Set alternately in a city crumbling into cavernous disparity between rich and poor, and on an island characterized by hardscrabble sustenance, Lauren Carter’s debut novel tells the dystopic near-future story of everyperson Sandy Burch-Bailey. The novel begins on the island, where food from Sandy’s meagre garden starts to go missing. When Sandy spies a small footprint in the dirt, she begins to imagine that it belongs to the daughter she has always desired.
The narrative, addressed directly to this imagined little girl, flashes back to Sandy’s earlier life in the city. After losing her job at a time when canned beans and gizzards are considered good eating, Sandy quickly finds herself indigent. She is pulled into the orbit of cold and calculating Marvin, a denizen of the urban “dark zone.”
Possessed of the same sense of entitlement as the rich folk he decries, Marvin ruthlessly promotes his version of a new world order. When one of Marvin’s revolutionary schemes goes terribly awry, a quick escape from the city is required. After retreating to the island, Sandy continues to bemoan her “wasted life,” consumed as she is with bourgeois ideas like personal fulfillment, notwithstanding the fact that her life has been reduced to one of mere survival.
Sandy’s decades-long relationship with Marvin is curious, as he has so little to recommend him, other than the “best sex [she] ever had.” Marvin remains a broken and distant man – a classic “bad boy” – and Sandy never manages to reform him into a caring or sympathetic individual.
The novel’s characterizations, along with the overall vision of where society is headed, indict human nature for its greed and love of violence. Those who fight against privation, Carter suggests, are often motivated more by their own egos than any sense of the good of others. Carter’s portrait of our foreseeable future is possible, even likely. She does not stray into the fantastic or apocalyptic, but supposes that altruism is foolish in a dark time, even deadly. Swarm is a Hobbesian story: life in the world it depicts is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”