Review of Apocalypse How? by Galen Surlak-Ramsey
by Galen Surlak-Ramsey
I received this book from Tiny Fox Press and NetGalley in exchange for a review.
Apocalypse How? is a messy trainwreck, and if that’s your style, you’ll probably enjoy it. For the rest of us … let’s just say that I kind of knew how I felt about this book less than 50 pages in, and maybe I should have stopped there. This is basically “Indiana Jones in space” but make Indiana a young woman named Dakota Adams and instead of being an erstwhile archaeology professor she’s a struggling archaeology streamer. Pile on a few more Hitchhiker’s, Doctor Who, and other cult references—I’m sure there’s plenty I missed—then add a frenetic, non-stop rush from one nonsensical set piece to the next, and you’ve got the formula for this book. Galen Surlak-Ramsey pays tribute to numerous cult classic and pop cultural properties of the past, and I’m sure it comes from a place of love. But the overall effect is a bit too cutesy, a bit too rompish, a bit too put on for my tastes.
Allusion is a tricky literary beast. Like most seasonings, a little bit goes a long way. The protagonist’s name, or another name here or there, might have been fine by themselves. But the constant little references makes it seem like the book is showing off. I don’t feel like an insider being rewarded for getting the in-jokes; I feel like I’m being forced to sit through 300 pages of the author showing us how clever he is for working them into the story. It distracts and detracts from the author’s own original ideas—and let’s be clear here: Apocalypse How? does have a cool plot to it.
Oh, right, yeah, sorry, you probably want one of my one-paragraph plot summaries! Here we go.
Dakota Adams is Space Indiana Jones. She gallivants around the galaxy for the glory, the gold, and the 6 people who watch her livestream. She has a furry partner (in the Wookie sense, not the lifestyle sense) named Tolby, and he keeps the ship running so Dakota can keep running from whatever nasty alien creature is chasing her at the time. Dakota’s dream is to find tech from the elusive, perhaps mythical Progenitors, who are exactly what they sound like. When she finally does, the story really gets started, because now an interstellar mob boss is after her, except she suddenly acquires the ability to hop through space-time at the expense of her memories. Soon we’re in a non-linear race to escape a multidimensional spacetime museum that is going to be/will have been/has been destroyed (ugh, time travel tenses).
As mentioned above, I have zero issues with the plot itself. I don’t mind authors leaning on the idea of nigh-omnipotent extinct advanced species who scatter their tech around the universe like candy. The idea that Dakota is on the run from a criminal with enterprise-level resources, and that she’s then in a race against time (literally) to escape before this museum gets destroyed? Makes total sense. I’m in. Let’s do it.
Alas, Surlak-Ramsey’s writing style just leaves me so unsatisfied. First, we almost never get a break. I really like the “scene and sequel” approach to storytelling, but what we get with Apocalypse How? is mostly scene and precious little sequel. The sequels we do find tend to be repetitive and circular (Dakota’s fragmentary memory and time travelling doesn’t help this). Instead, Dakota is typically barrelling from one crisis directly into the next. (I’d comment that this sounds like an Indiana Jones movie, but actually I’ve never watched one. I know, fie!) The consequence is my second complaint: there is so little character development here it’s like trying to watch paint dry if paint could jump through time.
Dakota starts the book as an overconfident, smartass adventure-seeker. She ends the book the same way. Once in a while there are moments where it looks like she’s reflecting and maybe growing and learning some humility. But nope. It bothers me when books’ protagonists start out as badasses without having demonstrated why they’ve earned it. Dakota keeps screwing up, time and again, and it’s really only the time travel power she has that lets her get out of numerous bad decisions. Ironically it might be Tolby, her sidekick, who experiences the most character development of anyone. The rest of the characters, from Pizmo to the Curator to Mister Cyber Squid, are literally one-dimensional stock and archetypes. Nothing wrong with those, of course. But if all your characters are paper-thin, the light source at the top of the literary skybox shines through way too easily, and suddenly it’s all just shadows on the cave wall, you dig? We briefly interact with Dakota’s brother, and she mentions her parents a couple of times, yet we never actually learn where they’re at or what her relationship with them is really like.
In other words, Apocalypse How? is a novel of brilliantly squandered opportunities. I think this is pretty common when authors try to be humorous at the expense of digging deeper. Douglas Adams, from whom Surlak-Ramsey borrows a surname and a lot of references, understood deeply that the absurd is a tool for holding back the despair that we get when we stare into the abyss, the emptiness on the edge of human consciousness. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series begins with the destruction of the Earth, and each book becomes progressively darker, despite its patina of humour, because Adams is ultimately writing about the cold, capricious nature of life. Every time Arthur Dent tries to do something proactive, the universe smacks him down; the most well-adjusted characters, like Zaphod or the character who might be God, are the ones who go with the flow and accept that life is inherently nonsensical.
Moving further afield, consider another favourite TV show of mine, Farscape. This is a show about a human stranded far, far from home without much hope of ever returning there, and he falls in with a group of fugitives. The show is unforgivably funny yet also incredibly sad and bittersweet as well—again, because the writers understand that the humour goes hand-in-hand with the darkness that it must stave off.
Despite its title and the intense, life-threatening situation in which Dakota finds herself, Apocalypse How? never stops mugging for the reader long enough to establish that essential contrast to make the humour work for me. There is a competent adventure story here, but I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it as much as I wanted. Your mileage might vary, but if you’ve been reading my reviews long enough to get a sense of my humour and what works/doesn’t work for me, you can judge whether you’ll be in my camp or not.