Wrath James White’s Population Zero is one of the most disturbing, gore-soaked books I have ever read. Self-induced abortions, DIY vasectomies, and unbelievable scenes of blood letting that will shake you to the core. White seriously challenged my threshold for the sick and depraved in his quick novella. Despite being a mere 112 pages long, there is quite a bit to chew on. Population Zero examines the dark reality of going too far for what you believe is right and good. There are no supernatural monsters, ghosts, or otherworldly creatures at work in this story, just one man hellbent on saving the planet at whatever cost. White isn’t shy about making some biting commentary about social issues in Population Zero, but it wasn’t his socio-political bent that drew me to his book. It was his reputation as a master of sex and splatter literature and the beautifully grotesque Deadite Press cover that initially sold me. What I found was a frightening depiction of extremism that sated my hunger for the darker side of things, but also made me think.
Population Zero focuses on Todd Hammerstein, an employee of the Welfare Department and staunch environmentalist who is dedicated to controlling the ever-growing human population using some violently macabre methods to meet his goal. Out of context Todd’s insane efforts would seem like a cheap set-up to outdo one gore gag after the next, but White is coercing his readers to consider real societal problems not just turn their stomachs, although he is masterful in doing so. Before White subjects us to Todd’s demented acts, we are treated to an unsettling snippet from his past that gives intimate perspective on the origin of his extremist views regarding overpopulation. Todd learned a hard lesson about population control from his father after his best friend, a Golden Retriever named Honey, had a litter of puppies. His father explains that euthanasia is “the right thing. We just can’t afford to feed them all.” Todd takes that logic a step further and applies it to humans. If we are responsible for controlling the overpopulation of animals, shouldn’t we do so with humans? Inspired by the book Zero Population by Heimlich Anattoli, head of Todd’s environmental activist group, he makes it his personal mission to do the right thing by the human race, so he thinks. His mission starts out innocent enough. Using his position at the Welfare Department, he first offers a pregnant woman government assistance if she promises to have an abortion. Another man if he gets sterilized, but his plan rather quickly derails into complete insanity. He starts where most individuals do when they tackle an issue so much greater than themselves, questioning his impact on the cause at hand. Take recycling for example. You recycle, but ask yourself if that’s enough when you drive by miles upon miles of garbage lining the highway of your daily commute. How do you combat a problem so large? Dedicate your free time to cleaning up trash? If you were Todd, you may brutally punish litterbugs. I can’t say I related to Todd necessarily, but I understood that overwhelming sense of helplessness. Whether you are taking on the issue of human rights or environmental activism, I think people can connect with that inner struggle and turmoil that comes with fighting for something you believe in.
White further connects the reader to Todd by using a third-person omniscient viewpoint. The reader can follow the thought process of Todd and are even treated to some of his schizophrenic inner dialogue. Right at the moment you think “this guy is bat-shit crazy” he is also wondering “Oh my God. Maybe I am Crazy?” But Todd is so strongly convinced he is doing what’s right he justifies his actions through every psychotic step. Again, you probably won’t understand the absurd choices Todd makes, but at times that scarred little boy shows through and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, except when I was grieving for his poor victims. White does a stupendous job of making Todd more human than psycho. He’s completely off the rails, no doubt, but still human.
Todd’s concern about the rapidly growing population isn’t particularly radical, it’s the way he acts on his concern that makes him radical. Todd is the horrifically skewed, nightmare version of Population Connection. This grassroots organization “works to ensure that every woman around the world who wants to limit her childbearing has access to the health services and contraceptive supplies she needs in order to do so.” For Todd there is no want, population control is a hard truth and he will use whatever means necessary to rid the world of more mouths to feed one victim at a time. White uses painfully detailed, horribly unsettling scenes to really drive that point home.
When Population Zero was originally published by Cargo Cult Press in 2008, the popularity of multi-birth families was really taking off. I can’t help wonder if White was inspired by reality shows like Jon & Kate Plus 8 and the strange celebrity of Octomom. Reading this novella, my mind naturally wandered to this multi-birth phenomenon and our culture’s recent obsession with it. I suppose there could be many inspirations for this novella, but that’s the beauty of it. Its extreme violence and imagery makes the reader consider more than just overpopulation.
This novella, and White’s work in general comes with a warning. The man himself said it best in a recent blog post, so I’ll let him take it from here:
If you don’t want to hear criticisms about race and religion and society, don’t read my shit. If you want an optimistic portrayal of the human condition, seriously, DO NOT PICK UP MY BOOK. So, here is a list of upcoming titles that those with more delicate sensibilities should selectively avoid.
If you lack the delicate sensibilities White refers to, find out what upcoming titles you can expect from him via his website Words of Wrath. As for the novella Population Zero, you can pick it up from Deadite Press for under 8 bones or the Kindle edition for just $2.99!
I can’t wait to read this one. It’s been in my TBR pile for a while; I might have to pull it out soon. I love Wrath’s work, and he’s right. If you’re sensitive, you shouldn’t read his work.
Excellent novella and great review also! I don’t watch very much ‘reality’ stuff on television so I never thought of those shows as being potential inspirations – but some of the shows I’m sure would make a lot of people agree with the protagonist in the book!
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