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twl playlist, track 9: “atomic punk”

A surprising number of teenagers in 2019 (some them, no doubt, encouraged by hit films like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman) are fans of vintage hard rock.  So, too, is Alyx, the Feisty Teenage Heroine of This Wasted Land, my young adult dark fantasy novel.   TWL tells of Alyx’s attempts to rescue her boyfriend Sam from a shapeshifting witch who has abducted him to a cold, gray, ash desert where monsters prowl.


To reflect Alyx’s musical tastes, I set up the table of contents for TWL as a “playlist,” and named each chapter after a hard rock song.  Each relates to their chapter in some way, whether it evokes the mood, mirrors events, reiterates themes, or simply inspired it.

track 9

(Some spoilers ahead)

Track 9 is named after a song from Van Halen’s debut album.  Most of VH’s early works are about partying or getting laid, but “Atomic Punk” is a radical departure, a bizarre, post-apocalyptic vignette.  It opens with a frenzy of disturbing scratches before erupting into a fusillade of guitars and drums, over which a narrator claims:

I am a victim of the science age
A child of the storm, whoa yes
I can’t remember when I was your age
For me, it says no more, no more

“Atomic Punk” is one of my favorite VH tunes, and was an inspiration for a post-apoc novel, Age of Iron, that I wrote in high school.  The main character of that story was a young college student who had lost the girl he loved shortly before a nuclear war ended civilization, leaving him to roam the wilderness until he found other survivors.

I am the ruler of these nether worlds
The underground, whoa yes
On every wall and place my fearsome name is heard
Just look around, whoa yes

There’s a very faint echo of the protagonist of Age of Iron in the person of Mike Fernandez, a thirty-something man whom Alyx encounters in the ashen desert as she’s looking for Sam.  But their meeting is not pleasant:

No one’s ever pointed a gun at me before. They don’t freak me out: my dad had a few in the house, and once or twice, he took me to the firing range when he practiced.  I know how they work and what they do.  So I’m not scared, exactly, but it’s not a good feeling to know that some guy, a stranger, can kill me if he feels like it—and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“Drop the knife.”
I should do what he says.  It makes sense.  But I shake my head.  “No.”
“Drop it!”
“No.”  I’m squeezing the handle so hard, my fist is trembling.  “You want to shoot me, you go ahead.  But I’m not letting you perv on me.”
“I’m not gonna touch you, and I don’t want to shoot you.  Say the alphabet.”
“Say the damn alphabet.”
“A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K—”
“Good enough.  Sing the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ song.”
“What, you mean: ‘The itsy bitsy spider went up the waterspout?’”  Hard to do the hand thing while I got a death grip on the knife, but I do the best I can, pretending it’s a spider, like little kids do.  I learned it from them at school, cuz Mom didn’t know it, growing up in Korea.  “‘Down came the rain and washed the spider out. Out came—’”
“What’s the capital of the United States?”
“Washington, D.C.”
“Whose face is on the three-dollar bill?”
The hell?  Everyone knows there are one-dollar bills and five-dollar bills, and Uncle Tony used to send me two-dollar bills, ten of them at a time, in a card for my birthday or Christmas.  I shake my head.  “There isn’t a three-dollar bill.”
“Okay,” he says.  “You might really be what you look like.”

Desperate for help to find Sam, Alyx reluctantly follows Mike:

I walk alongside him, out of arm’s reach, but he smells as bad as he looks. Sweat and dirt and foul breath: when was the last time he brushed his teeth? He reeks. I give him some more space.
“I’m Alyx. Like the boy’s name, but with a ‘y’ instead of an ‘e.’”
He doesn’t say anything.
“What’s yours?”
“Mike. Like the girl’s name, but with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘q.’”
“Why are you making fun of me?”
“It’s a funny name. Your folks spelled it like that?”
“No, it’s just a nickname.”
“Yeah? From who?”
“Nobody. I came up with it.”
“How come with a ‘y’?”
“I don’t know. Just to be different.”
“Guess that’s why part of your hair’s purple, too. Just to be different.”
“Uh huh. Just like all the other kids at the mall.”
“At least I don’t look like a homeless person. Or smell like one.”
“Yeah, you do. To both. Because you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You are now.”
“I have a home.”
“Not here, you don’t.”
“Where is ‘here?’ What is this place?”
“You know what a sink trap is?”
“It’s that bend in the pipe under the sink in your bathroom. If you’re washing your hands and the soap makes your ring slip off your finger, it’ll wind up there instead of going all the way down to the sewer. Then you can just take off that piece of pipe and get your ring.”
“Well, this is the world’s sink trap. All kinds of stuff ends up stuck here. You’d be surprised.”
I think about the train station, and the phone booth, and the ship. “I’ve already seen some really weird things.”
“Yeah, me too. Everything except a huge pile of missing socks from the dryer. But you know what’s the difference between this place and a sink trap?”
“There’s no piece of pipe that anyone can open.”

A haggard survivor always on guard against monsters in whatever guise they may take (hence his quizzing Alyx to determine if she’s actually human), Mike has wandered this wasted land for years in search of the same witch who abducted Sam.  “Atomic Punk” is a very fitting theme song for him.

Find out more about Mike and his journey with Alyx in This Wasted Land.


Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young.  In his latest novel, This Wasted Land, high-school senior Alyx Williams learns that witches are real when one attacks her and her boyfriend Sam, dragging him off to a nightmare world where Alyx must go to get him back.  

Kenton is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog.  He also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, like Little House on the Prairie…with dragons!  With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.  Kenton also published Hand-Selling Books to help authors better their sales.   

Follow Kenton on Facebook for frequent posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction.  You can also catch him on Instagram.

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