NK3
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NK3

Michael Tolkin

With The Player and The Return of the Player, Michael Tolkin established himself as a master novelist of modern Hollywood. In his new novel, NK3, the HOLLYWOOD sign presides over a Los Angeles devastated by a weaponized microbe that has been accidentally spread around the globe, deleting human identity. In post-NK3 Los Angeles, a sixty-foot-tall fence surrounds the hills where the rich used to live, but the mansions have been taken over by those with the only power that matters: the power of memory.

Inside the Fence, life for the new aristocracy, a society of the partially rehabilitated who call themselves the Verified, is a perpetual party. Outside the Fence, in downtown Los Angeles, the Verified use an invented mythology to keep control over the mindless Drifters, Shamblers and Bottle Bangers who serve the gift economy until no longer needed. The ruler, Chief, takes his guidance from gigantic effigies of a man and a woman in the heart of the Fence.

They warn him of trouble to come, but who is the person to watch: the elusive Eckmann, holed up with the last functioning plane at LAX; Shannon Squier, the chisel-wielding pop superstar from the pre-NK3 world, pulled from the shambling masses; a treacherous member of Chief’s inner circle; or Hopper, the uncommon Drifter compelled by an inner voice to search for a wife whose name and face he doesn’t know? Each threatens to upset the delicate power balance in this fragile world.

In deliciously dark prose, Tolkin winds a noose-like plot around this melee of despots, prophets and rebels as they struggle for command and survival in a town that still manages to exert a magnetic force, even as a ruined husk.

Review

Present-day Los Angeles already feels pretty post-apocalyptic. In NK3 Michael Tolkin takes the inequality, violence, misogyny and horror of contemporary Beverley Hills, Culver City and Skid Row and melds it with our worst North Korean-related fears.

Four years after the dreaded Kims have released a memory-wiping virus into the US, the amnesiac population of LA drifts, dreams, marauds and abuses its way through the apocalypse. A former police chief, stumbling upon a way to partially recover people’s memories, has set up a nightmare fiefdom in the city’s formerly opulent suburbs. He viciously polices the acolytes of his new religion, regularly burns the drifters outside the compound’s fence, and cynically cherry-picks who gets to undergo the memory restoration process. But it’s not all villains: a motorcycling rebel trawls the city for his long-lost love; a guerrilla group attempts to jerry-rig an aeroplane at LAX; a pop starlet is commandeered for propaganda purposes, and an envious drifter named Siouxsie Banshee plots her way into the post-apocalyptic elite.

The City of Angels is instantly familiar here, though its heat, corruption and desperation have been magnified. The mass horror is all the worse because the victims here literally have no way to contextualise what is happening to them. But through the hazy darkness of it all some universals remain fully intact: love, solidarity, kindness and hope.

The strength of the best sci-fi is the light it shines on the present. Tolkin’s gift is not just his à la mode nod to our impending sense of doom, but his ability to seductively stylise the dark underbelly a lot of us already live in.


Chris Dite works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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