Severance: These aren’t the zombies you’re looking for

Severance by Ling Ma science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSeverance by Ling Ma science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSeverance by Ling Ma

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.

Published in 2018. An offbeat office novel turns apocalyptic satire as a young woman transforms from orphan to worker bee to survivor. Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend. So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost. Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers? A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s Severance is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. Ooh, these might be the zombies I’m looking for after all!

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