Published by Grove Atlantic on February 7, 2017
NK3 is a post-apocalyptic story, albeit one that emphasizes the lighter size of catastrophe. North Korea releases nanobacteria into the air. They are targeting South Korea, but things get out of hand. Eventually the United States is affected by NK3, which induces a sense of elation before wiping out memory. The usual apocalyptic events occur: electricity is lost, planes crash, fires rage. But government officials had a chance to counteract the effects of NK3 in a limited portion of the population. They saved people with technical skills who were able to generate electricity and do other useful things, and of course they saved their buddies.
Center Camp, stretching out from Beverly Hills, is surrounded by a fence and controlled by a small number of people who are striving to keep civilization alive while drinking expensive wine and living in really nice houses. They are among the early First Wavers who were able to obtain rehabilitative treatment before the system was overwhelmed. Most people (especially people like writers and millionaires who had no practical skills) died or became Drifters and Driftettes. They aren’t zombies, but they shamble and don’t have much to say. Driftettes like to sweep and dance around naked. Second Wavers received belated treatment and are somewhere between the First Wavers and Drifters.
Some late First Wavers have a Silent Voice that guides them. Usually the Silent Voice — “the alienated echo of who you were” — tells them to lie about everything.
Erin is among the early First Wavers at Center Camp who use the DMV database to help match Drifters with their identities. When they verify that people once had skills that the community needs, the Drifters can join the community inside the fence and stop living like scavengers. The community then brands them and endeavors to restore their skills.
Seth Kaplan is a late First Waver who joins Center Camp after Erin verifies that he was once a doctor. And then there’s a young woman who was once a famous pop singer. She gets to join because, well, she’s a celebrity even if nobody remembers her.
Another faction controls the airport and hopes to find a pilot so they can go to a better place, if one exists. Outside of both areas is Hopper, who has been sent on a mysterious mission by someone he calls the Teacher.
Several other characters have taken new names (having forgotten their old ones), including AutoZone, Frank Sinatra, Go Bruins, and Pippi Longstocking. Some people are still around who weren’t affected by NK3, but they really aren’t welcome in the new world order. After all, they’re the ones who caused the problem. Killing them for being normal is the default option.
NK3’s carefully constructed future is full of interesting details, from the clothes that people wear to the mythology that explains an unremembered past. The plot … well, the story is so meandering that discovering a plot is a challenge. The novel is more a collection of amusing subplots that sort of come together, in the way that golden retriever puppies crash into each other randomly when they’re not running off in their own directions.
NK3 makes fun of committee meetings, the snobbery of privilege, the ephemeral nature of popular culture, religions and their various gods, the arrogance and shallowness of power, and people who believe a society should be organized by class membership. Oh, and fences. NK3 definitely mocks people who think building a fence to keep outsiders out is a smart idea.
The story of the pop singer gets a little strange as it nears the end (not that the story isn’t strange before that), as does Hopper’s story. The novel seems to be racing toward a profound resolution that it doesn’t quite achieve. While some of the plot threads disappear in a way that leaves the story feeling incomplete, others manage to come together by the end. A mystery is solved and the story never loses coherence. NK3 isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it is consistently amusing and worth reading for that reason, and the notion that we are living our own mythologies (which is my takeaway from the novel) gives the book some modest literary heft.