Pluralistic: Naomi Alderman's 'The Future' (07 November 2023)

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The cover for the Simon & Schuster edition of Naomi Alderman's 'The Future'.

Naomi Alderman's 'The Future' (permalink)

Naomi Alderman burst onto the scene in 2016 with The Power, an explosive and brilliant feminist apocalyptic parable. Now, seven years later, she's back with a chunky, propulsive second novel about a very different sort of apocalypse: The Future:

The Power was a thriller about a mysterious force that gives women the power to administer violent electric shocks – even lethal ones – from the palms of their hands. As this power races around the world, the status quo is abruptly shattered. Abusers get nasty surprises. The Saudi government topples. Parents of teenaged boys demand sex-segregated classes to protect their sons from vicious girls:

In The Future, we get a very different kind of apocalypse: the imagined apocalypse of the prepper. At the core of prepperism is a fantasy: that the world will experience a cataclysm that requires the special skills and supplies of the prepper themselves. Water chemists who turn prepper fantasize about attacks on the water-supply – not because there's any special reason to expect one, but because if terrorists attack the water supply, then water chemists become civilization-rescuing heroes:

(And of course, if the world ends in such a way that marauding bandits rove the wasteland, eating their former neighbors, then macho, AR-15-obsessed musketfuckers get to reinvent themselves as warlords who defend the sheeple from "bad guys.")

This is what makes billionaire prepper fantasies just so weird – for most of us, it's hard to imagine how the skills of a billionaire are the one thing we'll need to see us through a crisis. But for billionaires themselves, the necessity of billionaires in rebooting civilization is so self-evident as to be unquestionable.

What's more, billionaires are convinced – more than any of us – that the world is about to end. As Douglas @Rushkoff puts it, these guys want to earn enough money to outrun the consequences of how they're making all that money. This is #TheMindset, the idea that your own position has jeopardized civilization itself, but that also, you must survive the cataclysm, because only you can survive it.

Rushkoff chronicles the real-world fantasies of luxury bunkers patrolled by mercenaries locked into explosive discipline collars in his book Survival of the Richest:

But billionaires don't just suck at running civilization, they also suck at making up stories about its collapse. One thing that's striking about Rushkoff's ethnography of rich people preparing to outlive the end of the human race is how banal their eschatological fantasies are.

It's not that there aren't any exciting stories to tell about billionaire survival fantasies. The granddaddy of these is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 "#MasqueOfTheRedDeath":

I published an updated version with the same title in 2019 in my novella collection #Radicalized:

In The Future, we get a cracking, multi-point-of-view adventure novel about billionaires prepping for the end of the world. Three billionaires, the lords of thinly veiled analogs to Facebook, Google and Amazon, each getting ready in their own way. Stumbling into their midst comes Lai Zhen, a prepper influencer vlogger with millions of followers.

When Zhen becomes romantically entangled with Martha Einkorn, the top aide and chief-of-prepping for one of these billionaires, she finds herself in possession of an AI chatbot that is devoted to protecting a very small number of people from incipient danger. This chatbot determines that Zhen is being stalked by an assassin at a mall in Singapore, and guides her to safety.

The chatbot is a closely held secret among the tech billionaire cabal. It is designed to monitor world events and predict when The Event is imminent, be it disease, war, or other cataclysmic disaster. With the chatbot's predictive powers and its superhuman guidance, the billionaires, their families, and their closest confidantes will be able to slip away before the shit hits the fan, fly by different private jets to one or another luxury bunker, and wait out the apocalypse. Once the fires raging without have died down to embers, the chatbot's billionaire charges will emerge to assume their places as wise and all-powerful leaders of the next human civilization.

As you might imagine, not everyone who finds out about this plan – including various members of the billionaires' families who are fully aware of these rich, powerful people's fallibility – is enthusiastic about it. As we build toward a looming crisis, we cycle between these family members, Zhen and her hacker buddies, and members of an online prepper community where Einkorn is a kind of provocateuse and eminence grise.

Alderman skillfully maneuvers all these power players and blocs into position before detonating the crisis that sets off the book's second act, where we get into some damned fine Masque of the Red Death territory, but clad in Tony Stark mecha survival suits and against a backdrop of total disaster.

I won't give away any spoilers here, except to say that there are lots of twists (that won't surprise readers of The Power, which had its own excellent surprises). But without delving too deeply into the fake-outs, crosses, and turns that Alderman lays, I will say that this is a fantastic and incredibly satisfying comeuppance novel that gets very deep into the ideology of wishing the world would end, and dreaming that when it does, you will finally matter.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Economist replies to Jack Valenti on Broadcast Flag

#10yrsago New Rob Ford video: Laughable Fumblebuck drops a gigaton of F-bombs

#10yrsago Google security engineer on NSA: “Fuck these guys”

#5yrsago AT&T disconnects whole families from the internet because someone in their house is accused of copyright infringement

#1yrago The good news is that Penguin Random House can't buy all the other publishers: Now for the bad news

Colophon (permalink)

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