With ‘The Ferryman,’ Justin Cronin explores a brave new dystopian world

Justin Cronin
Tim Llewellyn Photography

NEW YORK — Justin Cronin spent a decade writing and publishing his bestselling “Passage” trilogy, which spins a sweeping tale about a dystopian, near-future America overrun by vampires.

Now the 60-year-old author is back with his first novel since that series wrapped up with “The City of Mirrors” in 2016. What’s it about? A dystopia, naturally. “The Ferryman” hit shelves last week from Penguin Random House.

“I didn’t sit down and say to myself, ‘I’m going to write another dystopia,'” Cronin told CNBC in an interview Tuesday at a bustling lower Manhattan diner.

“I was writing out of a different place, and I didn’t spend one minute thinking about ways it was different from or similar to ‘The Passage,'” said Cronin, who teaches at Rice University in Houston.

Other than the fact that they’re both set in freaky futures, there’s little to connect “The Ferryman” to “The Passage.” The new book is set largely on a posh island called Prospera, which is the scenic, high-tech home to an elite white-collar upper class.

It’s told mostly through the lens of the 42-year-old title character, Proctor Bennett, who helps older residents of the island “retire” — meaning their memories are wiped and bodies renewed at another, more mysterious island just off the coast of Prospera. Soon, though, storm clouds develop, literally and figuratively, as Proctor realizes that maybe his life of leisure isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Think of it as Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” by way of 1970s sci-fi classic “Logan’s Run,” but for the era of the metaverse, catastrophic climate change and the celestial ambitions of billionaire space company bosses.

Cronin talked to CNBC about how his concerns about the economy helped him realize his vision for “The Ferryman,” offered his musings on how the Covid pandemic altered society, and explained how one remark from his dad over dinner forged his obsession with catastrophe.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is different about dystopia these days? Has Covid had an effect on how you see it?

One of the things we learned from Covid is that an actual crisis happens more slowly than the ones we like to imagine. It’s less dramatic. There’s a lot of dead time. The imaginary pandemic that I created was a sweeping cloud of death that descends on planet Earth, where it’s actually a slow, grinding dispiriting thing that takes place over longer periods of time. There are moments of deep crisis, and then there’s lots of paperwork. 

Metaphorically, it corresponds to ways catastrophe has changed in my lifetime. … Global catastrophe as I grew up with it was something swift, all-encompassing and total, and it took about 40 minutes. A global nuclear exchange of the kind I grew up thinking about, by the time I was an adult, was off the table. It’s not going to happen. There was a very specific arrangement, military and political, that’s no longer there. What we do have is these sort of slow-motion catastrophes, and they’re just as devastating. But they’re also in some ways harder to defend against because you can ignore them for a really, really long time.

Rich people can afford to ride it out better.

They have no motive to change. Everything that’s wrong with the world is solvable. Climate change is solvable. We have all this technology. We can do it tomorrow. But there’s no political will or political structure to make that happen because of the upward flow of capital to a very narrow bandwidth of people. I don’t mean to sound like a revolutionary on CNBC, but this is a story through history that has never ended well. It never ends well.

In the novel, you have this island society of the haves. And then you have, adjacent to it, crammed into substandard housing, being paid very low wages, a population that’s four or five times that size, and some people have to drink the wine and some people have to pour the wine. There are many more of them than there are of — the term has been lost — the leisure class. We don’t use that term anymore. … That’s the world we’re living in. It gets worse by the hour. 

People start to think about things like universal basic income when you hear about AI taking all of these menial jobs and office tasks.

It’s not just going to be menial tasks. I’m in a college English department. Everybody is asking what we do about ChatGPT and student papers. I’m like, who cares? We need to think about where this is going to be in about five years or 10 years, after it’s spent a decade here interacting with the entire data structure of the human species. For instance, I’m glad that my career as a novelist has maybe another 10 years in it. Some point I’m going to do something else. Writers do retire! Because I think an enormous amount of cultural content, from film to novels and so on will be produced rapidly and on the cheap by artificial intelligence. 

There’s an inflection point in “The Ferryman.” Everything is about to change in this society, for these characters. What did you tap into to capture the paranoia, the worry of some characters and the indifference of others?

I know people like all the people in the book. I had no money for many years, to be perfectly clear. And so I’ve known and befriended and had a life populated by people from every corner of the economy. As a writer, you need to walk a lot of different streets, in a lot of different ways, to know this stuff. What you learn to do is become a good observer of human behavior in general. If you look at a problem like the spasms of — your readers may hate the term — late-stage capitalism, sooner or later, you make the poor broke and they can’t buy anything you’re selling. 

What do you think would get us to the point where we’re addressing climate change and other big problems seriously?

I don’t know. One of the things is that we are changed by technology. Something comes along and it rewrites the rules. Even where political will is absent, even where there are strong disincentives to change, things come along and make it happen.

All the rules have been rewritten for everything. You can’t even walk into a restaurant right now and read the menu without your phone. We have mandated these technologies in people’s lives in order for them to function, and it’s digging new neural pathways. I look at my kids, and I know their brains work differently. This was exacerbated by Covid, which played right into the hands of this change, making us into this species of screen-starers. 

I think all the problems we’re facing now, we’re going to face in increasing amounts until something catastrophic happens. Except for the fact that I have no idea what AI is going to do, and all bets are off. All bets are off. 

With “The Ferryman,” it’s clear the concept of the metaverse was on your mind. Did AI factor into your thinking at all while writing it?

No, I wasn’t thinking explicitly about that. It’s a technology that’s being relied upon within the world of the novel, superfast, supersmart computing. It’s just taken for granted that we got past that danger, but we didn’t get past climate change as a danger. Pick your catastrophe! It’s a pretty long menu. I couldn’t write about all of them at the same time.

The social concerns of the book, and the more abstract, cosmic concerns of the book move in tandem. The anxieties that I have about what’s going to happen in the next 20, 30 years, these are concerns that I’m handing off to the next generation. And they’ll hand it off to their kids, and so on. The celestial concerns of the book, of which there are plenty, I think they’re just deep, human questions that exist outside any particular social discourse.

What do you think of the billionaire space race?

That was something of a model for this. On the one hand, I as a boy was promised — was promised — that we would have conquered space by now. Born in 1962, watched the moon landing on a black-and-white TV. We were going to be on Mars by the mid-70s. “Star Trek” was real. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” flying to Jupiter. It’s a vast disappointment to me, personally, that we haven’t conquered outer space.

Is there a reason I should care about this? No. I just do. But having said that, Elon Musk’s Starship, this gleaming bullet of a spacecraft, that’s the spaceship I was promised. The image of that spacecraft, the way it actually looks, is on the cover of most of the pulp sci-fi I read as a kid. It is deeply thrilling to me in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

We have other problems to be solved, to be perfectly honest. My wife is quick to point out how much of an empty testosterone fest this is. Do we really need to go settle on the moon or Mars? I think it would be interesting if we did, and it would change our sense of ourselves a little bit. But, how about free school lunches? 

What has thinking about the end of the world for the greater part of the last decade or so done to your mind?

I’ve done it longer than that. When I was a kid I knew everything about the Cold War and I was an armchair expert on every single weapon system. I had a copy of one of the foundational documents, called “The Effects of Nuclear War,” which was prepared for [Congress]. I knew all of it. I could tell you about every missile, how it worked. … That’s because I was quite convinced it was going to happen. So I’m the household catastrophist. When Covid hit, I was like, we’re turning on the Justin Catastrophe Machine, let’s go. I was such a general. Drove my wife nuts. 

So it’s actually kind of a permanent state of affairs. I still can take a walk on a stormy night and play tennis with my friend and ride my bike on the weekends and swim in the sea and enjoy the company of my children. But there is always a background hum and there has been since I was a kid, since my father declared over dinner that he was pretty sure that a nuclear weapon would be detonated in an American city during his lifetime, certainly, and pass the butter. And I was probably in middle school when he said this. And he was my father. He knew everything. He lets this one drop, and so a catastrophist is born.


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