Some 57 hours in, after first picking up the opening issue of the Scott Snyder-written, Sean Murphy-illustrated apocalyptic scifi mini-series The Wake, I’m still haunted. My only refuge is “Oh Child”, as sung by Beth Orton. Because like The Wake, Orton’s version of “Oh Child” is something you can luxuriate in. And because the original version as sung by Ms. Nina Simone, would honestly at this point push me to want to stand on a bridge somewhere and contemplate, just contemplate, that dark murk swirling beneath.
Ms. Nina’s version is emotionally far more raw, and psychologically far more brutal, but more honest. And also, I suspect, a little like the songs of Janis Joplin, something of a hack for the human psyche. Ms. Nina will leave you raw and wanting more. But, after reading and rereading The Wake for the past 57 hours, there’s no need not to want to luxuriate just a little. So it’s Beth Orton, because The Wake leaves you with all the “raw and wanting more” that Ms. Nina does.
Probably the most intriguing aspect of The Wake is not it’s choice of genre, but Snyder’s management of that genre. We’ve seen post-apocalyptic sunken-world stories before. We’ve seen Waterworld, which long after the debacle of making the world’s most expensive movie only to have it turn out a box office flop, actually scans as a reasonable movie. And more recently we’ve seen Brian Wood’s The Massive, which tracks a group of characters’ political navigations of an inundated world.
Significantly though, what Snyder effects is not so much the story of this inundated world and how it came to be, but a deep and imaginative wrestling with the mechanics of apocalyptic scifi itself. The actual story that unfurls this investigation into the post-apocalyptic scifi genre is tight and controlled, and developed so skillfully as to demonstrate Snyder’s facility for pacing.
Two distant-era narratives bookend the main story of Dr. Archer and her half-coerced, half-willing quest for reinstatement at the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. The opening bookend story shows the world some 200 years on. Everything is flooded, but one girl and her glider and her dolphin colleague are close to something, something that might turn things around… and then the big one hits. The closing bookend, one that plays out at the dawn of the Holocene, shows the ecosystem to be far more complex than we might have thought it to be. And proffers a long, lingering shadow-ecosystem that has haunted humanity’s every step. Both bookends relate to the discovery Dr. Archer is about to investigate at the request of the DHS (you’ll get to read about Dr. Archer ‘s discovery on the very final page of the main story, right before the closing bookend story).
But if Snyder’s story is reasonably easily understood, it’s because his story, both the main story and its ancillary bookend stories are really just the two-drink minimum to get you into the actual show. And the actual show? That, Dear Reader, is where the unmitigated genius of The Wake lies, in Snyder’s use of neonoir as a tool to understand and wrestle with the gene of post-apocalyptic scifi.
Like any good protagonist, Dr. Archer has a backstory. She’s had some kind of fall from grace, the full scope of which we don’t completely understand from this first issue. But we do know that once upon a time, perhaps not too long ago now, the good doctor did enjoy a lavishly funded position at an opulent research facility. But as the story opens, she’s skid so far, all she can muster is a tiny research skiff afloat in Gig Harbor in Washington. Agent Cruz of the DHS arrives just in time to offer the doctor a “reinstatement”, but really, what he’s offering is the older form, a redemption. At least in Dr. Archer’s case, a social redemption that will allow her to see her as-yet unseen son Parker again.
And this is exactly the point where Snyder begins his neonoir examination of post-apocalyptic scifi. Almost in its entirety, the first issue is dedicated to an examination of Dr. Archer’s psychological posture, her embrace of her disgrace, and her social failure. How did she come to be the kind of person who accepts the cage she’s working in? It’s this psychological dissection of Dr. Archer that actually brings the Wake into the realm of neonoir. Because what makes noir, noir, is the psychological examination of its subject while finding themselves on the horns of a dilemma. A dilemma oftentimes laced with the most tantalizing dramatic irony, where the audience can see the escape, but not the characters.
Noir begins with its characters embracing this ideal of “the way out is through”. And I’m not talking about classic noir, preserved on screen in the black and white Humphrey Bogart stepping out from foggy night, not just the noir of Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane or Dash Hammett. I’m talking about the grand, oldtimey literary classics that go back to Dostoyevsky (Crime & Punishment) to Conrad (Nostromo, the Secret Agent), to Marlowe (the Tragedy of Dr. Faustus). The protagonists in each of these have begun to embrace “the way out is through” in a dilemma the actual escape from which is painfully easy for the audience to see. Especially Faustus, where God tattoos “Run, man, run!” (it’s actually “Homo fuge”, Latin for “Fly, Man!”, but can you hear the voice of Will Smith saying it the way I remember it?) on Faustus’ arm just before he bleeds himself to sign the contract with the Devil.
Snyder’s move to leverage noir as a mode of inquiry into our collective obsession with apocalyptic scifi (an obsession which in recent days seems only to have heightened to fever-pitch) is an incisive one, but also a seductive one. It makes of us the audience, a player in the grander question of obsession, and inability to wrestle with a dilemma (for us the dilemma of the rise of apocalyptic scifi as a genre). When married with the crisp art of Sean Murphy, it’s hard to imagine how this project could have been better. Or as Eminem put it in a beautifully poignant moment of penitence and exculpation, “I can’t think of a perfecter way to word it.”
The Wake comes with absolutely the highest praise, every book should be this good.
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