Shelf Life

Life imitates art in natural disaster and financial crisis

Kai Ryssdal Apr 9, 2013
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Shelf Life

Life imitates art in natural disaster and financial crisis

Kai Ryssdal Apr 9, 2013
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Imagine a scenario where a giant storm hits New York City. Manhattan gets flooded–low-lying areas are wiped out. Power goes out, people are homeless for months on end.

Superstorm Sandy, right?

Now add a twist–a futures forecasting firm that makes a bunch of money predicting that exact disaster —  and you’ve got Nathaniel Rich‘s new novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

The book is, in many ways, about fear. “I think it’s about living in a culture in which we’re constantly terrified by one piece of news or another,” says Rich. “Whether or not you’re looking for it, it’s in your Twitter feed and Facebook and in your email.”

Mitchell Zukor, the book’s protagonist, finds he has a knack for predicting disaster, “he’s discovered a niche market in high stakes fear, essentially. He’s selling a form of catastrophe insurance.” Sounds a little like the high stakes trades that have landed Wall Street in hot water on Main Street?

Rich says the idea for the book came long before the financial crisis of 2007 and Sandy last autumn. “It’s short term, cynical thinking that’s pretty common in high finance. He’s profiting from disaster but personally, he’s horrified because he’s really afraid of all this stuff he’s finding in his research.”

The book touches on disasters in climate change, environmental damage, nuclear war, and terrorism. “I feel like we’re past the point of dystopian novels that carry with them a warning, saying, ‘if we don’t get our act together, this is what we’re going to inherit, this horrible future’,” says Rich. “I feel like we’re in that future already.” Rich says the next step is to “understand how we can live in this new reality we’ve created so the end of the novel I think has some ambivalence. There’s some hope but there’s some real dread.”

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