A young futurist sells the visions of disaster - until one actually strikes. Mitchell Zukor is a college student when a massive earthquake hits Seattle, almost completely leveling the city. The news hits when Mitchell is in class, and during the uproar he sees that a girl further down the row has passed out. Calmly, Mitchell checks on her and calls an ambulance. It turns out that the girl, Elsa Bruner, has a rare genetic heart condition, and Mitchell saved her life when he noticed that she had passed out. After college, Mitchell takes a job crunching numbers for a large insurance firm in New York City, and lives in a small, depressing apartment that he calls his own personal Zukorminium (his father, a European immigrant, owns a host of rundown apartment complexes in St. Louis known derogatorily as Zukorminiums). Mitchell begins to receive letters from Elsa, who he hasn't spoken to since they were in college. She is living in an old summer camp in the Maine wilderness that she and some friends are turning into a farm. Mitchell is perplexed and angry, wondering why a girl with a heart condition would place herself miles from the nearest hospital. He beings to think that Elsa's letters are a cry for Mitchell to help her. When Mitchell does well on a particular project, he begins to hope that he will be transferred to the Risk Assessment department, but his boss instead assigns him to a slightly different department where he will continue to crunch numbers. Mitchell quits and takes a job with another company called FutureWorld, where he and his boss, Eric Charnoble, are the only two employees. FutureWorld sells disaster prep to businesses in New York City, protecting them from the type of indemnity and lawsuits several businesses in Seattle experienced after the earthquake. Though Eric tries to run the meeting, Mitchell quickly takes over and sells his particular brand of fear and paranoia to the client, revealing tales of potential disasters so detailed and graphic that the client is hooked. FutureWorld's business grows so much that Charnoble hires a secretary and another employee, a young college graduate named Jane Eppler. With some of his newfound pay, Mitchell impulsively buys a painted, decorated canoe from an art gallery, perhaps spurred on by the pictures Elsa draws on all of her letters – a woman drifting in a canoe on a lake. In New York City, a massive heat wave and drought is suddenly replaced by torrential downpours and the threat from Hurricane Tammy, creeping up from the southern Atlantic. As the hurricane gets closer, Elsa's letters stop. Mitchell calls Camp Ticonderoga and learns that Elsa has had another attack and is in a coma at a hospital. Before he can process that information, the mayor calls for a mandatory evacuation of New York City, but Charnoble insists that Jane and Mitchell stay behind to complete their appointments for the day. The pair are stuck in Mitchell's apartment when the hurricane hits. After the storm passes, Jane and Mitchell set out on his canoe in order to find dry ground, passing through a devastated, flooded city. When they finally get to an aid station, Mitchell decides to go to Maine and see Elsa, and Jane is forced to tag along with him. At Camp Ticonderoga, where Elsa's friends brought her before the storm hit, Mitchell and Jane find complete anarchy. Most of the buildings are on fire, and the women and children remain outside the camp's gates while the men and boys are inside hunting and devolving into savagery. Elsa is nowhere to be seen. Mitchell and Jane return to a refugee camp outside New York City, where they find out that the only person who predicted the storm was Mitchell, who people have nicknamed the Prophet. Unfortunately for Mitchell, some of the people at the camp blame him for the destruction, and threaten him with harm before a man named Hank Cho. Hank leads them back through the city to an area of the city called the Flatlands, where everything was completely destroyed by the storm. Mitchell and Jane find an old, stone bank building and move in, while Hank moves in to an old church further down the road. Jane tries to push Mitchell into starting a new company called Future Days in order to compete against Charnoble, who basically left them in the city while he himself escaped, but Mitchell is done with the business of fear. Jane goes back to the city and starts Future Days with Mitchell's name and Mitchell's blessing, but Mitchell remains in the bank building, using storm detritus to build a massive wall to keep people out. He essentially turns into a dirty hermit, only leaving the bank at night to wash himself in the nearby marsh. Jane uses Future Days to keep Mitchell supplied, and people slowly return and rebuild in the Flatlands – though Mitchell, in his own little world, has no idea that there are people right outside his walls.
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Best part of story, including ending:
I liked the way Rich uses very real, and very possible, ecological and environmental disasters as a background for Mitchell's life. The drought, heat wave, and flooding that ultimately hit New York City seem like something that could happen to us in the real world.
Best scene in story:
I enjoyed the scene where Mitchell and Jane got to Camp Ticonderoga and saw the complete breakdown of society, with the men hunting in the forest and the women stuck outside the camp itself. While outlandish in some respects, it does represent how quickly things tend to break down when we are faced with the loss of power, telephones, cell phones, and other basic things that we tend to take for granted.
Opinion about the main character:
Mitchell obsessed over Elsa to the detriment of his life and his potential relationship with Jane, who made her feelings very clear to Mitchell during and after the hurricane. He couldn't find any peace in his life, even when he moved into the Flatlands, because he could never find Elsa.