Ling Ma’s 2018 Severance is a standalone post-apocalyptic novel.
Born in China, raised by her immigrant parents in the USA, Candice Chen found a rewarding tolerable niche for herself as an office drone at Specta, packaging expensive bibles for the religious book market. It’s an empty, meaningless life, but then, Candice is no worse off than most workers.
Cue the zombie apocalypse.
Shen fever is a fungal infection that has profound effects on human cognitive functions. Victims are reduced to robotically repeating mundane actions over and over for as long as it takes them to die of the infection. On the plus side, infectees do not seem to be in distress and they do not present a physical danger to those around them; they are neither directly infectious nor inclined to the usual zombie bloodlust. On the minus side, Shen fever is invariably fatal.
While human to human infection is unknown, human trade routes allow the fungal spores to spread out of China and across the world. As the vectors of the infection become better understood, nations close their ports. Too late, in most cases. By the time the authorities take action, the fever is pandemic. All that is left is to see if how many will die.
On the one hand (where this hand represents billions of people) this is a terrible tragedy. On the other hand (where this is ONE PERSON) it presents Candice with a great opportunity. Most Spectra staff flee the city. The bosses don’t want to leave the office unattended. They ask Candice to be the caretaker. She is to monitor the phones (nobody will call) and deal with professional correspondence (irrelevant in the current state of things). BUT … if she doesn’t die, she will be given a munificent bonus (if the company still exists and currency is still worth anything). The offer is too good to turn down.
New York’s population dwindles as some flee and others die. Only paid holdouts like Candice remain, maintaining the city on behalf of masters too prudent to remain there themselves. Documenting the city as it empties out gives Candace a measure of fame that her previous job would never have granted. Eventually, however, she decides the time has come to flee New York.
She signs on with IT maven Bob, who promises to lead his followers to the fabled Facility, where security and safety awaits all who survive the trek across the US (or so he says). But if Bob knew Candace’s secret, his purpose in recruiting her would be very different.
Fictional plagues always seem to be far more effective at killing people than actual virgin-field plagues. They kill a much higher fraction of the population and they do so much faster than an actual disease would. I suppose it’s more dramatic that way.
(Perhaps I’m an outlier, but I would prefer to read a novel that imagined the repercussions of, say, just a third of the population dying over the course of a few years. The Black Death was lethal enough to transform Europe.)
Ma manages to make horrible events (the death of billions, the collapse of civilization, the possible end of humanity) even worse by sending Candace on a trek with Bob. His grand plan for survival turns out to be lifted from a movie, a movie in which that strategy abjectly failed. We don’t learn too much about Bob, except that he’s white, male, rich, and loves to explain stuff to people regardless of whether or not they need or want stuff explained to them. I suspect that he’s read “The Cold Equations.”
I don’t think this was marketed as a zombie apocalypse novel but that is what it is. It happens to be about the sort of zombies who only hurt themselves, who are compelled to repeat meaningless rituals for as long as it takes the unfortunates to die. Some of these zombies have Shen fever.
The novel is a convincing take on the immigrant experience. It’s also convincing as an exploration of modern lives in which people are paid to repeat meaningless rituals … or are infected and repeat meaningless rituals. What’s the difference? asks the author.
Severance is a wryly bleak novel. Not a comfort read, but a good-to-ponder read. Recommended for readers who like to ponder.