Author Matthew B.J. Delaney has thought deeply about how a changing planet can divide society into haves and have-nots. His new novel, Black Rain, explores a future when the few hold sway over the many, when cures for diseases are traded like Wall Street commodities and social status is a product of birth — or genetic engineering. Delaney left a successful financial career in Boston to become a Brooklyn cop after 9/11. He shares his unique perspectives on society with Nexus Media below. You can read an excerpt from his new book here.
What is the premise of your new novel?
It’s a future very similar to today, just that we’ve advanced our technologies enough where we’ve developed cures for pretty much any disease that plagues us. Those cures are traded on an open market, Wall-Street-type exchange, where instead of buying say 1,000 shares of Coca-Cola or 1,000 shares of Microsoft, people could buy 1,000 actual cures for pancreatic cancer, or 1,000 actual cures for skin cancer — cures for anything. Because those cures are traded, the price fluctuates based on supply and demand, or they can be used to actually heal people. So you have two dynamic forces: people who are sick who just want to buy these cures to get healthy, and then investors who are looking to make money from it. The exchange is dominated by these young guys — sort of Gordon Gekko-y — who are making a fortune on the backs of the people who are suffering.
The other aspect the novel deals with is that society has developed synthesized humans to serve our various needs. They work in our homes. They pick up our garbage. They work in brothels. They fight in gladiatorial-style combat games for entertainment. So, they’re like us, only better versions of us since they’re genetically created. They’re smarter and faster and stronger and better-looking, but we’ve so subjugated them that a rebellion grows.
With climate change, one critical issue is that some of the biggest impacts will disproportionately affect some of the poorest regions. How does this conflict play out in your novel?
In my novel, a series of ecological crises contaminate certain areas within New York City, and those areas are the ones in which the poorer classes are forced to live. These are people who are just trying to get by. In that sense it’s like what’s happening globally with climate change, just it’s contained on Manhattan Island.
Climate change is interesting in that it would tend to affect the poor first, but until we colonize Mars, the rich are stuck on the same little sphere, same as the poor.
We’re really all in it together, more so than any other issue such as crime, or healthcare or education where the rich really do have an advantage. In the end, we’re all stuck on this planet, so we’ve got to figure something out.
The setting of your novel is right in the center of New York City.
I’m a New York City transplant. I grew up in a very small town in New England, and I split time in a rural community in Wisconsin. Especially in rural areas, I think climate plays a much larger part in your day to day existence — you just feel more enmeshed with nature. In New York City you have so many amenities, it’s just so easy to have your whole life contained inside, it’s not as relevant what the weather’s doing.
I brought that with me to New York City, where it does have this sort of Fortress New York City feel, where no matter what happens around you, life just goes on. When Hurricane Sandy hit, I was living in the East Village on Avenue C — there’s Avenue D and then there’s the water, so there’s not much of a barrier. My whole neighborhood was flooded out. We lost power, lost easy access to food, had no lights — it was kind of a return to a pre-modern era, which I think brought a lot of people together. You can’t watch TV, you can’t listen to the radio, so you’re sort of forced to interact with your neighbor and forced to even figure out how to get food.
It was an interesting time. It was fascinating to see that this environment that we live in, that we sort of felt like we had under control, we don’t. If the Earth wants to have its way, it’s going to. We have to be aware of that moving forward.
It did influence the book a little bit. It was strange. Certain sections of Manhattan had full power, their life continued as normal, and in other sections it was a complete disconnect from what everyone was accustomed to — literally luck of the draw. You look to your neighbors in the north and you see these skyscrapers filled with light and electricity, and you’re huddled in the dark with a candle trying to eat canned food. Those very unique moments are always fodder for fiction writing, where you see people in situations of duress and you see how they respond to it. It can be interesting.
In a time of great conflict not only in the United States, but elsewhere around the world, how can people return to a sense of community?
Yeah, it’s difficult. Especially in this country. We’re a country composed of so many diverse groups — different in appearance, religious beliefs, socioeconomic classes. So, to bring all those types of people together, it can be difficult.
But I think, and it can sound sort of cliché but I really believe it, I think essentially that human beings all kind of want the same thing. We’re all sort of the same on the inside, and we want to feel part of a community, we want to feel part of something that’s maybe bigger than ourselves. We want to be surrounded by people that we love, and who love us in return, and we want to be happy.
So what we need is to find some kind of common goal. I’ve thought, sort of jokingly, that the best thing that would bring America and the world together would be if there was an alien invasion… if some distant planet realized that they want to colonize Earth, and they come down here, and now we have this common goal Independence Day-style, that brings us all together. I’m not going to rule that out, but realistically I think we just need to realize — like with climate change — that we’re all in this together. Until we colonize Mars, we’re not going anywhere. We’re all on this little globe together and we’ve got to figure something out and just try and be a little more patient with one another, try and understand other perspectives, and just do our best to get along. We don’t always have to agree, we’re never going to agree on certain things, but we have to have more of a live-and-let-live mentality and figure it out.
And you’re a Boston transplant in NY, so if that can work . . .
[Laughing] Yeah if that can work, there’s hope for everyone.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.