An extract from The Power author Naomi Alderman’s new novel The Future


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An apocalyptic warning near Westminster’s parliament buildings in London.

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Action Now! Ecological Convention


On the day the world ended, Lenk Sketlish – CEO and founder of the Fantail social network – sat at dawn beneath the redwoods in a designated location of natural beauty and attempted to inhale from his navel.

The tops of the mountains in the distance were capped with snow, their curves and crevasses kindling the imagination. The trees near at hand were russet on fawn, grey-green on sage. The redwood trunks were solid, corded, patterned like twisted vines, their surfaces soft with mosses and growing grass; tiny insects whirred through the dense mass.

The sky was the pale water-washed blue of the late autumn, mottled cloud visible through the spiral-set branches. And yet.

The meditation teacher had a nose whistle.

Each time she took yet another “deep belly breath”, the whine cut through the gentle whisper of the redwoods like a chain saw. She must hear it. She surely heard it. She did not seem to hear it. The redwoods shivered, the November leaves were about to drop, and all things must pass, as she could not cease reminding him.

All things were not going to pass from Lenk Sketlish if he had anything to do with it.

“Let your belly be soft as you inhale,” the teacher said. Her tongue lingered on the double l in “belly,” as if she were Italian. She wasn’t Italian. Lenk had asked Martha Einkorn, his executive assistant, to check after the first day. The meditation instructor came from Wisconsin, the home of squeaky cheese. She kept saying “belly”. He should hold light in his belly, feel the warmth in his belly, crawl inside his own belly, and dwell forever in her adenoidal whine and her infinitely elongated l. What was growing inside Lenk Sketlish’s belly was an acidic roiling, churning wrath.

The redwoods. Back to the redwoods. The majesty of nature, simple beauty. The worn path up the hillside, the tumbling brook. Breathing in, breathing out. The world as it comes moment by moment and he, too, a part of it. Not scattered, not wrathful, not thinking of the Fantail expansion deals in Uruguay and in Myanmar even though someone was definitely going to fuck something up in his absence.

Be present. Here. Feeling his breath in his navel, the centre of his body, yes, good, the navel rising and falling and . . . the nose whistle added a new note. Slightly lower than the first. Baritone? Alto? Couldn’t she hear it? Why didn’t she blow her nose before she came to the sessions? Hadn’t Martha or anyone on his board or a single one of Martha’s minions found out whether this gold-star, top-of-the-line meditation teacher had a nose whistle? Did they just take everything on trust?

“Breathe within the body” – her voice low and lilting – “nothing is needed from you in this moment.”

This was obviously not true, given that he had to be there, given that his board had told him quite some time ago that if he couldn’t get his anger under control, there were real questions over whether he had a future at Fantail, which was in itself as nonsensical as this woman with a full orchestral wind section in her nose passing herself off as a source of calm. He’d gone along with it; he’d played the game. If they thought they were going to do to him what Ellen Bywater had done to Albert Dabrowski at Medlar, shuffle him out of his own company, well, they had another think coming. But they would do it – they’d tell him his leadership style wasn’t working, he wasn’t on a learning journey; they’d edge him out slowly at first and then very fast. He’d seen it. Albert Dabrowski was a cautionary tale. Ellen Bywater ran Medlar now. Where the fuck was Albert Dabrowski? Who the fuck even cared?

“Be truly present in this moment,” the mucosal trumpets murmured.

“Allow yourself to meet the moment with trust.”

He was there to show his willingness. He wasn’t an immature baby; he’d run Fantail successfully for nearly two decades, built it from nothing but an idea and the sense of a wave building far out in the ocean. In 127 countries across the world now, if you wanted to talk to a mass audience, you started with FantailStream; if you wanted to sell something, you set up FantailStore; if you wanted to trade across borders, you used FantailSeamless to pay in FantailCoin. When nation spoke unto nation, they did it via Fantail.

And Lenk could do this next part, the public-facing making-nice part. The antitrust hearings, this dumb Action Now! ecological conference with Anvil and Medlar – he could do it. He’d keep his cool, not throw expensive ceramic sculptures through expensive engraved-glass partitions, and no one would have to go to the hospital with a glass shard in her eye ever again. That was a mistake. He regretted it. Meditation is hokey but it works – just breathe from the navel. Focus on the in-breath. The out-breath. He used to be into this stuff at Harvard. One of his roommates had given him a playlist. Long nights coding, then ten minutes of this and you go from strung-out exhaustion to blissful deep sleep. There was something to it. Zimri Nommik of Anvil went to some pod in the desert every year to do ten days of silence and fasting and pouring water up his nose. Or up his arse. One of those. Zimri Nommik, building warehouses and distribution networks, shipping everything old and new under the sun, already on his heels with AnvilChat and AnvilParty, trying to snap up everything in his all-consuming maw and –

“If you find your thoughts have wandered” – the instructor inhaled deeply with an accordion wheeze – “don’t be surprised. Simply return gently to the breath. This moment is all you need.” But this had never been the case. This moment was gone as soon as it was noticed. There could be no prize and no possession there. It was the glimmering he needed, the beckoning force of time, the wave gathering in the distant ocean.

“Take a deep belly breath. Remember that we are only ever anxious about things that might happen in the future. But the future is not here. The future is imaginary and all its promises and fears are imagined. We can rest in this moment,” she said. “What is happening is OK.”

But often what was happening was not OK. It was almost never OK. It needed constant nudging and tending, fixing and pushing. Without his intervention the moment would be lost, and the next, and the next, each wave passing and him still bobbing in the cold sea, the warmth leaching from his bones, death rising to swallow him whole. Without keeping his eyes on what might happen, an entire life could be eaten up, and most people’s were.

“There’s no way to really know what’s going to arise next,” the instructor said.

Well, then it was all a shit show. There was no way to know. The next moment might hold anything. There could be opportunities, new ideas caught by someone else, a competitor ready to usurp his fortune. There could be Ellen Bywater, the company stealer, turning the all-seeing eye of Medlar in his direction, her gleaming, elegant pieces of hardware the aspirational alternative to workaday Fantail. The Medlar Torc was her new thing, all your communication needs dealt with by this stylish device. She always seemed one step ahead of him now, tempting away his key demographics like she stole Medlar. There could be new products from her, but of course there could be an earthquake, a sudden heart attack, a deadly bomb loosed far away by an unstable dictator, a global pandemic. Anything.

Lenk Sketlish was a powerful man who had built his career on the future, on knowing it, smelling it, feeling it more present around him than the present. The future was his home and his consolation; the urgency of tomorrow, the next decade, the next century pressed in on him and pushed him forward.

“There’s no way to really know what’s going to happen even one second into the future.”

No, thought Lenk Sketlish, that’s not going to work for me. The thinscreen on his wrist gave out a low but urgent beep. The meditation instructor creased her brow, and a satisfying thought flashed through Lenk’s mind: Ah, you see, there’s no way to really know what’s going to happen, is there? He glanced at the thinscreen; it would be an emergency in Albania or in Thailand, a decision to be made and a problem to be solved, some wonderful and financially unarguable excuse to end the session early. But it wasn’t. The skin of his face tightened; his eyes narrowed as he looked at the notification. It was no minor escape. It was the end of days.

Extract taken from The Future by Naomi Alderman, published by 4th Estate. The Future is the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club. Sign up and read along with us here


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