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The return of dystopian fiction

From Dave Eggers to John Lanchester and Ben Okri to Margaret Atwood, writers are crafting horror stories that reflect our living nightmare.

Just down the road from where I live is an excellent bakery. Our London neighbourhood has lately transformed itself from the kind of place where the local caff would serve you a homely bap to a place where this new bakery seems right at home; sourdough loaves, cardamom rolls, flat whites made from single-origin coffee and small jars of jam at £6 each. I confess that I love this bakery. I feel guilty about it. I recognise that my presence – and the presence of other people like me, calling ourselves middle class but really, by the standards of any other time in the history of the world, fabulously well-off – in this neighbourhood is one of the reasons it exists, and also why it’s harder and harder to find a cup of coffee that does not cost £2.70.

Recently the bakery has put up a small sign by its cash register. “Sorry,” says the sign, “Card payment only.” No more digging around for heavy pound coins that chink together with the weight of something earned and saved: tap your card, tap your phone, and you and your coffee can be on your way.

Unless you don’t have a card or a phone to tap. If all you have is coins, tough luck, and the sign on the “cash register” might as well say: “Keep out”. So, says the novelist Sam Byers, in considering what a dystopia might or might not be, we must ask ourselves: a dystopia for whom? “Many people – not just around the world but in this country – will tell you they are living in a dystopia,” he tells me. “If you are homeless and trying to register for benefits and the system won’t accept your application, you’re living in a dystopia. If you have arrived in this country and have refugee status but don’t have a home address, you can’t get a bank account: you’re living in a dystopia.” When we talk about dystopian fiction, Byers says, we have to wonder: “Are we just imagining something that other people are already experiencing?”

Byers’s second novel, Perfidious Albion, was published last year. Set in a fragmenting post-Brexit Britain where giant tech companies are controlling more and more of our lives, the novel’s alternative reality looms on the very near horizon. I read it with the same discomfort I feel when watching Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror: a sense of something too close to the bone. That’s why I stopped watching it entirely, in fact. But literary dystopia is hard to avoid these days: the pressures of the 21st century have shifted this type of narrative from the science-fiction and fantasy lists firmly into the mainstream.

Settling on just what a dystopia is, however, is not straightforward. The Oxford Dictionary offers: “An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” This is certainly recognisable, from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential 1924 novel of a surveillance state, We, to Orwell’s 1984 to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  But according to the Cambridge Dictionary, a dystopia is “(the idea of) a society in which people do not work well with each other and are not happy”. Cambridge also offers that “You can also find related words, phrases and synonyms in the topics ‘feeling sad and unhappy’.”

It is this definition that opens the door to Byers’s question. Are all of the people not working well together? Are all people unhappy? Or is the unhappiness of some the price paid for the happiness of others: an elite, for instance, removed from the privations of the masses? Whichever definition we choose, the word itself springs from Thomas More’s 1516 coinage: his Utopia was a vision of an ideal society – ideal, at least, to its author. A Utopian vision depends on the idea that human beings and human society are perfectible: we have fallen rather far, these days, from believing that to be possible.

Dystopian novels crowd the shelves this spring. From Dave Eggers comes The Parade (Hamish Hamilton), in which two men known only as Four and Nine are tasked with building a great road connecting the two halves of a nation recovering from a nameless but dreadful conflict. Debut novelist Ben Smith enters the scene with Doggerland (Fourth Estate), a haunting story set on a huge wind farm in some unspecified time after climate disaster has rendered most of what was once the landscape uninhabitable and survivors are in thrall to an organisation known only as the Company. John Lanchester’s recent novel The Wall (Faber & Faber) marries climate catastrophe to paranoia about being overrun by foreigners.

Two very different novels weave dystopia with hints of the spirit world: in Last Ones Left Alive (Tinder Press) the Irish writer Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of the fine independent publisher Tramp Press, imagines a post-apocalyptic Ireland stalked by a zombie-like menace, the skrake. Her heroine, Orpen, must fight to survive. Ben Okri’s The Freedom Artist (Head of Zeus) is a quest novel: in a world similar to but not the same as our own, a young woman disappears after asking a question; her lover goes in search of her, seeking justice but finding none. Later this year will come The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. That novel, first published in 1985, has, courtesy of the television adaptation, found a whole new audience in the era of Trump, #MeToo and Islamic State.

It’s tempting to try to sort these novels thematically. There are political dystopias, climate dystopias, digital dystopias; there are dystopias we choose to build, little knowing what the end result will be. (We are “choosing” climate change; we just don’t choose to see it that way.) All these boundaries, however, will be constantly blurred; one could argue that both communism and Facebook began with visions of sunlit uplands, of unity for all humankind; neither have quite worked out that way.

Some visions of dystopia immerse themelves so deeply into their projected worlds that the reader doesn’t ever get a sense of what happened before the fall: characters can only deal with what is immediately in front of them. This is true of Smith’s Doggerland  as much as it is true of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Doggerland’s protagonist is known almost exclusively as “the boy”; he and an old man – who seems to know more about their circumstances than the boy does, but never shares what he knows – toil fruitlessly to repair the huge windmills that loom in their thousands over a desolate seascape. Something happened to the boy’s father, who once worked in this place too; but the reader knows no more than the boy does. There is nothing imaginable beyond the horizon:

As soon as he tried to see what the clouds were doing they shifted and changed shape, the currents turned and backed away. The horizon was all there was. He’d stood and stared at it so long that his eyes had started to ache and a thin line had appeared wherever he looked. So he stopped looking.

Eggers’s The Parade might be called a purely political dystopia, though the supposed solutions to the civic ills described are technological. Four and Nine will build their great tarmac highway – through a vaguely Middle-Eastern landscape – with the aid of the RS-90, a huge machine that requires hardly any human operation. The machine itself is an emissary of “civilisation”, a demonstration of power. Four and Nine are a double act, if not quite Laurel and Hardy: Four is intent on his task, a rule-follower, a deadline-hitter; Nine is loosey-goosey, keen to interact with the local population in a manner strictly forbidden by their employer. Will they finish the road in time for the eponymous parade – celebrating what’s hoped to be a lasting peace – to set off along it? Will Four and Nine help or hinder each other? These are the tensions that drive this effective novel to its swift and shocking end.

Eggers has form when it comes to alternative visions of society: his 2013 novel The Circle imagined the power of a tech company that was like Google, Facebook and Microsoft rolled into one. But while one might think that John Lanchester’s The Wall is his first direct foray into dystopia, his acute critiques of 20th- and 21st-century society suggest otherwise. What is The Debt To Pleasure (1996) – his excellent first novel – if not a devastating critique of 1990s consumerism? His last novel, Capital, was set around the 2008 financial crash and in its portrait of a group of characters on a single street in south London, addresses Sam Byers’s point directly; we may all be on the brink of dystopia without recognising it.

With The Wall it’s full steam ahead into a world now past “the Change”; a global alteration of climate that has swallowed up every beach on the planet. A great high wall – Lanchester is a fan of Game of Thrones – has been built around the coastline of Britain; every young person has to serve two years as a “Defender”, guarding against the “Others” who will try to invade by sea.

The Wall is the most human, and in that sense the most successful, of these novels: its characters fully rounded rather than simply operatives placed to express their creator’s design. For one thing, they almost all have actual names: in Eggers’s and Smith’s novels, the absence of names creates a greater distance between the author’s imagined societies and our own. Kavanagh, the narrator, lives within the world of the book but is also an astute observer of it. One way off the Wall is to become a “Breeder”, which is exactly what it sounds like. But most people don’t want to have children, not now.

We can’t feed and look after all the humans there already are, here and now; the humans who are here and now, most of them, are starving and drowning, dying and desperate; so how dare we make more of them? They aren’t starving and drowning here, in this country, but they are almost everywhere else; so how dare we make more humans to come into this world?

How long before this Change takes place? The novel gives no real indication; the Defenders, like every inhabitant of Britain, each have a microchip embedded under the skin that confers all the privileges of citizenship. “Others” have no such chip; and if citizenship is revoked, the microchip is removed – along with one’s ability to play any sort of role in society. The reader might wonder how long it will be before we are paying for our coffee and cardamom buns with the microchips embedded under our skins: in fact, more than 4,000 people in Sweden have already gone down this road.

The novelist and journalist Omar El Akkad offers a reminder that, as Lanchester’s narrator points out, the Change is already well under way for many around the world. His book American War (2017) shows the United States brutally divided after the “Second American Civil War”; the conflict begins, in 2074, when oil is outlawed and some of the southern states secede from the union, just as they did in the first Civil War. Of constructing dystopias or post-apocalyptic narratives, he tells me, “we tend to be relatively competent at describing the feeling of walking towards the cliff or hitting the ground; but we are much less adept at describing the falling itself”. But that descent is happening, he says, in many of the areas he describes in the novel – which he wrote in 2014. There are places in Louisiana “that are unrecognisable now”, already nearly drowned beneath rising waters. “To inhabit that space as a writer is thrilling and terrifying all at once.” 

Margaret Atwood has always said firmly that everything that appears in her dystopias – The Handmaid’s Tale, the MaddAddam trilogy – has either happened somewhere in the world or is well on the way to happening. We are falling through an uncertain present into an alarming future. In a sense these dystopias, set in that future as they are, allow us a sense of safety. But that false sense of security should in itself be terrifying.

Erica Wagner is author of “Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

John Lanchester appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April, 2019

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency