Now here is Michael Tolkin with NK3, an original and absorbing novel — written in clear, rich prose — that imagines a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where dystopia is fine-tuned to our present turmoil. His novel takes place in a near future where memories have been wiped out and basic technical skills are the best currency for survival. As Tolkin imagines it, the shattering of our mighty society comes not through nuclear winter, but through the whimper of a sudden viral attack from North Korea.
Early in the novel, Pyongyang emits an organic virus known as “NK3,” which destroys the US population’s memories — this includes all basic memory, affecting even basic abilities to properly function, react, and think. A new order rises from the “verified,” those who through special forms of rehabilitation and identification — in particular using the now obsolete DMV’s computer files — sequester themselves behind a giant wall termed “The Fence.” The Fence seals off an area encompassing Los Angeles’s own current sectors of opulence — Beverly Hills and Westwood.
The city’s overlord is a man named Chief, who along with his woman Pippi, claim to receive instruction from two new deities: a pair of statues called The Man and The Woman. Areas outside the fence, such as Culver City, populated by a new underclass known as “Drifters,” are designated as Burn Zones — areas that Chief’s regime periodically cleanses through planned firestorms. Amid all this, a curious nomad named Hopper searches for what he believes to be his wife, a band of renegades at a ghost-town LAX seek to escape by secretly preparing an airplane for flight, and a pop star struggles to remember her epic fame.
It is hard to imagine a better writer to conjure a vision of a demolished and encaged Los Angeles than Tolkin. As a filmmaker and novelist, Tolkin has been well tuned to the culture and zeitgeist of this most illusory and decadent of American cities. His 1988 novel The Player — filmed by Robert Altman with Tim Robbins in 1992 — explores the cutthroat, die-hard capitalist world of movie producers through brutal satire and noir. In 1994, Tolkin wrote and directed a unique indie gem titled The Rapture, starring Mimi Rogers as an L.A. swinger who converts to evangelical Christianity and soon finds herself urgently awaiting the apocalypse. Never did Tolkin compromise in those works, and he never does in NK3.
This is a novel that thrives on pure vision. The plot flows well, and its vivid characters and ideas make it an immersive experience. The people of this near-future world are mirror reflections of our own culture. In a world without memory, inhabitants name themselves after beloved items or workplace surroundings, and so the commodities that ruled our consumer society provide names for the survivors of apocalypse. Status and cultural identities become names. One of Chief’s bodyguards is called Royce Hall because he used to play football for UCLA; another bodyguard is actually called Go Bruins. A rehabilitated curator desperate to be allowed into The Fence’s elite world calls herself Siouxsie Banshee. Most memorable is Chief’s fearsome security chief, who calls himself Frank Sinatra, because after the viral attack he was found with an iPhone full of Sinatra tunes.
I read parts of the novel while riding the Metro, and its rendering of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles is so vivid that I could see the world of the novel in these streets and neighborhoods whenever I looked up. In one chilling scene, Hopper walks down a Figueroa Street that has been turned into a bacchanal of violent boredom. Un-“verified” women are stripped naked and used for sport by local thugs, while hotels like the Marriott and Hilton have been transformed into labyrinths of debauchery. With the virus-induced memory erasure, basic thinking patterns related to moral reasoning are also lost. Pippi observes the wanderers in this terrible new Los Angeles through a telescope, lamenting that there is a greater one up in the Griffith Observatory, but it lies abandoned, all its electrical power now used for The Fence.
NK3 harkens back to a classic SF tradition while feeling fresh and modern. Tolkin creates memorable images and searing moments and peppers the text with sly, dark humor, all while raising provocative social and political issues. Like the novels of China Miéville or Philip K. Dick, the fantastic is combined with a lucid social conscience. Beginning with its premise, Tolkin employs an elegant sense of how to imagine a catastrophe — not with pyrotechnics, but with ideas that border on satire. Sly, sharp observations take subtle forms, as when Chief’s men seek drifters for the next burning: former film editors are coveted for their skill in paying attention to fine detail, whereas writers are thrown back into the streets as useless. In this new Los Angeles, Chief operates a “Gift Economy,” which provides endless food and other sustenance to those in The Fence, while his Mythology Committee — headed by a Sari-wearing character named June Moulton — informs the populace that there used to be a “Theft Economy.” The order of the ruling class is reversed, as those with practical skills rise while the leisure class is reduced to living in the shadows with scraps.
There is a powerful, understated theme in this novel, too, about the evolution of our gods. Chief and his minions have resorted to a kind of neo-pagan order, seeking guidance from their idols, The Man and The Woman. Yet when the pop star Shannon Squier is found among the drifters, the ruling class is immediately aware of what power she can hold over the masses as a performer. In a visually powerful touch, she is recognized because of a tattoo on her back depicting a wild dragon emerging from an eggshell to defeat St. George. One is reminded of a similar use of a tattoo in Tolkin’s The Rapture, when Mimi Rogers notices a large pearl inked on another swinger’s back, which initiates her journey toward religious conversion.
The real power of NK3, as with most great SF, is that the novel is more about the present than the future. It taps into our psyche, here and now, in an emerging age in which reality is becoming increasingly distorted. Fake news would be at home in Tolkin’s novel, and his society has no memory of the past, as we increasingly become a culture that forgets history. Bombarded by an overwhelming gale of information, we struggle to determine truth. “They didn’t know the difference,” Tolkin writes, “between their dead of drifting parents and baskets of puppies on YouTube.” In a world where elections have become circuses, how long before we do actually start naming ourselves after famous brands?
But Tolkin never succumbs to absolute despair. Love and solidarity still struggle to emerge out of this apocalyptic landscape. Small acts of kindness — such as Hopper pausing his mission to find clothing for a naked, memory-deprived woman — are tender testaments to our better impulses. In a world where sex becomes a pastime based on nothing but instinct, characters feel strange and unknown urgings that hint at something more — and this is meant to feel familiar. Tolkin uses the more intimate and private modes of our being as a kind of resistance to hellish surroundings.
NK3 is nightmare and satire, thriller and warning. Crafted by a master storyteller, it is a haunting parable about civilization marching forward, while forgetting what it leaves behind.
Alci Rengifo is a writer based in Los Angeles who has written on numerous topics including film, cultural criticism, politics, world events, music and literature. He is currently living in East Los Angeles.