Ethan Burke wakes up on the banks of a stream on a clear, sunny day. He’s badly injured, with no identification, wallet, or even shoes. Somehow he struggles his way to the nearest town, called Wayward Pines. Over time his memory comes back to him: he’s a secret service agent, sent here to find two missing fellow agents. But something seems off in the town—the sheriff refuses to believe him, the doctors seem uninterested in healing, the local hotel unwilling to offer him a room.
What’s going on?
So far, so good. Pines, by Blake Crouch, starts off like a normal crime thriller of a man stumbling into a conspiracy. But pretty soon, things start seeming weird. There seems no way out of the town. The timelines of things seem mismatched—he remembers being out for a few days, but his wife has been waiting for him for a year. No one in the town seems to know what the internet is.
And what year is it, exactly? Piece by piece, the plot begins to drift towards the realm of genre-bending media like The Truman Show, Twin Peaks, Dark City, and, eventually, Frederick Pohl’s landmark sci-fi story, The Tunnel Under the World. And like the best science fiction, the story talks of surveillance, of psychological manipulation, and of a crazy world that’s still a reflection of our own. To say anything more would be spoiling things too much.
Let us, instead, say, that Pines is a brilliantly fast read, each chapter compulsively pulling you further into the story. Crouch’s prose is smooth and effortless. The action sequences feel straight out of a movie. Burke’s situation is so surreal, the set pieces so fast-paced, that you are willing to accept the bizarreness of the story as it gets worse and worse.
It’s only after you’re done with the book that you stop to think of the absurdity of it all. Pohl’s story, which is definitely an inspiration here, was a couple dozen pages—just enough to explain the concept to us and let imagination do the rest. Crouch stretches a similar concept out to three hundred plus. Some bits don’t make sense, or are transparently added for padding. There is minimal character development, only the layered reveal of the ‘truth’.
All put together, it’s hard to classify this book. It isn’t ‘science-y’ enough to be called science fiction and it definitely isn’t normal enough to be just a thriller. Crouch’s writing is what rescues the book—read it for the fun of the chase. And maybe, if you like it, go back to golden-age sci-fi to understand the inspirations that created it.