book 1491 by Charles Mann. Mann describes the true story of the person we know as Squanto, the Indian Tisquantum (a name that literally translates as “Wrath of God”). Squanto was trained to be the personal bodyguard of the king of his tribe but was captured by a slaver ship as a young man and taken to England. He traveled Europe as the charge of various men who used him either for labor or as an ornament to show off to their friends—that is, he was little more than a slave. However, he twice learned the language of his captors, befriended them, and convinced them to help him return to his home. When he finally did arrive home, it was just after a plague had wipe out his entire tribe, and a neighboring tribe captured him, put him in a cage, and forced him to translate for them in their dealings with the Pilgrims. Some day I’ll write a fantasy book based on the life of Tisquantum, but until then steal this story for your Hunted character.

The idea of slipping through the forest was taken from Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star. Honestly the book isn’t worth the read, but that was a pretty sweet idea to steal for an RPG. The name of the ability I stole from the Ursula K. Le Guin book, The Word for World is Forest, which I must admit I’ve never read. It would be easy enough to use the Hunted in an SF setting as a peaceful sentient race on a forested planet of some sort. 

Finally, this is an updated version of a race I created several years ago in a thread on the worldbuilding forum on reddit. If anyone would like to see the original incarnation, just email me, but I promise it’s not that exciting. 

If you do end up using this racial class in play, I’d love a report on it! Any questions, additions, comments, or corrections are always welcome as well. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A short review of every post-apocalyptic novel I've ever read.

The other day I was thinking about post-apocalyptic novels, and how many of them I'd read. So I sat down and created a list of as many of them that I've read that I could think of. Then I decided to write a review for them all. Here is that list. I hope people find it interesting. If you think there are any novels that I might have missed, please ask in the comments and I'll add them! And if you think I'm wrong about any of these reviews, let me know, I love arguing about books :-).


The Greats

These are my favorite post-apocalyptic novels. They are not quite in order of very best to best, but rather in the order in which I want to talk about them.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is, in my mind, the single greatest story about the apocalypse ever written. It's told in three long stories, each following a monk from the same Catholic monestary after the world has all but ended due to nuclear war. The Church is one of the only institutions that wants to keep scientific knowledge alive. Each story follows a different monk, and showcases a struggle they go through to keep some knowledge alive. There are post-apocalyptic politics, strange meldings of Jewish and Catholic mysticism, and one of the most "real" post-apocalyptic worlds you'll read about.

Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson

This is a strange, experimental novel. It's narrated by a woman who is the last woman on Earth for unknown reasons. Having no one to talk to, she goes slowly mad. The book takes the form of her highly literate but definitely crazy first-person ramblings. It's a meditation on how our relationships make us who we are, on art and literature, on loss, on what it is to be human. I highly recommend it to anyone with the stomach for postmodern and/or experimental novels.

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

Nearly perfect. Rather than ending with a bang, Will McIntosh (an academic sociologist) shows how the world could slowly turn apocalyptic. Throw in a dash of climate change, a pinch of economic slowdown, and enough time, and before you know it former members of the middle class are wandering the countryside while the richest people live in hyper-futurist enclaves. It's a punk rock story about the world ending with a whimper, following one young man as he tries to make a living and find love in this strange new world. To me, the best insight of the novel was that no matter how bad and strange things get, people are versatile enough to just think of the "now" as normal, as long as change happens slowly enough.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

This is one of those places where I've interpreted "post-apocalypse" broadly. Set on a wandering planet, a world of forever night, after a space ship crash-lands, it tells the tale of the 500 or so 5th generation descendents of the two people on the space ship. They have formed a small tribal community which is pushing against the natural resource limits of the small warm forrest that the live in. While the main character's plot is at times predictable, the setting is incredible and the story of a matriarchal tribe tearing itself apart and becoming a patriarchy was fascinating.

1491 by Charles Mann

"Isn't that non-fiction?" I hear you say. Yes it is. 1491 is a wonderful history book about what the Americas were like before Columbus "discovered" them. One of the most striking elements of the book is how our conception of Indians as "nomadic tribal hunter-gatherers" was not actually true: they were largely civilized, agricultural, stationary polities, even in North America, until Europeans brought diseases that ravaged the native communities in advance of the Europeans themselves. It's estimated that somewhere in the range of 50% to 90% natives died before Europeans even saw them, so in truth the "nomadic hunter-gatherers" lifestyle had more in common with the folks on _The Walking Dead_ than they did with their parents' or grandparents' lifestyles.

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Oh boy, this novel. Blindness is perhaps the most depraved thing I've ever read, which is exactly what it's trying to be. In a small town, people start going blind. First one or two, and soon hundreds of people at a time. The blind are rounded up and put in prison to try to quarantine them. Within days, as more and more people (even outside of the prisons) go blind, society completely breaks down and a brute sort of anarchy reigns supreme. The animal in man is brought out. Rape, murder, and torture become everyday activities. The story is told through the eyes of a woman who doesn't go blind but follows her husband to prison anyway, and who bears witness to the depths that humanity falls to as soon as society ceases to hold power over us. A terrifying novel.

The War Against the Chtorr by David Gerrold

So War Agains the Chtorr is what happens when you cross Soft Apocalypse with Blindness and add plenty of man-eating wormlike aliens and a gonzo, heavy metal attitude. I read this still-unfinished series 15 years ago, and just re-read them, and they hold up just as well. An alien ecology is infesting an Earth reeling from losing 1/2 the population due to massive plagues, and it's up to elite teams of scientist/soldiers to figure out what the fuck is going on. While it sounds like old school scifi fun and games, the books delve into a lot of philosophy and cover a lot of the same ground that _Blindness_ does, asking where our humanity lies and whether we can still keep it as the world around us goes to shit, and the answer probably isn't what we want to hear.

10:04 by Ben Lerner

What is contemporary lit-fic written by a Brooklyn hipster poet doing on this list? Being one of the best-written stories about the modern apocalypse we're currently going through as a species, that's what. A large part of the book is about New York City after hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the reeling feelings we all had after these super-storms straight out of a scifi novel put the city on hold for days and weeks. The sense of "anything is normal while it's happening" comes through strongly. It's also beautifully written and includes some of the best writing on art that I've ever read.

Stand Still. Stay Silent. by Minna Sundberg

A beautifully drawn and lovingly written science fantasy story about a world where the only survivors from a harrowing world-wide plague are small groups of people living in Scandinavia. It's a forever-winter world of the arctic crossed with pagan folk wizards. It's both twee and heavy metal at the same time. Definitely the best web comic I've ever read, up there with the best comics, period.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

A man beats his son to death, and a woman comes home to find his body. Across the world, a powerful mage sick of the enslavement of other mages creates a super-volcano which splits the world's only continent in two. Years before, a young girl is taken from her family to be taught how to wield her power which lets her cause and dampen earthquakes, and another young mage is sent on a month-long mission with a senior mage with whom her mage's society tells her she must procreate, against both their will. These are the four stories that start The Fifth Season, a story of the end of society in a world-ending cataclysm. In a genre which loves its "plucky female protagonists", the lead female character is a human instead of a caricature, a loving mother with revenge in her heart, seeking her husband and remaining daughter across an ash-blown landscape as society reels in the aftermath of the worst earthquake in recorded history. I just finished this novel and loved it so much. I am afraid I don't have many intelligent things to say about it because it's so fresh, but read it read it read it. You'll be glad you did and angry that the next book in the trilogy is not out yet.


The Good

These are all post-apocalyptic novels that I think are worth reading. None of them is a favorite of the genre, but neither do any of them hold fatal flaws that keep me from recommending them. Alphabetical order by last name.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I enjoyed this book, but find I have very little to say about it. The worldbuilding was fantastic if a bit heavy handed, and the story was totally engrossing. I've never really had any desire to pick up the sequels. A solid SF novel written by a literary author, although she does fall into the traps that literary authors tend to when writing SF.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

I don't normally think of this novel as a "post-apocalyptic" story, but as I was compiling this list it became apparent that it actually contains three apocalypses: the first, and the most moving to me, is the death of the Martians themselves, followed by the nuclear war on Earth and the desolation on Mars after. The first apocalypse is, to me, the best explored. "—And the Moon be Still as Bright" + "The Settlers" combined makes one of my favorite short stories of all time, the story of a man who realizes he is complicit in the genocide of a native race and who can't take that realization. The Martian Chronicles is one of the few novels on this list to have internalized the lessons that 1491 teaches: that apocalypse has already happened on this planet, it's just that we don't know it because we were the cause. Other stories set on Mars after most people have gone back to Earth are also good, especially "There Will Come Soft Rains" which is perhaps one of the best stories ever written to feature no characters at all.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The main story in this novel is about an evangelical priest who goes on a missionary trip to a strange new planet. It's a weird book, one that I 100% loved. One of the sub-plots is that the wife of the main character is left on Earth, and he and she can only communicate through faster-than-light emails to one another. As he has a wonderful if strange time on the planet proselytizing to his alien flock, climate change and political unrest get worse and worse back home, leading to some of the emails from her being harrowing stories of her times in a post-apocalyptic world which seemed normal just weeks or months ago (harkening to the themes in Soft Apocalypse). This book is amazing for so many reasons, and only doesn't make the "greats" because it's only the email stories within the story that contain post-apocalyptic elements.

Afterlife by Simon Funk

This is a free, online novel (of which there are several on this list). A man wakes up in a strange world where people are happy and never sick, but from which they can't leave. He dreams of a past life where he was a computer researcher. As time goes on, he realizes that these dreams are more than just nightmares, and that the Earth he knows is long gone, replaced by (spoiler alert!) self-replicating machines which cover the face of the Earth, doing inscrutable tasks—machines which as an AI researcher he laid the foundation for. Really fascinating novel, definitely worth reading.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

I loved this book, as weird as it was. 1/3rd kung-fu coming of age story, 1/3rd corporate thriller, 1/3rd military apocalypse novel. Harkaway writes an incredibly fast, tight, and entertaining plot, but the speed and entertainment don't hide a lack of intellectualism. Instead, you get great ideas on every page. Great read and lots of fun.

Fine Structure by Sam Hughes

Ultra-dimensional beings fighting to the death take out Earth as a casualty of their conflict. This is the story of what that looks like from our lowly 4-dimensional sight. Strange scientific experiments, super-heros being born stronger and stronger each year, and a series of dystopias and apocalypses. Fun, smart book which was written as a serialized novel and is available for free online.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

The 4th of GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. It takes place after wars have ravaged the countryside of Westeros, and many of the chapters involve the fallout that the average person of this world deals with as a result of the wars that up until now you've only seen through the eyes of the nobles who caused them. While an interesting book from that perspective, it's the weakest of the ASoIaF novels over-all, and would be in the "meh" category if this were just a ranking of Martin's fantasy novels.

Cloud Atlas & The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

These are two very different novels, except each contains one story set in the same post-apocalyptic world (a setting which Mitchell has also visited in some short stories). These books are absolutely wonderful, and deserve to be read. They are only not in the "great" category because the so little of them actually focuses on the post-apocalyptic setting. But seriously, read Cloud Atlas, an experimental postmodern novel which follows six stories in six genres and has some of the best prose work you'll see this side of Nabokov.

Apocalypsopolis by Ran Prieur

I liked this novel, but you could tell the author lost interest part-way through, and the story just sort of trails off rather than ending well. It's in some ways an experiment by the author to write a story of the apocalypse, rather than a post-apocalyptic story, and as he said: that's really hard to do well. However, the novel gets definite points for trying, for having some really creative ideas, and for having some awesome weird Native American shadowlands chapters. Plus, it's free online so the price is right.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I loved this novel, but based on feedback from my book club, it was a polarizing one. The moon explodes and we realize we have only 3 years before the shards rain hellfire down on Earth, so the whole Earth pitches in building structures in space and sending people up. After the Earth dies, the several hundred people in space slowly whittle themselves down to fewer and fewer due to accidents and politics gone crazy. I really enjoyed the near-future hard science of getting everyone into space and the politics that played out amongst the spacers.

Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Fantasy stories sent on a far-future Earth where technology is so advanced that it's actually become magic. These are fantastic adventure stories which don't get nearly enough love amongst genre fans. Vance's prose is astounding and the world he built, of techno-wizards and rogues, is a blast to read about.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

What is easily one of the great 20th Century American novels contained some definitely apocalyptic elements. A "concavity" where Northern New England used to sit where giant babies and herds of feral hamsters run wild. Wheelchair-bound French-Canadian assassins. And a video so wildly entertaining, that anyone who watches it loses all will to do anything else. The novel is dense and rich and rewarding, and Wallace cares about his characters like no other novelist has. It's only here instead of in the "greats" because it's light in terms of being a post-apocalyptic novel.

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams

Another free internet novel about AI run amok, although one in which the AI is all-loving, all-caring and still causes the apocalypse. It's short and fun to read (although _really_ gruesome at points), so rather than review it I'm just going to say that you ought to read it, it's fun and totally worth the price.

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Another far-future, Dying Earth book. This, instead of being short stories, is four novels which form a single narrative (not unlike The Lord of the Rings trilogy). The Earth is falling apart under the weight of its own history, and a torturer is kicked out of his guild for showing compassion to a woman under his "care". This book is one of the densest I've ever read, full of puzzles and unreliable narrators. You really have to read between the lines to get what's going on. I had the strange sensation of actively disliking the books while I read all 1000 pages of their intensely dense prose, but loved it in hindsight.


The Meh

Some of these are books I love but which have fatal flaws. Some of them are good books, but not very good post-apocalypse tales. And some of them are awful and shouldn't be read. Happily, I've already figured out which is which for you. Although be forewarned, some of these reviews are not going to be very popular. In alphabetical order by last name.

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

A novelization of Asimov's wonderful short story by Silverberg. It adds a lot of new content to the end, after the stars come out, which when I read it in high school wasn't all that gripping and created somewhat of an anti-climax after the great reveal that ends the original story. I haven't read it in 15+ years, and am unlikely to again.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I found the world just too unbelievable here. I have no problem with fantasy or mystical settings, but this was presented as straight SF inside the novel itself. The conceit of "energy is expensive, so we'll use human and animal energy and store it in springs" just doesn't make any sense: it's more expensive for animals to create energy than for an engine to do so, even out of the same fuel. In addition, the plot meandered too much and the only sympathetic character was killed off early on. I know it won the Hugo, but I just didn't like this one.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

A cheap knock-off of Blindness. I wanted this to be so much better than it actually was, as the conceit ("suddenly no one can sleep") was so good. The insomnia, the waking dreams, the slow insanity that not sleeping causes. Such ripe territory to explore! But it just didn't come through, instead going over the same ground that Blindness did while being less well written and less well thought through.

The Painted Man & The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

I enjoyed The Painted Man well enough, until a graphic and unnecessary rape scene was directly followed by the raped character working out her emotions by having graphic and unnecessary sex with the protagonist. Just a little too close to "wank fantasy" territory for my tastes, and one that is pretty sexist at that. Then The Desert Spear just wasn't as well written or interesting as The Painted Man, so I gave up on the series. I really wanted to love it though, as the setting was great: every night, demons come out of the Earth itself and so humanity only survives huddled in small villages and cities with anti-demon wards painted around them. Really great fantasy setting and world-building but really disappointing characters and story. Happily. The Fifth Season ended up being everything that I wanted The Painted Man to be, and so much more.

World War Z by Max Brooks

I'm pretty so-so on zombies. I love a good b-movie zombie film, but whenever they get taken too seriously I start to yawn and lose interest. Some of the stories here were good, some of them were so-so, but too many of them were just boring. In addition, I'd hoped to see some of the characters show up in multiple stories so you'd see how they changed over time, and that never happened—even with the world changing so much, the characters were all remarkably flat. I know this isn't a character-driven novel, but that's just not something that I enjoy.

The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

I read these as a kid and loved them. I have almost no memory of them now, and doubt I'll ever bother reading them again. But hey, I said "every book" and some I'm leaving this shitty review here goddamn it.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Meh. Politicians make kids fight for... reasons? A "strong female protagonist" with no agency, a badass fighter who doesn't actually do any fighting and whose only meaningful choice is which boy she likes (spoiler alert, she doesn't make up her mind). Not my cup of tea.

Wool by Hugh Howey

This is a novel fully based on a twist ending, a twist which was telegraphed from the very beginning and wasn't very well executed even then. Also, the setting is totally unoriginal, why do people harp on about how original it was? Fine Structure lampooned the setting and came up with the same twist, and was published years earlier, and is 100x better writing. Read that instead. Also, Howey is a misogynistic douchebag who treats people horribly. I don't understand why these novels are popular.

Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Another novel I know I read and just don't remember at all. Aliens destroy Earth with kinetic weapons, I think? That was pretty bad-ass. And some people fight back and stuff? I don't know, but The Mote in God's Eye by the same authors was fucking phenomenal so this can't be all that bad right? That's my review, "I don't remember it but it can't be all that bad, right?"

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Yup, I read this whole thing. All 800 pages, 60 of which were a single fucking monologue. That monologue took me almost a week to read, it was so boring. Honestly, I really enjoyed some parts of the novel and Rand had a knack for straw-manning people in a way that really made you hate them, but even in high school I found her philosophy repugnant (still do!) and the novel has too many flaws to be worth reading as literature.

Endymion & Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

These read like bad fan-fiction of the Hyperion novels, which is strange since they were written by the same author.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

I love Vonnegut, and I used to love this novel, but the truth is that it suffers from a number of internal inconsistencies that take me out of the story. In addition, while Bokononism seemed profound to 15-year-old angry atheist me, to 30-year-old Buddhist me it's a little... trite as far as philosophies go. Slaughterhouse 5 is still amazing though.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

I'm pretty sure I read this one too. I know I listened to the radio play on tape as a kid, because my grandfather would send me a bunch of old scifi radio plays every year. I loved that shit, Dimension X especially. You can find a bunch of them, including Dimension X, on these days. They're a treat to listen to. But I don't actually remember much about this novel that isn't filter through the radio play and the two different movie adaptations that I've seen, so this final review is going to be a little bit anti-climactic.