Before I opened the covers of the science fiction novel Former, written by A.E. Stueve, I sat for a while with it in my lap, just staring silently down at the cover. It features a dark silhouette of a man’s profile, cigarette in mouth, then within this image is another image of what looks like a forest, a very foggy and ominous one at that, with more silhouettes walking through it. A few of the men have their arms raised in ways that are reminiscent of zombies. So from just looking at the cover, without knowing anything about the book or the plot at all, one can only surmise this novel has something to do with either zombies themselves or a very zombie-like story. Which, without spoiling anything, it certainly does.
Now, I don’t very often read books about zombies, or watch shows or movies about them, either. I was a big fan of “The Walking Dead” up until the third or fourth season when I lost interest (I never read the comics), and I did manage to get through the formidable novel World War Z, but slowly and slightly painfully because I was simply having a great deal of trouble summoning up interest in the described situations. Because of all this, I was a little hesitant about jumping into Former, but I am also one to never judge a book in a genre based on other books in the same genre, so I took a deep breath, opened the first page, and awaited on what the words would bring me.
Almost immediately, I could tell this wasn’t going to be the standard, technical, science fiction zombie novel. For one thing, it is taking place after the outbreak, and after the cure. This intrigued me because it was the initial point that made it clear that the book was going to focus on something other than humans contracting a disease that makes them ingest other humans. The reader is first introduced to the protagonist, Billy, and the community of “formers” (people who were formerly infected by the zombie disease) that are all living on the same compound as part of their seemingly lifelong recovery process. It’s also made clear right away that these formers aren’t exactly happy; there is a general tone of helplessness, relayed to the reader by Billy, which was the second point that told me the plot of this book was going to run deeper than the disease, and delve more into the human experience. This, of course, excited me greatly and as soon as Billy mentions his nebulous feeling of living as a subhuman, or living as something not completely alive, I was hooked in.
Stueve not only creates a character story, he also sets up the structure for what could only be called a statement on society. The novel’s story-line has elements that could almost be called (very dark) social satire. The pharmaceutical company that cured the world, is clearly in good with the government, since everyone who is fed the drug that cures them is immediately sent to live on government-run compounds for the rest of their lives. Sounds like a miracle to these poor formers, except for the small fact that most of them, including Billy, have already lost their entire families, the drug they are taking makes them feel mostly dead anyways, and they are treated like poisonous animals by all the other people who were never infected. I couldn’t help but juxtapose that last part I mentioned next to our current society, which also seems to enjoy selecting groups of people and ostracizing or vilifying them, out of fear and lack of understanding.
The disease that infected these millions of people was man-made, and the company that provided the cure to it obviously has financial dominance over everything, consequentially over everyone. Again, I couldn’t help but think of all the conspiracy theories currently circulating about how big drug companies hold cures to the worst, most fatal diseases, but do not release them to the public because it would lose them a lot of money. I try not to read too much into such theories (mainly because I truly don’t want to believe humans in general are that awful), but it definitely sprung to my mind on multiple occasions throughout my time reading this book. That may have been Stueve’s point, but regardless, it definitely adds an extra dose of “maybe this could actually happen” to the reading.
Things go from bad to worse for Billy when he is accused of murder, and left with no one to help him but his fellow formers within the compound. Despite Billy’s unfortunate luck, A.E. Stueve has set up amazing exposition, an exciting plot-line, and a continuous flow of action, so that even I, someone far from being an avid zombie book reader, began holding my breath each time I turned the page, anxious and excited to find out what would happen next.
As I continued on with the rest of the novel, it becomes even more obvious that Former, although not without some gruesome descriptions and violent occurrences, is more about the characters and human emotion, than it is about zombies and the zombie apocalypse. I would venture to say that it is almost the opposite of World War Z in terms of how it is written and the story being told. It is more along the lines of books like 1984 by George Orwell or Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It speaks volumes to the state of society, almost to the point of alarm, and although it is fiction, it most certainly gave me chills when I started to assess the uncanny similarities between the events taking place on the pages I was reading, and the events taking place on the news channels I currently watch.
For those who are looking to branch out a bit on what they read, without committing to something in which they have no interest, I’m fairly confident this is the perfect book to satisfy that. It has elements of a genre I usually stay away from (just due to lack of appeal, personally), but also so many components of the type of books I absolutely love. Yes, it is about a mass outbreak, and a subsequent zombie epidemic, but it is also about love, compassion, bravery, empathy, and basically what it means to be a human, decent or otherwise. Former is brilliantly written and a captivating, albeit slightly heartbreaking, read.
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