Tim Llewellyn Photography
NEW YORK — Justin Cronin has spent a decade writing and publishing his bestselling “Passage” trilogy, which tells a sweeping story about a dystopian, near-future America overrun by vampires.
Today, the 60-year-old author is back with his first novel since finished series with “The City of Mirrors” in 2016. What is it about? A dystopia, of course. “The Ferryman” was released last week from Random penguin house.
“I didn’t sit down and think, ‘I’m going to write another dystopia,'” Cronin told CNBC in an interview Tuesday at a bustling restaurant in lower Manhattan.
“I was writing from a different place, and I didn’t spend a minute thinking about how it was different or similar to ‘The Passage,'” said Cronin, who teaches at Rice University in Houston. .
Aside from the fact that they’re both set in a bizarre future, there’s not much to connect “The Ferryman” to “The Passage.” The new book is largely set on a posh island called Prospera, which is the quaint, high-tech home of an elite upper class of white-collar workers.
It’s told primarily through the lens of 42-year-old lead character Proctor Bennett, who helps the island’s older residents “retire” – meaning their memories are erased and their bodies are renewed. on another, more mysterious island just off Prospera. . Soon, however, storm clouds are building, literally and figuratively, as Proctor realizes that maybe his leisure life isn’t what it’s supposed to be.
Think of it as Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to the 1970s sci-fi classic “Logan’s Run,” but for the era of metaverse, catastrophic climate change, and the celestial ambitions of billionaire space company bosses.
Cronin told CNBC how his concerns about the economy helped him realize his vision for “The Ferryman,” offered his thoughts on how the Covid pandemic has changed society, and explained how a remark from his father over dinner forged his obsession with disaster.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How is dystopia different today? Has Covid had an effect on how you see it?
One of the things we’ve learned from Covid is that a real crisis happens slower than the ones we like to imagine. It’s less dramatic. There is a lot of dead time. The imaginary pandemic that I created was a vast cloud of death descending upon planet Earth, where it is actually a slow, overwhelming, disheartening thing that unfolds over longer periods of time. There are moments of deep crisis, and then there is a lot of paperwork.
Metaphorically, this corresponds to how disaster has changed over my lifetime. … The global catastrophe I grew up with was something quick, all-encompassing, and total, and it took about 40 minutes. A global nuclear exchange of the kind I grew up thinking about as an adult was no longer an option. It’s not going to happen. There was a very specific arrangement, military and political, which no longer exists. What we have are these kinds of slow-motion disasters, and they’re just as devastating. But they’re also in some ways harder to defend because you can ignore them for a very, very long time.
The rich can afford to do better.
They have no reason to change. Anything that’s wrong in the world can be fixed. Climate change is solvable. We have all this technology. We can do it tomorrow. But there is no political will or political structure for this to happen due to the upward flow of capital to a very narrow band of people. I don’t mean to sound like a revolutionary on CNBC, but this is a story through history that never ended well. It never ends well.
In the novel, you have this island society of the affluent. And then you have, next door, crammed into substandard housing, with very low wages, four or five times the population, and some people have to drink wine and some people have to pour wine. There are many more than there are—the term has been lost—the leisure class. We no longer use this term. … This is the world we live in. It gets worse hour by hour.
People start thinking about things like universal basic income when you hear about AI taking on all those odd jobs and office chores.
It will not just be menial tasks. I am in a college English department. Everyone asks what we do about ChatGPT and student articles. I’m like, who cares? We have to think about what it will be like five or ten years from now, after spending a decade here interacting with the entire data structure of the human species. For example, I’m glad that my career as a novelist lasts maybe another 10 years. At some point, I will do something else. The writers are retiring! Because I think a huge amount of cultural content, from movies to novels, etc., will be produced quickly and inexpensively by artificial intelligence.
There is an inflection point in “The Ferryman”. Everything is about to change in this society, for these characters. What did you draw on to capture the paranoia, the anxiety of certain characters and the indifference of others?
I know people like all the characters in the book. I haven’t had any money for many years, to be perfectly clear. And so I’ve known and befriended and had a life populated by people from all corners of the economy. As a writer, you have to walk many different streets, in different ways, to know this stuff. What you learn to do is become a good observer of human behavior in general. If you look at a problem like the spasms of — your readers may hate the term — advanced capitalism, sooner or later you make the poor go broke and they can no longer buy what you sell.
What do you think would get us to the point where we seriously tackle climate change and other big issues?
I don’t know. One of the things is that we are changed by technology. Something happens and rewrites the rules. Even where the political will is absent, even where there are strong disincentives to change, things happen and things happen.
All rules have been rewritten for everything. You can’t even walk into a restaurant right now and read the menu without your phone. We’ve mandated these technologies into people’s lives to work, and it’s carving out new neural pathways. I look at my children and I know their brains work differently. This has been exacerbated by Covid, which has played directly into the hands of this change, making us this species of screen-goers.
I think all the problems we face now, we’re going to face more and more until something catastrophic happens. Except for the fact that I have no idea what the AI is going to do, and all bets are off. All bets are off.
With “The Ferryman”, it’s clear that the concept of a metaverse was in your head. Did the AI take your thinking into account when writing?
No, I wasn’t explicitly thinking about that. It’s a technology that’s relied on in the world of new, super-fast, super-smart computing. It is taken for granted that we have overcome this danger, but we have not exceeded climate change as a danger. Choose your disaster! It’s quite a long menu. I couldn’t write on all of them at the same time.
The book’s social concerns and the book’s more abstract cosmic concerns move in tandem. The anxieties that I have about what will happen in the next 20, 30 years, these are worries that I pass on to the next generation. And they will pass it on to their children, and so on. The celestial concerns of the book, of which there are many, I believe are just deep human issues that exist outside of any particular social discourse.
What do you think of the billionaire space race?
It was sort of a model for that. On the one hand, as a boy, I was promised – I was promised — that we would have already conquered space. Born in 1962, watched the moon landing on a black and white TV. We were going to be on Mars in the mid-70s. “Star Trek” was real. “2001: A Space Odyssey”, flight to Jupiter. It’s a big disappointment to me, personally, that we haven’t conquered outer space.
Is there a reason I should care? No. I do. But having said that, Elon Musk’s spaceship, this shiny ball of a spaceship, it’s the spaceship I was promised. The image of this spaceship, what it actually looks like, is on the cover of most sci-fi movies I read as a kid. It’s deeply exciting to me in a way that doesn’t make much sense.
We have other issues to deal with, to be perfectly honest. My wife is quick to point out what an empty testosterone festival it is. Do we really need to move to the Moon or Mars? I think it would be interesting if we did, and it would change our perception of ourselves a bit. But what about free school lunches?
What has thinking about the end of the world for most of the past decade made you think?
I did it longer than that. When I was a kid, I knew all about the Cold War and was an armchair expert on every weapon system. I had a copy of one of the fundamental documents, entitled “The Effects of Nuclear War”, which was prepared for [Congress]. I knew everything. I could tell you about each missile, how it works. …It was because I was absolutely convinced that it was going to happen. I am therefore the household catastrophist. When Covid hit I was like, we turn on the Justin Catastrophe Machine, let’s go. I was so general. Driven my wife crazy.
So it’s actually kind of a permanent state of affairs. I can still go for a walk on a stormy evening and play tennis with my friend and cycle on the weekends and swim in the sea and enjoy the company of my children. But there’s always a background buzz and there has been since I was a kid, ever since my dad said over dinner that he was pretty sure a nuclear weapon would go off in some American town in his alive, certainly, and would pass the butter. And I was probably in middle school when he said that. And it was my father. He knew everything. He drops this one, and thus a catastrophist is born.