Friday, January 8, 2021

"What Branches Grow," by T.S. Beier--Fiction Review

Happy Friday to you and for all you reading this in the future on a print out you found in the ruins of some building, a slice of home in today’s review. Today’s book “What Branches Grow,” by T.S. Beier is post-apocalyptic science fiction. 

T.S. Beier

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

As a big science fiction fan, a fan of the subgenre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and a video gamer—I feel Beier’s book is like a ride-along with someone’s character in a “Fallout” game. She even captures that particular game world’s aesthetics. “What Branches Grow” is mostly a survival story set in the grim reality typical of the subgenre, but it also engages in the wackier flights of fancy and humor cruising just under the surface of the narrative—like “Fallout.” When the characters visit the town of sex-crazed “vampires,” who aren’t really undead, it reminds me of the same sort of absurdist high-concepts for post-apocalypse settlements that I’d expect to find in the capital wastes.

Our main characters of this novel are a likable bunch, and some of my favorite parts of the story were the slower bits. Don’t get me wrong, the action scenes are fun too, but I enjoyed the occasions when the group got to put up their feet and shoot the shit—that is until the arguments started up. My favorite downbeat moment, between advancements of the plot, was probably on the golf course. Delia, who is typically deathly serious, and Gennero, who generally is too nervous around Delia, let their collective guards drop a bit to go on a joy ride on a still working golf cart. They also use the golf cart to get into some mischief involving Perth.   

I liked that Delia and Gennero, despite their circumstances, are avid readers. For someone who talks about books all the time, I like book people, even book people who wander wastelands.

Mort, the pug, was also a fun element to this story. He was primarily attached to his owner Perth, but his presence added a bit of levity to this book, which I think is vital in any setting that can become grimdark at any turn. Conversely, Mort also added to my anxiety and the stakes of any situation where violence broke out because “what about the dog” still works on me thousands of stories later. 

What I don’t love about this book:

The cultural references before the red war, a time synonymous with our own, only make sense when Perth is doing the reminiscing—or any other character who lived before the apocalypse. When the narration does it as an: if so-and-so lived before the red war then x popular culture reference,  those parts felt out of step to me. 

Overall, I liked the central romance sub-plot to this book. What I didn’t like is that it wasn’t just slow burn but sometimes felt like the beats of indecision were repeated too many times. I often felt that with the male character in the equation, a scene would go by, and I, as the reader, would be like, you see that right there? That was your moment. You missed your moment. Then he’d do it again, and again, and again.

Another issue and I have this problem with “Fallout” and “Mad Max” as well, and many other stories in the post-apocalyptic subgenre, which can be summed up like this: what is with all the antagonists with such minimal regard for self-preservation? It just seems like raiders are always ready to go in on a swarm, wave after wave of bodies into a stream of fire, at the drop of a hat. These people had to have survived this long in the wasteland. It just seems like caution would be a dominant trait amongst everybody, not only the protagonists.  

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The adventure begins when a mysterious woman—Delia—shows up in the post-apocalyptic settlement of Churchill, named after its founder and leader. He immediately tries to pressgang this well-armed mercenary woman into his town’s brothel. It doesn’t go well.

Churchill’s right-hand man, Gennero, is sent out after her when she escapes after shooting her way out of the town. This also doesn’t go well. Gennero, having become disillusioned with the town and the man named Churchill, decides to run off with Delia to explore the wasteland. Their working relationship starts off rocky, but when the two of them meet up with and save Perth and his pug Mort from being lynched by religious nutters, we find out that Delia’s hostility has a whole new level for Perth. Perth is an old millennial, born before the war that ruined the world, and is constantly talking about the times before, to the annoyance of Delia. She does, however, love his dog, so she puts up with him.

The three of them continue their journey, ever northward, attempting to find a city that is rumored to have prospered after the red war. It’s Delia’s plan to find the city and gain admittance so that she can finally live a better life. In between, and sometimes during their adventures, a budding romance between Delia and Gennero grows. It’s often hampered by their considerable baggage. The end of the world breeds precious few well-adjusted people. 

Eventually, the group finds a reasonably well-established settlement called Mutant Town, populated by, you guessed it, Mutants. Unlike all the other places the three humans, and Mort, had visited on their journey, Mutant town actually seems like a nice place to live. The mutants themselves are pretty cool people, except for a few exceptions, and there is a real temptation to abandon the quest to the city. Perth even decides to settle in Mutant town, but only after seeing Delia and Gennero to the city. Unfortunately, the group gets split up when leaving Mutant Town via a tunnel, and Perth and Mort are ultimately forced to return to Mutant Town early.

Before they can make it to the city, Delia and Gennero need to cross through raider territory, where they’re confronted by someone from Gennero’s past and her hoard of raiders. After a fierce fight against waves and waves of raiders, Delia and Gennero decrease the surplus population more than most famines. After confronting their collective pasts and battling their way across raider territory, Delia and Gennero make it to the city. They’re not sure what new challenges might await them within this society, but they are comforted by the simple truth that they will face them together.    


This novel’s antagonists aren’t as well defined in terms of motivation and backstory as the protagonists, which is a tricky balance to hit since, generally, most plots spend more time with protagonists. They feel less like people, with hopes, dreams, and goals of their own and more like obstacles to be overcome. Churchill is developed the most robustly of the antagonists, and his presence looms over the story’s entirety. Still, other than the very beginning, he never reappears in the narrative. 

The plot’s penultimate antagonist was alluded to subtly throughout the book, which was a clever surprise. However, when she finally takes the stage, we’re not only in the novel’s waning chapters but also tethered to the POV of the real ultimate antagonist—just some ineffectual dude. 

Overall, “What Branches Grow” is best described as an adventure-style story with a significant romantic subplot. I enjoyed the characters and the journey, but other than a few notable occasions, it’s lighter fare than typical in the subgenre. That last bit isn’t meant as criticism or praise, just as a description of the story’s tone.    

Parting thoughts:

Jumping off from there, I find that people often object to this subgenre for one of two reasons, they’re either sick to death of zombies—probably the most popular apocalypse in the genre—or they’re put off by the possibility of a depressing atmosphere.

If you’ve read such books as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” then you know it’s pretty hard to argue with that second point. I still find myself thinking about the jagged and cutting emotional tour de force that he put me through reading that novel.

But I’d argue that this subgenre and even “The Road” is more about hope, and the will to live, more than anything else. The subgenre’s whole point is to show, despite all that’s happened, the characters persist. There is something Tolkien-esque about that quality. 

It’s also elemental to the human persona over historical lengths of time. We keep telling stories about the ends of the world and how we scrape back to build a new one because it is representative of our experience. If you study history, even a little, you will notice that it’s a story littered with the remains of many a civilization, but there’s always a new one over the next horizon. 

There are, indeed, examples to the contrary in literature, “Nyarlathotep” by H.P. Lovecraft and “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut spring immediately to mind to me at this moment while writing this. Neither are precisely post-apocalyptic stories, stories in which the apocalypse has already happened, or rather the greater portion of the story is told after that event. They’re both more immediately before and after the event, and no one ends up surviving. Other than the obvious problem, who is telling the story, and to whom, neither of these stories rank as the most popular of their respective author’s bibliographies.

Ultimately, I don’t think that nihilistic story beat of, “and then they all died a painful and meaningless death” is a satisfying one. Threatening that might be useful. Making that threat believable adds to the tension of a story, but actually ending that way—while technically—can be good art isn’t often embraced by the audience. Think about how “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” ended, and how nearly immediately, it was undone by a sequel. I believe more people desire catharsis in their stories rather than to vicariously live out a spiral into oblivion. That’s why I think hope is the more powerful story impulse and why this subgenre builds its most beloved stories on that foundation.

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