Candace Chen, daughter of Chinese immigrants, lives in New York City and works for a book publisher (Bibles are her specialty). Photography is her hobby so, in her spare time, she takes photos of people and places in the city and posts them to her blog.
Candace is one of the last people in Manhattan after a viral epidemic rages across the globe, turning most of the world’s population into mindless automatons who get stuck doing some little rote routine until they starve. She joins up with a small group of survivors who are being led by an authoritarian guy named Bob to some place he calls “The Facility” where they can start a new civilization. As the group travels to The Facility, Candace tells us her story, weaving in a series of near-past and far-past flashbacks.
In Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), which is up for a Locus Award for Best First Novel this year, there is definitely a zombie apocalypse going on, but these are not the zombies you’re looking for. The zombies, whose presence is the only reason that Severance can be considered a speculative fiction novel, are not dangerous. They’re a metaphor. Severance is really about how Millennials fit into our world, about rampant consumerism and status symbols, about the culture of big cities, about the immigrant experience, and about memory and nostalgia.
Severance is beautifully written with prose that flows and is a pleasure to read. Candace’s perspective, as a daughter of Chinese immigrants who hasn’t quite found her place in the world, is refreshing and sympathetic. Her lack of bonds with other people and her ambivalence toward her work (though she’s good at it) make her feel disconnected and a bit cold, but I liked listening to her. Though humanity seems to be coming to an end, and though Candace tends to be cynical, there is a feeling of triumph and hope at the end.
Severance reminded me of Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, a book that I loved. Severance isn’t up to that standard, but I think Ling Ma is on that kind of trajectory. This is her first novel. I look forward to reading the next one.
The audiobook version of Severance, which is 10 hours long, is produced by Macmillan Audio and read by the wonderful and perfectly-cast Nancy Wu.
Ooh, these might be the zombies I’m looking for after all!