Activist and novelist reimagines the end of the world as more familiar
THE SANTA CLARA
February 11, 2016
Ben Parzybok wants you to have a plan for the end of the world.
The Portland-based freelance writer, software programmer, short-filmmaker and activist explores this possibility in his second novel, “Sherwood Nation,” a story inspired by a long stay in Brazil. There, he encountered favelas—shantytowns on the outskirts of the country’s second-largest city, Rio de Janeiro.
“[The favelas] are like their own nations,” he said. “They have no city services whatsoever, and everyone has their own system (to) help people live in this sort of post-apocalyptic environment right inside this very wealthy city. I spent a lot of time thinking about starting a city from scratch, especially in a time of incredible duress.”
Over the course of about five years, Parzybok wrote “Sherwood Nation,” which illustrates a futuristic drought so severe it causes massive waves of migration from the West to the East Coast. Left behind in northeast Portland, Renee, a 20-something activist, barista and part-time college student secedes from what’s left of the Union and runs the neighborhood as her own country.
“Sherwood Nation” is the Library’s Book of the Quarter. Parzybok will read excerpts on Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. in the Saint Clare Room. But this is not just another apocalyptic hero story. Rather, Parzybok deems it a “post-collapse, non-apocalyptic” novel adressing modern environmental, economic and social issues.
“Part of the reason I wanted to write this was sort of as a protest novel against how Hollywood portrays apocalypses, of which our species has had essentially none,” he said. “We’ve had hundreds of collapses, though—environmental, geographical, societal—so the purpose of the novel was to imagine what it would be like to live in that collapse where we’re all kind of screwed and we have to invent our way out of it.”
Though of course, fictional, “Sherwood Nation” sounds familiar. Right now, California faces a drought so unprecedented that Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency on Jan. 9.
And while El Niño has filled reservoirs with the most water since 2010, the dry spell is far from over. But he believes, individual citizens are the key to societal improvement.
“Despite the fact that changing one’s individual habits will have no noticeable impact on climate change, we are a social species that picks up cues from each other,” Parzybok said. “So ride your bike—enthusiastically! Eat less meat. Adopt technology that clearly makes a difference. Be ambitious for yourself and tolerant of others.”
While the environment has always interested Parzybok, being an author wasn’t always in the plans. Parzybok intended to study Alternative Energy Design, but was one math credit short of getting in.
So he picked up writing.
“The moment I left college I moved to Brooklyn and wrote my first novel while living off of credit cards,” he said. “That bet didn’t work out—that novel is still in my closet—but future ones did.”
It was this “purposeful disorientation”—moving across or even out of the country—that inspired all his novels.
“All of my novels, including the one I’m currently working on, had their genesis outside of the U.S.,” he said. “Being thrust into a foreign culture allows, by comparison, one to see much more clearly one’s own culture. Purposeful disorientation is definitely a muse.”
Contact Riley O’Connell at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.