Ling Ma, Severance
(New York: Picador, 2018)

I had always thought my iPhone had been lost, during the chaos of fleeing New York. But Bob had simply, for whatever reason, kept it this whole time. I clasped my fingers around it, feeling the familiar scratches and nicks in its smooth surface, an old relic, and was suddenly flooded with a bittersweet happiness of what I had back. I could access my old photos. I could read my old emails. Maybe I could use it to take photos again. […]
It’s not supposed to work, Adam informed me. We broke it.
Bob continued smiling at me. Like I said, Candace, this is just an object. It serves as a reminder of who you used to be, but accessing all your old data is not helpful to you in moving forward. […] I slid the iPhone into my coat pocket, wanting to instead to throw it into the fire—or better yet, to throw it at Bob.

In Severance’s alternate early twenty-first century, the majority of the world’s population turn into zombies after contracting Shen Fever. The iPhone is a time capsule to Candace: a pre-apocalyptic relic that comforts her with its familiar feel and a container of mementos believed to have been lost forever. Bob’s refusal to give Candace full access to this time capsule is somewhat justified. Shen Fever is a disease of nostalgia, for the zombies are stuck in an infinite loop of repeated gestures mimicking their pre-apocalyptic lives. But, as Candace knows too well, both the fevered and the non-fevered are equally trapped in the past’s monotonous routines. In her last few months in New York, the iPhone allows Candace to finally break free from her zombified office life, which she keeps up long after the apocalypse, going through the motions of a job that doesn’t exist anymore as she doesn’t know what else to do. Through her iPhone, Candace reconnects with her artistic ambitions and begins photographing post-apocalyptic New York. Rather than, as the typical criticism of smartphones goes, turning us into ‘zombies’ incapable of fully engaging with what lies beyond the screen, the iPhone allows Candace to come to grips with her new post-apocalyptic reality (which includes actual, instead of metaphorical, zombies). The iPhone is, therefore, not just a nostalgic reminder of the past but an instrument that helps Candace understand the world. Its loss compounds the many others Candace suffers during the pandemic.

by Diletta De Cristofaro