Severance by Ling Ma
Published by Picador USA on August 14th, 2018
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction
“A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder. You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pick up this book because of the millennial pink book cover. And me judging a book by its cover ended up paying off!
Severance tells the story of Candace Chen, a woman who is a slave to her routine. She describes herself as a millennial worker drone. Her life has undergone several changes recently: her parents died and she’s no longer with her boyfriend. But yet, she’s happy to just carry on. She wakes up and goes to work. She barely even notices when Shen Fever spreads through New York, a plague that turns people into mindless drones. As New York empties and she’s left alone, she starts to photograph the eerie and abandoned city.
Just as Candace realizes she won’t be able to survive on her own, she meets a group of survivors who are led by a power-hungry leader named Bob. He promises them that he can keep them safe and they can rebuild society in a place called the Facility. But is that the truth?
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this book. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel. And this one was a satire to boot! Even though it has a bleak premise, the book was laugh out loud funny at several parts. You couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of Candace valuing professional success and capitalism above all else. And it’s to the point where she’s clinging to those ideals when the world around her is literally ending.
Alternating between flashbacks and flashforwards in books can be difficult and can sometimes stall the story. But in this case, it worked well here. It served to deepen Candace’s character development and backstory while also propelling the narrative forward.
Even though it’s right there in front of you, the parallels between the Shen Fever victims and the working millennials are just too good. You immediately see where Ma is going with the comparison. They’re both plagued by a sense of meaningless existence and routine.
At times, I wondered what I’d do in Candace’s situation. Would I try to keep up my routine or would I try to create a new routine in the new world? As someone who suffers from anxiety, routine really helps me. I don’t know that I could commit to it as much as Candace did, but I couldn’t see myself living like her free-spirited ex-boyfriend, Jonathan. And maybe that’s exactly what Ma is trying to say. You can’t be on either extreme.
While I greatly enjoyed reading this book, I only gave it a 3.5/5 bubble teas because I found the lack of quotation marks used kind of confusing. But I also hated the ending of the book.
I felt truly let down by it. It could’ve been stronger and I felt unfulfilled by it. The story kept building and you’re rooting for Candace. And the ending didn’t bring any closure to her story. I wanted more resolution!
Ma’s book is witty and quirky. It reads like Shaun of the Dead and less like The Walking Dead. This book is definitely more like a dark comedy. You just can’t help but laugh — even if it’s nervously — at how wild these characters are and how they choose to act before and after the plague.
In many ways, yes, it’s a takedown of our current culture around work and capitalism. But it’s also about missed opportunities when we place huge emphasis on those values. It also serves as a reminder to nurture those connections that drive us to do more than just survive on routine.