September 4, 2020

Prophetic stories give us perspective on what we want our post-crisis world to look like.

A global pandemic, an unprecedented economic recession, persistent civil unrest, never-ending fires, chemical explosions. If you told me what 2020 would be like, a year ago, I would have thought you had plagiarised a far-fetched science fiction novel. Let’s not rule out an apocalypse just yet, shall we?

Throughout lockdown, many of us have turned to art to quench our thirst for engagement. Fiction has an interesting way of allowing us to reflect on our current situation, shifting our perspective and developing our sensitivity to people through characters. Films, too, not only entertain but also bring out a reflexivity we wouldn’t otherwise experience.

Severance by Ling Ma, a sardonic dystopian novel, has been lauded for its deconstruction of the thankless nature of work in a global capitalist system. Its plot is eerily familiar and awfully prescient. In this (not so) fictional world, a sickness called “Shen Fever” infects the global population surreptitiously. Originating in Shenzhen, the illness is spread through inhalation of microscopic spores and results in a mindless zombie-like existence. Much like us and our inability to take imminent threats seriously, the novel’s protagonist Candace doesn’t recognise doomsday as it approaches both in slow-motion and hyperspeed.

The novel doesn’t follow the traditional narrative arc; it time-shifts, lapsing in and out of the pre- (where life is punctuated by the capitalist mantra of productivity) and post-apocalypse (a primitive state of every woman for herself). In doing so, we can observe the glaring similarities to our own situation. The loneliness and mundaneness that have always formed the undertone of life in metropolitan societies are no different to those that accompany an apocalyptic disaster. As supply chains break down and companies begin to disintegrate, Candace, like the good worker she is, continues to send haranguing emails even after her manufacturer has closed the factory. Even when her colleagues start abandoning their desks, Candace still worries about whether her transfer to the Art department will go through. 

In the last few months, once the reality of lockdown became apparent, people scrambled to find ways to keep themselves occupied; from baking their first loaves of sourdough, to buying seeds to grow their own produce, to scrolling furiously on social media platforms for interesting content to sink their teeth into. Although many have had to adapt to telecommuting despite worries over job security, essential workers around the world toiled tirelessly to keep our basic needs afloat—further highlighting the prominent gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Ma explores the complexity of these divides along racial and class lines. Candace, as a second-generation Chinese immigrant raised in Utah, struggles with her desire for emancipation. And even though her anti-establishment boyfriend seeks freedom from the system, Candace attempts to achieve liberation through it. In Korean American writer Cathy Hong Park’s essay The Indebted, Park frames the immigrant experience as one of being persistently beholden—and Ma’s protagonist exemplifies that. She says, “If the indebted Asian immigrant thinks they owe their life to America, the child thinks they owe their livelihood to their parents for their suffering.” Candace is a representation of the ultimate neoliberal subject grasping at the promise of capitalism even when New York City, the metaphoric apex of the American dream, becomes deserted.

One of the last to leave the metropolis, Candace finally flees to the countryside where she joins a group of survivalists (reminiscent of the rag-tag group of characters in the movie Zombieland). Even though the end of the world is behind her (literally), she still finds herself submitting to the dogmatic authority of the group’s leader Bob—which is symbolic of how inescapable top-down power structures are. Severance, in its satirical tone, questions our commitment to the world as we know it. In particular, our beliefs in power and authority and the overly-specialised division of labour that we implicitly subscribe to.

The current pandemic also closely parallels the film Contagion by Steven Soderbergh, where the camera follows the rapid spread of a lethal virus named MEV-1 through the touch of a handrail, the passing of phones, the shaking of hands. As cities go into quarantine, outrage rises. Unlike Severance, which focuses on the personal experience of a public health crisis, Contagion underlines the process of handling the domino disasters that follow an outbreak, like the quashing of fake news, the dissemination of relief services, the tracking of cases and the setting up of makeshift hospitals. You witness officials hesitate to close shopping malls before the Thanksgiving weekend and discuss whether bioterrorism can be ruled out. As a viewer, it is all too familiar and frustrating because it’s like watching the news all over again where bureaucracy clouds the fight against the real issue. 

As Covid-19 cases around the world rose, different countries made regulatory decisions by weighing the importance of their citizens’ livelihoods against the preservation of the economy. Sweden decided to remain fully operational. The UK attempted to adopt a herd immunity approach, which was quickly dropped. South Korea and New Zealand continue to go in and out of lockdown, while Singapore moves towards Phase 3 of the circuit breaker. What Soderbergh has done with prophetic accuracy is to collate all the missteps that we’ve witnessed thus far—even ascribing the virus’ zoonotic jump to the increasing encroachment of human activity on natural habitats. It’s been nine years since the film was released, but its portrayal of an outbreak conveys an uncanny bleakness that many of us have undergone—or are currently experiencing.

The predictive power of these stories (told through different mediums) gives us the benefit of hindsight. They allow us to see ourselves from an alternative standpoint. The difference, however, is that our situation may not have an optimistic ending. Perhaps the world has always been this “chaotic”—it just depends on whether you are bearing the brunt of it. Whatever the case may be, we’re stuck in the middle of our own sci-fi thriller and can only hope that the writer will be merciful.