Population is a post-apocalyptic tale set in an alternative future for Earth and the human race. American author Elizabeth Stephens is an emerging new voice in speculative fiction, re-igniting the wonder of the ‘what if‘ of other life forms long before the excitement of the New Horizons images of Pluto, or the now very real possibility of KOI-314c being Earth’s twin planet a mere 200 light years away.
Stephens is obviously a fan of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy/Horror genres and has combined the two in creating the very unique Others from an old, familiar predator. She has resisted the temptation of going the easy earth-bound eco-abuse and climate change route, and has instead made the invaders the guilty party, giving us fellow humans a bit more of a guilt-free journey. Guilt-free it may be, but homo sapiens are still at a major disadvantage. Not only are the Others bigger, stronger and faster, they heal better and have methods of communication which have the potential to enslave!
Population describes the human colonies outside of the zones cherry-picked and inhabited by the Others – the unwanted bits which, for our heroine Abel, is the United States. In the aftermath of their invasion – the World After – Population has become a hellacious fight for survival of the fittest, humans doing what humans always do in a lawless, fractured society. They bully, rape and violently rampage their way through the little that’s left outside of Canada-that-was.
We first meet Abel travelling with the remnants of her family group, living hand-to-mouth by a system of cynical, black and white rules of survival. When two out-of-bounds Others face off in a seemingly titanic struggle, they try to take cover with tragic consequences. This sets Abel on the most unexpected of journeys during which she discovers an inner strength and skill gifted to her by her departed parents; she discovers the grey areas of survival where black and white simply can’t apply; she discovers the power of choice and she discovers love.
In her own words, Stephens says,
“Population features a strong female protagonist of colour fighting for her family’s survival in a world ruled by a predatory race of beings. The novel contains strong elements of horror and romance and is otherwise, a fast-paced adventure.
“I am particularly proud to write about strong women of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. In my opinion, the market for women as both characters and authors has opened up in recent years with the emergence of several cult-classics in commercial fiction, including Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games and Divergence, all of which feature women as principle characters. There is however, still a shortage of central characters of colour.
“It is my hope that Population, and other books like Population, can act as a catalyst for authors of all ethnicities, nationalities, and races to include a more diverse range of characters in their works, and provide an avenue for other aspiring authors of colour to find their voice. I also hope that Population, by bringing diversity into the mainstream, can serve as an inspiration for young women of all races on being tough and fearless regardless of whether or not you’re fighting for your life against flesh-eating aliens, or dealing with work, school, relationships and other human things.”
I really enjoyed this book, after taking little while to really warm up to Abel. I was worried that she was going to be just another self-sacrificing black woman. But, whether through circumstance or by design, she blossoms into a warrior and a leader within the limitations of humanity and without resorting to tired plot devices to her get there. Even as certain events seem to occur to an accelerated time scale, the realities of a desperate existence make them plausible.
Population is an e-publication and I believe I have discovered the main advantage of the medium. Quite artfully, Stephens depresses the pause button on the action at a place ripe for the sequel. You don’t see it coming because the book isn’t physically in your hand! Genius! Still, it wasn’t necessary to make you feel you have to know what happens next. Stephens did that all by herself with this great story and a little help from her characters. She has taken a genre I love (Sci-Fi) and combines it with one I really don’t (Horror) and has created a real, virtual page-turner!
If there was one thing I felt let the story down, it was that, in places, there were just too many words when fewer could have sufficed. Simpler phrasing would have tightened up the story telling and added to the intensity of feeling. As humans, emotions are something we all share, so conjuring up complicated metaphors just wasn’t necessary. It would also have been more in keeping with Abel’s starting point as the traumatised, emotionally shut down young woman that she is, and may have added to her psychological journey as her emotional development resumes alongside her physical one.
There is a really positive buzz around this novel and I, for one, am looking forward to April 2016, to the continuing story of Kane and Abel…