The 5th Wave Book and Exploring the Fear of Human Extermination

Summary of Post:

This post is a discussion of Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave and its reflection on humanity’s anxiety around the future and the unknown. In particular, I want to talk about Yancey’s focus on the effects of the alien invasion on the characters within the story, especially: Cassie Sulivan, Ben Parrish, and Evan Walker.

Book cover of Rick Yancey’s 2013 novel, The 5th Wave.

Early in the novel, the author sets up a cruel world where waves of destruction plague Earth. By the fifth wave, humanity is at its knees, crumpling underneath the heavy blows of an unknown enemy referred to as the Others (along with several names). As the story begins, Cassie Sullivan, a sixteen-year-old, is faced with the break up of her family and everything she holds dear.

In true early 2010’s fashion, this novel arrives into a market full of dystopia as a setting. Yet, I feel like Rick Yancey taps into some deep fears within the human psyche. The fear of our minds not being our own anymore is especially powerful for me as someone who experiences psychosis.  One of the most common fears for people, in general, has to do with this lack of control, being stripped of access to our brains and therefore having little input as to where our loyalties lie. Even more terrifying is the lack of consent involved in this scenario.

What’s at Stake: Losing it All

Another alarming aspect of Yancey’s novel is the loss of all that defines the human experience, as it is yanked away from Cassie Sullivan. Once a regular high school student, Cassie is pulled away from all normalcy. Around her, people are wiped away as though they are of no importance.

“You know how you can tell when you’re getting close to one? The smell. You can smell a town from miles away. It smells like smoke. And raw sewage. And death” (39).

Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave

Towns, once places full of hustle and bustle, are now desolate and reeking of the destruction of humanity. Fear targets culture, history, and family units throughout the world that Cassie inhabits. Because of this, Cassie herself is a changed person. She is no longer who she was. This particularly rings true because she witnesses her own father’s death. Prior to that loss, she had to surrender her young brother Sammy. The world around her dwindles and the light guiding her is the promise she makes to reunite with her only living family member.

“I don’t cry for myself. I cry for the Cassie that’s gone.
And I wonder what that Cassie would think of me.
The Cassie who kills.” (19).

Rick Yancey,The 5th Wave

Death of a Past Self

The irony is that Cassie’s search is based on Sammy’s innocence. She assumes that he is a small child to be rescued when, in essence, the Others perceive him as a soldier. He is given a codename—“Nugget” and sent along a team. Granted, he is mostly under the protection of Ben Parrish (who is given the name “Zombie”).

While Ben Parrish and Cassie Sullivan went to the same high school, and perhaps are around the same age, the boy had struggled under the weight of the expectations pushed on him. Like Cassie, he mourns the symbolic death of his past self as he had witnessed his family’s murder. Still, Ben’s ego and ambition remain somewhat intact. It’s curious that Ben rises to the frontlines of (what he thinks is) the fight against the Others. He is often reflecting on the feebleness of his team as it battles a much bigger enemy.

“Unbelievable. We’re the vanguard. Seven kids who just six months ago were, well, just kids; we’re the counterpunch to attacks that left seven billion dead.”

The Big Surprise, though (Spoilers)

Unlike Cassie, though, Ben is hit with a huge shock when Ringer figures out what the eyepieces are actually detecting. The horror of what Wonderland actually poses for him is also quite powerful. Vosch (and everyone within Camp Haven) pose as guides to fight an enemy. While Ben is driven to do the right things—be it eliminating Chris from Wonderland or leading his squad he is easily far more attached to his humanity. The prayers he and Nugget have every night are an example of his faith and his hope in the effectiveness of prayer. At a time where humans are threatened and frightened, Ben retains enough foresight to care for Sam Sullivan (or Nugget). It is the way he gives something so dear to him, his sister’s locket, to young Sam that really solidifies that Ben is one to rest humanity’s survival onto.

Evan Walker and His Role within the Story

The story of these waves crushing humanity truly coalesces with Rick Yancey’s inclusion of Evan Walker. Easily one of the creepiest characters out there, Evan immediately sparks suspicion for both Cassie and readers as well. His debilitating presence and evasive nature is hard to connect to, particularly as Cassie’s privacy is repeatedly invaded. From reading her diary while she sleeps to creeping by her room, it was worrying to have one of the main characters near him. Still, in retrospect, his desire to be human and to live among humans was somewhat worthy of pity.

“I am a shark, Cassie,” he says slowly, drawing the words out, as if he might be speaking to me for the last time. Looking into my eyes with tears in his, as if he’s seeing me for the last time. “A shark who dreamed he was a man.”

In the early 2010s, a time of prominent love triangles in young adult literature, it is a surprise that Yancey did not go that route at all. Instead, he reshapes the doomed lovers figure around a dystopia where trust is scarce and humans are even rarer. This story continues to be powerful as it taps into a fear that is not at all uncommon. While we may have our doubts about the existence of aliens, the core of this story remains to be true. Beautifully said by Ringer, this is what it ultimately boils down to.

“Don’t you get it yet? The minute we decide that one person doesn’t matter anymore, they’ve won. ”

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