Don’t Look Back: The Future by Naomi Alderman

Three of the richest people in the world. Three of the most powerful, most influential in both the best and worst of ways; three of the smartest, future-savvy and most driven people in the world who are changing the course of humanity daily. It would take just the three of them to make immense, long lasting changes that slow down the doomsday clock, to tilt the earth away from certain end, but instead they plan to only save themselves.

Naomi Alderman’s follow up to her highly successful The Power is The Future, the story of what these three very powerful people don’t do. It is not the story of the apex predators winning—it’s of them planning to, in a way so selfish that it is bound to fail. Alderman has spoken about billionaires and their bunkers in a recent interview with NPR, saying that if “you believe that the rest of us could suffer, and you would still be OK… I would like to point out to you that that is incorrect—that there is no arc that you can get on and you can escape, and everybody else will die and you’ll be fine because, fundamentally, the living through that and deciding to do that—instead of using your billions and billions of dollars to help people—is what will ultimately destroy you.”

These three people are Lenk Sketlish, CEO of social network Fantail; Zimmri Nommik, owner of a massive online retailer and data collection agency called Anvil; and Ellen Bywater, who is in charge of Medlar, the largest PC company in the world. Clearly thinly veiled (just enough to avoid lawsuits) versions of the people who run Facebook/Twitter, Amazon, and Apple/Microsoft, these are characters who aren’t particularly easy to connect with, even though they aren’t painted as outrightly evil—just selfish, rich, and lonely. Alderman gives us multiple diatribes against these megacorporations and how much damage they cause to society, the environment, the future of the human race. These three are in possession of some incredible technology, fully controlled by peak capitalism. It’s recognisably our world, just a little more advanced, a little more selfish and entirely believable.

So if the world’s most powerful don’t use their tools for good, who will? Alderman thinks the people closest to them have a chance to make that change. But is seems that if Sketlish’s right hand woman Martha genuinely wants to use the massive infrastructure he has built to help the world, she cannot do it with him on board. Nommik’s wife Selah gives away a lot of his money to charity, but she can’t do more with him around either. Neither can Bywater’s youngest child, Badger, who is openly critical of their mother’s company policies. Together, along with Albert, the ousted co-founder of Medlar, they may stand a chance at saving the world—if the world didn’t have the terrible toxic trio in it. We are told that “even if you do happen to be incredibly powerful, you can’t just walk away when things go bad. That’s not what your power is for. … If you’ve got power, use it to help.”

This idea of Martha, Sehla, Badger and Albert coming to the world’s rescue is in itself is problematic. We all know power corrupts, so how can we believe the people closest to the most powerful, the ones who also benefit from this chokehold of capitalism and plutocracy on society, are going to be somehow inherently good, somehow safe from being corrupted by that same power, once they have it? It’s a hefty suspension of disbelief, to remove the absolute apex predator, put their next of kin in power, and then imagine a future of only good things. But to be fair to Alderman, she does have Martha tell us that a utopia isn’t probable—”You can’t fix everything forever, but you can try to trip things in the right direction.”

The most compelling character in this narrative, though, isn’t any of these characters at all. It is Lai Zehn, a “Top Fifty Creator on the Name the Day forum… ranked number one for expertise in technological survival” and a “Hong Kong Chinese slash British slash American lesbian.” She’s a young woman with whom Martha has a brief but intense affair, leaving Lai Zehn with a secret software that saves her life after an assassination attempt. In her search to find out who tried to kill her and why, Lai Zehn becomes enmeshed in Martha’s plans, and those of the toxic trio.

And so we have the story of the tech billionaires who have found a way to ride out the end of days safely. We have the story of Lai Zehn the survivalist influencer. Then there are excerpts from the Name The Day online survival site, where someone writes excessively long posts about the story of Lot, and how that is a metaphor for those who think they can hide away from the end of the world. We get a little backstory on Martha’s childhood as the daughter of the leader of a survivalist cult and what their philosophies were, particularly to do with hunter-gatherer versus agricultural societies. There’s also a lecture by a professor in Bucharest, who explains (with diagrams) that AI is just “stored thinking.” There is plenty of jumping around on the timeline from the perspective of multiple characters. There are a lot of Big Ideas, not too much character development or human interaction between the characters who are meant to matter the most to the overall arc. It isn’t hard to imagine this as a TV series, where perhaps the narrative would be a little more cleaned up, and leaner, tighter.

Many of the things that worked so well for Alderman’s exciting and truly readable thriller The Power don’t work out for The Future. The multi-POV narratives, for one, that made The Power so riveting make The Future feel a little uneven, jagged and a little hard to connect with. This is exacerbated by the frequent didacticism, and the vast range of topics we are given a lot of information about—it’s an impressive range, no doubt, but it does tend to push the reader away from the actual story.

Other than Lai Zhen, the other characters are quite thinly drawn. The tech billionaires are almost caricature versions of exactly which real life people you’d expect them to be based on. Their foils—Martha, Sehla, Badger and Albert—are a full spectrum diversity rainbow cast—we have one lesbian woman, one black woman, one nonbinary person, and a gay man—and it’s because they don’t feel fully fleshed out (except possibly Martha), that they come across as token.

There are some great ideas here, some really important ones that (in the right hands) would most definitely improve the state of the world in real life. Alderman reminds us that if “algorithms can make us more polarised, more angry and more hateful, surely they can do the opposite of that. There is no “neutral” anymore. There is no leaving things as they would have been before the invention of the internet. Our minds have already learned how to interact with the algorithms and we are part of it”—so why not use what we have more altruistically? Why not fix what we’ve broken? It’s all very well intentioned, perhaps so much so, as in that determined lean towards doing the right thing, The Future lacks the aggression and thrill that made The Power so much more arresting.

The Future is published by Simon & Schuster.

Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction and lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.

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