D. J. Molles’ The Remaining sketched out the most well-reasoned zombie apocalypse I have ever encountered, and I got to listen to the Audible version over a round trip to North Dakota two weeks back.
The concept is that America has always been ready for the collapse of society. Project Hometown places special forces soldiers, one per state, wait near bunkers to survive, emerge, and rebuild. Captain Lee Harden is one of those elite soldiers, used to a dozen false alarms. This time, it isn’t a false alarm, and he faces the apocalypse with his weapons, training, and trusty dog by his side.
I spent my whole young life around medical professionals, so zombie apocalypses have always left me somewhat conflicted. First of all, it is always a virus, but viruses need living cells to reproduce. Then there is the problem of decay with the walking dead. Bodies are constantly breaking down and constantly repairing themselves. At death the repair work stops, and after six months there simply would not be enough left of the dead to threaten my imaginary poodle.
Molles puts forth a zombie bacteria that leaves its victims alive, with the thinking part of their brains eaten away beyond recovery, and the aggression centers all that’s left to run the show. The horror of the zombie story stays through, the threat of infection, the death sentence of a bite, but zombies eat, breathe, and live for as long as they can.
The interactions with small-town North Carolina are believable. Much of so-called Southern fiction turns me off with demeaning caricatures and obsessions about racism. None of that here. This is the small-city South as I have experienced it, people no better or worse than elsewhere, doing what they can.
Like more popular zombie stories, Molles depicts threats from broken down society, broken down physical systems, and broken-down survivors. Molles’ protagonist, Captain Harding, is a decent, honest type of guy. He is capable and trained in violence, but he does not love it. He cares about his country, his duty, and fellow people. He’d rather avoid a fight than win one, but in one, he is in it to win, and he often does.
The supporting cast of characters that Captain Harding encounters are bright, sometimes simplistic but never so much that they lose their humanity. I believed them easily and they contributed to the story.
Molles writes solid action and deftly treads the line between too much information for civilians or people who are not gun people, but he includes enough flavoring to please the shooters and gun-savvy reader as well. I mention that because even really good genre fiction authors like Larry Correia do not always hit that balance in their first books. Molles does admirably.
Molles’ technological world-building and survivalist research is also praiseworthy. His bunker would please most sci-fi fans and the man himself will appeal to fans of Tom Clancy’s unapologetic patriot heroes.
The book is not perfect. There are two quick flaws I will mention. Characters, particularly in genre fiction, need to be dynamic, proactive. As the apocalypse denies a quick fix, Lee gets less proactive. It becomes more of a story about what the world does to Lee than how Lee interacts with the world. This leads to my other problem with the characterization. Molles’ bad guys don’t seem to play by the same rules in terms of mechanics (bad for story) instead of simple morality (good for story). Lee always has trouble, rarely gets what he wants out of a situation, and overcomes or escapes them by the skin of his teeth. Less-trained, more poorly-equipped, spontaneous bandits navigate flawlessly, set up perfect ambushes at exactly the right time, have the best equipment and no problems apart from Lee.
Lee’s faith is just as realistic as everything else. He is not a churchgoer, to be sure, but when metal hits the meat the occasional prayer wings its way upward with no mocking tone. There is no bigotry here, either, as Lee is as willing to help minorities or people of other faiths because they are people, and Americans, as much as any other person.
Those flaws aside, I enjoyed the novel. I particularly enjoyed the complimentary first chapter of the next book, which I will be getting with my next Audible credits.