Future dystopias ain’t what they used to be
Writing a novel when the border between hard news and hard science fiction is increasingly porous
Ed O’Loughlin whose novel This Eden is published by Riverrun on June 10th. Photograph: Vinnie Volkerijk
The year is 2021, and a dying planet hunkers down, looks inward, turning its back on a future that it foresees with perfect clarity but cannot bring itself to face. Richer nations, still defending relative luxury and privilege, deploy ever more inhuman and brutal means to push back refugees from a creeping apocalypse. Hope is a poison to wilful oblivion.
Having read the headline over this piece, you’ll have already guessed that I’m referring to a fictional story. But, knowing how this kind of intro is constructed, you’ll have worked out, too, that I’m also describing our present reality. These things that are happening right now, right in front of us, were also premises for the acclaimed 2006 film Children of Men, in which mass infertility kicks out a key emotional prop of human existence – our love and hope for the next generations. The film is pitched in 2027, but the novel by Phyllis Dorothy James it is based on, published in 1992, is set in 2021.
Future dystopias ain’t what they used to be. In terms of what happens next, narrative tension is, like the rain forest, a dwindling resource.
We had a bumper year for cyberpunk wastelands in 2019. The first Blade Runner movie, based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is set in that year. So is Akira (1988), the celebrated manga-based animation of a dark neo-Tokyo. Also, The Running Man (1987), in which convicts are hunted to death for mass entertainment.
Last year was relatively tranquil, though residents and ramblers in Co Wicklow, where Reign of Fire was filmed at the turn of the millennium, will be glad to have survived the plague of dragons it predicted for 2020. Perhaps they got off lightly thanks to Covid, which kept most of them indoors. Next year, 2022, we can sort out any lingering lockdown tensions in The Purge, then dine at home on Soylent Green.
Our reality has overtaken, or will soon have caught up with, many of our best/worst fictional futures. I say reality, though George Orwell predicted that by 1984 reality itself would have been deliberately drowned in a flood of fake information. He was early, but not wrong. Similarly, the women of New England have yet to be turned into brood mares and chattels for religious bigots, but global misogyny is making a comeback, and for the women of Afghanistan, who the US is about to hand back to the Taliban, The Handmaid’s Tale might soon resemble a leaflet on family planning.
The failed-state USA of Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower, in which you can’t call the cops for help – particularly if you’re black – for fear they will arrest, extort or kill you, is set three years from now. Its hollowed-out institutions for which taxes are ruthlessly levied, but which deliver no public services, would have seemed futuristic to Americans in the early 1990s when she wrote it, but they would already have been deeply familiar to the people of, say, Nigeria or Mobutu’s Zaire.
As an African-American writer with an interest in post-colonialism, Butler no doubt intended this. By predicting the rise in 2024 of an ignorant, racist and brutal US president, who would rally religious fundamentalists and fearful poor to his slogan (she actually wrote this) “Make America Great Again”, Butler was, like Orwell, right on the money, but unlike him, a little too late.
Once, it was possible to view malign tech surveillance (1984 et al), mass human redundancy due to automation (Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano), global warming (JG Ballard’s The Drowned World), societal entropy (Mad Max One), energy famine (Mad Max Two), Tina Turner (Mad Max Three), and catastrophic climate change (Mad Max: Fury Road) as threats in the future. Now it is clear that they are already with us. We still haven’t hit bottom, but it feels like we’ve already jumped off those cliffs.
This begs a hard question for writers: where do we go next when the next is the now? One of the next great works of speculative fiction, Jim Shepard’s Phase Six, will be published this month and is set a mere handful of years in the future. Instead of writing a Covid novel (already passe), or a post-Covid novel (brace yourselves, people), Shepard has written a next-Covid novel, a terse, scientifically-detailed but deeply human account of how the next pandemic might play out.
Shepard pitches his narrative on the increasingly porous border between hard news and hard science fiction. His principal heroes, two overwhelmed and vulnerable young female field epidemiologists, have no technology to help or hinder them that we don’t have today. Nor, despite the fact that Covid has already happened, do they have any more institutional back-up than our present front-line clinicians.
No political lessons have been learned from Covid-19. Global health bodies are still fractured and under-resourced. The systems for contact tracing and quarantine are still not fit for purpose. Hospital budgets have not been de-gutted, and public health systems have not been beefed up (though on the whole they still seem to be better than what we have in Ireland, right now, 15 months into the pandemic).
And even though Shepard’s new/ancient pathogen, emerging from the melting permafrost of a rare-earth mine in Greenland, is far more lethal than Covid, piling bodies in the streets, in his near-future there is still a mass market for quack cures, denial and wilful ignorance, stoked by a right wing anti-truth media. How does Shepard’s plague story end? Patience. We still haven’t finished the one we’re in now.
The task is no longer predicting a future, so much as helping the reader to brace for its impact. My own new novel, This Eden, has to psychologically prepare one of its main characters, a somewhat passive and blinkered young man in his 20s, for an unwitting role in a quest to save the planet. So my story tricks him into ploughing through a suitable reading list, including some of the works mentioned above.
Others, in no particular order, include Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood), the Dispossessed (Ursula K Le Guin), Roadside Picnic (the Strugatsky brothers), and the Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon). To add a whiff of sulphur, and metaphysics, he is also force-fed the Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and our own Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.
The other main protagonist, a reluctant young Irish spook called Aoife, has herself been seduced to her fate by the haunted books of Eoin McNamee, although this was something she brought on herself.
Having thus juiced up my novel with outsourced profundity, I had to decide where and when to set it. I started it, four years ago, in Vancouver, for reasons to do with globalised finance, tech and real estate, and how they are crushing the life from young people (as it turns out, Dublin would have served just as well). I had already plotted narrative waypoints in Silicon Valley, New Jersey, Uganda, and Jerusalem. But how would it all end? The answer came to me on the Royal Canal towpath. Where better than here, in Dublin city? When better than now?
Books take time to edit and publish, so now is now then, March 13th, 2020. In what I am claiming as a daring genre experiment (or stale gimmick), my future dystopia is set in the past. And also, the real world. Let’s call it Sweatpunk: I was out for a run when I thought of it.
On March 13th, 2020 our schools had just shut, and the pubs were about to follow. The government was talking about cancelling the St Patrick’s Day festivites, which it duly did. We were on the verge of our first, and in the view of many, best lockdown. No one knew what would happen next. Despite all the new vaccines, the fact is, we still don’t.
This Eden is not a Covid novel, but that moment of peak uncertainty, that Friday 13th in the spring of last year, turned out to be a fortuitous pivot, a good day to end one story and look towards the next. Most dystopian novels are set in a future in which the worst has already happened. Yet the truth, even now, is that the worst doesn’t have to happen at all. It might seem a long shot – and feral money, now the dominant species on our planet would have us believe it’s not even that – but hope for the future is still a real option.
My characters, who are younger than me, still have a chance to write a better ending for themselves.
This Eden by Ed O’Loughlin is published by Riverrun on June 10th