dystopian fiction

Body Tourists by Jane Rogers: ‘Death where is thy sting’

Cover imageI’m not one for dystopian fiction but Body Tourists caught my eye because of its author. I’ve enjoyed several of Jane Rogers’ novels, including her last one, Conrad and Eleanor, which neatly reversed gender roles in the story of a long marriage. Her new novel is set in a near future where scientists have developed a way of transferring the memories of the dead into the brains of fit young people.

In 2045, Gudrun is giving an account of her nephew’s research and its consequences, research funded by her from her private Caribbean island. Intellectually sharp but lacking in empathy, Luke’s more interested in science than wealth but Gudrun sees an opportunity for money to be made. The massive northern estates set up to house the unemployed – jobless thanks to the advent of bots – are stuffed with the impoverished. Most are drugged by virtual reality but there are young people looking for a way out, prepared to ‘volunteer’ for medical research for a hefty fee. All they need to do is give up their bodies for two weeks, a fortnight which they will spend unconscious. Ryan jumps at the chance, persuading his girlfriend to volunteer with him but while Paula’s body plays host to a woman who leaves her a grateful note, Ryan’s fails to return. Paula is appalled. Swallowing Luke’s explanation and gagged by a confidentiality agreement, she turns her back on what’s happened but soon Luke is asking for more volunteers and Paula needs the money. Eventually, tragedy strikes and Body Tourism is blown apart.

This is such a clever idea, depicting a world where death is the last frontier the rich have failed to overcome until Luke unveils his research to his avaricious aunt, safely ensconced in her tax haven. Rogers explores her theme from a variety of perspectives, narrating her novel through several different voices. Paula is the host lured by the promise of a better life but whose conscience is deeply troubled. Richard is the ageing rock star, eager to pay to show his doubting deceased father his success but getting more than he bargained for. Elsa, whose partner died in a terrorist attack, has the only positive experience in the single instance where the rich are not involved. It’s chillingly believable, even down to Gudrun’s cynical conclusion. I can’t say that I’m a convert to dystopian fiction but if, like me, you tend to shy away from it, this one’s well worth considering.

Sceptre: London 2019 9781529392951 240 pages Hardback

Wolf Country by Tünde Farrand: All too plausible

Cover imageI rarely read dystopian fiction, mostly because the current state of the world feels grim enough to me, but Tünde Farrand’s Wolf Country comes from Eye Books, the same company who published the impressive An Isolated Incident, which persuaded me to give it a try. Set in 2050, Farrand’s novel explores a world gripped by rampant consumerism through the story of a woman desperate to save her husband from the fate that awaits all who can no longer pay their way.

Philip disappears on Boxing Day, the day the palatial new shopping centre he designed was to open in a televised ceremony. Instead, the complex goes up in smoke, the target of anti-capitalist activists. Alice and Philip are Mid Spenders earning their Right to Reside by meeting their monthly spending targets, often buying things they neither need nor want. Philip’s father is a dissident who lives in the Zone, a wild area outside the city where wolves are reputed to roam. The Zone is where the destitute are sent, those unable to earn their place in the Dignitoriums where the ‘non-profits’ are promised a year of bliss before they meet their painless end, or so Alice believes. At the top of this new world order are the unimaginably rich, one of whom Alice’s estranged sister Sofia has married, while at the bottom are the Low Earners who barely scrape by. As she sinks further into depression, Alice knows she’s heading for the bottom, or worse, and when it happens she decides to appeal to Sofia for help. Her path to her sister will open her eyes to the cruelty and deception of the system she had once thought benign.

Farrande unfolds her story from Alice’s perspective, weaving memories of her childhood and her life with Philip through her quest to find out what has happened to him and her decision to ask Sofia for help. Alice’s small epiphanies along the way effectively lay bare the truth behind the glossy facades of the Dignitoriums. There are uncomfortable resonances with our own  times: the constant consumption of ephemeral stuff, institutionalised in the new world; slick marketing promising much but delivering little, or worse; the consequences of an ageing population and contempt for those who struggle to pay their way. It’s an all too plausible story, well told, but its ending let it down for me. Maybe our own contemporary troubles are making me cynical.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey: Love, whatever that Is

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel arrived with a press release mentioning Margaret Atwood. I tend to ignore these bits of paper until I’ve finished the book, preferring to read it with an open mind. A few chapters in, however, Atwood’s was the name that popped into my head. Not such a cheeky comparison after all for this satire which takes a dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a social experiment, a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way.

Mary is in desperate straits. Afflicted with many and varied symptoms, medical bills piling up, her only relief derived from Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia – the therapy recommended by her best, and only, friend – she has to find a way to make some money. A notice in a health food store seems to offer a solution, albeit one cloaked in mystery. She jumps through the many hoops of the recruitment process – her main qualification seemingly her ignorance of Kurt Sky, the household name behind this strange assignment – until she’s initiated into the Girlfriend Experiment. She’s to be Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few of the participants. Each of them must take part in choreographed and scripted Relational Experiments with Kurt, closely monitored by the Research Division who have their own agenda. As the experiment proceeds, it seems that Mary’s interactions with Kurt are the most successful. The job becomes full-time and as the Research Division interpolate their own ideas into the experiments, Mary’s feelings become increasingly confused. Meanwhile, she continues her PAK therapy with Ed, complete with crystals, gnomic pronouncements and incense burning.

Lacey’s novel is stuffed full of barbs aimed at modern society, from our determination to find perfect romantic love to our obsession with celebrity, reserving a few for the wackier alternative therapies. Mary tells her own story in the beginning and end sections of the book while the experiment forms the middle. There were a few too many girlfriends popping up at one point – I began to feel we might be losing track of Mary – but that said Lacey’s writing is both acerbic and penetrating. The idea of a man, numbed by constant and insistent attention, trying to track down how love feels, is both poignant and repellent yet convincing. Lacey has some trenchant comments to make about our pursuit and expectations of love: ‘It was painfully clear then, so painfully clear, that people fell in love to find something in themselves that they’d had all along’ thinks Mary, watching two lovers. Altogether a sharply observed satire, smartly delivered with a hefty dollop of caustic humour, which – echoing that press release – brought Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last to mind.

The End We Start From: Megan Hunter: Hopes springs eternal

Cover imageSometimes I read for the storytelling, sometimes for the writing. With The End We Start From I suspected it was going to be the latter – Megan Hunter is a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. The book also sounded as if it fell into dystopian territory, something I usually avoid like the plague, no pun intended, but once I’d stared reading I found myself drawn into Hunter’s story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives.

Our narrator is in labour with just a few panicky friends in attendance, her husband somewhere up a mountain not expecting their child to make its entrance yet. All goes well but three days later our narrator, her husband R and their child Z must leave: the waters that have been inexorably rising are now threatening to engulf London. They flee north, taken in by R’s parents. As the flood spreads the country is seized by panic. R and his parents’ foraging trips take longer and longer until, one day, only R and his father return, then several weeks later, only R. Caught up in the tiny intimate world of mother and newborn, the news an irritating TV buzz, our narrator worries that her milk will fail. 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. At the urging of her new friends, our narrator moves on again, eventually finding shelter on an island until she decides that it’s time to find R. Throughout the catastrophe, Z has thrived, meeting each developmental milestone and adapting to whatever changes the world throws at him.

The End We Start From is a mere 140 pages in length – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence – but it’s an immensely powerful piece of work. The language is arresting, sometimes stark, occasionally lyrical. Flashes of humour shine out. Hard not to fill this review with a stream of quotes but I’ll try to make do with a few to give you a flavour: ‘G is nowhere, and the kitchen is full of her, her face shining out from the kettle, the shape of her waist wrapped around jars’; ’Days are thin now, stretched so much that time pours through them’; ‘At night, my stomach reaches up to ask for more’. Loosely, and intermittently, woven through our narrator’s story is that of the Ark, a thread which didn’t work so well for me. I found myself not reading those sections so carefully, eager to return to the narrator and Z. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence. It ends on a ringing note of optimism.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: Fun with dystopia

Cover imageIt’s been quite some time since I’ve read a new Margaret Atwood – a little too much dystopia in her later novels for me – but the synopsis of The Heart Goes Last appealed: homeless couple in the nearish future signs on for a project where they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite it has some very serious points to make.

Stan and Charmaine are living in their car. He’s lost his job in the Empathy section of a robotics company, she’s lost hers at the Ruby Slippers care home she loved so much. They’re part of the fallout from the financial meltdown. The streets are lawless, roamed by menacing gangs turned out from overcrowded prisons and not averse to a spot of rape. When Charmaine watches a promotional video offering an escape in the shape of a social experiment she jumps at it, persuading Stan to check out the induction programme by dangling the prospect of motel sex in front of him. She’s had enough of sex on the back seat, avoiding it whenever she can. The induction is slick and convincing. All they have to do is spend alternate months in prison while someone else lives in their house, then switch – and all for the greater good. Run by Positron, the town will be called Consilience: ‘Cons + Resilience. Do time now, buy time for our future!’ is its snappy, seemingly socially conscious slogan. Once they’ve signed there’s no going back as Stan’s streetwise brother points out but Stan sees the prospect of regular sex and stifles his worries about just who’s benefiting from this ‘experiment’. All goes well to begin with but when Stan spots a passionate note supposedly from Jasmine, their female Alternate, he becomes obsessed, going to great lengths to track her down only to find that the truth is entirely different from anything he could have imagined. Soon he’s embroiled in a scheme which will blow the lid off the increasingly sinister goings on at Positron/Consilience.

Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging out well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers in to this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. All manner of things are in her satirical sights – the privatisation of prisons, sex obsession, robotics, big business, an ageing population – to name but a few. Both Charmaine and Stan’s characters are expertly drawn. Their internal monologues are often very funny: Charmaine’s wholesomeness, verging on the twee, takes a surprising turn; Stan’s lurid fantasies about the sensuous Jasmine come back to bite him. There’s a good deal of sly wit – the beautiful Veronica’s sexual fixation on a knitted blue bear is particularly funny as are the inane self-help videos streamed into Consilience homes. But despite all that it has a deadly serious message: we humans are all too easily lulled into a soporific acceptance leaving us wide open for exploitation. And its ending is a triumph – no copouts from Ms Atwood here.

If you like the sound of The Heart Goes Last you might like to read Naomi’s account of Erica Wagner’s interview with Atwood at the Manchester Literature festival over at The Writes of Women.

Well-worn themes

Cover imageA few years ago when I was running the reviews section of a magazine which included children’s books, YA novels were awash with vampires. Then suddenly dystopian fiction seemed to be the thing – as if teens don’t have enough to angst about. It seems that publishers find bandwagons hard to get off, no matter how overcrowded they become. Two current well-trodden paths in adult fiction are post apocalypse (closely related to dystopian) and the demented protagonist.

The first has a long history – lots of it around in the Cold War years, for instance, including what’s now come to be a classic of the genre: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seemed to spark off a new post apocalyptic trend with the likes of  Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse not far behind and now we have Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both longlisted for the Baileys. Cover image

The first example I can remember of the dementia theme is Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. Then there’s Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness, and more recently Sue Peeble’s Snake Road,  Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, Fiona MacFarlanes’s The Night Guest, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves.

Not hard to see what’s triggered either of these trends – climate change and the financial crash seem to have contributed to the first while we’re all terrified of the dementia spectre – but they feel a little over-exposed to me. I’m sure you can think of other well-worn themes, not to mention many books I’ve failed to include. Let me know what your pet likes or dislikes are.

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