Disaster Porn Gets a Literary Makeover

Reading between the lines.
May 3 2013 9:40 AM

End Times

A new novel looks at what comes next after natural disaster.

(Continued from Page 1)

Mitchell develops a theory about why people in a disaster-prone world love worst-case scenarios. It hinges on money. “Frightened people didn't want bromides, expressions of hope, happy predictions,” Mitchell thinks to himself at one point. “They craved dread, worst-case scenarios, end times. What would the future cost them? They wanted to hear that the price would be exorbitant.” Mitchell's dark scenarios are only sexy for a certain class of people—the ones who can helicopter out of New York when the floods come.

And the floods do come. A horrific drought hits New York, followed by a Sandy-like hurricane of epic proportions. The parched lands around the city can't absorb the water fast enough, so the flooding is horrific and rapid. Mitchell and his colleague, the junior futurist Jane, are stuck in the middle of it and have to watch a real disaster unfold. They're not just reading articles in a publication of the Geophysical Union anymore.

Now we can circle back to my earlier assertion about how Mitchell becomes a hero for the Occupy age. There's a real sneakiness to Rich's story, which comes on like a deluge of disaster porn but then flows backward to reveal the fractured, reconfigurable landscapes of a David Graeber essay.

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Immersed in his own worst case scenario, Mitchell sees, starkly, that the future is not a linear narrative. In the Red Cross refugee camp, he meets people who can't afford the “end times” he's been selling to the highest bidder. But it's not as simple as “Mitchell meets some poor people and feels bad”—if that were the case, this novel would fail. Instead, he discovers something a lot more complicated, which is that human conflict fuels and feeds on disaster. Out of these conflicts arise all the myriad futures, which look like disaster to some and financial opportunity to others. Or they look like something utterly, completely different that Mitchell had never imagined.

What's important is that Mitchell comes to understand how human agency—and human communities at odds with one another—shape natural disasters as much as tectonic plates and weather systems do. On the cheap television that hangs in one area of the refugee camp, Mitchell discovers that he's become a legend among corporate leaders. The companies that took his advice were prepared for the disaster and weathered the storm, as it were. But when his neighbors in the camp demand his advice, he has nothing to say to them.

Like somebody who has just read Karl Marx's “Theses on Feuerbach,” Mitchell realizes that the point of futurism isn't to describe the world, but to change it. He doesn't undergo a simplistic transformation: He is still basically an antisocial geek, but he's now put his obsessive mind to work on the project of surviving disaster rather than predicting it. Along the way, we watch as a strange new kind of Occupy movement is born from the storm-ruined edges of New York City, where disaster relief never comes.

Rich wrote Odds Against Tomorrow before Hurricane Sandy, and had to hastily revise his proofs in its wake. But his account was so prescient, and so well-observed, that the book comes across as far more believable in the real-life storm's aftermath.

This novel reminds us that the apocalypse is always more complicated than we wish it would be. There is no ecstatic universal extinction of our messy, belligerent species, nor is there a perfect survival strategy. Instead, there are many ways to die and survive, none of them foolproof. Most importantly, even the worst carnage has an aftermath. It's what you do with the wreckage that matters. Will you build slums, fragile utopian communities, corporate scams, or something else—something that just might help us make it through?

Annalee Newitz will be discussing her new book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, at a Future Tense happy hour in Washington, D.C., on May 15. For more information and to RSVP, visit the Future Tense blog.

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Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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