In Tommy Wallach’s pre-apocalyptic novel We All Looked Up, the fault is not in our stars but in one particular star. An asteroid, more accurately, one whose path threatens a collision with our own planet. Nicknamed “Ardor,” the interstellar visitor drifts inexorably toward Earth, its inescapable doom wicks away inhibitions, and the worlds of four Seattle high school students intersect as society crumbles around them.
Like The Breakfast Club, Wallach’s novel brings together high school students from disparate social groups: Andy, the skateboarding slacker who is also a musician; Anita, the overscheduled overachiever living her parents’ dream; Peter, the basketball star who has already started to question the future drawn out for him; and Eliza, the artistic beauty with the besmirched reputation. Only this club faces not Saturday detention but world destruction—teenagers often think small things are the end of the world, so how might they respond when it really is the end of the world?
What truly matters when not only you but also possibly all of humanity has a specific expiration date? How do our reputations matter if we can count our final days on a calendar page? What are we left with when what we’ve based our lives on is no more? Amid the couplings and uncouplings (I am tempted to say that the novel could also be called We All Hooked Up—not as a criticism, mind you), the family issues and the violence, Wallach drives us to consider the fundamental philosophical questions of what it means to be human. And the connections between us all, connections we shouldn’t need imminent catastrophe to recognize.
Stripped of its macro level of pre-apocalyptic doom, We All Looked Up is the story of four teens struggling to become who they are, the same struggle we all face in our non-apocalyptic lives. As the main characters all look inward, We All Looked Up shows us the complexity behind the teen clique stereotypes, making it (like The Breakfast Club) a story of unexpected depth.
As a reading teacher, I think Wallach’s novel makes an excellent ladder with Vonnegut (explicitly referenced in We All Looked Up) and the pre-apocalyptic The Last Policeman series by Ben Winters. All three authors help us see that whether the world is ending or it only feels like it (and maybe it always feels like it), the end of the world doesn’t have to mean the end of being human.