Saturday, 4 November 2017

No 52 - How (not) to write a dystopian novel


Once it became known that I was teaching Ursula le Guin’s wonderful, other-planetary novel The Left Hand of Darkness, science-fiction and fantasy buffs were so thin on the academic ground that ‘work’ on those areas – thesis supervisions and examinations and article reviews – started drifting my way. 

I was no buff, having read very little science-fiction at all. I do remember that, as a kid, I enjoyed the ‘Trajan Empire’ comic-fantasy serial in my Look & Learn magazines – a sort of offworld/hi-tech/Roman-Empire mixture. And at high school at one point we ‘did’ a volume of sci-fi stories called The Stars & Under. This included a story about a time-travelling sport hunter being taken back to the Jurassic to shoot a dinosaur, wandering off the carefully non-intrusive pathway and trampling a butterfly – with all sorts of subtle and unforeseeable consequences, including derailing the anticipated landslide outcome of a US presidential election. (Obviously, something like this happened in early 2017.) 

But I wasn’t attracted to fantasy particularly, though I read the obligatory Lord of the Rings. Many years later I encountered a bookish little boy on the Montreal metro, and asked him what he was reading. Harry Potter; it had just come out. ‘Very good’, I said, ‘never stop reading, it will be the greatest treasure of your life,’ and got off the train. I hadn’t a clue who Harry Potter was. In time, I read the available volumes of the series, intrigued at the condemnation by Christian friends of mine – Harry Potter was Satanic, they alleged. I thought the books were good enough tales for twelve year-olds, though rather obviously derivative of classical and mediaeval models – and definitely not Satanic. Even later, ironically, I found myself supervising an academic thesis on precisely those derivations, happily proving my point.

By that stage, of course, science-fiction and fantasy was being incorporated more readily into academic programmes – indeed, was fast becoming the chosen reading field of so many youngsters, intersecting with their more mind-numbing rage for epic film and computer-games. I had myself rather accidentally incorporated a sci-fi story into my PhD work on white myths of Shaka: I somehow discovered that the doyen of science fiction, Arthur C Clarke, had written ‘The Light of Darkness’, about a modern African dictator, also named Chaka, who ultimately gets his eyeballs fried by his own hubristic satellite-dish observatory. It has to count as the most badly written short story in the genre I had ever come across – though there may well be worse out there.

As I migrated from Shaka to ecological concerns in literature, sci-fi hove into view more strongly, just because so many futuristic novels and stories are concerned with where we as humans are headed on our present environmentally-destructive trajectory. Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood were regularly chosen for study by my eco-literature students; and I have found myself supervising and examining theses on these and other speculative/fantasy writers, ranging from brilliant (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Wahington series) to the awful (Game of Thrones). I read two volumes of Thrones, and there was not a single sentence I wanted to go back and read again for its beauty or finesse – and many, many sentences I wanted to feed immediately to that silly woman’s derivative dragons. There is some serious infantilisation of our adult readership going on, and by and large I prefer to consider the future through non-fictional works such as climatologist James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren or Jacques Attali’s A Brief History of the Future. Attali considers scenarios involving banking, international commerce, insurance, sanitation, and cultural nomadism – subjects largely ignored by novelists who prefer the spectacles of high-tech warfare, the power of surveillance, and the prurience of manipulating sexuality and reproduction. The apocalypse may well be rather humdrum, and boringly lacking in zombies.

I also became aware – though the field is expanding fast – that Southern African speculative fiction is thin on the ground. There is J M Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, which is vaguely futuristic; and Jane Rosenthal’s Souvenir, set mostly in the Karoo; Nancy Farmer’s Harare-set The Eye, the Ear & the Arm; an edgy story by Henrietta Rose-Innes, ‘Poison’, as well as her more recent novel, Green Lion; Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City; Andrew Miller’s Dub Steps; a scattering of stories for younger readers... More is emerging, but we’re still in our infancy. There was certainly nothing futuristic set in the Eastern Cape, so as usual when confronted by such a gap, I sort of inwardly shrug and sigh, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just have to do it myself...’

The result was The Wisdom of Adders (available from PrintonDemand, and electronically on Amazon/Kindle here). I had great fun playing with the landscape and a deeply-changed ecology and climate, and with what might have evolved in language and place-names by the year 2170. It’s not sci-fi in the sense of other-planetary influence, alien visitors, time-travel or spectacular technology: it’s entirely grounded in realism, and there is, in my envisaging of a kind of slow global apocalypse over the previous century, not much high-tech left. Like Le Guin, I am really more interested in a particular human situation – in this case the coming-of-age journey of a feisty and impulsive young woman through a landscape partly blighted, partly open to opportunity, a landscape I hope the reader can imaginatively inhabit.

In that respect, the novella is not utopian, but nor is it dystopian in the way of Cormac McCarthy’s now legendarily bleak The Road, with which we are also terrifying our first-year students.  Adders is perhaps more like Jim Crace’s lesser-known future-America journey novel, The Pesthouse, or Le Guin’s anthropological ‘study’ of a future California, Always Coming Home. One gets the oddest questions, which make one wonder if one has written it ‘right’. But what exactly happened in Nummers? (Well, I don’t know, if it isn’t in the novel, it doesn’t exist.) How does she get batteries for her torch? (I don’t know that either; make something up!) What does the jackal mean? (Sorry, haven’t a clue; it’s just there.)

My slightly crabby replies might conceal important questions – questions that resurface as I contemplate writing a story parallel to Adders. (Neither a sequel nor a prequel, what is that – a paraquel? And no, I do not intend to call it ‘The Foolishness of Subtractors’, as waggish Reg Rumney suggested.) Those questions include: Just how much ‘back history’ can one incorporate without slowing up the narrative or sounding didactic? How much ‘future technology’ has to be explained, given that the physics for it may not even have a vocabulary yet? How much ‘meaning’ is best left to the reader’s imagination, how much ‘misinterpretation’ risked? And which current developments and trends does one choose to extrapolate into the future, and why? Is it a matter of simple logical extension, or of one’s own psychological disposition?

Nat Segnit’s recent review article in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘Dystopian’s Dilemma’, is sub-titled ‘Invention at the expense of storytelling.’ He notes how one recent American dystopia overloads the narrative with made-up words for new tech (though such must surely emerge, and Adders is a bit guilty of that); how another has a theory about the future driving it, but the novel attached to it feels merely ‘dutiful’; how another ‘pours in a mass of contrivance and alternative history ... having to explain the world at the cost of inhabiting it.’ Many balances to be struck.


And there are still deeper questions about extinction and hope. Many argue that we humans are destined for extinction, and maybe our extinction is the world’s best hope. But while writers are still writing for readers, it’s a question of how one projects human hope despite everything. To write a dystopian novel utterly without a future for humans would be to destroy the purpose of writing itself. On the other hand a dystopian tale, leavened with hope, to that degree ceases to be dystopian. So there may be no pure dystopia, only dystopic tendencies: in all the stories I’ve now read (though I know I’m still far from buff-hood), there are characters who embody some stubborn desire to go on, to rebel, to survive. This is true even of The Road; of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, now screening on TV; and of that very early story, still in my view as good as any for its haunting vision of a yet-possible future, ‘The Machine Stops’, written in 1924 by E M Forster (yes, he who wrote A Passage to India).  I’ll say no more about it – just read it, while I see if I can rake up any reasons for hope on which to base the next novel...

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