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.

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Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

With his new novel Odds Against Tomorrow, Nathaniel Rich has turned disaster porn into high art. Set in a near-future New York City, the novel follows the strange career of math-obsessed futurist Mitchell Zukor, who lives through one of the disaster scenarios he's paid to predict for Fortune 500 companies. In the process, he becomes a new kind of culture hero, one suited for the age of Occupy.

Rich's previous work—the literary novel The Mayor's Tongue and his feature articles in places like the New York Times Magazine—have already established him as someone who can tell a rich, ambiguous story in an appealingly plainspoken, journalistic style. Indeed, the central conceit of this novel is that Mitchell's story is being told by a journalist who knew the man briefly, in college, right after the city of Seattle was destroyed by a massive earthquake.

Seattle's destruction is where the novel begins. This event appears to be set at roughly the same time as 9/11, and there are hints that perhaps Odds is an alternate history where a natural disaster defines Mitchell's generation rather than an act of terrorism. “They called us Generation Seattle,” our unnamed narrator writes, as he recalls in lascivious detail what it was like to watch the Space Needle pierce the bulging roof of Seattle's planetarium.

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Though Mitchell is destined to become this generation's reluctant doomsaying prophet, he remembers the quake only as the moment he first made contact with Elsa. She suffers from a rare heart condition, Brugada, which could result in a sudden heart attack at pretty much any second. Mitchell has been infatuated with her—and her risk-saturated future—since he randomly got a glimpse of her medical records at the college hospital. And that's why, when she collapses after the quake, he knows to call an ambulance immediately. His obsession with terrifying futures has saved her life.

Mitchell's post-graduation epistolary relationship with Elsa provides a narrative substrate for the philosophical debate at the heart of the novel. Their young lives become allegories for two ways  we come to understand the future after enormous disasters. Elsa moves to an off-the-grid farm in rural Maine, and Mitchell relocates to the surreal New York offices of FutureWorld, a consulting firm that offers companies advice about preparing for disasters. Elsa, facing death daily by living miles from the nearest hospital, seems fearless. But Mitchell, who has devised every possible way to respond to and prevent disaster, is consumed by fear, nightmares, and self-hatred.

Author Nathaniel Rich
Author Nathaniel Rich

Courtesy of Meredith Angelson

Though there's a deeply earnest thread here about whether we should plan for the future using logical terror or reckless hope as our guides, Odds is also a spot-on satire of the futurist industry. We discover that FutureWorld exploits a legal loophole devised in the wake of Seattle's post-quake lawsuit quagmire. A one-sentence rider in an innocuous bill has relieved New York corporations of legal responsibility for damages in a disaster as long as they have retained the services of a company that advises them about their risks. That company is FutureWorld, and the intensely smart, intensely terrified Mitchell becomes absurdly rich by telling CEOs about Chinese cyber terrorism and nanobots eating the world.

This extremely plausible idea is the moral lynchpin of the novel, taking us from the realm of PTSD to the world of geopolitics. At first, when we are focusing on Mitchell and Elsa's relationship, it seems that Rich is exploring various psychological reactions to disaster: fear, denial, nightmares, escape. But slowly, the life of the mind bleeds over into the life of the economy. We meet Mitchell's father, a Hungarian immigrant who is haunted by the horrors of Hungary under communism. In response, he has become a rabid capitalist and slumlord, proudly presiding over buildings so horribly neglected the residents are protesting. The disasters we carry inside of us still find a way to unleash themselves on the world, wounding new generations.

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.

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.

Annalee Newitz is the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction and the editor of io9. You can find her at techsploitation.com, or follow her on Twitter at @annaleen.

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