The coronavirus pandemic has brought plague novels to the fore. Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), Edan Lepucki’s California (2014), and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) all contain viruses, plagues, or zombies, and all are seeing buzzy resurgences while Americans are under quarantine.
Once the coast is clear for Americans to return to work and play, however, the fallout will be economic. Wall Street analysts are issuing dire projections for the rest of 2020 and possibly into 2021, long after the virus has been quelled.
With that in mind, a lesser-known dystopian novel from 2016 feels urgently relevant now. Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 depicts a complete financial collapse in 2029 that looks a lot like the one that coronavirus has just triggered.
In The Mandibles, the “New IMF,” led by Vladimir Putin, adopts a new bitcoin-like global reserve currency called “bancor” that causes the dollar to crash. The American president, a Mexican, declares all U.S. Treasury bills and bonds null and void. Mexico builds a wall along its northern border to keep Americans out. The U.S. government orders agents to collect gold jewelry from citizens. Inflation soars, and once-rich families hoard toilet paper. Newsprint is mostly used as a substitute for paper towels.
“The career novelist is over,” laments Carter Mandible, a print journalist. “There are no more literary agents … Everything we’ve done has vanished.”
The Mandibles depicts a complete financial collapse in 2029 that looks a lot like the one that coronavirus has just triggered.
At one Mandible “family meeting,” Lowell Mandible tells his bratty daughter, “This summer, there will be no Debate Camp, no Art Camp, and no String Quartet Camp, got it? No Science Camp, no Water Sports Camp, and no Survival in the Wild Camp—even if that last one might actually end up being worth the money.”
Our current political moment (pre-coronavirus) has birthed a lot of new dystopian fiction. One of them is Gish Jen’s novel The Resisters, published in February, which paints a future in which the elite (“the Netted”) live in comfort and obey an Autonet (“Aunt Nettie”) that sounds a lot like Siri or Alexa, while the plebes (“the Surplus”) live in dilapidated houseboats and survive on a basic income. In a Bookforum review of the book, Rumaan Alam writes, “Does any reader still have the desire—let alone the wherewithal—for the novel of dystopia? Right this very moment, Venice is washing away and madmen run even our democracies. These are times beyond satire; aren’t we all just waiting for the Trump administration to propose eating Irish children?”
I would argue that in a dystopian time, dystopian fiction is even more necessary. It holds up a mirror that need only be a little more warped than our reality to jolt us into recognition.
When Lowell Mandible mentions Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, his daughter asks, “Why would science fiction be set in the past?” He answers, “Because when the novel was written, 2001 was in the future … Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”
Daniel Roberts is a business journalist at Yahoo Finance