Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis, is a post-apocalyptic Western. It centres on Elka, a girl who was lost in a forest far from home and ended up being raised by a man who turned out to be a serial murderer. Once she finds this out, she decides to run away and seek out her parents, but she is pursued by the murderer who raised her and the sheriff who wants to catch them both.
It’s a great book, a heart-twisting tale with some surprising turns. It struck me most as being a post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t really a post-apocalyptic novel. The fact that nuclear bombs went off in the recent past is a footnote, a background detail. It’s not the main plot. That made me realise how often it is in SFF that we make the setting or the premise front and centre in the story. In fantasy, there’s always a threat to the Kingdom, or the world, and in science-fiction it’s often the technology that we are exploring. In my experience, these stories tend to be on a larger, less personal scale. (Horrible and probably incorrect generalisation, I know.)
I can understand this. In contemporary fiction, people already know everything about how the world works, so the interesting part is not the world, but the characters who inhabit it. In fantasy and sci-fi, we do so much work in building the world it often isn’t really worth doing that without it being front and centre.
However, Wolf Road does a really good job of giving a futuristic setting that really is just background. To be fair, a world that is just like ours except for a nuclear war is scarily realistic. Lewis doesn’t drill down on how society is organised, doesn’t give us any details about the world that don’t affect the character. She doesn’t give us any details on how close the human race is to extinction, or the society is to collapse. She focuses on one girl and her struggle to escape and find a family.
Often when we read fantasy and science fiction we are looking for escape from the ordinary. But we never want to venture too far. So it’s good to hang onto a few remnants of the familiar, that reflect some aspects of the world we know. And one of those aspects is that our personal problems can seem just as big and world-shattering as a Dark Lord or the world getting blown up. And those are worth telling stories about, too.