Odds Against Tomorrow: A Book Review

Posted by on Dec 23, 2013
Odds Against Tomorrow: A Book Review

It has been over 40 years since Royal Dutch Shell used scenario planning to envision, and to some extent prepare for, the 1973 oil embargo that sent global oil prices soaring. In the years since, scenario planning has gone mainstream in the business world as a way of imagining and acting in the face of multiple possible futures that include large-scale environmental catastrophes and so-called natural disasters.

cover_260x420It was with these concerns in mind that I picked up a copy of Odds Against Tomorrow, a novel by Nathaniel Rich. The book begins at the University of California, where readers are introduced to Mitchell Zukor, an anxiety-ridden mathematics major who is obsessed with calculating the odds of worst-case scenarios. Climate change disasters, nuclear holocausts, and global epidemics are the stuff of his daily fantasies. When a massive earthquake destroys Seattle during his Russian Literature class and a classmate, Elsa Bruner, suffers a heart attack, his life and the world are changed forever.

Most of the story takes place after the Seattle quake, which resulted in an equally consequential financial disaster and a tidal wave of lawsuits against the city’s major employers. As a result, insurance companies have ceased to offer protection against large-scale catastrophes, leaving large corporations vulnerable.

Enter FutureWorld, a Manhattan-based consulting company that promises, thanks to new legislative changes, to indemnify companies through worst-case scenario consultation and planning. Mitchell is hired as an analyst but soon also becomes the company’s top salesman. His fear, its seems, in contagious. He becomes a purveyor of terror, spinning yarns that include nanobot apocalypse, massive flooding, or global war. He is characterized as a dedicated rationalist, a man who lives by the numbers.

In the meantime, Mitchell begins corresponding with Elsa who has started an eco-commune in Maine despite a life-threatening heart condition that could take her life at any moment. Elsa is a romantic, an antidote to Mitchell’s cold rationalism. She is, according to Mitchell, a living, breathing, worst-case scenario waiting to happen. He even calculates her chances of death in the absence of sophisticated medical treatment. For some reason, however, he is unable verbalize his concerns. He can protect large companies against disaster, he laments, but not Elsa.

Then, one of the most severe droughts in New York City history becomes the nation’s worst flood in the wake of Hurricane Tammy. Much of the metropolitan area becomes submerged, and thousands perish. When the public discovers that FutureWorld’s clients have been sparred financial ruin because of Mitchell’s forecasts, however, he becomes an instant celebrity. Wealth and fame seem to be squarely in his future.

The Mitchell Zukor that emerges from the storm, however, is not the Mitchell Zukor that predicted it. Convinced that Elsa has been lost in the storm and subsequent riots, he decides to live in the Flatlands, a condemned area on the fringes of the city, where he pursues a dystopian version of Elsa’s dream of self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability. To his surprise, he later learns that Elsa is alive and has been accepted to Stanford with plans to become an environmental lawyer. In a chiasmic twist, she wishes to become a futurist.

I would like to say that Odds Against Tomorrow is a must read for anyone interested in environmental futures or catastrophe, but although the story is enjoyable, its insights into the problems posed by the future are ultimately anemic. While the protagonist is obsessed with the FutureWorld slogan, “What will the future cost you?” I believe that literature about the future, at least good literature, should help readers think in new ways about the question, “How am I to live with the future?”

However, the answers provided by Rich’s somewhat plausible narrative are quotidian. Throughout the novel, two solutions to the problem of the future are represented. One is Mitchell’s anxious and pessimistic statistical analysis, characterized as “rational,” in which the future is disaster. Things will get worse, and the numbers, it seems, do not lie. The second is Elsa’s romantic attempts to grow organic vegetables, harvest solar energy, and otherwise live off the grid. She has no fear but only because she seems to ignore her own worst-case scenario. At the end of the novel, Mitchell becomes a hermit that has lost his fear of large-scale disasters but seems to be terrified of social interaction.

Is there no room for calculated optimism? Are our only options an obsession with worst-case scenarios, ignorance, or fringe communalism? Aren’t there other, even better, confluences of thought and affect? Odds Against Tomorrow gives no suggestions for other ways of being in the face of the future as a frontier of knowledge.

In the end, the story represents a failure of the imagination (of the author, his characters, or society is unclear):

“It occurred to Mitchell that Herman was right. Tammy was worse than anyone could imagine. Like all major catastrophes, it surpassed the limits of imagination. And what was human imagination, after all, but the reconfiguration of past events? Tammy—like Seattle—was an innovative disaster. Its horrors were unprecedented. It created images that man had never seen before, but once seen, could never be unseen.” (Kindle location, 3251)

There is no doubt that catastrophes can be, have been, innovative in this sense. But must we wait for disaster? Is there no role for novelists and other artists here? Isn’t it the job of good fiction to expand our imaginative horizons beyond what has actually been experienced? If not, why fiction?

If not, what of the environmental humanities? Can we say something new, something better, about the converging horizons of art, imagination, and catastrophe?