Posts Tagged ‘dystopia’

iateol cover second smallA dystopia is a nightmare vision of the future. It is Orwell’s 1984, it is Huxley’s Brave New World, it is the shock of what might yet be, and therefore, like the future itself, never actually arrives. Yet the world of 2019, would have seemed dystopic had we seen it coming in the 80’s, and though the 80’s were by no means the halcyon days, there is still a certain innocence attached to them, give or take the threat of mutually assured destruction. But there were no surveillance cameras perched on every conceivable vantage point, watching ordinary people going about their business, no cameras reading faces and putting names to them and we did not all willingly carry portable tracking devices that could read our minds and influence us by subliminal suggestion. Nor did we have governments willing to suspend the workings of parliament in order to push though controversial policies that might easily threaten our health and well-being.

As sinister as all that would have sounded in the 80’s, it’s perfectly normal to us, living now. We are it seems, an eminently adaptable species and this is perhaps one reason for our evolutionary dominance. We readily adapt to hardship, even those hardships we have created for ourselves, or are inflicted upon us by our fellow man. Today’s outrage is tomorrow’s normality. Yet we go on as if the ever more brutish externalities of our existence are of only secondary importance, for surely otherwise we would do something about them, especially when they start to hurt.

Many of us have long been conscious of a certain pathological polarisation in world affairs, fuelled by the rich man’s ever more desperate scramble for loot. This has led in turn to a Zeitgeistian volatility, aided and in large part amplified by our networked communications technology, a thing that can make a deafening amp-squeal out of even the most trivial dissent, or which can be used to distract us with candy from the contemplation of things others – the data-barons and their masters – would rather we ignored. In the UK, where I live, this volatility has of late of course been focused around the closely contested and highly controversial referendum to leave the European Union. In the three years since the vote, it has caused untold division at every level of society, unleashed the most intemperate language, and ushered in an era of utilitarian, political chicanery like nothing else I can remember.

Personally, I view it as a disaster on many fronts, and it has undoubtedly coloured my fiction writing. My current novel, The Inn at the Edge of Light, follows the life of a man from his twenties, in the 1980’s, through to old age, and his journey into a near distant dystopia, a future not too difficult to extrapolate from current trends. Needless to say his externalities do not improve much with time, but that he weathers such things so stoically shows what truly drives us are the same things that have always driven us – a place of our own to call home, freedom of relationship, of love, and something else, something irrational that gives us hope in the face of adversity, that even at the eleventh hour as the hangman approaches our cell, we hold out for a miracle, a last minute reprieve. Better still we shrug and say it doesn’t matter, that the truth, the essence, the meaning of our lives lies elsewhere.

There’s nothing I can do about the constitutional crisis, a thing so freely heralded this week from all but the usual swivel-eyed right-wing orifi, who, on the contrary, consider it all fair play and a bit of a wheeze. Yes, I can sign the petitions, register my objection, refute here and now, and even with touch of spittle-flecked vehemence, the somewhat condescending Moggian accusation of there being an air of “confection” in my dissent. But having done all that, I then turn back to seek a more soothing music in my words, and in the archetypal chatter in my head, and the ever beguiling images of my dreams.

At what point do we wake and realise we’re living in a dystopia? The truth is we never do, and anyway by the time it’s arrived it’s already too late to do anything about it.

Read Full Post »


corncrakeThe searing heat abated somewhat today, though the stupefying humidity remained. I decided on just a short outing then, not too far nor too strenuous but still found myself dripping in minutes.

Where was I? Well, see if you can guess: the forest floor was ferny thick and the canopy abuzz with a torment of flies. There were plastic bottles a plenty in the undergrowth, ditto crisp packets, also a wealth of spent nitrous oxide cartridges. Higher up the hill, among the painstakingly restored terraced walkways there were the usual bags of dog turds hanging from trees like bizarre offerings to the ever salivating demons of barbarism, oh,… and there was an adult diaper oozing mess. We could only be in the Rivington Terraced Gardens then, or just about anywhere else in the countryside these days.

But on a lighter note I had recently discovered this thing called Google Lens. If you have a data signal, you can point your Android device’s camera at anything, and it will tell you what it is. So, whilst out and about in the green and with quite a perky signal, I decided to try it out – in the field so to speak. However, it swore blind the oak leaf was from a different tree entirely, a more exotic and entirely unpronounceable Amazonian species. It struggled to find any sort of name for a sycamore leaf at all, was confused by a humble bramble, but did identify, in the corner of that particular frame a corncrake, which would have been sensational had it not actually been my foot.

All of which got me thinking, if Google really is intent on displacing superfluous human activities like driving cars and reading maps, and telling us what things are, there must come a point when we’re no longer capable of knowing about these things for ourselves. It is at that point our entire frame of reference will be dictated by a kind of iron-brained deity we have in fact constructed, placed our trust in, and quite probably sacrificed our own long term survival on planet earth so this unconscious entity can thrive while missing the point entirely, that without us humble thinking beings, this artificial creature has no purpose at all.

It might well be an oak tree we are looking at, but we shall be forced to call it whatever the machine says it is, whether it is or not. And if the machine has no name for a thing, we shall stare at that nameless thing in horror, as we might at a demon come to threaten our entire world view.

For a time there’ll still be grey-haired die-hards who like to read books and maps, Luddites who insist on driving their own cars, but we won’t last much longer and then, well, you kids are on your own, and you’ve only yourselves to blame. The real world is still out there, though looking a little sorry for itself now, quite literally shat upon, and suffering ever more frequent paroxisms of climatic excess that we’re probably too late to fix. And I suppose the thing is we’ve never respected it, trusted instead in our own superiority, in our technologies, so now we find ourselves with gormless expressions, tongues hanging out, noses pressed against the glass of our latest device, peering in to a world that doesn’t exist, while the one that does, the one that sustains us and gives us air to breathe, we have allowed to catch fire.

We are adept at adaptation, so much so there can never be an example of dystopia outside of science fiction, for no matter how weird or absurd, oppressive or dangerous our world becomes, we have already accepted it as the new normal, even before it’s claimed its first victims.

Corncrake? Yea right.



Read Full Post »

I’ve carried this story on my website “The Rivendale Review” for the best part of a decade now, but I decided to  put it up on Feedbooks last weekend. Without spoiling the story, Rosemary’s Eyes relies upon the idea of a seamless transition from the world we know, one that is strictly confined within the bounds of space and time, to a world that lies outside of those laws, but one in which we can make way by relaxing the normally strict hold we have over our imaginations. This is a perennial theme, one that’s been used by writers down the centuries, either for purely entertainment purposes, or in order, through their fiction, to indulge in one kind of thought experiment or another. Rosemary’s Eyes falls into both categories.

Re-reading Rosemary’s Eyes now tells me much about both the nature and origins of many of my stories. It pre-dates the internet, being originally introduced to the world as a double-line spaced manuscript that was chugged out of a dot-matrix printer. It then went off to a UK science/speculative fiction magazine, and after about six months the editor returned it with a note telling me the opening was too much like J.G. Ballard’s “Concrete Island”.

This  came as a surprise to me. I’ve enjoyed many a story from the pen of J.G. Ballard (sadly no longer with us), but I’d not read Concrete Island, so I went out and found a copy, and the editor was right – there are certain similarities.

Ballard’s hero crashes his car in the opening scene – so does mine – and they both end up confined in a sort of wasteland, in the middle of a triangle of arterial roadways. But there the similarities end. Ballard’s vision was, well, Ballardian: urban, grungy, claustrophobic and disturbingly dystopian. Mine was rural, open, romantic, “back to nature”, and utopian – not a trace of concrete anywhere. Ballard’s hero remains trapped on his “island”, even when a means of escape is revealed to him because by that time it seems escape is no longer on his mind, and he settles down instead to live among the filth. In my story the boundaries dissolve, both physically and psychologically, opening up a new world, one the hero had never imagined possible. His experience then is one of release, of transcendence, rather than confinement.

There was no point in explaining all of this to the editor of that magazine, of course. Instead, I thought: “flipping heck” – there must be millions of sci-fi fantasy novels out there, and even if I read them all, I’ll surely forget the crucial one, write a scene that’s similar to something someone had written before, and get yet another editor returning yet another submission saying it was too much like, say, the fourth chapter of Edith Twonk’s 1938 novella Florence Loses her Parasol but Finds a Farthing. (Don’t Google it, I made it up).

So, if any of you have read Concrete Island, and you care to try Rosemary’s Eyes, before you say: wait a minute – these openings are quite similar: I know,.. I know… I was beaten to it by a much better, and much more famous writer.

It’s easy to lose faith in what you’re doing, of course, to react badly to a knock like this, and it certainly got under my skin at the time – the result being that I set Rosemary’s Eyes aside for a long time –  until the internet came along and I had nothing to lose by sticking it up on my website. What it also did though was shove the splinter of J.G. Ballard rather more deeply into my brain, and I’ve paid more attention to his work than I think I normally would have done. If you don’t know Ballard, do look him up, though I warn you, his  vision of modern society is unrelentingly grim and deeply disturbing.

My own work is the opposite of Ballardian, perhaps naively so, yet it addresses the same problems of encroaching dystopia, but from a different angle.  I don’t put myself in the same league as Ballard of course, who is surely one of England’s most successful, and imaginative writers, but as a result of that early hiccup with Rosemary’s Eyes, I do count him among my influences. I don’t  write like him, because I can’t. I view the world differently – not that I don’t believe he was right, that we’re living in a nightmare of our own making, because in many ways we are. One has only to visit urban Britain, or indeed anywhere in the western world and what you see is Ballard’s vision staring right back at you – and that’s not a thing any of us should be comfortable with.

My own approach to this is more of a reaction, one of trying to get at the cure instead of morbidly dwelling upon the disease. I live out in the countryside, which helps. There are no high-rise buildings, here, unless you count grain silos. There are no motorways, no factories, no gated communities, no crack-cocaine, or machine guns. My world consists of  a small village, a thousand year old church, centuries old trees, wide open skies, and vast open meadows, where the potatoes and carrots you buy in Tescos are actually grown – yes grown, and not cloned in some ghastly biochemical vat! This isn’t wild countryside – it’s agricultural, but living with even a mechanically tamed nature is better than no nature at all. The Romantics of  the late eighteenth, and early nineteenth century understood this. They knew that a connection with Nature, a sense of the earth upon which we stand, gives vent to certain functions of the unconscious, functions that are pacified by it, but which can equally be twisted into nightmares if we are isolated from it. To be isolated from nature, and from the Romantic sense is bad for us. Its result is the Ballardian dystopia.

Cities are rusty, dusty, dirty, violent places. I don’t know a single one that isn’t. If I lived in a city, my work would be more Ballardian, more despairing perhaps. He points to the sickness and frightens us with ever more disturbing portraits of it. But with respect to the master, beyond a certain point I think this approach can be misunderstood. It can reinforce the very dystopia we are trying to resist. We see the grunge, the rust, the dirt, the violence all so eloquently portrayed as “art”, and we mistake it as tacit permission for this kind of reality to exist at all – and of course it can be made to look so glamorous on TV! The noble work is thus corrupted into the horror movie, into the voyeuristic chain saw massacre, the twisted mass-murder-fest that has us frightened to let our kids out of the door.

What I try to point to in my stories however is a reality of a different kind. I see this as the only cure to dystopia, and it involves a reappraisal of our selves, also a re-acquaintance with that embarrassing thing we’ve been trying to distance ourselves from these last two hundred years, since the beginning of our so called Enlightenment: it is of course the soul. There is not a trace of soul in a thousand miles of motorway, I know because I’ve travelled them, and a less spiritually sustaining environment there is not. But turn off for a moment, or crash off like the hero in Rosemary’s Eyes, touch down in the countryside that these high-speed arterial abominations cut through so brutally,… and you reconnect, you light up.

On an eight-lane highway, or in a city, there is no sense of what the alchemists of old called the world soul, the Anima Mundi. All you see  is what mankind is capable of constructing. But a construct without soul is always going to be ugly, and it will likewise inspire only what is ugliest in human nature. As I write I’m sitting in my garden, beneath a wide open sky and with the sound of a warm breeze moving the trees. I feel the breeze on my face. It drifts, it brushes, it caresses, it connects me  to the earth, and the heavens. Its energy is my energy. It animates me, it drives the tides of my mind, it stirs my thoughts.

All of this is no more than the figment of a Romantic’s imagination of course, but without a return to at least a healthy respect and an understanding of those values, I believe we are lost. Ballard’s dystopia is all around us; its dusty, rusty fist is about to close and squeeze out the last traces of soul. Perhaps at best my  stories can provide some comforting reading at bedtime, a temporary diversion from whatever shades of dystopia darken your life. Or then again they might stir you into action, they make you look your dystopia in the eye and say: to hell with this. There has to be another way. Dystopia or not?

We choose.

Read Full Post »