9.15.2013

Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich

Odds Against Tomorrow
Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow centers on a man who deals with his worries by calculating the odds of all manner of catastrophes. By figuring out how astronomical the odds are, Mitchell Zukor can put his worries aside--until he finds something new to worry about. 

The novel opens with a big disaster and a small disaster. First, there is a massive earthquake in Seattle. At the same time, a student in Mitchell's Russian Literature class has a heart attack, due to a rare genetic disorder. That student, Elsa, and the Seattle earthquake kick Mitchell's worries into high (but productive) gear. After graduation, Mitchell takes a job on Wall Street that doesn't satisfy him at all. Eventually, he does get an assignment that fits his skills and interests. He has to figure out a way to work out how much it would cost his firm in the event of a major catastrophe. 

As Mitchell labors on his assignment, he stumbles across a new venture called FutureWorld. Because insurance companies don't cover catastrophes, there's room for a new kind of company. A bill slipped through the New York government that allows companies to indemnify themselves against big payouts for catastrophes as long as they can prove they took some kind of precautions. FutureWorld takes payments from companies to provide those kind of precautions. Mitchell gets a job there because he is utterly convincing when telling others about just home many things can go wrong--disasters, terrorists, plauges, etc. etc. Mitchell is so very good at his new job because he believes it could happen, too. 

Mitchell and FutureWorld rake in money until one fall a category three hurricane hits New York after months of drought. The storm and the flood drive millions of refugees out of the city. But there's another disaster in store for Mitchell. Word is leaked that he predicted the hurricane, the only one to do so. He's hailed as a prophet because his warnings saved a lot of lives and money, even though all he did was work out the odds of something bad happening. No one seems to understand that he doesn't know the future. 

Odds Against Tomorrow seemed to arrive at a prescient time, after last years Hurricane Sandy. It also feels so very plausible because American are so susceptible to being manipulated by fear. Fear sells as much as sex does. And there's a perception that our lawyers and politicians are just evil enough to come up with a law that creates FutureWorld's legal loophole. In Rich's America, people would rather pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for years for a legal umbrella rather than pay to actually fix things to prevent Mitchell's nightmare scenarios. By the end of the book, though, I have to wonder whether Mitchell actually changed anything. 

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