While there’s no lack of dystopian fiction these days, on the bookshelves and on television, thanks to the recent zombie craze, Myan predictions, and end-of-the-world scenarios playing out across all forms of media, most of these creative outlets focus on the horrors of the “what-if’s.” From flesh eating bacteria to alien invasions, extreme weather to civil unrest, our fears are usually taken to the extreme.
Robin Tidwell’s first novel, Reduced, takes us in the opposite direction. Just as the title suggests, it reduces our post apocalyptic fears to what’s more important but just as scary: the human condition. In the book, we meet Abby, a young woman with no lack of survival skills and knowledge of the outdoors. When a biological agent is being tested in the remote wilderness outside of St. Louis but quickly spreads out of control, Abby and her friends take shelter at an abandoned summer camp.
Government is being reshaped, abortion camps are being set up, the aging are being forced into death lines. Abby and her cohorts focus on survival, but their limits are about to be tested again and again, both inside and outside their camp.
Tidwell teases both her readers and cast of characters with bits of knowledge, that while communication is becoming impossible at the camp, the reader is also “dying” to know just what’s going on. The fear of “not knowing” is what makes this such a frightening novel.
Though the conditions of the disease are horrible, Tidwell does not rely on the obvious of scenes to build intensity. Sure, there’s bloodshed and death practically in every chapter, but as I said before, this book is about the human condition. Abby soon finds herself not just fending for herself, but also caring for a four year old girl while also trying to look out for her best friend.
There are long bouts of Abby exploring the surrounding woods on her own that will have you biting your nails off. If you’ve ever gone out “exploring” a wooded trail all on your own, you know how your mind can play tricks on you. You hear things. You look over your shoulder. You pick up your pace, just in case. Now put yourself in that scenario when civilization is out of control. The fear of the unknown rules supreme!
Reduced has the feel of Stephen King’s epic, The Stand, with its large cast of characters and deadly illness. It exposes us to the deep dark recesses of the outdoors and man’s strengths and weaknesses in it like James Dickey’s celebrated novel, Deliverance. And yet Tidwell makes this sub-genre her own by taking full advantage of her backyard setting in the city of St. Louis.
In the end, it is far from a predictable horror novel. It stands alone as a story of survival and the importance of human relationships and how they will be tested should we ever find ourselves in a society spiraling out of our control.