Chicago author Olivia Cole sets her novel Panther in the Hive about seventy years in the future just after a bio-technological snafu has transformed people with implanted healthcare devices into cannibalistic zombies. The main character, Tasha Lockett, is a Wusthof-wielding young woman nearly addicted to make-up and fashion. She must make her way to Chicago’s South Side to look for the one man who might help her escape to California. The concept is outrageous but amusing, and Cole does a good job of pacing this horror-suspense narrative.
Cole makes references to Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler, whose 1993 novel Parable of the Sower is also about a young woman traveling through a post-apocalyptic world. But little here matches the power and sobriety of these authors’ works. Cole’s novel, described as a “coming-of-age story,” offers a youthful, cheeky perspective that can be both charming and frustratingly immature. Gore and devastation are consistently checked by absurdity but also by persistent junior high-level worries, such as Tasha’s concern for her hair and mascara. Humor often makes up for a lack of psychological complexity. The cannibal-zombies do not growl or shriek; they bark. They are just stupid enough to make fighting them off seem fun. The action calls to mind fight scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its sharp choreography and feisty, improbable quips. “I loved this shirt, you asshole!” Tasha yells during a hair-raising attack. Amid this catastrophe, she is still just a vulnerable, loopy young woman, at one point wondering “what her voice would be if it were a fruit. A kiwi?”
In Cole’s vision of Chicago’s future, the crisis in health care is turned on its head and spun into a national disaster. Those who could afford health care are now crazed cannibals. Due to income inequality, the South Side has been cut off from this lethal privilege. The dichotomy is clever, if a bit crudely drawn. To be fair, though, Cole illuminates some crudely drawn stereotypes of the South Side in turn (in the future just as much as the present). Tasha observes astutely that the South Side appears in the news mainly as a locus of violence; yet this bears little resemblance to the poor but “homey” residential neighborhoods, which now offer a measure of safety. The South Side is seen in a softer light, as a community of kind, sensible people just trying to survive.
There are a few intriguing descriptions of the future, including the Volamu, a moving sidewalk that has all but replaced cars in the city; superstorms (though climate change denialists still exert influence); and billboard advertising that responds—insidiously—to people walking down the street, recalibrating its images to reflect a supposedly better, more attractive version of the target pedestrian. Yet mention of transparent computing devices known as “Glass” will thrill no one, and it is hard to believe that California is a future oasis, with no mention of droughts, water rationing, desalination debates, or desiccated farmlands. Instead, Tasha dreams of her sister digging in her California garden’s “damp earth.” Tasha also has a convenient interest in older films and an influential grandmother, which makes it just plausible—and disappointing—that all popular cultural references allude to earlier periods (Oprah, Jaws, Predator, Baywatch, ninja turtles). There are no invented future artists, writers, film-makers, or fleshed out new political factions. There is no “worldbuilding” in this science fiction. The future is defined solely by its rampant commercialism run amok. This is “affluenza” taken simply, and bizarrely, to the limit.
This self-published work (nicely printed with a beautiful jacket design by Scarlett Rugers) is essentially free of typos. However, it could have used one final edit. Nothing can excuse the following belabored circumlocution: “Tasha is prepared to walk alongside Z as she wanders through the cycles of wondering that Tasha has already roamed through.” Distracting hyperbolic or unconvincing similes also appear: “The words sound like a wicker chair being strangled by a witch.” A few convoluted observations spring up as well, such as, “Their eyes are doors within her left swinging open,” or “The guilt is an onion of tears.” Such poetic nonsense tests a reader’s patience. That said, there are fewer than a dozen problem sentences in the novel; the rest of the prose is straightforward and does not disrupt the narrative.
For a novel set in Chicago, very few cultural landmarks are described, which seems an opportunity missed. The zoo is featured in a state of chaos, but there is no meditation on the threat to the Art Institute or the Museum Campus, the Newberry, or the Chicago History Museum. As Tasha treks to the South Side, no mention is made of President Obama’s house, Jackson Park’s Wooded Island, the Museum of Science and Industry, or the DuSable Museum. Were all such sites leveled and turned into malls before “The Change”? One does not know. To Tasha, “Chicago is nothing but bones.” She is sad to leave her apartment and family photos, but the city as a center of culture and history seems never to have meant much to her. This is perhaps the result of the character’s age and background. She has been stuck working at a vulgar, high-end pet shop. But the story would have gained depth with some acknowledgment of how relentless commercialism destroyed not just a few giant malls but the city’s cultural heritage as well.
Panther in the Hive leaves a lot of questions unanswered; a sequel will be necessary to wrap things up. Nevertheless, Cole provides a satisfying preliminary conclusion, which is not easy in a projected ongoing series. Chances are the author will continue, since she has a strong online following already. A sequel could alter the reader’s perception of this first installment, but for now the novel’s quick pace and sassy vibe lends itself mainly to casual readers of YA fiction interested in light sci-fi and horror with a spunky heroine.
April 2014, Fletchero Publishing
$18, paperback, 461 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton