I felt compelled to read this book after discovering the (newer version of the) eponymous show on Netflix and being intrigued by its take on the idea of the disease apocalypse. Though the book posits a future projected forward from the 1970s, when it was written, its core problems and issues feel as relevant as ever, despite some missteps with regard to characterization and plotting. This is largely due to the nature of his apocalypse, in which normal life is suspended (possibly forever) after a lethal virus quickly kills a vast percentage of the human race across the world (which gets an excellent, brutally efficient name: the Death). Nation gets the basics absolutely right as his primary protagonists, a small band of survivors, begin to navigate a world without electricity, government, or a million other types of infrastructure. There's something inherently compelling about viewing the desolation immediately after such calamitous events, before society has had a chance to redefine itself and settle into its new normal, and modern readers can easily imagine themselves raiding grocery stores for canned foods, hospitals for precious medicines, used cars for their half-full gas tanks, and libraries for how-to books on all of the basic survival skills we now leave to specialists. Nation's vision is often at its best when it extends beyond his group, which attempts to make a go of it as a small, self-supporting agrarian commune, to power-hungry groups eager to establish themselves as the new government(s), traders looking to corner the market on now-irreplaceable goods reliant on pre-Death science, and others trying to reclaim, in a way, some aspects of the lives they knew before.
As compelling as his vision is, though, Nation often loses readers in the details, and some aspects of this vision are far more fully realized than others. His characters are unevenly developed and seem to act at the author's whim far more often than of their own volition, and many are ripe for richer backstories and/or present plotlines; likewise, many are pigeonholed early on and never really sway from that one-dimensional, introductory characterization. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of the most egregious failures in this regard occur in relation to the women; though female characters are among the book's most prominent, they are often condescended to by in-world characters and (seemingly) author alike. It is frustrating that even the women who are leaders are foremost wives and mothers, even after the world has been thrown into utter chaos, and that their positive qualities are usually underpinned or undermined by their relationships to their children or to the men. It is, however, encouraging that women do have agency in his apocalyptic future- something that certainly cannot be said of many (probably most) others- and it's not immediately apparent that they are the only victims of poor character-building within the book. This seems to be foremost a failure of talent, not an act of outright malice or misogyny.
Even when Nation attempts to build plot conflicts and provide opportunities for growth- or at least richer realizations- the twists appear contrived, and he relies far too often on his third-person omniscience, rather than events and dialogue, as he draws conclusions and moves the story forward, however tenuously at times. Nation is similarly clumsy in his handling of time: while it is obviously desirable to shift a narrative ahead at different speeds as everything stabilizes, it is often difficult to locate the various starting and ending points either in a kind of absolute time or in relation to one another. This compounds the author's error of introducing too many ill-defined, flat characters and sometimes makes the story difficult to follow. It is hard to sympathize with these people or their plight, even as we can easily imagine it happening to ourselves. Likewise, intriguing threads are raised and dropped before Nation explores their full potential. He has bothered to imagine many of the unintended, wide-ranging consequences of the Death but not to exploit them to anywhere near their fullest potential, resulting in a dull narrative dotted with all-too-brief pockets of excitement and enticing, but quickly disappearing, subplots.
This gets to the heart of the book's primary failure: it relies far too heavily on telling readers what's important, how characters should be perceived, and how
tenuously begins to find its footing in the wake of disaster, rather than
developing a consistent, interesting story that reveals any of these things on
its own. That the story culminates in a wholly foreseeable event telegraphed,
in part, by a blundering attempt to conceal by omission (wherein said omission
becomes all the more noticeable, and the reveal flabbergastingly obvious and
thus wholly emotionally ineffective) is perhaps fitting; it is a last-gasp
attempt at subtlety and nuance that ultimately misses the point entirely and
undermines (or perhaps is undermined by) the book's own ending. This same
ending would be fitting, if still heartbreaking, if the narrative preceding it
paid more attention to questions of shifting morality; in a book apparently concerned
more with the bare mechanics of survival, however, it seems unnecessarily
brutal, cold, and at odds with itself. Survivors
is still worth reading for its imaginative insights into the effects of an abrupt
shift from full-fledged modernity to a nearly uninhabited landscape, but it
will appeal most to well-versed genre fans who can ignore its many flaws.