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.)

Size Isn’t Everything

At the start of the twenty-first century, I had a completed novel (since published as The Village of Lost Souls) and had started writing the second (published as That Elusive Something). This was long before the e-book revolution and the only ways into publishing back then were through the traditional or vanity routes. I had neither the inclination nor the funds to pursue the latter so embarked on trying to break into the former. For those too young to know or too old to remember, this involved querying London agents in an effort to obtain representation. I must have spent a fortune in posting the first three chapters of the novel and the obligatory stamped addressed envelope large enough to hold the chapters on their inevitable return journey. They sometimes thumped back onto the doormat in such pristine condition that I doubt they’d even been read.

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the querying process. In case you’re wondering about the title, neither does it have anything to do with sex. This is about short stories.

During those endless rounds of posting a query and waiting for its return so that I could send it to the next rejector, I developed an itch. (And, no, this still isn’t about sex.) It grew and grew into an overwhelming urge to see a piece of fiction I’d written in print. More than that, I needed to know what it felt like to have complete strangers reading something I’d written.

I pressed on with the second novel. When I’d finished it, I embarked upon the by-then-familiar, but no less fruitless and demoralising, querying process. Different novel, same results. If anything, the thud of the returning envelope hitting the doormat made the itch intensify. I had to find a way to scratch it or go out of my mind. My solution was to write short stories.

I didn’t think short stories were easier to write than a novel, and still don’t, but they are undeniably quicker to complete. And I had a lot of story ideas sloshing around in my head that would not be suitable for the long treatment of a novel, but might make half-decent short tales. Any that didn’t, well, I’d only waste hours writing them instead of the couple of months or so (depending how much writing time you have) of commitment required for a novel.

There was another significant consideration: I don’t know whether it remains the case today, but back then there were a number of small press magazines which accepted unsolicited short stories for consideration. It didn’t matter to me in the slightest that these magazines didn’t appear on the shelf of my local W.H. Smith or that their readerships might only number in the hundreds—the point was to have my work appear in print and be read by people who didn’t know me from Adam.

My first published work of fiction was the short story Celesta. It appeared in the now defunct Cambrensis magazine in September 2002. I can still recall the sheer thrill of holding my copy (my author copy, no less) and seeing my words in print for the first time. It was followed by publication of another four short stories in various small press magazines—I was even paid for a couple of them.

That was that particular itch scratched. I continued, and continue, to write the occasional short. Novels are my preferred form, but I enjoy the variety, and different challenge, of penning shorter work from time to time. Those early published short stories can now be found, amongst others, in my collection Pond Life. I have another two collections: Strange Shores and the recently published Ghosts of Christmas Past. Others can be found in various anthologies.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this piece isn’t to publicise my works—though I oughtn’t be hesitant about doing so; it’s my bloody website, after all—but to trumpet the value of short stories and to mention a few of my favourites by other authors.

It’s not very often that we hear of short story collections becoming bestsellers. There are, of course, exceptions. Stephen King’s collections, for instance, usually shoot to the top of most charts. But for the lesser-known writer, they can be a hard sell and often end up being heavily discounted or given away, considered as little more than a means of funneling readers to longer, more lucrative works.

That’s a shame. A well-crafted short story is as worthy of praise as a tightly-plotted novel—the same level of skill has gone into both. And in today’s world of, we’re told, ever-decreasing attention spans and shrinking mobile devices, you’d think that short stories would be the ideal format for today’s hectic lifestyles. You’d think. Maybe their day will come, but I shan’t hold my breath.

Anyway, enough wistful thinking. What about the short stories I’ve enjoyed over the years? There have been far too many; too many to remember, let alone discuss here. I’m just going to mention a few.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that Stephen King is one of my favourite authors. No surprise, then, that I’m going to start with one of his short stories. Survivor Type appeared in his collection Skeleton Crew and tells of a surgeon washed ashore on a tiny, deserted island after a shipwreck. How he attempts to survive—no spoilers, but the clue is in his profession—horrified me in a gleefully fascinated way.

While we’re at it, another of King’s short stories that has stuck with me many years after I first read it is Quitters, Inc, which appears in his collection Night Shift. If, like me, you’ve embarked on numerous failed attempts to quit smoking, this story will resonate.

All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein is a mind-bending tale about the paradoxes of time travel. Difficult to say too much without spoilers so I’ll only say that the number of characters who populate the story turns out to be far fewer than appears at first sight. The story was turned into a film called Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, and a cracking job they made of it, too.

Another Heinlein short that’s stuck in my mind is And He Built a Crooked House. It’s another mind-bender, not to mention space-bender, about an architect who designs a house based on an unfolded tesseract (the four-dimensional analogue of the cube). When an earthquake causes the cube to collapse, Heinlein—and the reader—has great fun with the consequences.

A quick mention of an American short-story specialist, Raymond Carver. I’ve enjoyed a few of his collections, such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His stories are often little slices of life, usually dark and always poetic—he is also known as a poet and it shows in his fiction writing.

Finally, I couldn’t talk about short stories without mentioning Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. It’s a collection of science fiction stories linked through the animated tattoos on the body of a vagrant. If you like science fiction and short stories, this is the perfect union—go read it.

That’s merely a small taster. There have been many, many more stories I’ve read and enjoyed over the years. There are many, many more I’ve yet to sample. The beauty of short stories is that if you come across a dud, you won’t waste much time on it, and when you come across one of the countless gems hidden amidst the rough, you’re in for a thrill and delight. Happy reading!

(The above links will take you to the Amazon.com store only. I did have a fancy piece of code installed which took clickers to their local store, but it seems to have been lost in a recent upgrade of the site. I shall remedy it shortly. In the meantime, if you’re not based in the US, sorry, but that’s where the links will take you.)