Can ‘The Mandibles’ Change Our Mind About the Future?

A wonderful novel that offers a bleak picture of American life in 2029.

July 26, 2016

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

by Lionel Shriver

Published in June of 2016.

Admit it.  You like books (and articles, blog posts, and tweets) that support your worldview.  So do I.  We all do.  This is called confirmation bias.  We are all guilty.

What do we do then when we read a book that is brilliant, lyrical, and thoroughly convincing - but that also repudiates many of your most deeply held beliefs?

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is just such a book.

I am deeply optimistic about the future of the U.S.  If I believe anything, I believe that our future will be one of greater economic prosperity and of social advancement.

We can argue all day about our future prosperity, stagnation, or doom - and I welcome that argument - but referencing a few other books may be a conversational shortcut. 

Did you love Matt Ridley’s 2011 book The Rational Optimist as much I did?   

Are you a fan of Diamandis’ 2014 Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think?  

Did you enjoy reading Alec Ross’ The Industries of the Future?

So that you know I do take seriously the counter-arguments to future prosperity, Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (which just came out on audio) on my “must read” list.  And I read (and liked) Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation - even if I disagree with many of his conclusions.

The Mandibles certainly rises to the top of a literary genre that I think of as collapse lit.  Any fan of The Water Knife (the current great read in Bryan Alexander’s Near-Future Science Fiction book club) will love, love, love The Mandibles.  So will devotees of The Road, Station Eleven, The Bone Clocks, One Second After, and California.  (What other collapse lit books am I missing?)

Lionel Shriver is the real deal.  The Mandibles is a collapse book written by a fabulous writer.  This is a novel of such quality character development, plotting, pacing, and language economy that I would even recommend to serious novel readers who are generally disinterested in future economic collapse.

The book tells the story of U.S. economic collapse through the experiences of the extended Mandible family.  Most of the action takes place in Brooklyn, but my favorite parts of the book detail what happens to the lives of a Georgetown University professor when the larger economy implodes.  Not only a professor - but a classical Keynesian economist (the strand of economic thought that I’m most sympathetic).  In a nice touch, the Fed chairman who presides over the collapse is named Krugman.

I’m not sure if Shriver hold the beliefs of her characters and plot - if she really believes that classic liberal thinking and the welfare state will ultimately doom society - but that does not matter.  Shriver may be a gold bug or not - but she uses a set of ideas (including the flat tax) to paint a realistic (and scary) view of the the future that is grounded in sound (if I think wrong headed) economic thinking.

The Mandibles may be the best case that I’ve read in years for extremist economic thinking.  And at the extremes, right and and left wing thinking does seem to converge at collapse.  The fact that a great piece of art can be built around a vision at odds with mainstream (moderate) thinking - the dominant thinking of both Shriver’s characters and I bet the people most likely to buy and read The Mandibles (such as myself) - makes the book that much better.

It is healthy to have our views challenged - and reading fiction may be the best mechanism we have to think about what we think.

What are you reading?

Oh…and I want to lobby for The Mandibles to be the second book in the Near-Future Science Fiction book club that Bryan Alexander is convening.  What do folks think about that idea?



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