Book review: The Mandibles

Collapse fiction is its own micro-genre, drawing usually from some mix of narrative-wrapped prepper how-to manuals, science fiction, military fiction, and ideological screed. Some of it is quite good, some of it is not.

In most of them, there is some token prologue to establish Normal; halfway through Act I there is a MacGuffin, and Consequences follow. The point of the MacGuffin is to wipe the slate clean (to the degree the author wants), and unleash the fantasy element – given the right circumstances, the protagonist (depending, usually an Everyman becoming a Hero or a pre-existing Hero becoming Awesome) will unleash their katana / grab their guns / use their science knowledge / etc. to restore some veneer of civilization.

The Mandibles is the best in this genre, if it even really qualifies, because there is almost none of this. Collapse in the real world is almost never “collapse”, in the sense of a building dramatically imploding. It’s the day-to-day deterioration unfixed, the sagging floor that isn’t strictly speaking safe, but probably won’t fall through this month, the electricity being out for a couple hours a day, then a couple days a week, and so on. It’s a system unable to maintain itself, and self-cannibalizing, walking-wounded rapidly transforming into a dead man walking for lack of care. GraphTwitter explores this regularly.

In The Mandibles, things start out bad, ish, but okay. The market is doing pretty well, actually, and the ancient head of the titular family is loaded enough as the heir to a manufacturing fortune that he forms a safety net for the rest of the multigenerational clan (one of the low key humor elements is the fact that the Boomers are all still around, dominating politics and driving much of the story into their 90s). A massive cyberattack 5 years before (the novel starts in 2029) is still having hangover effects on the real economy, sometimes the water supply in Manhattan is out, and expensive regardless, after one of the mains was destroyed, and politics essentially no longer a concern after it hit stasis when the country finally went perma-blue from enough Latino immigration. America is in genteel decline, domestically and abroad.

But nothing bad lasts forever – sometimes it gets terrible. There is a MacGuffin, that serves not so much to throw the protagonists into a different world as compress a series of trends fully foreseeable. The rest of the world, essentially in concert, divests itself from the dollar as a reserve currency and forms a new multilateral arrangement – the Bancor. The US repudiates its debts in response, both foreign and domestic, and essentially boycotts the Bancor, making trade onerous and extremely limited.

The interesting part isn’t the specific economic fallout, which is adroitly woven into the book in such a way that it avoids long economic infodumps. The Mandibles are an extended family, and the book revolves around how this affects them, and how they deal with each other and their new circumstances. What do you do when your dad loses almost all of his net worth, and gets evicted from his assisted living facility? He moves in. What do you do when your brother in law loses his professorship (“But I had tenure!”) and can no longer cover his mortgage payments, or rent a new place due to lack of assets or income? He sells his house for whatever he can get, and moves in.

Of course, he’s going to have to chip in to the budget with whatever equity he got from the house – water isn’t free, it isn’t even cheap, and food has gotten oddly expensive. But the bastard is drinking a bottle of wine a day, nice wine, which has gotten really expensive, and what the hell are you going to do when he simply runs out of money? His problems become your problems. Gradually, everyone who cares about each other becomes each others’ problems, as resources shrink or are inflated away.

The character who most readers will identify with is the teen autiste, Willing, who more or less sees the direction things are heading and does his best to help the family, at increasing cost to his own ethics, such as they are, as time goes on, and as more people are added to the already strained household. I will not spoil the result, or what happens when the story jumps ahead in the final section, but just because you survive doesn’t mean you win, and just because you escape a dystopia doesn’t mean you’re in an utopia.

All of the interesting parts of The Mandibles happen as things get worse and worse (actually, things get worse throughout almost the entire novel), but this is not a book comprised entirely of downers. The will to survive permeates the novel, and there is a somewhat hopeful if not triumphal ending. The Mandibles’ best aspect is that it keeps raising scenarios that force the reader to confront how collapse actually works, as opposed to how it usually functions due to the requirements of a bog standard narrative. It’s also written by an author of pedigree who does not cause raised eyebrows when you mention or recommend her. It’s a great way to introduce these ideas to literary-minded friends that still maintain mostly conventional views of progress.

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