For the millennial generation, who came of age as the relative calm of the late 20th century gave way to the turbulence of the 21st, worst-case scenarios are all too familiar. The shocking terror of Sept. 11, 2001 opened a deep wound that has only been inflamed by a wearying succession of outsize tragedies, from the devastation wreaked by hurricanes, tsunamis, and other increasingly extreme weather phenomena, to the worldwide economic instability caused by the 2008 financial crisis.
Eschatology is back in vogue. The success of shows like “The Walking Dead,” or “Doomsday Preppers,” in which Americans show off the stockpiles and survival skills they believe will help them survive the end of the world, is evidence that we are fascinated with the idea that everything we hold dear might be wiped away and we would be forced to start anew. It’s equal parts fear and titillation; perhaps we as a society have so convinced ourselves of its inevitability that we’re desperate for it to happen so we can at least stop worrying about it. “Frightened people didn’t want bromides, expressions of hope, happy predictions,” writes author Nathaniel Rich in “Odds Against Tomorrow.” “They craved dread. . . . What would the future cost them? They wanted to hear that the price would be exorbitant.”
Rich’s novel follows Mitchell Zukor, a gifted young analyst who becomes obsessed with forecasting disasters after a massive earthquake obliterates Seattle. He immerses himself in data, looking for patterns that can help him prepare for the worst, but sinks deeper and deeper into obsession. “It was astonishing how much bad news was generated every day,” he muses. “You had only to pay attention . . . and you could see the information accrete, like matter spiraling around a black hole.” Fresh out of college, Zukor produces freelance prognostications that draw the attention of a unique start-up — FutureWorld — a company founded as a liability shelter for big corporations looking to protect themselves from claims following major catastrophes.
What began as a nervous tic evolves into a career, and spending day in and day out looking into the abyss begins to affect him: “The bad news brought a rush of excitement; it fortified, too. It reached an intimate part of him.”His presentations become performances worthy of the Grand Guignol, dazzling his clients as he spins tales of disgruntled employees on bloody rampages, food riots in darkened streets following the crash of the electric grid, and apocalyptic Sino-American nuclear exchanges.
Rich is an imaginative storyteller, and his vivid vignettes are peppered with factoids that seem just true enough to be frightening. Though he began writing the book almost five years ago, Rich shows a bit of prescience in his plotting, setting the climax of the book in New York City in the midst of his Hurricane Tammy, whose devastating winds and floodwaters bear an uncanny resemblance to Hurricane Sandy. Caught in the storm, Mitchell is transformed from a shy, retiring number cruncher into a confident, capable survivalist — freed from the anxiety of anticipating disaster, he thrives within one. “Everything had become strange and he didn’t want to miss what happened next. He was a spaceman encountering an alien landscape for the first time.” But when normalcy begins to return to the ruined streets of Manhattan, he isn’t sure he’s ready to go back.
“Odds Against Tomorrow” examines the dangers of both Mitchell’s dark pessimism and the complacency and denialism that can leave people susceptible to danger. While the latter’s downsides are obvious, the corrosive nature of persistent vigilance is more subtle, and Rich shows that living with your eyes focused on the distant horizon can blind you to what’s happening right in front of you.Michael Patrick Brady is a writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at mike@michael