Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 5th Wave: I Am The Battlefield

“I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing.  I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway.  I am the one not running, not staying, but facing. Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity. And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.”

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave.  It has received starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus; the New York Times and Goodreads both listed it as one of the best YA books of 2013. Entertainment Weekly thinks it might be "the next big thing." If the trailers for the upcoming movie are any indication, it might be.

The 5th Wave is an ambitious alien invasion story written for both YA and adult audiences, packing not just one but five extinction events into one book. Aliens have been waiting patiently for decades to take over east, infusing their essence into unborn babies and lying dormant until the right time for an invasion. They begin their attack with Four Waves of disasters that obliterate most of humanity. 

At this point, the embedded aliens manifest in their human hosts to infiltrate – and then eradicate -  the remnant of humanity in a decisive 5th Wave of human/alien hybrid assassins. These Silencers have brought the sucker punch. Up to this point, humanity had feared the aliens. Now they have to fear themselves. 

It's certainly an ambitious book, perhaps more memorable for what it attempts to do than what it always accomplishes. However, it has resonated strongly with a huge audience for good reason. Mr. Yancey has tapped into some of the deepest hopes and fears of this generation.

Life is hard
The 5th Wave features Cassie, a young girl who has learned to do what it takes to survive. In moments of clarity, she mourns the Cassie who used to be:
“She was just okay. Okay in looks. Okay in school. Okay in sports like karate and soccer… When I cry – when I let myself cry – that’s who I cry for. I don’t cry for myself. I cry for the Cassie that’s gone. And I wonder what Cassie would think of me. The Cassie who kills.”
I wonder how many Cassies cry over the life they have lost?  One does not need waves of an alien invasion to destroy innocence. A pornified, objectified culture is a wave that crashes into young ladies too.

A good family is a gift
The 5th Wave contains a powerful and pervasive sense of the importance of family. Cassie remembers how much her dead father and missing brother annoyed her – and longs for them. Her mother's death rocked her. When the alien attacks reduce her family to just her and her brother, she is willing to risk her life for him.

As is the case in a lot of YA literature, the power of the family is seen mostly by the impact of its loss (as Yancey himself has experienced). No wonder this resonates – 50% of marriages in America will end in divorce, and 43% of children in the US are being raised without their father’s presence in their lives.

"Being human" is not reducible to biology
The aliens are attempting to map the human psyche (qualia, to use a fancy term) so they can undo and remake people into something else entirely:
“Is this the Other’s ultimate goal, the wave to end all waves, stripping our humanity down to its bare, animalistic bones, until we’re nothing but soulless predators doing their dirty work for them, as solitary as sharks and with as much compassion?”
Yancey has clarified the main point of the story: "When everything else is stripped away, how do we define ourselves?"

The question of God's existence matters
Sammy asks why God doesn’t help; the best Cassie can offer is, “Maybe he will.” Her promise to keep him alive is a promise to do what God apparently won’t. She sobs over Sammy’s innocent and naive prayers to God for safety and isn't afraid to shout, "God? WTF?" And yet... she can’t stop wondering if God keeps his promises.

Yancey treats Sammy's innocent faith with respect. When he is conscripted into a brutal army, he gets his squad leader to pray with him at night. And as the prayer unfolds in one of the more poignant moments in the book, the mockers grow quiet.
“Our voices slow on the last stanza. Like we’re reluctant to finish because on the other side of a prayer is the nothingness of another exhausted sleep and then another day waiting for the last day, the day we will die… We will die, but at least we will die unbroken. ‘And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’”
Let’s be honest: this tension of doubt and faith God is not unusual, even for those who profess faith. I don’t know where the series will go, but at this point it seems like a realistic reflection of both disillusionment and hope.

There is a difference between right and wrong
Cassie notes, “You can only call someone crazy if there’s someone else who’s normal. Like good and evil. If everything was good, then nothing would be good.”  Hmmm. That’s basically a restatement of C.S. Lewis’s claim that he only understood crooked (evil) because he understood straight (good).

In spite of an increasing moral relativism in our culture, I think most people instinctively (and rightly) know this is true. One need not agree with where Mr. Yancey draws every line to agree that one needs a foundation for doing so.

I can save others
Cassie notes that Evan, the Silencer sent to kill her, actually saved her life.  His response? “I didn’t save you…you saved me.” He doesn’t mean sexually or even relationally; she reminded him what it means to be human, and now he cares enough to fight for her.

This is my main criticism of the book. I understand that there is something very appealing in the idea that we can save others, but it might not be the best message to send to a YA audience. In the real world, this kind of relationship becomes unhealthy quickly. The boy might feel saved, and the girl might feel super good about saving him, but this kind of relationship rarely ends well. I think there would have been way to note the power we have to bring out the good in others without the pressure of being a savior.

I am worthy of love and sacrifice
Evan tells Cassie, “Before I found you, I thought the only way to hold on was to find something to live for. It isn’t. To hold on, you have to find something you’re willing to die for.”  That's not a bad sentiment. It reflects something important about the sacrificial nature of genuine love. It's a powerful point of resonance that has shown up in other recent YA hits (Warm Bodies, The Hunger GamesRot and Ruin).

It’s interesting how the popular stories of our culture are often at odds with the messages of the culture itself. Superbowl halftime shows and the VMA send a message that a woman's have worth is intertwined with performance and desirability. Defenders of pornography claim it empowers women even while it reduces them to objectified servants of lust. Popular biologists claim we are no more than moist robots, puppets, bags of chemicals fully explained and determined by genetics and environment. Stable, two-parent families are increasingly dismissed as unnecessary or even stifling in spite of the wealth of evidence showing their importance.

Do you want to know how young women feel about that? Read the stories that capture their imagination. If they could draw out the honor and integrity in men instead of their predatory instincts; if they could know they are worth dying for; if they could know they are more than just robotic puppets; if they could experience a good family (including a father who is present and loves them); if they could have hope that they will survive the waves of life that threaten to drown them.

That would be more than a good story; that would be a good life. Kudos to Mr. Yancey for reminding us.


  1. Thanks for writing this up. I think you've pretty much hit on the points I'd make as well, and I'm in agreement on your overall analysis.

    I gotta say I think the book was well-written but it still had an overall sense of been-there, done-that, despite some of the more unique elements of the plot. Just how many YA dystopias do we need? Hunger Games, Divergent, Red Rising, Steelheart, Maze Runner, this, and plenty more just recently, not to mention all those in the past. I enjoy them, so I'm part of the problem, but I start to wonder whether we can get some more originality in the YA literature.

    I think what set this one apart was the pacing. It was paced quite well with twists and turns happening at the right moments.

    I also think some of these really try to push the boundaries regarding language, violence, and the like. How much is too much to still be YA? I don't know, but this one was on the border.

  2. The second book has not received near the positive publicity of the first one. I have yet to read it. Let me know if you do :)