Book: Population Zero
Author: Wrath James White
Type of Book: Fiction, novella, extreme horror
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The extremity of the horror makes it odd by my calculations.
Availability: Published by Deadite Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: For reasons that I have discussed in the past, I have been watching Wrath James White’s writing for a while. I was introduced to him via a collaboration that was so bad it remains in my top ten category for worst books I have ever read (Teratologist was the book, the sort of book wherein the protagonist’s name is spelled three different ways in one paragraph). So I sought out White’s web presence and his well-written, interesting blog did not mesh with the hot mess I had read so I gave him another chance. I next read Book of a Thousand Sins and saw that in some respects, my belief he was a far better writer than Teratologist presented him was justified. There were problems with that story collection, but White got enough right that I was heartened.
Population Zero is pretty much a vindication that my instincts were correct. All the issues that I saw in Book of a Thousand Sins were reconciled. Whereas characters might rant for pages on end in BoaTS, in Population Zero the protagonist’s issues were woven into the plot and showed a character arc. White’s at times baroque writing style was a bit more restrained in this book and his characterization was excellent. The villain in Teratologist embodied Dean Venture when he declared, “I dare you to make less sense!” (Dean also had a terrible problem with his testicles, and the applicability of me telling you this will become clear as you read my discussion.)
There were some small problems in Population Zero that I am going to get out of the way before discussing all that was fabulous. First, the ending left much to be desired and that may just be my feeling on the matter. But the ending felt rushed and given the amount of energy others expended to get the protagonist to the end point, the ending felt wrong. Additionally, as the protagonist goes about his job, he delivers information that become obsolete with the Welfare Reform Act of 1996; tiny little points of social policy that I suspect only I would nitpick because they aren’t too glaring and because they flow well with the story White is telling. There are some small typos, as well. Someone tries to score “heroine” and a character “grinded” his teeth. They’re minor and not that intrusive, but they’re there.
(And it should be mentioned that if you are a social justice warrior, you will not like this book. The protagonist is very unsympathetic to the obese, to the poor trapped on a social treadmill of bad choices, and pregnancy in all forms. The protagonist is also a mentally disturbed, increasingly unhinged killer. In the past, when such a character had very unpleasant ideas, it was called characterization. In some quarters these days, it is a sign of a greater misogyny and class prejudice. I hardly think it so, but I have now given some of my more socially progressive readers clear warning that this book may not be to their tastes.)
But those are small problems in comparison to the nasty, upsetting, yet strangely compelling trip Todd takes us on. All that White gets right in this book is made all the more amazing because this is a book that oh-so-easily could have become a screed with a caricature for a hero. The protagonist, Todd, is a vegan social worker with a job at the welfare office. Yep, a vegan whose interactions with the mass of people receiving public support emphasize his ideas of zero population growth for humans. Todd is a character whose life could be a stereotype, a shrill condemner cut from the caricature cloth reserved for so many vegan characters. White rises above that, making sure that his gore comes with some excellent characterization. Even as he may appall us, Todd is completely understandable.
Todd suffered horrific losses as a child that could, in a novel content to be simply pulpy, have been fuel enough for some “I hate babies but love animals” rampage, but Wrath’s characterization makes Todd’s reaction to the world fueled from his childhood losses, of puppies and ultimately his family, fodder for something more complex. Todd will end up a killer, but this isn’t a revenge-against-the-world-because-childhood-sucks trope. White sets up neatly how Todd comes to have reasonably rational ideas about zero population growth for humans, a dislike of people who take endlessly from the system without giving anything back, and even his intense anger for people who commit acts of sexual infidelity. And Todd does not even intend to become a killer. He just takes things one step too far one day and as he does this, Wrath writes some scenes of extraordinary violence and gore. But as he kills, Todd is still the environmentalist who rides a bike instead of drives a car, who refuses to eat animals, who gets a vasectomy because he wants no children of his own lest they strain the planet further. Todd is a demented idealist who makes perfect sense.
(Small, ranty aside: Bizarre protagonists who seemingly never make sense are the hallmark of the late Richard Laymon. But Laymon, one of the most talented pulp writers in the last 50 years, could make it work more often than not because he sacrificed believable characters for intense and involved plots. As you groaned as the heroine refused to call the police YET AGAIN, you kept reading because the plot was so compelling. Too many young horror writers who dabble in extremity have picked up the habit of unbelievable characters in the aid of the plot, but never write plots worth the exchange.)
We meet the adult Todd at his job at the welfare office, and had Wrath not begun this book with the earnest, kind, idealistic child Todd had been, it would be very easy to dismiss him as a classist, lookist prick. He loathes those whom it is his job to serve: overweight women with several children, pregnant addicts, men who simply won’t get a job as they sire child after child. But as White writes about all that Todd observes, it becomes clear that the system that asks him to serve people who are at times dreadful has dragged him down into a very unpleasant place. He fantasizes about killing an extremely obese woman with four children and is shaken from his daydream as she asks to be put back on WIC because she is pregnant again. Appalled, Todd cannot stop himself from saying that he would pay for her to have an abortion. When she becomes angry, Todd takes it one step further telling her that if she decides to have an abortion, he will also pay to get her tubes tied, will ensure she has a very easy time getting her benefits in the future and will never have to come into the office again.
The woman’s mouth opened and then she paused. She paused!
She was considering it. She looked down at the mewling infant in her lap with his face stained with baby food and juice, the two-year-old in the stroller beside her reeked from a diaper that needed to be changed an hour ago, the four and five-year-olds still fought over a toy one of them had stolen from the grocery store, and a look of exhaustion and resignation began to take over her face. Tears welled up in her eyes. She began to look helpless and confused.
And if you are a social justice warrior who is still confused about this book, the above passage is a clue. This is a woman for whom life has become very difficult. Her situation clearly does not make her happy and perhaps she has been given the wrong help in life. As her human dignity to reproduce has been honored, no one had given her this way out before. Todd, in his prejudice is doing a good thing, but he can’t see it. Her tears mean nothing to him.
Todd was surprised that he wasn’t touched by it all. For some reason, the plight of a single human never seemed to have the power to move him, not when there were 50,000 species of plant and animal life going extinct every year as we cleared rainforests and turned them into cattle farms so fat whores like this could get cheeseburgers. He wanted to look away but he knew that he had to look sympathetic if he wanted to save his job.
She accepts his offer and he sets everything up for her. Afterwards, he feels peace.
He looked at the long line standing outside the door of his cubicle and for the first time he didn’t feel the usual anxiety. He didn’t feel the desire to run and hide under the desk or flee the building or take an AR15 rifle and mow down everyone in sight and then burn the place to the ground.
For the first time in his nine years working for the Welfare Department, Todd Hammerstein actually felt like he had done some good.
I began with this section to show how it is that I feel that White managed to get so much right. Todd has very unpleasant ideas, and I could humanize him more to you if I reproduced sections of his youth that explain all too clearly why he hates pregnancy and came to have extremist ideas about world population, but that I think needs to go unsaid in this discussion lest it ruin too much. But even though we understand how Todd comes to have these ideas and pity the boy he once was, he’s an unpleasant guy. We later learn his extremism about ZPG helped drive away his girlfriend into the arms of another woman. But Todd is also confronted daily with crowds of people who, in their own way, are as unappealing as he is. Helpless, sad, defeated people whom he often cannot help beyond funding them as they grow unhealthy and despondent. Todd is a complex man facing complex problems. And far from being a very good day, the day he procures an abortion and sterilization for that woman is the beginning of him exercising a diseased hubris that permits him to do the unthinkable.
As Todd offers meth addicts abortions and sterilization in exchange for benefits, he also frequents idealistic ZPG message boards and muses on the state of the planet in a way that foreshadows pretty clearly what is about to happen, but possibly only in retrospect:
Earlier that year he’d watched a documentary on Charles Manson in which Manson had stated that he needed to kill about two million people in order to save the planet. Two million people would hardly be a drop in the bucket in terms of overpopulation and the two unwanted children whose births he had prevented would not make a difference at all. He needed to do more.
It wasn’t until after I was finished reading this book and writing this discussion that I realized that Charles Manson was connected to the murder of just one pregnant woman. Yes, I don’t feel I am spoiling much here when I say that Todd will try to kill more than one pregnant woman. And that he discusses Manson only in terms of his ZPG utterings is telling. Todd is walking closer and closer to being a zealot, turning idealism into something deadly.
Todd is a fan of a ZPG writer named Heimlich Anatolli (a not so cloaked reference to the ZPG author Paul Ehrlich) and Heimlich frequents the message boards that Todd posts to. One day Todd asks if it is advisable to urge pregnant women to abort and Heimlich gives him the message he needs: any child born may be the one that breaks the camel’s back.
And from there Todd is off to the ZPG races. Todd’s zeal to stop pregnancy causes some scenes at work and later one of his coworkers reveals she is part of a larger ZPG cabal and serves as a sort of deus ex machina when Todd’s back is against the wall. I found those parts of the book, as well as the ending, far less interesting than Todd and his complex justifications and extreme rage. White has Todd dissemble in a manner that I typically associate with the skill of Ruth Rendell, who arguably handles the diseased mind better than any writer today. And his relationship with his ex-girlfriend is also not as interesting, though it helps show what an absolute zealot Todd is, even as he knows he is missing out on having the life he wants.
The mayhem really starts when Todd thinks he will start offering DIY sterilizations. He offers a vasectomy to a young man who killed his chances to have a basketball career because he had children right out of high school. Unmarried with four children, Todd wonders how many more children the man would create before he died and offers him the vasectomy. The kid refuses so Todd lures him to his apartment with an offer of special job training. And it is about here, gorehounds, where the content will become relevant to your interests.
It’s funny, in a very dark way, how Todd justifies what he plans to do. He muses:
It’s not like I’m going to kill the guy. I’m just going to fix him. They don’t call vets psychotic when they neuter dogs against their will. This is the same thing, isn’t it?
Well, generally, one does not have to get a stun gun, hand cuffs, duct tape and instructions from Google on how to neuter a dog because vets have years of training and dogs are not very tall young men who had a shot at the NBA and could kill you for even looking too long at their testicles.
Oh my God. Maybe I am crazy?
He tried to console himself with the notion that crazy people didn’t know they were crazy, so if he thought that he was going crazy then he must still be sane. It was slim comfort though. He couldn’t bullshit himself.
But as he thinks he is nuts and tries to think of a way out of it, the young man comes to the door and Todd zaps him with the stun gun. He rolls him up in duct tape and… You know, I am not going to reproduce any of the extreme violence Todd wreaks. It needs to be read as it comes in the book. But Todd does manage to sterilize the poor man. The man passes out from the pain and is enraged when he wakes.
Todd looked up at the ceiling and tried to gather his thoughts, to find the words to make the big man understand.
“Do you know that it took hundreds of thousands of years for the world’s population to reach one billion and in the 200 years that followed, it has more than quintupled? The world’s population has tripled since 1980 to 6 billion people, and is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. For every one of those 6 billion people on Earth nearly six tons of carbon dioxide is spewed into the air annually. Do you realize that one human being generates over 1,569 pounds of waste a year? That’s nearly 125,000 in a lifetime, sixty-two tons! And that’s just one person! Half of the land on the earth has already been built on, paved over, and otherwise altered so that it is almost uninhabitable by any species other than humans and the insects and vermin that thrive off of us. And as the population continues to grow we’ll need to convert even more land into habitable space for humans, meaning uninhabitable space for almost everything else. How can we allow that? Fifty percent of the world’s original forests have been destroyed as a result of massive land clearing for housing, roads, agriculture, and industries. Do you get what I’m saying? Do you even give a fuck? Your sperm cells are destroying the planet! So I had to stop you. I had to stop you from reproducing.”
Yeah, the neutered man doesn’t really care, as he’s been operated on sans anesthetic and is prone on the floor, wrapped in duct tape. And it’s right about here that Todd realizes he has not thought his plan through. Those forcibly sterilized by a welfare office lunatic go to the police when released.
So Todd does what he has to do to remain at large. Oh, and he does it completely naked and not as a means of evidence control. He’s just naked because he’s pretty insane. Did I mention he had an erection, too? Sorry to bring it up.
Todd has not completely spun out of control. He has enough acuity and loathing that when his hero, Dr Heimlich Anatolli is arrested as a terrorist, Todd begins to see himself as a one-man force to prevent the planet from having children. And while he regrets killing the man he neutered, such feelings of regret do not stand a chance against the demented zeal spurring him on.
And he begins to abort and sterilize but doesn’t shed tears when his methods kill the potential breeder. There is a scene where Todd targets a home for unwed mothers that was so profoundly over-the-top in terms of sheer gore that you have to read it to believe it. I should also mention I read half this book waiting to see my gynecologist. It bothers me how little I was fazed when I read the scene in the unwed mother’s home.
The rest of the book reveals the cabal and an unpleasant truth about Todd’s ex-girlfriend, but the real focus for me was Todd as he became completely unstrung. He was a mix between a spree killer and a calculated terrorist. His rampage to achieve a small measure of ZPG is truly a gift to gorehounds everywhere. This book is a near-perfect marriage of gore with careful plot and excellent characterization. Were it not for the ending this would be a five-star read.
If you have the stomach for it, I say read it. An eco-warrior run amok. A damaged human being striking out. Tons of gore, but plenty of attention to details that don’t involve blood and feti. Subtle examinations of the welfare system via broadly painted examples. White manages to tell a very large story in a very slim book. This novella ensured that I will keep reading White, whose skill seems to improve with each effort.
4 thoughts on “Population Zero by Wrath James White”
Great review! I have this book on my shelf but haven’t read it yet. I have mixed feelings about White — I find him a little heavy-handed at times, and his style seems to continually verge on the overwrought — but his books are very much the kind of writing that draws me to extreme horror in the first place: stories of people at the extremities of society (and sanity), told without restrictions, and aiming for something more meaningful than a simple gross-out.
As someone who agrees with both veganism and ZPG, I guess I’ve been a teeny bit wary of this book, but, being the sick puppy that I am, it has certainly occurred to me that both of those ideas, taken to extremes, can go to some pretty dark places. An odd consequence of veganism, for instance, is that once you designate all animal-based food as contrary to your ethics, cannibalism suddenly isn’t any worse than eating any other form of animal flesh, and is actually much better for the planet. (I’ve always wanted to write a story about a lapsed vegan who determines that human meat is the most sustainable animal-based food, and goes on a cannibalism spree.) So I guess I’m OK with reading this book as long as it’s an intellectually honest portrayal of an extreme environmentalist, and not just a lazy caricature.
Okay, bear this in mind: this book is still heavy-handed and overwrought. But unlike some of his past works – most notably the short story about the military pastor preaching to the burned terrorist – the rants in PopZero are not stand alone, serving no purpose but to rant. In PZ, the rants show characterization but even better, the rants are incorporated into action. Instead of a long soliloquy as Todd gave his opinions on obese single moms, Todd observes them and his thoughts are a part of his interactions with people he detests. Or they’re funny, like when Todd lectures the man he just neutered on why he needed to be neutered. I did not feel preached at as I read this.
As a failed vegan and a person who will bring up my lack of children as my greatest contribution to environmentalism, and as a knee-jerk liberal, I was reluctant to give this one a go. I can see how some people would find the ethics in this book to be troubling and a blight against idealistic liberalism. But they really are confined within the mind of a troubled man who is becoming more and more unhinged. And in my opinion, White manages to create a character and not a caricature because while I sort of cringed a bit at some of Todd’s thoughts, I also at times found myself perversely rooting him on. Todd’s a zealot – the only way a person could find him representative of veganism and ecological action is if one is has such a low opinion of such people that one assumes all vegans concerned about ZPG are unhinged lunatics just waiting to kill people.
Best reason I can give you to read this book is that once I began reading it I did not want to stop and was glad my doctor was running late so I could keep reading. White’s evolving as a writer, I think.
I’ve loved White’s blog for a while,but never read his fiction; this sounds like the perfect book to start off with. Excellent review.
I agree 100% with your aside about unbelievable characters, although I think you meant Richard Laymon instead of Layton. I didn’t google Richard Layton, but your description is so spot on for Laymon I just assumed you made a typo. Sorry if that’s not the case. There’s not a single Laymon book I haven’t finished in a day, but his characters make me scream, “No, no! Quit being a perv and focus on escaping!” or “Shit! No, don’t go BACK in there, just run in the opposite direction!” Laymon’s like the text equivalent of slasher flicks, and you’ve gotta take the goofiness along with the tight, viscous plots. I’ve never read an author that used the word rump so much.
Holy crap. That is one of those mistakes that makes me wonder what the fuck I was doing when I wrote and then “edited” this before posting. Indeed, I meant Laymon.
Oh man, people either love him or hate him. I love him. Such cheese!
There’s not a single Laymon book I haven’t finished in a day, but his characters make me scream, “No, no! Quit being a perv and focus on escaping!” or “Shit! No, don’t go BACK in there, just run in the opposite direction!”
Exactly! And yes the books were such fun roller coasters that I didn’t mind the stupid, stupid characters. Every now and then there was a gem like Night in the Lonesome October wherein the characters came close to being normal and the plot was reasonable. He could write both sides but I think he liked the amusement park ride plots too much to tone things down. But he definitely made the tradeoff of silly characters in exchange for astonishing and lunatic plots worth it.