By: Wayne Gladstone
Release Date: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Series: Internet Apocalypse #1
The novel Notes from the Internet Apocalypse by Wayne Gladstone is something I have had my eye on since its release. After three years I’ve finally read through the book.
A man referred to only as Gladstone keeps a handwritten journal account of events when, one day, the internet disappears. Everywhere, all over the world, the internet simply ceases to work. Despite the best efforts of all manner of organizations and governments, they cannot make the internet return. While threats of terrorism loom high, we follow Gladstone as he traverses the streets of New York City, following rumors of who may have the internet as he simply tries to survive in the post-internet world.
Despite being only three years old, this book feels somehow dated. While a specific year and date for the internet apocalypse is, to my memory, not specified, other specific events are mentioned. Obama is president and net neutrality battles have only recently been spreading through the government. There is no shortage of references to media icons. And, perhaps most dating of all, are the references to online materials, social media, and their ilk. This is not a bad thing, but the references feel somehow too recent to play on nostalgia and too far away to feel in the now, leaving it in an odd middle ground the simple passage of time will rectify, leaving me to wonder if I should reread this more thoroughly in a couple of years.
Oddly, one of the hurdles I had the most trouble overcoming was that the internet simply disappeared. While a good concept, one ripe for commentary on any number of issues, I found it breaking my suspension of disbelief. The internet is not a small black box that can be flipped on or off, no matter what The IT Crowd may say about it. The characters were not nearly ignorant enough of the ways of either the internet or technology as a whole to properly believe that the reason there was no deeper explanation than ‘it’s gone and no one knows why’. The feeling that this was odd, too odd, simply could not be shaken.
The book starts off well. Gladstone is a rather bland main character whose only personality traits seem to be pining after his divorced wife and day drinking, but he is a character that allows readers toeasily identify with and insert themselves into the situation. A character whose hobbies are mainly watching youtube videos and hating his office job is something many can sympathize with.
As it becomes clear the internet is gone and possibly not coming back we see New York City change. Internet phenomenons, social media groups, and whatnot all take on a physical presence. Attempts at anonymity are made using masks instead of an inane screen name and no identifying information. Online spaces turn into physical meeting spaces. People wander the streets as ‘zombies’ searching mindlessly for that which they have lost. And, as time moves on, internet related jobs inevitably disappear. This sets quite an interesting stage, one that has plenty of potential and can be taken in many interesting directions. However, it is not explored in as much depth as I had initially expected.
While people being laid off is mentioned, it is not something that is fully explored. Especially considering that this is New York City, a place with countless tech companies, I had expected the impact to be more violent and immediately noticeable. All that is mentioned are IT workers being laid off because no one needs help fixing their Excel sheets. This leaves out the more obvious losers in this situation – software engineers, programmers, online-only companies, and ad companies dealing in online marketplaces. The options to be explored here are quite numerous and fairly obvious, but completely left off the table.
Social commentary on our world today and what would happen if the internet suddenly ceased to exist cohabits a narrative about Gladstone himself (the character, not the author). It becomes rather apparent as the story goes on that Gladstone is a damaged man, one whose medical leave is perhaps more needed than he himself admits. This character is an excellent example of the unreliable narrator, a feature I often find myself greatly enjoying. This isn’t any different – I did enjoy the unreliable narration and the tailspin Gladstone finds himself falling in towards the end of the book.
However, like the social aspect of the book, this never really comes into full fruition. Yes, the ending scene good, likable, but it felt slightly rushed, not taking the full time it deserved to round things up. This as well inhibits the other plot in certain ways, the one of the internet ceasing to exist and its impact on society. A character that unreliable, that damaged, cannot be wholly trusted. By default, it makes the reader question the accuracy of everything that has happened throughout the course of the novel. This includes the internet disappearing, the characters around him, the major plot events, all of it.
On their own, either the character driven narrative or the dystopian internet driven narrative would stand tall and proud as a deeply thought provoking novel. Combined, they seem to stifle one another. Sufficient time isn’t given to either plot to fully allow it to bloom, leaving both feeling as if they never quite got around the real, hard hitting commentary they intended.
Despite a promising concept, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse by Wayne Gladstone didn’t fully work for me. Too much was included in too small of a space. Neither of the book’s major goals were allowed to fully breathe. The dystopian elements had the potential to be much denser and more chilling. The social commentary never quite got around to saying what it set out to. The unreliable narrator subverted the intentions of some passages in the first half of the novel and, while ending satisfactorily, never quite felt as if it managed to say what it originally intended. This is clearly a novel written with a purpose, the author having a clear goal, and it is unfortunate that it feels as if that goal were never reached. Even so, it does have interesting things to say, and I am glad I read it.