In what could easily be the very-scary near future, a trio of technocrat CEO billionaires — social network Fantail’s Lenk Sketlish; shipping-and-logistics giant Anvil’s Zimri Nommik; and personal-computer behemoth Medlar’s Ellen Bywater — have positioned themselves, via their wealth, power, and wiles, as the environmentally friendly saviors of the globe.
But that’s their “public-facing making-nice” aspect, of course, since they are by far the guiltiest destroyers of Earth, no matter how many FutureSafe zones — protected-conservation areas that will double as apocalypse-safe hideouts for them — they pay for. But all is not (yet) lost: even as they gather in northern California for their high-profile presence at the Action Now! Ecological Convention, a not-so-motley crew of determined resisters is firming up their own planet-saving plans….
Meanwhile, in Singapore, we meet Lai Zhen, a Fall of Hong Kong survivor who earns a living sharing survival strategies via her show, “SurlySurvivor,” and by speaking at conferences. Zhen is passing time in the Seasons Time Mall, “the world’s largest retail megacity,” when her consumerist meanderings are rudely interrupted by an active shooter. During an extended chase through a service hallway, as Zhen has to draw on a plethora of her death-defying, survivalist tactics, she quickly realizes that her hunter is an assassin — and she’s the target. Faster than you can say, “There’s an app for that,” Zhen apprehends that the wearable screen on her sleeve contains a mysterious piece of software that can save her life. (“It looks like you might be in trouble, Lai Zhen. Would you like help? Yes/No.”). And — as they say — we’re off.
Alderman — novelist, games and apps writer, and former Margaret Atwood protégée, whose previous novel, “The Power,” recently came to vivid visual life on Amazon Prime — keeps her authorial plate full and our minds zipping along. This heady, propulsive, and cannily constructed thriller easily doubles as an ecologically focused, end-of-the-world howdunnit, as well as a will-they-won’t-they love story when Zhen and Martha Einkorn, Sketlish’s executive assistant, meet-cute during a conference. (Einkorn has her own origin-survival story: as the daughter of a cult leader in rural Oregon, she killed a starving bear by bashing him over the head with a branch, escaped the cult’s clutches, and wended her way to her prestigious position.) The frenetic unfolding of the ladies’ coup de foudre also introduces us to the courageous band of activists trying to make the world right: Albert Dabrowski, ousted founder of Medlar; Selah, a skilled coder and now side-lined wife of Nommik; Badger, Bywater’s nonbinary, twentysomething offspring; and Einkorn.
Alderman’s futuristic world is both captivating and corrupt, and she delineates it with her trademark smarts and humor. The mall, for example, is described with tongue firmly in cheek: “According to various providers of tepid takes, Seasons Time was either the most crass and culturally appropriative place on Earth, an ecological disaster, a charming example of Singaporean whimsy, or honestly, just lighten up, it’s a fun place to spend an afternoon shopping.”
There’s a demonstration, both nifty and alarming, of a collaboration to alleviate climate change by using high-altitude drones to rearrange the weather for what the technocrats promise will be humanitarian uses: “‘We’ve steered that moisture all the way from Lithuania,’” notes the presenter, summoning a rainstorm with the push of a button; “‘I mean, they’ve weaponized the weather,’” parries Badger. And we get tantalizing glimpses into super-luxurious, super-secure super-secret bunkers tucked away across the globe (“That was what capitalism got you. The war of all against all could make you safe, as long as they were fighting each other and not you.”)
Alderman peppers her prepper-infused world with enough specifics and details to make that world wholly immersive, from comforting survival suits packed with cool libraries — that are nonetheless a type of cage — to news feeds with familiar-sounding news: Miami’s flood defenses fail; a storm in Bangladesh is projected to kill 13,000 people within 48 hours; Brazil’s currency collapses; and waves of destructive blue rice-mold in China hit where it counts. “The world was a boxer, unsteady on its feet, wavering, waiting for the final punch.” There’s even a terrific set piece with under-and-overtones of TV’s “Survivor.” Overall, Alderman pulls no punches when it comes to describing current and potential horror scenarios.
But our band of resisters are refreshingly resilient. They’re not just deeply knowledgeable, they’re also compassionate and cleareyed, seeing the world as it is. (Badger offers a particularly impressive riff on the similarities between the English enclosures strategy of the 18th and 19th centuries and its modern-day data equivalent: “‘They took something that used to belong to everyone and found a way to make it theirs.’”) There are also plentiful reminders — a beautiful dawn here, a recognition of human kindness and connectedness there — that the world is, indeed, worth saving. (And, in case anyone is wondering, there’s still a Schengen Area, though some of the boundaries have changed.) More importantly, this group understands enough about algorithms, technology, and social engineering to maybe, just maybe, turn the digital status quo on its head.
With a compelling love story at its center, and the possible end of the world truly nigh, “The Future” takes on the corruptive power of unmitigated authority and posits another option, what Badger terms “a community of purpose.” Or, as another character notes, “‘[W]e will often have the choice between accumulating more gold or objects and creating more trust. Choose to trust.’”
By Naomi Alderman
Simon & Schuster, 432 pp., $28.99
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and critic. You can find her @daneetsteffens.