Note: Some spoilers for the first two books in this series, which together make up “The 5th Wave Trilogy.” No spoilers for this book.
I hope that you, Reader, aren’t someone who thinks that a young adult trilogy about an invasion from outer space can’t possibly be a sublime, sweeping meditation on the meaning of life. Rick Yancey will prove you wrong.
This story is told in alternating points of view, but for most of the saga the narration is by Cassie Sullivan, age sixteen when “the Others” come to Earth. These alien invaders have attacked the planet over the past months in successive waves.
The first wave was a massive electromagnetic pulse, and the second was the creation of a huge earthquake and tidal wave that eliminated everyone in coastal areas (i.e., over 40 percent of the world’s population). The third was a virus, spread through birds, killing an estimated 97 percent of those left after the first two waves. In the 4th wave, the few survivors do the alien’s work for them by attacking each other, because it’s hard to know whom to trust. Rumors abound that the aliens look like humans, or have taken over human bodies. But no one knows the truth. And no one knows what the aliens want or when the next wave will strike. As this third book begins, we find out what the 5th Wave will be. It will take place in two parts, in which “[t]he human footprint is about to be wiped clean.”
Cassie is “sentimental and immature and self-absorbed beyond belief” as well as “cynical, naïve, kind, cruel, soft as down, hard as tungsten steel.” She also has a huge heart and “true, undiluted courage” that comes from faith, hope, love, and even a sense of humor. She accepts pain, because it allows her to know joy. These qualities provide her with the perspective to take in all that has happened and transmute it into a plan of action.
As it happens, the quest to destroy mankind runs into some roadblocks very much personified by Cassie: hope, courage, and most of all, the power of love:
“The fundamental flaw in humanity was its humanity. The useless, baffling, self-destructive human tendency to love, to empathize, to sacrifice, to trust, to imagine anything outside the boundaries of its own skin – these things had driven the species to the edge of destruction.”
Or as Cassie says in her typical sardonic manner: “Aliens are stupid. Ten thousand years to pick us apart, to know us down to the last electron, and they still don’t get it. They still don’t understand. Dumbasses.”
It may sound as if Yancey, in his paean to outstanding aspects of humanity, is invoking trite references to overused concepts, but he manages to elevate these “roadblocks” into an eloquent and transcendent defense of humanity. In this passage, perhaps my favorite in the whole trilogy, Cassie distills the essence of humankind, while contemplating the importance of her little brother’s stuffed bear:
“I press my lips onto that nasty stuffed animal’s head. Really neat that human beings conquered the Earth, invented poetry and mathematics and the combustion engine, discovered that time and space are relative, built machines big and small to ferry us to the moon for some rocks or carry us to McDonald’s for a strawberry-banana smoothie. Very cool we split the atom and bestowed upon the Earth the Internet and smartphones and, of course, the selfie stick.
But the most wonderful thing of all, our highest achievement and the one thing for which I pray we will always be remembered, is stuffing wads of polyester into an anatomically incorrect, cartoonish ideal of one of nature’s most fearsome predators for no other reason than to soothe a child.”
Notice how the author renders the mundane marvelous by the poetic quality of his descriptions. Here, Ben, now called Zombie, is thinking about his last car:
“Before there was Zombie, there was this kid named Ben Parish who worked on cars with his old man on Saturday afternoons, the last being a cherry-red ’69 Corvette, his seventeenth birthday present from his dad, a guy who really couldn’t afford it and pretended it was for his only son, but they both knew the truth. Ben’s birthday was an excuse to buy the car, and the car was an excuse to spend time with his son as the clock wound down to graduation and then college and then grandkids and then the retirement home and then the grave. The grave leapt unexpectedly to the front of the line, not before the car, though; at least for a few Saturday afternoons, they had that car.”
At first, when Cassie thought she might be the last person alive on earth, she had written in her journal, “I am humanity.”
But then she meets other survivors, including Evan Walker, an alien entity downloaded into a human body. He and other “infested” people have enhanced physical properties, which “turn their bodies into finely tuned weapons.” Their designers assumed: “Give someone the power of the gods and he will become as indifferent as the gods.”
In most instances, this theory worked, but in the case of Evan, something went wrong; his human side prevailed over his alien consciousness: “He fell in love, and love is the only weakness.” (Once again, Cassie has her own unique way of characterizing Evan: “ . . . the self-sacrificing, idealistic, alien-human hybrid asshole.”)
Clearly, along with the constant terror gripping everyone and pervading the story, the books still manage to be funny and poignant, seamlessly combining teenage concerns with Big Survival Issues in just the way a teen might react to whatever arises. The characters are really likable and expertly nuanced, constantly battling questions of fear, trust, and even faith. But this not by any means a “religious” tract. In fact, to the contrary, the characters are convinced even if there had been a god, that god had deserted them. One is reminded of the lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie”:
“And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken. . .”
And yet, some of the most poignant moments in the books come from when characters intone the classic children’s bedtime prayer, emphasizing this verse:
“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
When in the morning light I wake,
Show me the path of love to take.”
The last time you read it in the book will induce buckets of tears.
Discussion: The plot is impressively clever, invoking a variety of literary allusions both old and new. But what is most consistently striking is the dialogue and the character of Cassie. She is such a typical 16-year-old, as when she covets the clear skin of another female survivor even while her world is being destroyed. She expresses a poignant sorrow for the woman she used to dream of being one day:
“With my eyes closed, I could see her walking down a wooded path in Vermont, a place she has never been and will never go, and the leaves that embrace the trail sing arias of bright red and gold. And there is a big dog named Pericles running ahead of her in that self-important way of dogs, and she has everything she ever wanted, this girl – no, this woman – nothing left behind, nothing left undone. She traveled the world and wrote books and took lovers and broke hearts. She didn’t allow life just to happen to her. She punched and pummeled and beat the living shit out of it. She mauled it.”
Again, one thinks of the lyrics in “American Pie”:
“We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance…”
It’s so tragic to read, and yet, in the end, Cassie becomes more than even her dreams: she becomes, in a way, the sum of everyone, the representation of humanity in all of its good and bad traits, its weaknesses and strengths.
Evaluation: One wonders if Yancey was inspired by the Walt Whitman poem “Song of Myself.” The messages in that poem and even many of the images are similar to what is conveyed in this book. But Whitman was writing in the late 1800’s. This trilogy, with its references to Starbucks and gaming and legos and technology, is a song of the 2010’s, and just as soaring and memorable in its own way.
Yancey doesn’t pander to any happy ending tropes that so often mar the credulity of apocalyptic stories. He is as honest and unflinching as his characters, and as full of love for humanity as they are. Highly recommended!
Note: This is not a standalone.
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016