The 5th Wave

Novel * Rick Yancey * Oh No Aliens OR ARE THEY * 2013


I don’t read book reviews. Hell, I barely write them. I do read a lot of books, however, and many of them feature a page full of ecstatic excerpts from various outlets. This ain’t a new thing, to the point where it doesn’t even register with me for the most part. That said, sometimes the endless, excessive gushing over a book strikes me as odd. Not because the book itself is bad – The 5th Wave is totally competent – but because I can’t tell how these quotes would look in context.

“Everyone I trust is telling me to read this book” says The Atlantic Wire, whatever that is. “Unfortunately it turns out that everyone I trust is an idiot,” the quote continues. Probably.

“A modern sci-fi masterpiece… should do for aliens what Twilight did for vampires” said. First of all, I don’t trust that ellipsis. Anything could be in there. Like a whole manifesto could be embedded between those two phrases. Also, the following sentence is certainly “and we all saw how that turned out.”

“Step aside, Katniss.” Oh, fuck right off The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Like I’m going to trust any publication with such a 1930’s-ass name as that. Also, just no.

Here’s what The 5th Wave is: a totally acceptable, extremely pulpy, occasionally obnoxious alien invasion story. I read it in two days because: 1. Work was slow and I had a lot of time on my hands. 2. It’s breezy Y.A. fiction that is quickly paced. 3. The story was good enough to keep me engaged throughout. And that last point is super important, because if you’re out there writing genre fiction (young adult or otherwise) that’s what you’re looking for. Get in, tell your story, get out. That’s what Yancey does, and it works.

Here’s what The 5th Wave is not: 1. Better than the fucking Hunger Games. 2. A revelation in science fiction and/or apocalyptic fiction. 3. In any universe comparable to The Road. Jesus Christ, Entertainment Weekly, really? Look, I understand we’re trying to sell books here, but get it together reviewers. Do you get a kickback if you’re featured on the “Praise” page? And if so how do I get in on it? Probably by writing more accessible, punchy, 500 word review blips for a major publisher. Or even better, hyperbolic, gushy praise for absolute trash so I can be the one guy from some website no one’s ever heard of (like this one!) making the cover of the book.

It’s summer now, and you need an easy-breezy book to blast through without thinking too hard. I get it. Dog days, man. Let me suggest The 5th Wave. It’s about a teen girl, because this is Y.A. There’s also a teen boy or two, also because Y.A. This is an alien apocalypse which manifests itself in, wait for it, five waves. The first is an electromagnetic pulse which wipes out humanity’s power grid and electronics. All of it. The second wave is tidal waves? I forget how they pull that off but it eliminates coastal cities worldwide. Then the third wave is a gross plague. After the vast majority of humanity is dead, the aliens send down infiltrators to personally eliminate the rest. The fifth wave is a secret. Why are the aliens doing these things? Who cares!

5th Wave2

Oh no, they tried to make this a thing. I bet this movie is just terrible and I don’t think I want to find out.


It turns out that it’s difficult to write about totally competent, mostly unremarkable books. Even when those books are totally in my wheelhouse. The 5th Wave opens with our protagonist, Cassie-for-Cassiopeia, as she navigates a destroyed world. She’s a quirky teen, her thoughts tend to wander and she makes a lot of pithy dad-jokes in her head. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that she’s being written by a middle-aged dad. Again, whatever, all of these internal monologues hustle the pace along and the story keeps moving. Cassie is tonally all over the place, which is usually a bad thing, but here it keeps the book as a whole form bogging down in your typical bad-apocalypse malaise. We get it. The world’s destroyed, humanity is hanging on by a thread and is facing an all-powerful, unknowable enemy. Extinction is all but ensured. But does everyone have to be so dour about it all the time? Lighten up, last remnants of humanity!

I will admit that perhaps my perception of The 5th Wave as an example of a “lighter” apocalypse is unintentional. I mean, humanity really is mostly destroyed. The plague in particular is rather gruesome. There’s the expected noble sacrifices, and almost everyone has experienced traumatic loss. Okay, but for all that Cassie still really seems into the object of her unrequited fifteen-year-old-girl crush. He’s the minor protagonist, “Zombie,” who is quite frankly a jocky douche-turned-survivor. Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect me to take your survival story seriously if you’re spending quality time setting up a motherfucking teen love triangle. Face it, Cassie, you’re going to have to consider broadening the gene pool at some point so maybe don’t get hung up on your prissy notions of monogamy. Nobody’s going to be around to slut-shame you when you’re at risk of being assimilated by creepy ghost-aliens.

The aliens here are, in the end, kind of lame. I was really hoping for a race of big gross Cthulhu monsters to drop down from their mothership and the 5th wave would just be them unleashing Eldritch horror across the flaming ruins of Earth. Alas, no. They’re parasites. Somehow – it’s not really explained too much – they’re incorporeal beings of pure thought or something. Back in 1995 they impregnated a bunch of unknowing humans and left them with random images of owls (screen memories!) and an alien brain-worm. Then, in present day, they activate their alien-ghost-worms and take the human over for the purposes of hunting other humans. That’s the 4th wave. But then it bleeds into the 5th wave, which is using the alien-ghost-people to indoctrinate children into doing the heavy lifting of extermination for them. Personally, I think the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers aspect of the alien attack should be a single wave and that Yancey is totally cheating. Throw like a temporary Ice Age in there or something. Mix it up.

Usually, in this section, I will attempt to push a little deeper into a given text and examine some undercurrent of theme and/or intent pertaining to notions of the apocalypse. I’m having difficulty doing that today. I’m actually acutely disappointed that my copy of this book doesn’t have a section of book club questions in the back, because those are really helpful when I’m not feeling particularly analytic. That said, I suppose whoever is responsible for writing those questions likely read the book and shrugged, kind of like I did. Like, “that was fun,” and then spent an hour trying to think of something clever to ask the reader. Hold on…. ….Shit. They’re online. Okay, maybe just one.

How is Manifest Destiny similar to The Others’ takeover of Earth? How does the American concept of Manifest Destiny differ?

Damn, getting deep there. First of all, nice reminder of the United States’ foray into genocide that we really don’t like talking about. Secondly, the answer is God. Now, if you’re a cynic like me you look at the attitude surrounding Manifest Destiny as a flimsy smokescreen to grab land from what were assumed to be a less worthy species of human. That’s the bit that The Others have in common with American settlers. They just don’t bother attributing their atrocities to a higher power. They are the higher power.

Oh man, there’s a lot of good ones here. Alas, I’m kind of done writing about this. That said, I’m now seriously considering reading the rest of the trilogy which I pretty much wasn’t before. So good job, question-writer. Well done.

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