Dystopian Fiction (We’re Doomed, Doomed, Captain Mainwaring)

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. (Oxford Dictionaries)

There are times, and they seem to becoming more and more frequent, when I wonder whether the world we inhabit today might be described as dystopian. War, terrorism, genocide, famine, epidemics, climate change… No, I’m not going to get all political, but it’s difficult sometimes to watch footage of the latest bombing or gun massacre and not wonder what sort of world we live in.

This isn’t about doom and gloom of the actual sort; it’s about fictional doom and gloom, though it’s often impossible, without being deliberately obtuse, not to comment on how one mimics the other.

Yet dystopia doesn’t need to be gloomy; at least, not all of the time. Take Ready Player One. I consider myself a seventies child, but I was still in my teens during the early eighties and loved spotting the references in the novel to eighties pop culture. It’s very much a dystopian world that our hero inhabits, caused by an energy crisis – people living in on-the-cheap apartment blocks made from trailers stacked one on top of another due to rocketing overpopulation; terrorism; food shortages – gloom aplenty, but it’s how people escape their otherwise drab existence where the fun comes in. And it’s a lot of fun. An almost limitless virtual universe, a vast interactive game, that sounds so appealing that we might, if given the opportunity, seriously consider sharing their deprivations if we can also join in their means of escape.

Of course, most fictional dystopian worlds aren’t places we’d want to live. That’s kind of the point. One of the first dystopian novels I can remember reading was when I was a teenager. It was written in 1948 and the author simply reversed the last two digits of that year to come up with a title. Aspects of the novel seem eerily prescient today. Take a walk around any city or town centre and you’ll be recorded by any number of CCTV cameras; records exist of your phone calls and texts, of your online browsing habits. Big Brother is watching you. And what about ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’? Orwell’s terms have morphed into today’s Doublespeak. Again, I don’t want to get political, but Doublespeak is as prevalent today as wannabe celebrities. Alternative facts, anyone?

Since you’re visiting a site devoted to writing and reading, there’s a fair chance that you feel the same way about books that I do. If I had to give up every form of entertainment except one, I’d heave a heavy sigh of regret at losing films, sport and music, but I’d keep my books. It’s because of this deep love of the written word that I found myself squirming at times while reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For anyone who doesn’t know, the title comes from the temperature at which books burn. No spoilers, but this presents as grim a future as any other book mentioned here and is, for me, up there with Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favourite Bradbury work.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells of a future USA, or a part of it, taken over by a new order under which women are subjugated. The handmaid of the title’s role is to breed, and nothing much else. The novel reminded me of 1984 in generating that brooding sense of menace, of being constantly watched. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagines a future where breeding programmes eliminate disease and deformity. It is quite a long time since I read either of them, but in my memory they are the sorts of story that make you think shit, this could really happen and hoping fervently it never does.

It was also a long time ago that I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the book upon which the film Blade Runner was based. My memories of the film are stronger, but I do recall enjoying the book and feeling that the film took all that was good of the novel and built upon it.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is set in a world filled with poverty and malnourishment and overpopulation. Global warming is making matters considerably worse and, on top of all that, there is war between various superpowers. Once more, it is impossible not to see parallels with today’s world; while we haven’t quite reached the levels of despair experienced by the characters in Le Guin’s novel, are we really that far from it? I would dearly like to think not – or that we will somehow turn aside from the path of self-destruction we seem hell-bent on pursuing – but the more pessimistic part of me doubts it.

I’m going to finish with two novels by that famous author Richard Bachman. Although set in grim, dystopian worlds, they both tell tales that enthralled and thrilled me in my late teens.

The Running Man is a rollercoaster of a story about a desperate man driven to enter a futuristic game show in an effort to raise funds for something that I’ve forgotten (medicine for his wife or child?). If you’ve seen the film version starring Arnie, don’t be put off the book – it’s far superior.

The Long Walk is about an annual event where a hundred teenage boys set off on a walk. It’s not a race, as such. They will keep walking until there is only one left standing and he’s the winner. Doesn’t sound that bad until the reader realises what happens if the competitors’ walking pace falls below 4mph. It’s a gripping and, in its way, horrific tale, and I find it compelling. It’s long overdue a film adaptation.

Those are some of my favourite dystopian novels. I haven’t included post-apocalyptic books, which will get their own post. I know, I know, virtually all post-apocalytpic tales arguably also qualify as dystopian, but I don’t think the reverse is as often true.

(I intend posting two-weekly from now on, so I’ll be back in a fortnight with news of my latest release – the sequel to The Elevator. Oh, and a quick note about the sub-title – it’s a nod to Private Frazer, one of my favourite characters in the old BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army.)

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy, probably around nine or ten, and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.