Naomi Alderman made a serious splash with The Power, which I missed, but her latest is right up my street. The Future (2023) is a harrowing near-future thriller about the destructive power of big tech and our desperate need to change course in the face of looming apocalypse. It’s a breathless, inventive read, its inherently depressing subject matter mitigated by hopeful undercurrents, bracing action, and thought-provoking commentary on the state of things.
At the core of The Future is a relationship: two women, swept into momentous world events. Lai Zhen is an internet influencer known for her survivalist videos, while Martha Einkorn, a woman who famously escaped a backwoods cult, is the power behind the throne of a social media mega-company. When they meet cute during a conference interview, it leads to a one-night stand that feels like it could lead to something more. Indeed, it does, if not in the expected way, sending Lai Zhen down a conspiratorial rabbit hole as she becomes privy to the elitist plot of the world’s most powerful tech billionaires.
The Future isn’t without problems. For one thing, it’s structurally imperfect, the narrative awkwardly arranged to conceal information from the reader in service to the author’s narrative desires. There’s also something fundamentally unconvincing about the final act, which for all its delightful twists leads to unrealistic after-effects. Despite these issues, this is a novel with its heart in the right place, audaciously confronting the many elephants rampaging through the room of the world we’ve built. Climate change, late-stage capitalism, big tech’s ruthless stranglehold on the the hearts, minds, and stomachs of the world at large—Alderman juggles these massive problems in passages by turns eloquent, exciting, funny, sad, and illuminating. And with Lai Zhen and Martha, she does it all in a way that doesn’t lose sight of the challenges of living in the world as it is—and the bravery that may be required to stand up and change things. The sheer ambition of its forward-thinking approach is reminiscent of the near-future work of Cory Doctorow or Kim Stanley Robinson. Alas, the third act’s contrivances undermine the experience to a degree, but there’s so much else to admire here, especially in its fast-paced and highly entertaining build-up, that it still warrants a whole-hearted recommendation.