Book Review: Odds Against Tomorrow, Nathaniel Rich

Book Review: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Dystopian Fiction: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Mitchell Zukor lives in a phobopolis. A city of fear. Not an actual city; he has a Manhattan apartment and works in the Empire State Building for a company named FutureWorld. But his job mirrors his interior life. Zukor is a mathematician, focused on the probabilities that a disaster might happen. He has long believed that some kind of disaster was coming: plague or earthquake or war or something. Now, his job requires him to predict the coming of disaster and help companies indemnify themselves against those disasters.


Somehow, though, despite the startling accuracy of his predictions, he did not see what that disaster would mean to him.


Nathaniel Rich’s ecological dystopia Odds Against Tomorrow tells of the destruction of New York City through the story of Mitchell Zukor. He is making a fortune predicting that there will be a disaster. Companies (in this scenario) cannot be sued if they have tried to prepare for the future, say by hiring a company that presents disaster scenarios. If they prepare for one disaster but another one actually occurs, they can hide behind their partial efforts–and the company that predicted multiple disasters gets paid nicely for their efforts. Zukor has long feared that a disaster was indeed coming. His mathematical models predicted the odds of mega volcanoes, pandemics, war, even another asteroid crashing to earth (those odds were–drumroll, please–astronomically small). But after a summer-long drought that parched the US East Coast, making the ground too dry to absorb water, Mitchell begins calculating the effects a major hurricane might have if it were to make a direct hit on New York City. He predicts it would be catastrophic. And, sure enough, Hurricane Tammy forms and makes landfall just as he predicted.


Rich uses language very evocatively throughout the book. The word “phobopolis” is his (at least, I’ve never seen it before). He compares the color of the sky immediately pre-hurricane to the colors of a dying salmon, and with more than a little foreshadowing reminds the reader how salmon end life with their bodies rotting away near the very pools where they spawn. The FutureWorld business model is described as being built on the fact that “Frightened people didn’t want bromides, expressions of hope, happy predictions. They craved dread, worst-case scenarios, end times. What would the future cost them? They wanted to hear that the price would be exorbitant.”


The next paragraph concludes: “This was excellent news for FutureWorld. FutureWorld would provide. FutureWorld would take their money. Oh God yes, we would.”


After the hurricane hits, the descriptions of a flooded NYC are horrifying. Mitchell escapes with a coworker, but the scenes painted by Rich are of a hellscape that is both hard to picture and yet realistic after the images from Hurricane Katrina and this year’s hurricanes Florence and Michael. Rich never loses sight of the sad reality, though, that regardless of the destruction nature can bring, humanity can bring further destruction in desperation. Zukor finds that his worst predictions failed to account for the human element…but also finds that there is a resilience in people, a resistance to succumbing to the mercies of a cruel climate. And he finds that there is more to his own nature than merely a scared mathematician afraid of the probability of disaster.


Odds Against Tomorrow is in some ways a bleak look at a possible future. But it is also a delightfully written, imaginative, and potentially hopeful look at what humanity can endure and survive.

Book Review: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

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