I’m much more of an optimist than a pessimist, sometimes a silly one particularly regarding the weather although an excellent German app is helping me over that. Perhaps that’s why dystopian fiction is far from my favourite genre. That said, I’m surprised by how many novels I’ve read which might be described in that way. Below are five which explore the direction our world might take if we don’t pull our socks up fast, all with links to reviews on the blog.
Set some time after a military coup against the backdrop of a world beset by weather extremes, Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron explores themes of love, redemption and hope in the face of a disaster of our own making through the stories of two women: Ren, a hermit living in the mountains and Harker, an army officer charged with hunting her down. Arnott’s novel begins with the fable of the rain heron, a gorgeous mythological bird, set against the backdrop of a world blasted alternately by extreme heat and extreme cold. The writing throughout is beautiful: Arnott is careful not to lard his novel with detail, instead letting his story unfold with the heron as a symbol of hope at its heart.
No stranger to writing about dystopia, Margaret Atwood injects the genre with a dash of humour in The Heart Goes Last, a sharp piece of satire set in a near future in which Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, part of the fallout from a financial meltdown. When Charmaine watches a promotional video offering an escape in the shape of a social experiment she jumps at it. All they have to do is spend alternate months in prison while someone else lives in their new home, then switch – and all for the greater good. All goes well until Stan becomes obsessed with their female Alternate. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging barbs as she reels her readers in to this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. Beneath the satire is deadly serious message: we humans are all too easily lulled into a soporific acceptance leaving us wide open for exploitation.
No laughs in Jane Rogers’ Body Tourists which is set in a future where scientists have developed a way of transferring the memories of the dead into the brains of fit young people. Intellectually sharp but lacking in empathy, Luke’s more interested in science than wealth but his aunt sees an opportunity to make money. The massive estates set up to house the unemployed since the advent of bots are stuffed with the impoverished, some prepared to ‘volunteer’ for medical research for a hefty fee. All they need do is spend two weeks unconscious so that the ageing rich can inhabit their bodies. Ryan jumps at the chance persuading Paula to join him but while she returns to her body he does not. This is such a clever novel, depicting an all too believable world where death is the last frontier the rich have failed to overcome.
There’s humour to be found in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims which sees Dylan about to be made homeless, making his way to Scotland where there’s a caravan for him, according to a note left by his late mother. The next day he meets Stella, his neighbour’s daughter, once her son, who gives him the lowdown on the inhabitants of Ash Lane, from Ida the porn star to the Satan-worshipping stoner. When Stella introduces him to Constance, Dylan becomes besotted. Stella’s battle to be recognised as a girl, the revelations about Dylan’s roots and his yearning for Constance all play out against a backdrop of ever-dropping temperatures and occasional news bulletins. Stella’s the star of the show with her determination to overcome all obstacles and her precocious intelligence. The world is off to hell in a handcart with bankers and big business out of control, temperatures plummeting and waves of violent crime reported on the news, but there’s no heavy-handed polemic here although the end is sobering.
Megan Hunter is a poet which is what attracted me to The End We Start From. It begins in a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives, taken in by R’s parents. As the situation deteriorates, R is persuaded to drive over the border to Scotland where they first live in their car, then a refugee camp which R tolerates for a few months before leaving. Throughout the catastrophe, Z has thrived, meeting each developmental milestone and adapting to whatever changes the world throws at him. Hunter’s novel is a mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence – but it’s an immensely powerful piece of work, and I’m pleased to say that it ends on a ringing note of optimism.
Any dystopian novels you’d like to share?
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