Michael Tolkin is the award-winning author of "The Player," which he adapted into the 1992 film directed by Robert Altman and starring Tim Robbins. He is also a producer, writer and director on the Showtime television series "Ray Donovan."
Tolkin's latest novel, "NK3," is a satirical sci-fi thriller set in Hollywood after a biological attack by North Korea has erased everyone's memories, creating a topsy-turvy society of haves and have-nots and shambling, mindless drifters. Like any good dystopian novel, "NK3" seems eerily prescient and possible.
Tolkin has a good idea of why dystopian fiction is so popular and vital today. "It's as though we are reading them from the future and they're taking us through a trauma we've already experienced - like replaying a car crash," says Tolkin. "It's partly prophetic, as if to say, 'If we continue down this path, our society will take a certain shape.' It's also an explanation of why we feel certain ways - why we feel like our society is irrevocably broken."
The plot of "NK3" revolves around a walled-in section of Hollywood that is controlled by the chief. The residents inside the fence have all of the power and luxury while the rest of the city's inhabitants wander around lost and confused. The power dynamic of society has been reversed as a result of the chemical attack. When the effects of the disease are first discovered, hospitals administer expensive treatments to halt the rapid loss of memory.
"The first people who are given the rehabilitation treatment are the ones who can keep the systems running, the electrical grids to run, the water to run, and the gas to run," explains Tolkin. "They are the blue collar workers of our society who are ignored and overlooked and are given no say in the political system.
"When they are given their memory, they see that this is a chance for them to finally have the power and control of society that they were denied by capitalism and the political structure. So, they deny rehabilitation to the former political, social and economic leaders of the city whose skills are now useless because of the changes in society."
To gain access to the walled compound, a verification process is run through the Department of Motor Vehicles database. If you were a skilled worker in the past you were allowed in, whether you could remember how to do your job or not. A doctor or pilot might be retrained to do their job, but that hinges on if they can even remember how to read.
A common subject in dystopian fiction is zombies. In "NK3," the effect of the chemical weapon, in which the victim loses a sense of self, is similar to becoming a zombie.
"I think the zombie is the great metaphor of our time of what we're becoming," says Tolkin. "The ultimate expression of what a zombie is in 'Dawn of the Dead,' where the zombies are at the mall because it is familiar to them."
Speaking of malls, since many of the characters in the novel have forgotten their real names, they've adopted aliases based on celebrities or brand names. Characters with names like AutoZone, RedWings and Madeinusa continue to hold on to consumer culture, even after an apocalyptic event.
"The liveliest social spot in my area is the mall," Tolkin continues. "It's packed all the time. People aren't necessarily shopping, but it's comforting to be around all those storesâ€¦ Walking down 5th Avenue, in a big city, you experience a real society, but the mall is a fake 'real society.'"
Tolkin is considered a master of the Hollywood novel, and he couldn't imagine a better location for his new work, metaphorically or logistically.
"One of the things about Los Angeles is that it's really an island surrounded by an ocean on one side and a desert on the other side. There are only a few escape routes (as opposed to Atlanta, which has a network of highways going to different cities) â€¦ For a writer, it's really easy to create an isolated city."
Also notable about the setting of "NK3" is its similarities to the Burning Man Festival, which Tolkin has attended six times and says tends to resemble a wild, post-apocalyptic world. "The decorations, the way people dress, the idea of the gift economy, which is taken to an extreme level in the book, the statues of the man and woman - it's more the trappings than the structure," says Tolkin.
Many critics are quick to point out the resemblance of the world of "NK3" to our current political landscape and administration. However, "NK3" was published before the last election, so Tolkin chalks the similarities up to "hyperinequality."
"Incredible privilege for a few and misery for everyone else," says Tolkin - just the right elements for dystopian fiction.
When: 12:45 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: First Baptist Church Sanctuary, 223 Bull St.