Naomi Alderman

The novelist, gamer and Bailey Women’s Prize winner discusses tech billionaires, apocalypse bunkers, her fans Obama and Gates, and her new book The Future with Helen Brown

Naomi Alderman is a Big Picture novelist. Her witty, multiple-perspective narratives explore ideas of power, gender, economics, technology and religion on a planetary scale that reaches back to the dawn of civilisation and beyond our current life spans.

“Not that surprising, really,” she tells me, “when you think I was raised as an Orthodox Jew, encouraged to think of myself as the possessor of a tradition direct from the Bronze Age. Then I spent twenty years working in technology, which is always asking you to look to the future. To the next generation console, and the next and the next…”

The 48-year-old Londoner is best known for her Baileys Women’s Prize-winning fourth novel, The Power (2016) in which she has fierce fun creating a world in which women are the physically stronger sex. The story – recently adapted into a nine-part television series for Amazon Prime – sees women and girls develop the ability to emit electric shocks from their hands. Expressing Alderman’s (surely sensible) belief that there’s no moral difference between the sexes, the women in her book use their new dominance to start wars and create cults, leaving future men to speculate that a world run by males would be kinder and gentler.

The Power was named as a book of the year by both Barack Obama and Bill Gates. “And when Bill Gates did that,” says Alderman, “I thought: right. If those people are reading it, I need to write a book that is for and about tech billionaires. I mean, Bill Gates seems alright, doesn’t he. And Warren Buffet has also tried to do some good. But the current generation don’t seem to be using their power for much more than shooting penis-shaped rockets into outer space and spunking money on virtual reality. I mean, the less said about Elon Musk the better, right? But maybe Bill Gates will hand him a copy of my new book…”

The book Alderman would like Musk to read is called The Future. It describes a world in which the cabal of eccentrically named tech billionaires who’ve caused a global apocalypse are fleeing to their bunkers based on advance knowledge of the event which will kill most of the rest of us. Speaking via a patchy mobile phone connection (which makes Alderman sound a little like a woman en route to her own bunker) she tells me the book was inspired by a 2016 New York Times article in which she read that the super-rich are, indeed, building survival bunkers.

“It made complete sense,” she says. “I thought: of course they are. They’re thinking: fuck them [meaning us]. But instantly I could see how this was going to backfire on them…”.

Alderman is right. In his 2022 book, Survival of the Richest, Douglas Rushkoff describes being invited to a bizarre meeting with billionaires in the middle of the desert at which his paying clients asked him how they would best keep their security guards loyal in a world where currencies had lost all meaning.

“The current generation don’t seem to be using their power for much more than shooting penis-shaped rockets into outer space and spunking money on virtual reality”

He warned us that these people who “once showered the world with madly optimistic business plans for how technology might benefit human society” have now “reduced technological progress to a video game that one of them wins by finding the escape hatch… They’re preparing for a digital future that had less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether. Their extreme wealth and privilege served only to make them obsessed with insulating themselves from the very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is about only one thing: escape from the rest of us.”

Elderman’s latest book is set in a world in which a cabal of eccentrically named tech billionaires cause an apocalype. PHOTO: ANNABEL MOELLER

Alderman has probably spent more time than most thinking about the end of the world. For over a decade she’s been making an app called “Zombies, Run!” It became the highest grossing Health & Fitness app on the Apple App store within two weeks of its initial release in 2012 and has remained in the top twenty apps ever since. It’s designed to encourage us to exercise by giving us survivalist tales in which we’re fleeing brain munchers. “You go out running – or walking – to get supplies,” explains Alderman. “We’ll give you stories through your headphones to encourage you to go further, to make exercise less boring.”

When I ask if she’s game-ifying fitness, Alderman corrects me. “I would say that we’re narrativising it. Game-ifying would suggest we’re giving points and badges, encouraging users to keep up a streak. That appeals to quite a low level of motivation.” The novelist believes that “Sticker charts are for thick people,” and tells me she hates being given targets. “I set my steps to the lowest possible count,” she laughs, “because I don’t want to be enrolled in a head-patting regime. I’m not interested in Apple telling me I’ve done a good job today… that approach is dehumanising and demeaning.” She’d argue that “complex human brains” are not easily programmed this way.

But, travelling the world with fellow feminist big thinker, Margaret Atwood, helped Alderman see that the natural world was even more complex than the human brain. “She took me to see many of the wonderful wild places of the world and it made me realise how denuded of nature the UK is,” she tells me. “Did you know, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world???!” Her exasperation reduces her crisp articulacy to splutters: “It’s… Pfft!”

Atwood – a writer with whom Alderman believes she “shares a sensibility” – invited Alderman to join her on a trip to the Arctic. “‘It will change you, Naomi,’ she said. I said: ‘Maybe I don’t want to be changed, Margaret’. But I did go and she was right. It did change me. When you see a proper, pristine whiteness you come to understand that all the environments you’ve lived in have been shaped by, and for, humans. And I think that makes us terribly anxious all the time.”

Living in an urban landscape makes us feel like the stressed recipients of gifts we never wanted, Alderman tells me. It’s an environment created for our convenience, where we have to learn to read the symbolic language, we’re under pressure, feeling obligated and decoding all the time. “Coming back into the city from the wilderness you realise that the city is a symbolic world, it’s not real. We’ve made ourselves mad,” she says. “We human beings have a limited amount of complexity we can understand. So on some level we’re trying to make the natural world less complicated so that we can fit it into our tiny brains. Rather than allowing ourselves to experience the awe and wonder of complex systems that interact in ways we’ll never fully understand, we’ve decided the best thing we can do is to burn it down”.

“But,” she continues, “a wilderness that doesn’t care about you is actually quite wonderful, restful. It just is. You just are. There is no good, no bad. After a while in the Arctic I came to think: maybe I am neither good, nor bad either. I’m just an efflorescence of this planet, just like an apple growing from an apple tree. I exist prior to any judgement. That is intensely restful.”

On her return from the Artic, Alderman thought about the tech billionaires who are creating the symbols, killing the planet and seeking the safest places on it to shelter from the storm they’re causing. “These people,” she tells me, “have created really useful bags to contain all the information they harvested from all the millions of people using search engines, social media, online transcription services… Just because they made the bag doesn’t mean they own the contents which were put there by all of us. They need to acknowledge that the information comes from everyone and ensure that everyone gets a good chunk of it back. Feeding the hungry and housing the homeless would be a good place to start.”

While I’m glad that the diversity of data mining means we’ll be seeing a world which is designed for all (in contrast to the time when our world was mostly designed by white men who didn’t, for example, consider how a seatbelt might save a woman, or how a CCTV camera might differentiate between black people), Alderman is right that a small group of powerful tech execs shouldn’t be able to scoop up the profits of all human wisdom.

She tells me that “one of the secret thoughts” behind The Future is that it’s a reverse version of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. “That’s a book in which a few wealthy people disappear and the world goes to pot,” she says. “But I’m like: Noooooo! It might actually be quite a lot better without them!” She chuckles. “What I fundamentally believe about power is that nobody’s personality is strong enough to sustain having an enormous amount of it. I think we would all be driven mad by it. So it’s important to ensure that huge amounts of power are not concentrated on any one person.”

Alderman is hopeful that the online world tech billionaires have created will allow us to mobilise against them

The tech kings are certainly humbled in The Future. Alderman is hopeful that the online world they’ve created will allow us to mobilise against them. She tells me she believes that: “maybe we can get there, through technology and conversation, before we wipe out biodiversity on the planet,” We hear a lot about climate crisis and that is bad. But I am more concerned about habitat loss and species loss. There are going to be ways to help systems and animals who are going to struggle when things get hotter. But we won’t be able to get species back when we’ve lost them.”

Given her Jewish upbringing and her interest in world events, I can’t let Alderman go without asking her to comment on the war in Gaza. I can feel her slump, even over the phone. “Netanyahu is not a force for good,” she says. “The people he’s put into his government are the people I left Orthodox Judaism to get away from. I have a particular, suffocating horror of them.”

While, like most of us, she has “no answers”, Alderman feels that “given that the situation in the Middle East was mucked up by the British and indeed, massively exacerbated by the very necessary influx of Jewish people after the Holocaust (during which Europe failed to prevent the massacre of its Jewish citizens) I think probably Britain and Europe could stop taking sides and start taking responsibility. If Britain and America (which also failed to admit Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany) said: “This is our problem too. We hugely contributed to this and we are going to generously offer anything we can, including passports, to anyone who wants to get out today,” then some of the temperature would be taken down. It’s not a full solution but… things might be better.”

As a big thinker, Alderman signs off by suggesting I read The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021). It reminds readers that societies have been formed in many structures other than the autocratic European model she believes originated with the Roman Empire. “It’s a book that shows you all the many functional ways in which indigenous societies organised themselves. There were so many diverse structures – where some leaders had to dress as clowns and others had a summer king and a winter king in which the summer king was good at harvesting the berries and the winter king was good at killing bison, or whatever.”

Civilisations which meet their citizens’ immediate needs that way are a far cry from the one in Alderman’s dazzling book. In The Future, her characters are forced to think in abstracts in which what they call The Future is “not really the future per se, it is composed of more than 1700 individual short bet stock positions. It was a bet like a prophecy, based on knowing exactly what would happen.” But it’s a book in which the best laid individual plans fall foul of the collective need for mutual survival.

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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Arts & Culture, November 2023

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