Photo: Annabel Moeller
In ‘The Future,’ Naomi Alderman Creates a New Dystopia That Sounds Eerily Familiar
In a Q&A about her new novel, 'The Power' author talks about tech titans, doomsday bunkers and how she and mentor Margaret Atwood share a gift for prophecy / BY Rosemary Counter / November 17th, 2023
British novelist Naomi Alderman burst into the mainstream with The Power, her award-winning 2016 sci-fi novel-turned-TV show, where teenaged girls suddenly have electricity at their fingertips – and promptly become the dominant gender, naturally. The book scooped up the U.K.’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017 and, travelling at lightning speed in production years, a nine-episode TV series premiered earlier this year on Amazon Prime with Toni Collette and John Leguizamo in starring roles.
All this is to say Alderman is following up an impossibly high standard of success with a daring new book of speculative fiction, The Future. It’s not an easy book to summarize, but here goes: Three billionaire tech giants, plotting their survival of a looming apocalypse caused by a deadly virus, are unknowingly taken down by unassuming do-gooders – among them, an adult child, a wife and a personal assistant – who believe these powerful technologies can save the world.
As many reviewers have noted, her world-ruining tech titans might seem a little, um, familiar. Zimri Nommik, who runs a monopolistic shipping and purchasing company called Anvil, has big plans for a moon base. The widowed Ellen Bywater specializes in tech takeovers, most recently of the semi-evil computer company, Medlar Technologies. Lenk Sketlish is the founder and CEO of a Facebook-esque social network called Fantail that’s deliberately pitting users against each other for clicks and profit. Alderman’s criticism isn’t subtle: “These sites presented themselves as a clear pane of glass through which you could see the world as it was,” she writes. “But they were really a distorting visitor, showing you the version of the world that worked best for the board and the stockholders of the company.”
The Future is set in the future, obviously, but not so far ahead as to be an entirely unrecognizable world. If that speculative sweet spot sounds oddly familiar, that’s probably because Alderman’s mentor-turned-friend Margaret Atwood perfected it in her own not-too-distant settings, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Oryx and Crake. (Fun fact: Alderman stayed with Atwood ahead of her Nov. 13 Toronto Public Library appearance in what I can only assume was the most amusing sleepover-slash-séance that ever was.) What is Alderman’s writerly secret to foretelling the future? How true is her take on the world in The Future? How is Facebook like a cult? From a book tour stop in New York City, we chat about all this, and more.
Rosemary Counter: I’m not calling you in London, am I? Please tell me I’m not calling you at 9 p.m.?
Naomi Alderman: No, I’m in New York City right now, so it’s only 4 p.m. Even if it was late, though, you wouldn’t be the first! I’ve done them at 11 p.m. Even that’s not so bad. Remember those food deliveries during the pandemic where you had to wake up at 3 a.m. to be awake for your time slot? Did you guys have that in Canada?
RC: I don’t remember that. I mostly remember washing groceries with soap. And yet it’s all kind of a breeze compared to the plague in your book!
NA: Yes, yes. Towards the end of 2019, when we were working on [the television show] The Power, I remember discussing whether or not, should anything like this happen, would they really close schools? Offices? Could that ever happen?
RC: You predicted it, clearly. Only you and Margaret Atwood know the future.
NA: The more time I spend with her, whatever gifts of prophesy she has, I have, too. I’m actually coming to Toronto. I love love love Toronto, even before Margaret Atwood entered my life. I have close friends from college who live there, so I started visiting in 1994, I believe. Canada is like my escape plan should anything terrible happen.
RC: I’m laughing because I loved the part in your book where one escape bunker is in B.C. Why do you think Canada’s a good place to spend the apocalypse?
NA: Every country has its problems, but essentially Canada really has the best of the U.K. and the U.S. in one place. It’d be a great place to survive.
RC: And we’ve got the land, trees, fresh water — now I sound like one of your evil CEOs. Is every journalist asking you if your character Zimri Nommik is Elon Musk, thinly disguised? And is it?
NA: Maybe I’ve taken inspiration from real life, but because I don’t want to be sued by one of the richest men on Earth, I try to be very clear my characters are entirely fictional.
RC: Wink, wink. Who would have a moon base?
NA: Exactly. Who might be thinking of building an underground lair? Who can say? I will tell you that I deliberately didn’t read any biographies, because I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to keep their details from popping up in my text.
RC: You actually worked in tech for many years.
NA: I did. I made video games, and I’m the co-creator of a game called Zombies, Run! It’s an exercise fitness game that you play by going for a run or walk in the real world, and we encourage you to go a bit farther and farther by narrations where you’re chased by zombies. While I was working in technology, I was always thinking it’d be good to write about that world. Then, in 2017, I read an article in The New Yorker about tech billionaires building survival bunkers in New Zealand. Having worked in technology, I believe this 100 per cent. I also thought this is really bad, really evil. If they think they can escape – that they’ll need to escape – then there’s really no incentive for them to even try the fix the world for the rest of us.
RC: That’s a scary thought. But instead of just seeing tech as evil, I love how you flip it to show technology, in the right hands, can save us.
NA: I’ve worked with people who have become these tech billionaires, but what interested me was the people around them. None of them can do it without helpers, assistants, people who are essentially in invisible. I’d like to read an interview with that person. I was actually talking to a friend about what kind of person becomes an executive assistant, and she said, “a lot of them grew up in cults.” I thought about it and totally got it. I thought, ‘that’s a character I could write.’
RC: There are a lot of parallels to be found between cults and social media. I’d like to quit Facebook, but all my friends are pressuring me to stay.
NA: Working in technology sector is similar, too. You work really long hours, driven by someone else’s vision, which they’ve sold to you and you believe it. Whatever you’re working on is going to change the world, be the most important new thing, we’ll all be rich soon and the world will finally see we were right all along.
RC: Depending on the technology and its creator, that’s either a completely terrifying or very reassuring allegory. Do you lean one way or the other?
NA: I think that’s basically true of all unique tools human beings have ever invented. You can use a knife to cut up a salad or you can use a knife to stab someone. Social media, and the internet in general, is amazing and wonderful. There are so many things to do and experience. And yet there’s also genuinely terrible things happening that I think governments should step in to regulate, moderate or eliminate. So no, I don’t lean one way or another, I’m on both sides, simultaneously.