BOOK BOX

Review: What happens when the world blacks out

In E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story The Machine Stops, most of humanity lives in isolation underground, wholly dependent on an omnipotent machine – a parable that has found uncanny resonance in today’s pandemic lockdowns. In this edition of Book Box, we look at two new novels in which the machine stops – or goes rogue.

FICTION

THE SILENCE

By Don DeLillo Pan Macmillan/Hardcover/116 pages/$30.94/Books Kinokuniya

3/5

Nothing much happens in The Silence, which skips the usual dystopian fodder of societal mayhem in a technological wipe-out and, despite its title, is extraordinarily talky.

The absurdist, somewhat experimental work clocks in at just 116 pages, its sparse yet refined writing better suited to dissection in literature classes than breezy, casual reading.

It features deep musings and non-sequiturs about the meaning of life, told through conversations about Roman palazzo ceilings, Einstein's theory of relativity and cryptocurrencies that take a libidinal turn.

Don DeLillo, the prolific 84-year-old American literary maestro, infuses a sense of dark comedy into his 18th novel, which is prescient enough to foresee "the face masks, the city streets emptied out" despite being completed before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Silence follows the existential crises of five people after machines suddenly stop working all at once, right before kick-off on Super Bowl Sunday night in 2022 (the Tennessee Titans versus the Seattle Seahawks, by DeLillo's prediction).

Planes drop out of the sky, television screens go dark and mobile devices turn into lifeless paperweights. Is it a power grid failure? The Chinese hijacking the game in a "selective Internet apocalypse"? An electromagnetic disruption? An alien attack?

The frenzy of speculation brings no answers and the characters gradually lose their grip on reality amid the boredom and paranoia.

Jim Kripps, an insurance claims adjuster obsessed with numbers, and his wife Tessa Berens, a poet fixated on minutiae, are on a long-haul flight back to New York after a holiday in Paris.

Their plan after landing is to high-tail it to the Manhattan home of their friends - building inspector Max Stenner and retired physics teacher Diane Lucas - to watch the Super Bowl game. Rounding out the group is Martin Dekker, one of Diane's former students.

The plane crashes at about the same time the television screen goes dark. Jim and Tessa escape shaken but relatively unscathed, and, to mark "their survival and the depth of their connection", have sex in a hospital bathroom stall before walking to their friends' home.

Max has waged huge stakes on the game and, to the bemusement of Diane and Martin, embarks on a soliloquy to fill the void. He narrates what he imagines to be unfolding on the blank screen - right down to mimicking a commercial.

The high-brow Martin spews words such as thaumatology, ontology, eschatology and epistemology in the same sentence. This hits the right buttons with Diane, now aimless after early retirement.

The conversations are not quite coherent. Are they living in a "makeshift reality... a future that isn't supposed to take form just yet"? Is the digital blackout a "casual embrace that marks the fall of world civilisation"?

Nobody talks like that, but in DeLillo's world, unmoored from its clockwork reliance on technology, his characters fall into a trance and sleepwalk towards the horrors of a digital vacuum.

If you like this, read: Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam (Bloomsbury, 2020, $29.95, Books Kinokuniya). An affluent family on vacation at a rented holiday home are surprised by a couple who claim to be the home owners, as a digital doomsday event cuts them off from the wider world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2021, with the headline 'Review: What happens when the world blacks out'. Print Edition | Subscribe