Book Talk: 'Severance' by Ling Ma - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Severance' by Ling Ma

Alexander Wallace gets his Shen Fever vaccine.
With the coming of the pandemic, certain books now feel hard to read. They’re too real. They anticipated, with frustrating clarity, the great dithering that occurred when society was enraptured by the snares of the virus. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven was one such novel, and today we shall turn our attention to another: Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance.

Severance is a book that is a bit hard to describe. It is a pandemic novel, and from there it is something of an apocalypse novel; reading the relevant parts of the book felt like I was back in March 2020, feeling normalcy slipping away to be replaced with a great unknown. But that is far from the only aspect of this book; there is an immigrant story, an investigation of love (I wouldn’t call it a traditional ‘love story’), and a deep character study.

The portrait Severance draws of New York’s massive firms is not a positive one. It is one where the coming plague, in this world a fungus, is not seen as the threat that it is until far too late. Your protagonist and narrator, Candace Chen, is left as one of the few in-person staff at a publishing house as the rest of the workers do their jobs from home. She comes to see how the sausage is made as she designs a variety of Bibles, turning what was sacred to many into a source of filthy lucre (and you get an impression of what the cost of this production is).

As her name might suggest, Candace Chen is Chinese-American. She was born in Fuzhou in Fujian Province (on the other side of the strait from Taiwan), and grew up in Salt Lake City. Her parents both died before the events of the book, and she struggles with identity and culture and other such things. There is a certain frustration with all of that that is certainly relatable to me as an Asian-American (Filipino, however), and she portrays it well.

It is as those two strains come to a head that the apocalypse narrative really shines; Candace ends up staying with a strange bunch of people in her travels from New York to the outskirts of Chicago. As her group tumbles down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the people around her have their cultured sense of middle-class gentility slowly erased as the need for food and shelter becomes paramount.

Interestingly, the order this story is told in is completely non-linear. There’s nothing so daring as changing the time frame within chapters, but it will bounce around from chapter to chapter. This allows Ma to focus on themes, rather than chronology, and from there deepens the reader’s understanding of Candace Chen as a character (and she is surprisingly deep for the protagonist of a novel of a genre where character depth is often on the backburner).

Severance, as a novel, is a lot. It is both deeply scary (and often far, far too close to home) and deeply nuanced, with much understanding of the human condition and the people that Ma chooses to depict. It’s a novel for our times, in a way that Ma could never have expected, and its message is needed more than ever.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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