It’s not easy to write the end of the world. In precise and deliberate prose, you can explain why and how your fictional world is ending, but writing something that really conjures the end—with the many cogs in the machine of civilization that have to break down, and the consequences of the failure of each one—is much harder, particularly if you’d like to do it with heart and thrills and something resembling a thesis statement about the human condition. Very few authors can pull it off, and even fewer can master it. With Wanderers, Chuck Wendig has mastered it.
The story begins with a young girl walking out of her house one morning with no shoes or supplies. Her sister tries to stop her, then her father, then EMTs and police, but still she walks. She is the beginning of an apparent epidemic of “sleepwalkers” that form a flock who walk—expressionlessly and painlessly—across the United States. In the midst of this mysterious outbreak come a series of characters—a disgraced CDC official, a woman who built the world’s most sophisticated artificial intelligence, a rock star, a preacher on the verge of crisis and the young girl’s older sister—who all have roles to play in unraveling the mystery of what’s to come. The walkers, you see, are just the beginning, and what follows is an American epic with the soul of the nation—and the world—at stake.
Wendig tells this story through several points of view, mixing not just different geographic and emotional perspectives but also different spiritual, political and psychological worldviews, each one as real as the last, each gripping in its way. His ability to juggle so many fully realized characters is impressive, but even more so is the astonishing power Wanderers commands in conveying what it would actually feel like if this happened in the America we live in now, complicated by deep ideological divides, disinformation and the constant chatter of social media. All of these elements work together, often in surprising ways, to create a sense of terrifying plausibility and compelling verisimilitude.
The true success of Wanderers, though, is not just in its ability to show us the grim scenarios that could play out across a divided nation; it’s in its heart. Whether he’s writing about rage or faith or the faintest glimmer of light, Wendig brings a sincerity and emotional weight to his prose. That’s why the scariest parts of Wanderers work, but it’s also why the most hopeful ones do, too.