by Michelle Ristuccia
POD by Stephen Wallenfels is a post-apocalyptic scifi YA that follows two teenage characters after the catastrophic arrival of the mysterious UFOs, nicknamed Pearls of Death. The UFOs hover silently in the sky, zapping any humans – and only humans – who wander out into the open. Josh and his father, trapped in their house, and Megs, by herself in a hotel parking deck, must each acclimate to the confounding, unspoken rules of the alien invasion if they hope to keep a sound mind and a sound body.
When it comes to survival in the POD world, fellow humans are as ruthless as the aliens, if not more so. The aliens at least behave impartially and consistently, treating each human as fair game. Other humans, on the other hand, respond to the pressures of confinement as rats in an overcrowded cage, clawing and biting each other in a scramble for their own personal survival. In a world of multiple antagonists and limited resources, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs drives the characters to desperate actions whose outcomes are based just as much on luck as on the protagonists’ smart thinking. For Megs, this means depending partly on luck to keep herself hidden from murders, druggies, and rapists. For Josh, it is luck alone that keeps his house from catching fire during a neighborhood disaster, and his father’s quick reflexes that keep him from dying several times over as a good samaritan.
Wallenfels adeptly constructs Meg and Josh’s perspectives to flesh out the world and provide foils for each protagonist. Where Josh lives in the relative comfort of his own home, with a parent for company and guidance, Megs finds herself on her own in a strange parking garage, separated from her mother by a stroke of bad timing. It may seem at first that Megs has drawn the short straw, yet as the plot gathers momentum, we watch Josh’s Dad fight insanity and, arguably, lose. Although alone at the start, Megs later finds an older woman who fills a motherly role and aids in her survival. At first there is no indication that Josh and Megs have any relation beyond a literary one, but as the direct problem of the PODs draws to a close, Wallenfels draws a deeper connection that leaves the book wide open for a riveting sequel.
All of this is laid over the backbeat of the aliens themselves. The characters have very limited knowledge about the aliens, even by the end of the book, very much like classic scifi. We are left with a subtle metaphor of the aliens as garbage men, purifying the planet the way a gardener pulls weeds. This leaves the focus on the human element – what human nature looks and smells like up close. Don’t worry about POD being too dark or gruesome, though. POD is not as explicit as The Last Survivors Trilogy (Susan Beth Pfeffer), even though it covers many of the same themes. Wallenfels uses the ages of his protagonists to simplify and gloss over many situations and details that YA readers might otherwise find too adult. POD is a realistic, character driven post-apocalyptic YA novel with a hint of classic scifi.
Find out more about Stephen Wallenfels and POD at http://stephenwallenfels.com/ , where you can see the many nifty covers for POD‘s international release.
Michelle Ristuccia writes short fiction of all speculative fiction genres in between chasing her toddler from tree to tree. The shorter the work, the better, because 200 words looks very long on her cellphone and that keypad is very, very small. You can find out more about her rabid love of Star Trek, podcasting, and raising future geeklings at her blog, wakingdreamsblog.blogspot.com