As a speculative fiction writer I’m often drawing on real-world research and subject matter to create authentic and plausible fictional worlds. In the last couple of years there’s been a pandemic and a lockdown. At certain points it felt like I was living in a low budget sci-fi movie. More recently, there’s been the collapse of the ‘pro-Western government’ in Afghanistan, and the rise of the all-smiling, social-media-friendly Taliban 2.0.
As someone who’s writing fiction that happens to be set in the future, I’m thinking... is this US withdrawal from Afghanistan evidence of American decline? And, if this is the case, can the US reinvent itself, like it’s managed to do in the past? Whatifalthist has an interesting video on this exact topic. In another video, a Yale lecture by Rory Stewart, he explores ideas around ‘nation building’ and Western foreign aid. There’s also a Ted Talk from 2011 where he talks about ending the war in Afghanistan, which is worth a watch (although it covers some of the same material). Finally, there’s an interview with Tom Ricks, where he argues that US military leadership went into a rapid decline after the Second World War.
What these three videos highlight are failures in systems and processes, failures in human decision-making, failures in leadership, and failures in providing effective feedback loops. Speculative fiction tends to hone in on these failures, the inherent contradictions and flaws involved in sustaining lies. This usually places any protagonist, who is at least half-worthy, into an uneasy relationship with ‘the system’, or a process.
My reading theme for 2021 has been dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. Based on this, I have three quick tips for would-be dystopian and apocalyptic fiction writers out there:
- Don’t spend too long on the setup. It’s called post-apocalyptic fiction for a reason (not pre-apocalyptic fiction).
- However temping it might be, even Shakespeare didn’t kill everyone off at the end of his tragedies. So, allow some space for optimism, hope, and a sense of continued life. It helps to lift what can at times be a depressing sub-genre.
- Make a decision. Are you writing literary fiction or genre fiction? Combining the two is an incredibly hard trick to pull off successfully. Personally, I think it’s better to choose one or the other, and to deliver on that promise.
Stories are a combination of celebrations and warnings. The dystopian, post-apocalyptic disaster story falls into the category of a warning, but it’s also a celebration of individual resilience and group cohesion in the face of extreme adversity. In simple terms, it’s a dramatic metaphor for life.
Is Mary Shelley’s mostly forgotten post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man (1826), any good? In a word — yes. The setup (the first third) is quite slow and it focuses on issues that are probably of greater interest to a reader in 1826 than 2021. This is a personal story about her own loss, and the ‘plague’ (the 1817–1824 cholera pandemic), Republicanism, and catastrophic change. It was widely viewed as being offensive and too far-fetched when it was published. The novel was eventually republished in 1965.
I think it’s worth reading because it sets out the template for post-apocalyptic fiction, and the group in peril story:
- Introduce a group of people and the dynamic tension between them.
- Introduce a terrifying scenario. (The trauma of this breaks down the old social order, replacing it with a new one based on humanistic values and competence.)
- Kill off most of the characters. Those who work together last longer. A small number survive, emerging stronger.
Although they’re very different stories, The Last Man and Frankenstein deal with a similar issue, the idea that people aren’t in control of nature.
Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) is a literary speculative fiction novel. The novel takes place in a new ice age, a kind of metaphysical dreamscape. Is it a metaphor for heroin addiction or about alienation from the real world? Or both, perhaps? The protagonist acknowledges his disconnection from reality early on:
Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.
The tone feels like an Edvard Munch painting filmed as an episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s a strange little book. The reader only discovers why the protagonist is really there, in the last line.
The Stars My Destination was first published as Tiger! Tiger! (1956). It’s The Count of Monte Cristo in space, with teleportation.
There’s a lot of good stuff going on — ideas, action sequences, characters with proletariat space accents, and the revenge theme itself. It feels like it might have been the inspiration for The Expanse series. The only snag was that I didn’t like any of the characters, so I felt emotionally locked out of the story.
Mockingbird (1980) is a dystopian novel by Walter Tevis. It’s set in the distant future, in a post-literate society where robot helpers have infantilised the medicated remnants of humanity.
The protagonist is haunted by a line of dialogue (written as a caption) in a silent film. It’s part of what appears to be a throwaway line from an otherwise uninteresting conversation:
Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.
What does the line mean? The mockingbird doesn’t sing its own song. It mimics the calls of other birds. In simple terms, the characters — humans and human/robot hybrid — are trying to discover their sense of an authentic self.
Mockingbird is a sombre ‘big ideas’ literary speculative fiction novel about authenticity, self-imposed prisons, and the insidious effects of technology on behaviour. Which prison are we in? Whose song are we singing?
After an atomic weapons accident in space, the world is spayed with radiation, which makes the human race sterile. People grow old and no babies are born — the human race is dying out. This is the premise behind Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964).
Greybeard is a literary speculative fiction novel and it epitomises the challenges of making literary fiction work within a genre style plot. It’s nicely written, nuanced and plausible, but at times the pace feels somewhat lethargic.
When I think about Frank Herbert’s writing, I think about Dune (1965), I don’t think about The White Plague (1982). Dune transcends the 1960s, but The White Plague feels like it’s forever stuck in 1982.
It takes a brave writer to tackle Irish history, the IRA, insanity, femicide, and international geopolitics in a single novel. The story wants to be literary fiction, but the genre style plot gets in the way.
Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is set in a dystopian future where low quality entertainment is consumed via wall-sized TV screens, books are illegal and burnt by so-called firemen.
The novel comes across mostly as futurist Americana with some interesting tech, such as the robot ‘hounds’, but it’s a frustrating novel to read, because it introduces intriguing elements (the protagonist’s depressed wife, the mysterious girl, and the robot ‘hound’) without really exploring any of them.
Black No More (1931) is George S Schuyler’s Afrofuturist satirical speculative fiction novel about American race politics. What happens when an African American man invents a process that turns ‘black’ people ‘white’?
Black No More is pure Swift in the way it exposes the absurdities of US race politics. It’s not a story about wanting to be white, but a comic vehicle to explore the stupidity of ‘colour prejudice’. When we meet the protagonist, Max, we see him from the viewpoint of a racist white person:
Max was tall, dapper and smooth coffee-brown. His negroid features had a slightly satanic cast and there was an insolent nonchalance about his carriage.
The ‘Black-No-More’ process transforms America. Max decides to become white, believing that it will make him happier. But life as a white man turns out to be a disappointment, and it doesn’t make him any happier. Max, now Matthew, gets a job working for a white supremacist group, The Knights of Nordica. Soon enough, he’s involved with the leader’s daughter. When she tells him that she’s pregnant he’s afraid of being outed for his African heritage.
Although it’s a classic work of African-American literature, I can’t see it being published today. Can you see publishers rushing to print a contemporary satirical novel about black people choosing to be white?
Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic science fiction comic book series (2002 – 2008). The story centres around Yorick Brown (and his monkey Ampersand). After an androcidal event, they’re the only two males left on Earth.
The series shows how serialised fiction maintains the reader’s interest through constant plot twists and reversals of fortune. Thankfully, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and there’s plenty of action, jokes about gender politics, feminism, and relationships — but, somehow, it never quite manages to transcend the next plot twist to deliver a convincing story arc.
And now there’s a TV series, which I’ll have a look at next month.