The epigraph to Stephen Wallenfels’s POD is a famous quote from Ronald Reagan’s September 1987 address to the UN General Assembly — the one that includes the sentence, “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” It’s fitting; in many ways, POD reminds me of nothing so much as the morbid fantasies of post-nuclear holocaust that my tween friends and I dwelt on too much in the mid-1980s.
The disaster in POD comes in the form of massive black spheres that appear in the skies over the small town of Prosser in Washington State, Los Angeles, and presumably the entire world — spheres that annihilate in a flash of blue light anyone foolish enough to leave the shelter of their homes and buildings. In Prosser, sixteen-year-old Josh is stuck in the house with his father and his dog — who, interestingly, is able to venture outside at will without harm, and who doesn’t seem to hear the terrible shrieking noises that the spheres occasionally make. Meanwhile in LA, twelve-year-old Megs is hiding in the back of her mother’s old Chevy Nova in a hotel parking garage, left there by her mother who was last seen going to a “job interview” in a tight, low-cut dress.
These two parallel narratives allow Wallenfels to explore two classic tropes of apocalypse fiction — the unwilling shut-in who tries to keep the home fires burning and the lone survivalist. Josh and his father can’t leave the house, or they’ll be destroyed in an instant. The father clings to his sanity through obsessive-compulsive planning and rationing, punctuated with occasional “Spheres of Influence” speeches, as Josh calls them, in which he tries to impart the importance of focusing only on the things one can control. Josh reacts to his father’s focus on survival with the eyerolling and contempt of which only a teenager is capable, and attempts to cling to what shreds of teenage rebellion the extreme circumstances leave to him. At one point he eats an entire precious packet of graham crackers in one sitting — it’s a distraction from worrying about his mother, who was away on a trip when the PODs arrived, and from thinking about whether his best friend and his almost-girlfriend are still alive, and what’s going on with the occasional gunshots they hear from the neighbors’ houses and apartments. Josh is admittedly an annoying, self-absorbed narrator at times, but he’s entirely convincing — his shifts from a teenager’s bravado to terror are exactly what you’d imagine many teens’ reactions to such a situation would be.
Megs, meanwhile, tries to survive in the parking garage as best she can. She and her mother have been living in the car for a while now, after fleeing her mother’s abusive boyfriend, so she has some food and water to start. But of course it can’t last, so soon she has to venture out of the Nova to scavenge from the other cars in the garage — some of which have bodies in them. In one car she finds an abandoned kitten, which she immediately adopts. It’s a challenge enough to find food and water for herself and the kitten, but the stakes get significantly higher when she discovers the hotel to which the garage is attached has been taken over by a handful of greedy men who have given into their worst Lord of the Flies impulses — separating the men from the women, refusing medication to the sick, and generally ruling the roost as harshly as they can. Megs is just trying to get by, but inevitably, she comes into conflict with them and it’s not long before she has to fight back, in her own small way. Action girls are a popular heroine in YA fiction these days, and Megs is generally a worthy addition to their ranks. In some ways she seems much older than her twelve years in her self-possession, and in others much younger and more naïve and childlike; she doesn’t seem quite as consistently written as Josh. Still, she’s a likable character and it’s hard not to cheer her on.
Apocalypse stories always play on the reader’s anxieties and also on their darker fantasies: would I survive in a situation like this? Would I be able to ration my food, hide from danger, take care of another while still looking out for myself? What about the other humans — how quickly will we turn on each other? These questions were asked by Cold War children who were forbidden by their parents from watching The Day After and who saw too many grim documentaries about nuclear winter. Clearly this sort of thing hasn’t gone out of style; where the PODs would have once stood in for nuclear anxiety, they now are a proxy for global warming, peak oil collapse, and other, newer threats. Josh and Megs’s stories at once stare down the worst fears a teen reader might have, while at the same time alleviating them with a suggestion that this is how anyone can survive, teen or adult.
There’s a lot that Josh and Megs don’t see but which a sufficiently worldly reader can imagine — what’s going on with the neighbors across from Josh’s house, the atrocities that may be committed in Megs’s hotel. This handily makes the situation more affecting, and also keeps the book suitable for readers of the young narrators’ ages. Of course, as with many YA novels, any adult reader can appreciate the tense pacing and the superbly rendered sense of creeping dread that only grows as the book progresses. The ending of POD is at once less bleak and more morally confounding than one might expect — the nature of the PODs’ mission comes as a surprise, and decidedly a very mixed blessing and curse. On the whole, though, it’s an engrossing and unsettling piece of science fiction, with a memorable cast of characters that you won’t forget soon.