One of the two most arresting scenes(1) in Shyamalan's Signs of 2002, is when everyone crowds into a clothes closet with a portable TV to experience how the world is ending. It seems shockingly mundane for such a cataclysmic event. But isn't that the way it's gonna be for most of us? Fittingly, this is not the novel written by the guy wheeling Dr. Strangelove into SAC headquarters.
No, Soft Apocalypse is the story where an established normalcy squishes under the boot of unfolding and disastrous world events, only to find its new stream in the same worked path humanity has always traveled. For me, it's a message that even while living in Armageddon, even after you've solved the basics—eating, sleeping, breathing, defecating, etc.—it is essential for your mental health and acuity to get your rocks off on a regular basis.
And keep your sense of humor. It just doesn't hafta be that cynical, Juvie Delinquent sneering of Harlan's A Boy and his Dog with its hard-eyed veteran of the rubble hunting quiff with a telepathic hound. Unlike most post-Doomsday tales(2), the scary part here is when you realize this Future is surprisingly close to our Now.
We meet the 1stP protag as if it was Today. Jasper has a college degree, a backpack, and is homeless. He's moving with a tribe of friends nomading it like illegal immigrants or the hitch-hiking, commune-seeking Hippies of yesteryear. Jasper is also an easy-going, make-love-not-war kinda guy, belonging to the camp of "keep your head down and try not to get it cut off"(Night Shade Books, 2nd edition TPB, ISBN 9781597802765, p.83). As infrastructure crumbles, riots begin and people abandon the cities without the skills to survive bare Nature. It goes pretty much how you figure it'd go, with two exceptions: bamboo and a virus called Doctor Happy.
With fringe collaborations emerging through the chaos and brutality, the violent anarchists get the most exposure, labeled Jumpy Jumps by "unleashing some vicious absurdity"(p.93) and fueling the mayhem. However, another group called the Scientific Alliance is trying to rationally pull on society's bootstraps with radical but dangerously inhumane solutions based on "stochastic models"(p.82). One is a highly-active strain of bamboo planted to break up all man's infrastructure bringing commerce to a halt and, eventually, overwhelm the ecological systems of the planet as well. The other is Doctor Happy, a virus designed as super Prozac or Brave New World's Soma. Under supervision—of course!—and with mankind's numbers whittled down by half or more, the mind alteration will forge an original rebuilding from the failed creation of "yesterday's people" and their "same rotted stew"(p.181).(3) The project is amassing its supposedly-enlightened new peasantry, clearing away the bamboo for immediate, agrarian needs and building a fortified settlement called Athens. And the price to leave the "mad decay of the carnival"(p.204) outside its gates is Doc Happy.
EOTW novels certainly can't be all bleak, right Cormac? There has to be just a tiny pinhole of hope, or you'll join the fans of Bernanos' 1968s The Other Side of the Mountain and drink the Kool-Aid of cult status, rarely if ever read, and with pages blind in despair. Fortunately, Jasper saves you from that fate because, while dodging away from the dying chrysalis of technological and consumptive society, he believes in passion, joy, and, yes, that even love can surpass the "needle's song"(p.182).
Ah, but that's the rub, isn't it?