🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now
Courtesy Simon & Schuster
"This Is Uncomfortable" Newsletter

Naomi Alderman on predicting “The Future”

Alice Wilder and Tony Wagner May 3, 2024
Courtesy Simon & Schuster

My friends are sick of me recommending Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Future” to them. But I can’t help it, because every other week there’s another news story that feels straight out of the bestselling British author’s brain.

“The Future” is about our tech oligarchs, yes, but it’s really about the power held by the people those billionaires take for granted: assistants, estranged wives, children, former co-workers. The book opens with the apocalypse, but the story is twistier and more optimistic than I expected it to be.

When we started planning the Uncomfortable Book Club — curated reading recs and author interviews, every other week through the summer — Alderman was the first writer I thought of. After our team devoured “The Future,” I called her up to talk about billionaires’ personal assistants, prepper problems and what gives her hope. Find edited excerpts of that conversation below.

TIU: Can you give us a quick summary of the book for people who haven’t read it?

Naomi Alderman: “The Future” is a novel about technology billionaires. It begins as three technology billionaires get a warning from their predictive software to say the apocalypse, the end of the world, is coming, and they have to get into their planes and go to their bunkers. And it follows what happens after that, alongside a story about some people who are sort of minions, who work underneath those billionaires, who maybe disagree with what they’re up to — trying to undermine them. So, how those things collide, who can say?

TIU: Did you go down any interesting rabbit holes researching billionaires and how they spend their money?

Alderman: It is true that I do love research. In this book, I specifically did not research the biographies of actual technology billionaires in our world. I thought if I do that, then I am going to be tempted to put in real things, and then I will open myself up to being sued by the richest people in the world.

TIU: That’s smart.

Alderman: Yeah, thanks. I did talk to some minions, people who work with technology billionaires. I got really interested in the question of who are the personal assistants to these billionaires because they’re all women. You very occasionally see them in the background of a photo, carrying a diaper bag or whatever it might be, bringing along the snacks.

Who are they? What are they doing there? I’ve never read an interview with anybody. So I had to go around it digging. I have worked in technology for 15 years now, so I know some people, and somebody said to me, “You know, a lot of these women grew up in cults.” And at that point I thought, OK, then I can write that character. Yes, no problem. I grew up fundamentalist. I can do that.

TIU: You said in the past that for billionaires, building a bunker and disappearing doesn’t work, and I’m wondering why you think that is.

Alderman: I mean, it depends what you mean by “work,” right? If what they mostly want to do is make sure that they survive, maybe that does work. If what they want to do is to survive and live in a world worth living in, then I don’t think it works. If your whole civilization is wiped out and you’re the last remainder of it, I don’t think that’s a fun time. I don’t think that’s a good time for anybody. Particularly if you were, for example, a billionaire who had the resources to really make a difference, and what you actually did with it was spend it all on your own nice lifestyle, on your own vanity projects and your own bunker. I don’t think that you’re going to be able to then create a beautiful human culture afterwards. I think you probably do need the rest of us.

TIU: What do you make of prepper culture for everyday people?

Alderman: To a certain extent, I think it’s a fantasy. It’s not that I don’t agree with the fantasy, and goodness knows before Brexit, we didn’t know what was going to happen. I sure did stock up on canned goods just in case, and then I was very pleased I had those at the start of the pandemic. So from that perspective, having some more resilience in life than we are maybe encouraged to do — by just-in-time deliveries and on-demand capitalism — seems extremely sensible.

The idea that you can survive by yourself without a community, I think that’s not how people work for the most part. I dunno, there’s that great episode of “The Last of Us.” You need someone else to survive for, otherwise what is the point? And hopefully you need a whole community. I mean, I think a group of, let’s say 300 preppers could probably do pretty well. I think a single person with a bunch of guns, that’s the fantasy of a zombie movie. Sorry, that’s an American fantasy of rugged individualism. 

The cover of "The Future"
Courtesy: Simon & Schuster

TIU: You’re allowed to say that.

Alderman: I mean, you know, that’s the kind of “How the West Was Won” fantasy, and I understand it culturally, I think it’s interesting. But fundamentally, you won’t get very far if you slide down a ravine and break your ankle. We do need quite a lot of other people around us, that’s how humans evolved — we evolved in small groups. So somewhere between 100 and 300 people I think you can do very well. Just you? No.

TIU: So the billionaires and the regular people ultimately have the same problem.

Alderman: Right, we’re a social species.

TIU: We’ll just tease for people that this book has a twist, and it’s surprisingly hopeful. Personally, what is giving you hope right now?

Alderman: I mean, there are many reasons to despair, and there always have been. A reason to hope, which I think is quite a good reason, underdiscussed, is that we have just done something recently as a species that I believe no other species in the history of this planet has ever done: We managed to basically act collectively to tackle a threat to us as a species, right?

In COVID, not everybody stayed home. But overall — across the great picture of the Homo sapiens on the planet Earth — we did enough that we slowed the progress of a deadly disease, to cope with it and for fewer people to die. I think that’s really amazing news about our capacity to act collectively, about our capacity to think collectively. 

I think it would not and could not have happened that way before the internet. No. 1, we wouldn’t have been able to see what was happening. Once you can see videos of people, livestreams, it all becomes much more real. No. 2, we wouldn’t have been able to keep up in the same way with what was happening in other countries. No. 3, the science communication between the people working on a vaccine would not have happened in the swift and rapid way that it did. No. 4, I think we all would have gone out of our minds for the amount that we had to sit indoors.

The fact that we managed to do it for the most part is down to global infrastructure, down to the existence of the internet, technology helping us to talk to each other, keep each other’s spirits up, have a basically fairly all right time and to be able to see the progress. So I find that hopeful. I think we are going to have to learn how to do that more. I think we’re facing some real existential threats right now. And unfortunately, we’re also living through a time where we love to turn all those things into culture wars. It made me hopeful that in the end, we can act in our own self-interest and that enough of us will be interested in doing that, that we can make up for the rest of them.

TIU: This is a good pep talk! 

Alderman: I’m going to give you a Jewish saying: “It’s not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.” Which is to say: You do what you can. The measure of your life is not in the outcomes, but in the work that you put in, the sincere effort that you put in. 

We can’t expect these problems to be sorted out in our lifetimes. We put our shoulders to the wheel, and we try to move it forward a little bit. And you can also rest because there are others of us who are going to take it on whilst you’re having a rest. It’s not up to you to finish it. That doesn’t mean that you can just sit around despairing. I think despair is kind of the easy way out.

Our next Uncomfortable Book Club pick!

In two weeks, we’ll talk with financial expert Paco de Leon about her book “Finance For The People.” It’s a fun, empowering, illustrated guide to getting a grip on your finances. You can pick it up wherever books are sold, or read two chapters free here.

The Comfort Zone

What our team is into this week.

This newsletter was written by Alice Wilder and Tony Wagner and edited by Virginia K. Smith and Zoë Saunders. 

Correction (May 7, 2024): A previous version of this story misstated the buy now, pay later company offering a new credit card. 

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.