Sunrise is the satisfying finale to the trilogy which began with Ashfall. I think the writers of any trilogies struggle to wrap up their epics in a way that will please their readership, and I think apocalyptic authors have an even harder struggle. Their stories start out with a bang, literally, and have to walk a fine line by being realistic about what living conditions would be like as a result, and not being so dark that readers just won’t want to continue. I think Mike Mullin did a beautiful job walking this tightrope in his storytelling.
While many apocalyptic authors write about food deprivation resulting from an apocalyptic event, such as the starving family in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, he takes it to an even darker level, conjuring up characters such as flensers, people who have sunk to cannibalism to survive. Yet, as sinister and bleak as it is to contemplate people who would take these actions to survive, there is a hopeful spirit to the story, personified in Alex the main character.
I have to admit that as a former high school teacher I often despaired for the future based on what I saw in many of my students. There were always exceptions, but for the most part there seemed to be a disinterest in learning, a lack of work ethic and a certain amount of selfishness that made me wonder about the future. While Alex may be a fictional character, it gave me hope that as our environmental issues grow more urgent, there will be Alex’s of the world who can lead. A typical teen, Alex in a fit of teenage pique stays home from a family road trip to play video games and sulk in the first book Ashfall. When a supervolcano erupts killing millions instantly and leaving survivors in an ash covered world where crops are killed, gas tanks are flooded with sediment, and fires burn, he takes off on a heroic quest through a maimed world to reunite with his family.
This trilogy is really about the maturation of a boy into a man. I think the inclination of most in a disaster is to look to the adult survivors to protect the children and lead in a crisis, yet Alex has been thrust into a leadership role because of not only his bravery, but his ability to come up with practical solutions and strategies. Taking responsibility for a band of refugees camped out on his uncle’s farm, dealing with his mom’s breakdown after his father’s death, and dealing with the petty politics among survivors isn’t easy. Overshadowing it all on a daily basis is struggling to find enough food to keep everyone alive. Although Alex’s girlfriend Darla is a mechanical whiz creating systems to grow hothouse kale and bikezillas for transportation, as well as being tough in a fight, for some reason Alex is still the standout character in the story maybe because he’s an everyman. He’s smart, but not brilliant, he’s a good fighter, but not Claude Van Dam, he’s personable, but not a practiced politician. It’s his very ordinariness and the fact that’s he’s an unlikely hero that makes what he accomplishes all the more impressive and earns respect. Everything he does is because he has empathy for others and a sense of responsibility in helping people, though he often wants to withdraw from shouldering that burden, it’s his doubts that make him more heroic. He is the dream student and the dream son. When teens complain of not being taken seriously just because of their age, this book could be used as an example of the expression, “age is just a number”; that it’s not the number of years someone has, but how they live them. Don’t ask to be taken seriously, earn it by shouldering responsibility, making the hard choices, and showing leadership…earn it.