This year I’ve been reading a lot of speculative fiction. I’ve spent previous years catching up on spy novels, and crime fiction. This burst of reading has made me aware of speculative fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction’s tropes.
Great storytelling calls on the creation of tension (suspense), and engaging characters for the reader to get behind. Where science fiction adds world building into the mix, speculative fiction is about systems.
At their best, the systems in speculative fiction are immersive. They are the environment and the processes surrounding the protagonist. The story is about how the system impacts on the protagonist. It may focus on the location, politics, technology, or society. It may incorporate ideas about order and chaos — and how this affects the protagonist’s individual humanity.
Even if this is a simplistic way of understanding speculative fiction, I think that it’s an effective way of grappling with how it functions. It helps to explain what readers see in these stories. It provides a framework for understanding how the main character will operate within the story.
My top 10 novels (and their systems)
The importance of systems is apparent in my current top ten novels, which are listed here in no particular order:
- King Rat, James Clavell (1962): life in a Second World War POW camp. System: the prison.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005): Abuse, corruption and coverups. System: paternalistic power.
- The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (2008): The Roman games set in the future. System: police state.
- Dune, Frank Herbert (1965): Interplanetary struggle for power and resources. System: aristocratic competition.
- Killing Floor, Lee Child (1997): a small town permeated by curruption. System: organised crime.
- Ready Player One, Ernest Cline (2011): A nostalgic adventure. System: corporate power.
- Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan (2002): A new life, and a new crime to solve. System: technocracy.
- Pines, Blake Crouch (2012): a small town isn’t what it seems. System: dystopian conspiracy.
- The Second Sleep, Robert Harris (2019): the future is medieval. System: theocracy.
- Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005): military science fiction, respawned. System: war.
One Second After
As the year wraps up, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that my (deep breath) post-apocalyptic dystopian speculative fiction phase is coming to a conclusion. The last reading burst has included One Second After (2009), which is the first and best novel in William R Forstche’s post-apocalyptic trilogy. It takes its time to get going, but once it does it’s a decent read.
The PostmanI’ve also read The Postman (1985), which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It has its moments, but its a fix-up novel, which is something that I always struggle to enjoy. The prose, especially interior monologue, can be overly explanatory. Whatever you might think of the 1997 film, the movie does a good job of adapting the source material.
The Second Sleep
I really enjoyed The Second Sleep (2019) by Robert Harris. The novel was probably cheated out of gaining wider recognition because it was published during a pandemic year. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel (this reveal occurs early in the story) about us, which is to say our world now. It’s like a mystery novel, and our world is the mystery. It’s a nicely crafted story, and it feels like a nice high to end my journey into post-apocalyptic fiction for the year.
There will be more post-apocalyptic novels, and I am sure I will discover and enjoy many of them... but for now, I’ve ticked this box.
Y: The Last Man and Foundation
Last month, I mentioned Y: The Last Man and Foundation, two new TV series. Y: The Last Man didn’t gel with me and I’ve given up on it. The Walking Dead did a great job of adapting a serialised graphic novel, and Andrew Lincoln (let’s face it) did a brilliant job as Rick Grimes. For whatever reason, the protagonist in Y: The Last Man just isn’t that interesting. Some of the scenes are clunky and flagged themselves up as ‘scripted dramatic conflict’ instead of feeling authentic.
So far, I’m enjoying Foundation. It looks great and the pace feels about right. It shows off a bunch of visual influences: Star Wars, Game of Thrones, ancient Egypt, 2001, and Blade Runner 2049. It’s one hell of a story to adapt, and there are so many characters! It will be interesting to see where they take this, and if they can retain my interest. In the meantime, I’ll keep watching.
Shōgun, and Tai-Pan
With all the dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve been reading lately, it’s made a refreshing change reading James Clavell’s historical fiction. Historical fiction and science fiction have a fair amount in common. Dune is the perfect example, its written like a work of historical fiction. I’m realising how influential Foundation was with its future world that’s influenced by the Roman Empire.
Shōgun (1975), and Tai-Pan (1966) are probably Clavell at his historical fiction best. Gai-Jin is well written but the story is slightly disappointing being mostly set in a European trading camp in Japan (without much change of location) and featuring characters who lack a satisfying story arc. The magic of Clavell’s historical fiction doesn’t quite translate into his novel’s set in the contemporary world. Noble House, and Whirlwind feel like dated 1970s thrillers. As a writer, it seems like you can get away with a lot more in historical fiction (with suspension of disbelief, etc) than you can with a thriller set in the present day. This is important part of what makes historical fiction such fun.
King Rat (1962) is Clavell’s best novel. The story combines his rapid point of view switching (a technique that seems less popular these days) with his incredible precision for describing the inner world of his characters. I read it without much expectation, but it’s really good.
The story is set in a Second World War prisoner of war camp. The format switches between the POWs and their loved ones at home. The prison (POW) story shares many of its tropes with horror and post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s a group in peril story about the end of things. It’s about raw survival. The trauma of defeat and incarceration results in a new order, one in which the old world is temporarily displaced. The book was published in 1962, and set in a WW2 POW camp, so it’s not going to be on-message 2021 ‘woke’, nonetheless it has some remarkable scenes about gender fluidity that I found moving. The conflicts are handled well and feel genuine. Great drama isn’t just about two people arguing, it’s about the clash of world views.
Shōgun and Tai-Pan are hugely entertaining novels to read, but King Rat is Clavell’s work of art.
Where there’s historical fiction, there’s historical speculative fiction, alternative, and counterfactual historical fiction. Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) follows in the footsteps of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) by imagining a Nazi victory in the early stages of the Second World War.
The protagonist is a less interesting version of Bernard Samson (who appears in Deighton’s two 1980s spy trilogies). SS-GB is a well-crafted novel but the dull main character and perfunctory romance dragged things down for me.
Alternative Second World War fictions can be chillingly creepy, and the historical remix will satisfy many readers, but I wanted more from the story, the main character, and the dramatic tension. Although Fatherland (1992) came after SS-GB, and was influenced by it, it’s a much more satisfying story.
The Day of the Jackal
Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971) made the thriller novel feel more real than it had ever been before. Its authenticity comes from the author’s journalistic knowledge of the subject and the huge amounts of specific detail. This is evident in the assassin’s preparation, his procurement of a bespoke sniper rifle, and how he goes about creating a false identity (using a technique that was only circumvented in the UK in 2007). Revealing authentic ‘trade secrets’, often of a criminal nature, became something of a trend in 60s and 70s popular fiction — Arthur Hailey’s ‘Hotel’ (1965) is a good example.
What also makes The Day of the Jackal remarkable is its seductive semi-literary-journalistic style, and the great characters. It also breaks with convention. The story begins with three chapters loaded with background information. It’s only when we meet The Jackal, in the fourth chapter, that things warm up. The story is like an episode of Columbo in that we know who the killer is, but we don‘t know how they’re going to be caught. The suspense is generated around the reader waiting for the assassin to slip up.
Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (2015) is oddly paradoxical in the way he considers himself a loner and an ‘outsider’, but he comes off as a skilled people person who is able to call on impressive social connections when required.
My only drugs are silence and solitude — Frederick Forsyth
The early part of the book is the most interesting, followed by the section about the Biafran War. Unfortunately, as Forsyth becomes more successful, the story gets less interesting.
He’s scathing about the British establishment, the Foreign Office, the BBC, the British justice system, Westminster politics, and yet the book ends with a patriotic flight over Southern England in a Spitfire.
Reminiscence is a sci-fi film about escapism through re-experienced memories. It’s in that often problematic in-between budget territory (in this case the production cost has been estimated to be $54–68 million) which is too big and too risky to be low-budget and not enough to really go for it.
It starts off looking like it could be a film about global warming with interesting CGI of ‘The Sunken Coast’, but it jumps into a kind of The Matrix, meets The Thirteenth Floor meets Vanilla Sky, with a little Inception thrown in for good measure. Half-way through it suddenly turns into John Wick. It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I think it really wants to be a character-based Neo Noir story. There’s way too much heavy-handed expositional dialogue, which doesn’t help.
Settlers is a kind of Western in space. Things are implied in the world building, but I found myself wanting to know more about the context. It’s well put together and the storytelling stays within its self-imposed low-budget boundaries. Overall, it’s not bad but the story is bleak.
The Matrix Resurrections trailer
The Matrix Resurrections (The Matrix 4) trailer, looks interesting. Judging by the trailer — so this isn’t a spoiler — it appears that Neo is undergoing therapy. He believes that the first three Matrix films were a hallucination (or he’s so traumatised by the experience that he’s desperate to forget about it). Whatever the reason is, we know what’s going to happen next!
Finch is a new Tom Hanks film that features a man and his two best friends, a dog... and a robot. It looks like a fun, feel-good movie. I’m looking forward to it.