A Future Atlas of Dystopia

21 October 2020
A Future Atlas of Dystopia - Featured image

This article from the Spring 2020 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Director of Policy, Gideon Rozner.

I had heard anti-woke novelist Lionel Shriver interviewed many times, but never read any of her stuff until a book of hers that had been recommended to me finally made its way to the top of my ‘iso’ reading pile. Once it did, I found the novel so compelling, so hauntingly apt to current world events, that at times I had trouble distinguishing it from reality. I can’t believe it was published four years ago!

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 Lionel Shriver

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
Lionel Shriver
Harper, 2016, pp416

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is getting better with age and could be the most important novel of the 21st century. It is the Atlas Shrugged of our times, in terms of its plot and underlying message. Everyone with the faintest interest in public policy and the future of the free world must read it.

Shriver is one of the few authors whose work is not contaminated by tired ‘woke’ themes.

As the title suggests, the novel is a near-future dystopian tale that follows the extended Mandible family through the chaos that ensues when the United States government defaults on its gargantuan debt and the US dollar is ditched in favour of a new supranational reserve currency called the bancor—from which the United States is excluded.

The US dollar plummets in value and savings are wiped out by runaway inflation. Treasury bonds are rendered void pursuant to what President Dante Alvarado bills a great ‘debt reset’. All gold—up to and including wedding rings—is confiscated, and no more than $100 can be taken out of the country. And so, as the United States descends into a crude and desperate neo-mercantilism, the Mandible fortune is erased. The extended Mandible family—spanning four generations—ends up sharing a cramped townhouse in East Flastbrush Brooklyn, which is by that time a smoking ruin rife with poverty, crime and third-world dysfunction. And even then, the entire family is eventually rendered homeless when a rival family evicts them at gunpoint.

But the genius of The Mandibles is not in these sweeping, dramatic predictions, but rather the eerie realism with which they’re illustrated. Chaotic world events are seamlessly woven into the plot via news bulletins and casual dialogue, peppering a story arc in which the constituent families in the Mandible clan go from the comfortable upper-middle class to desperately impoverished. Jobs are lost. Cash-strapped elderly relatives are thrown out of nursing homes. Trips to the supermarket become painful ordeals in which the most basic of goods are both scarce and absurdly expensive. The children resort to scavenging and stealing, with the exception of 19-year-old Savannah who turns to prostitution. As one character says, the main problem with this is that she has ‘too much competition’.

Shriver is one of the few authors whose work is not contaminated by tired ‘woke’ themes. As a result, the novel gives us a refreshingly sympathetic and nuanced take on an ensemble of characters with substantial family wealth.

There is no ‘riches to rags’ triumphalism that one would sadly expect from today’s literary monoculture. The downfall of the Mandible family is rich, complex and deeply human.

The parallels with Atlas Shrugged are particularly strong here. Where most contemporary novels in this vein revert to a simplistic message about ‘human greed’, Shriver puts forward a sophisticated discussion about wealth and money: What it is, what it means, and most importantly, what happens in the absence of it. The savagery of people who have nothing, and the brutality of societal collapse is a long overdue counterargument to the fashionable millennial socialism that runs rampant among today’s cultural elite.

The novel is an important allegory about individual freedom versus state coercion.

But The Mandibles is more than a mere cautionary tale. It is a literary takedown of the misguided ‘progressive economics’ that has become frighteningly mainstream. Monetary policy is a particular interest for Shriver, who manages to weave an abundance of insightful commentary into the novel’s 400-odd pages. There is genuine tension in the hum of economic debate that permeates the story, with dinner party scenes in which well-heeled economists bicker over the inflation rate as the Fed’s printing presses are kicked into gear. That Shriver is able to make such an abstract area of academic interest into something so immediate and compelling is perhaps The Mandibles’ greatest achievement.

Inevitably, The Mandibles becomes an important allegory about individual freedom versus state coercion. The novel is more or less ambivalent towards the US government at the beginning, but by the end is rife with a ‘banality of evil’ vibe.

Following their forcible eviction, the Mandible family make a perilous journey upstate to a farm belonging to relative Jared, a free spirited environmentalist turned ‘libertarian gun nut’ who bought the property years earlier in order to get ‘off the grid’. Fittingly, he turns out to be the most prescient character in the entire book.

But of course, the farm is eventually nationalised, and the surviving Mandibles (several die from old age, suicide or strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which put an end to practices such as shaking hands – Shriver even predicted ‘social distancing’!) are cast out into an America that is stable but basically uninhabitable.

The US has waved the white flag and pegged its currency to the bancor. ‘Dependents’ now outnumber workers by a ratio of two to one, and an income tax rate of 77 per cent funds the gargantuan social security system. Cash is abolished and microchips are implanted beneath the skin to monitor transactions. And the entire monstrous apparatus is overseen by the new ‘Social Contribution Assistance Bureau’, or ‘SCAB’, which terrorises the population via a souped-up surveillance state.

But in the end there is redemption, and the novel’s various thematic strands come together in as good a clarion call for freedom as any literary work in my lifetime. And again I make the point, The Mandibles is important, not because of its outlandish and terrifying vision of the future, but because Shriver’s storytelling and self-evident research leaves the reader absolutely certain that it could, on history’s current trajectory, come to pass.

Let us hope that enough of the governing elite read this book to keep it firmly in history’s fiction pile.

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