Severance by Ling Ma (Contemporary SF Novel, 2018).
This modern-day apocalypse opens in a slightly alternate version of the year 2011. While only fleetingly mentioned, this is the time of the bank bailouts and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Those protests fizzled out in this alternate history at least as quickly as in our reality. The difference is that here all that lost relevancy as a plague emerged from part of China and spread across the globe to topple modern civilization and wipe out all but a tiny fraction of humanity.
The victims of Shen Fever sicken, but don’t die quickly. Instead they’re reduced to a kind of mostly-nonviolent but still horrifying, zombie-like state. Infected by the spores of mutant mold, they are apparently rendered unaware of others. They mindlessly yet compulsively repeat once-familiar actions to the exclusion of all else. A housewife sets the dining table then puts all the plates and silverware away then immediately puts everything back out again, and again, and again; a cab driver sits unseeing behind the wheel, slowly cruising the deserted streets of a now-depopulated city. And that’s all “the fevered” do in the disease’s final stages: Repeating the most repetitive and basic actions by rote until they starve to death.
All this and more is reported for us by Candace Chen, a Chinese-American resident of New York City and one of the extremely rare people who seem inexplicably resistant to the disease. Between flashbacks to her compelling, but basically ordinary life before the plague, we find her forced to join up with a handful of these survivors. They’re a batch of modern urban types, absolutely unsuited to the challenges they now face. Their leader is Bob, an inflexible and controlling religious fanatic who pretends to know what he’s doing.
Having left New York at their leader’s direction, they journey across country raiding abandoned businesses and homes for supplies, and putting the few not-quite-dead fevered “out of their misery.” Alas, the resistance to the infection they have is not total and along the way Candace loses more than one of her too-few new friends to the disease (and to their semi-crazed leader’s vindictiveness).
Reaching the outskirts of Chicago and the sanctuary they’ve been promised, they learn that “the Facility” is nothing more than one of thousands of ordinary shopping malls left utterly abandoned by the mass die-off. Their dictatorial leader grew up nearby and was part-owner of the place before things fell apart. Already in trouble for disobeying the rules, Candace is also pregnant (courtesy a boyfriend who left just as the plague was getting bad). Bob of course sees her pregnancy as a divine miracle and keeps her virtual prisoner. Urged on by visions of her late mother, Candace desperately plots her escape.
In large part, this book is a richly imagined character study and much unlike traditional action-oriented end-of-the-world thrillers.
It also features much telling social commentary about the ultimate emptiness of modern, consumer-driven life. I seldom mention much about things like cover design. But in this case the stark pink blankness this novel presents to the world strikes me as a very appropriate symbol of that materialistic void.
But above all, this novel is the story of a particular person’s life-journey. Born in China, Candace comes to America (originally to Salt lake City, of all places) as a small child. We watch as she grows up, lives a city-bred life, becomes a material success in the book publishing industry and ultimately must face both the sterility of the corporate culture she inhabits and find some way to live through (and protect her unborn child from) the ultimate collapse. There is a certain strain of bitter humor evidenced in how she struggles to continue her increasingly meaningless work in the face of overwhelming disaster. Though technically not “fevered,” she nonetheless plods onward in the familiar patterns for entirely too-long before breaking free to find her own way.
A chapter of Severance was awarded the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize and now the entire work is available in all the usually forms and it’s well-worth reading.