Waves of the Future: A Conversation with Rick Yancey

When Rick Yancey left his job with the IRS in 2004 to begin writing full-time, he probably never imagined that thirteen novels and a memoir later, his widely acclaimed YA novel, The 5th Wave, would be snapped up by GK Films and Sony Pictures in a greatly anticipated movie deal. Or maybe he did: judging by the novel itself, he’s not a man to shy away from big thinking.

The 5th Wave is the first book in an ongoing sci-fi trilogy set in North America, where humanity has been decimated by an intricate and devastating alien invasion. Told from the point of view of several teenaged survivors, it has been described as “The Passage meets Ender’s Game”, and the novel has been causing waves (excuse the pun) since its début. I met up with Yancey during one of his hectic book tours, to talk to him about the novel and his thoughts on current YA fiction, the death of mankind and the female demographic. Since he has written for both adults and teens  and The 5th Wave is his third YA series, I started by asking which agegroup he prefers writing for.

I just love writing. Some of my ideas seem more suitable for YA audiences and some are more suitable for adults. I even enjoy the physical act of writing. I love longhand, I love typing on a computer, I love composing in my head. I love writing in the sand!

Where did the idea for The 5th Wave come from?

I’ve always loved science fiction and I always hoped that I would come up with a good enough science-fiction idea —one that I would feel comfortable devoting months to writing, and then years doing a series. But I could never quite hook on the right idea. Then I came across an interview with Stephen Hawking, whom I quote in the beginning of the book. Asked about his thoughts on extra-terrestrials and possible contact, his take on it was; “Well, if they’re out there, we’d better hope they never find us, because I don’t think it would turn out too well for us.” That’s when it struck me that popular culture always approaches the story of alien invasion in the same way, despite them being thousands of years more advanced than we are, we are somehow able to defeat them every single time. I understand it: stories are written for humans by humans. I guess it’s a kind of arrogance to expect someone to read a story in which humanity doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, which is the reality that Hawking was trying to get across. So it hit me: that is the approach that is rarely if ever done. Let’s approach it not from how we would like an alien attack to turn out, but how an attack would, probably and plausibly, actually go down. How it would actually happen, if the intent were to take the planet from us.

You seem to have put an incredible amount of thought into the process of, essentially, eradicating the human race. How did you come up with the idea of the “waves”?

It was almost like a mental game or challenge of how plausible can I make it. How much can I keep it within the confines of physics and science as we understand it? They naturally or logistically progressed from each other, starting with the premise that you probably shouldn’t do this process of invasion all at once. The goal would be to ready your new home (Earth) that you discover is infested with vermin (humans). It would not be to find a way to live peacefully with the vermin in your new home; you’d just want to get rid of the vermin. Starting from that premise, how would I, as an alien civilisation, go about doing that in a way that causes the least amount of disruption, violence, and pollution to my new home? So once I started with that premise I thought, ‘You couldn’t do it all at once, there’s too many of us, we’re spread out too much over the entire surface of the planet. So then it occurred to me that you’d have to do it in stages.

I think they would study us and our planet for a long time and they would use those things to their advantage. They would not only use our weaknesses but also our strengths. When I discovered the fact that 40 per cent of us live within sixty miles of the coastline, I was like, ‘Oh! How would you address that?’ What would happen, I imagine, is that everyone would flee the coastlines and we would band together, probably quite closely because we’re talking the end of the world here. One of our strengths as a species is our ability to pool resources, to use individual talents for the greater good. Strength in numbers! I think they would use that to their advantage. That’s how I came up with the idea for a virus, because we would be packed together, it would be a perfect breeding ground for a virus.

My major concern, particularly with the first book, was not so much ‘them’ as ‘us’—the humans. The alien invasion is more the stage upon which the drama is played out, as opposed to being the sole focus of the story. At many points in the story, it just narrows down to one simple thing, and that’s the teddy bear —Cassie getting the teddy bear back to her little brother. Amidst all this overwhelming devastation and existential crisis, wondering whether you’re going to live or die, she’s concerned about keeping a promise to her brother. That’s what appealed to me about the story; not the grand scale of it, but the small human aspect of, “I don’t have a cellphone anymore and there’s no Internet and life as I know it will never be the same… but I can still keep this promise to my little brother.”

From the start, did you have Cassie in mind as a protagonist?

Actually, she was the character that first entered my mind when I started thinking about the idea. I had this image in my head of a character, a girl, not necessarily underneath a car but trapped somewhere and wounded, knowing that if she stays where she is in her hiding place that she will die, but if she tries to leave her hiding place, whoever has injured her will finish her off. So she’s facing that impossible dilemma: ‘I stay here and I die or I leave here and I die.’ Now it’s become a choice of how am I going to choose to die, which fascinated me as a writer, painting a character into a corner and then saying, ‘Okay, get out.’

There are a lot of strong, dynamic female characters in the story. Was that a premeditated move on your part?

I think they just came out strong. I like to play against type: that’s why Cassie looks one way and then has a very different kind of personality. The 5th Wave is my thirteenth book and I had never a lead female protagonist before. I wanted a challenge so I thought: what could be more challenging than trying to write from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl? It was very difficult at times, but very fun at times too. I was worried about it, but by the second chapter I was starting to relax because I always know I’m on the right track if the character actually says something unexpected or does something that surprises me as the writer. I don’t plan out my books; I kind of create my characters and I let them go. Sometimes I have to rein them in a little bit, but by the
second chapter she was making me laugh and I was actually starting to get worried for her.

I always take it as a very good sign when they’re like real people to me, when I worry about their fate.

In recent years there’s been a definite trend towards female leads in YA fiction, notably in science fiction. What are your thoughts on why that is?
I think it’s a question of demographics, of who does the reading. In America a boy’s reading will typically peak at primary school and then start to gradually decrease in the secondary-school years, whereas girls might plateau a little in the upper grades. The vast majority of readers of YA fiction are female. But it’s cool, we need some kick-butt heroines, I’m all for it.

The 5th Wave is being made into a film. A lot can change when transitioning from book to movie, things get lost and things get added. What are you most concerned about keeping as the core of the story?

It’s that central, very human, driving narrative, which is small but big at the same time, of Cassie trying to get to her brother. I think you could play around the edges of that, but I am rather worried they’ll say, ‘You know, we did some research and really we think nine waves would be better than five, so we’re just going to change all that.’

Are we going to find out why the aliens chose Earth? What can we look forward to in the upcoming books?

Yes, and also why they move in when they do as opposed to when the population wasn’t so big and we weren’t so technologically advanced. Wouldn’t it have been easier to have come when the Ancient Egyptians were here, when the earth was unspoiled, when there was a lot of empty land and not a lot of human beings on the planet? Wouldn’t it have been easier to do it then as opposed to waiting first? If they needed the home, and they’ve been there watching us for 6000 years, why did they wait until the 21st-century to make their move? Yes, that will be addressed. The nice thing about writing from multiple points of view is that you can do it from anywhere on the planet; you don’t have to stick to North America. All I’ll say now is that we haven’t seen the depths to which the Others have stooped to finish off the job.



Hannah Deacon is a slightly psychotic student from Wexford, with a penchant for culture she can be pretentious about. Apart from devouring books and making a shambles of her school’s newsletter, sometimes she’s let loose on the world, and then things like … this … happen. Sorry.