“The Death Of Grass” by John Christopher (1956)

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“As sometimes happens, death healed a family breach.”

For all my love of city breaks and wandering around London, I’m a child of the countryside through and through. Last time I was working in a London office for a few weeks, it was only a matter of days before I had to escape for my lunch break to the nearest green space to sit on some spongy turf. (Mint Street Park, incidentally, is charming.) My hometown is surrounded by field, forest and farm, and it’s great. So the idea of living in a world suddenly that lacked so much greenery feels like one of the worst dystopian scenarios available. Despite me promise to myself that I’d stop reading dystopian fiction until we stopped living in one, I found myself this weekend engaged in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, a sort of distant cousin to The Day of the Triffids.

John and David Custance have lived very different lives. While David inherited the family farm and concerned himself solely with growing crops and raising livestock, John adopted a more sedate and comfortable life in London, working as an engineer. Both, however, are troubled by the news from Asia. A virus has caused the rice harvest to fail, and massive swathes of the continent are now starving and suffering from near-total anarchy. The rest of the world is working on a cure, but everyone’s quietly convinced that something like that could never happen in the West.

But soon the virus mutates and now is taking out all grasses, from lawns to wheat, barley and rye. With enormous food shortages across the whole world, there soon comes the discovery that the government have been lying: there is no cure for the virus. The Prime Minister is rumoured to be arranging a plan to drop atom bombs on the UK’s major cities, leaving a smaller population to feed on whatever root vegetables and fish can be harvested, but panic sets in before that, and soon anarchy finds its way to British shores too. John rounds him his family and friends, and a couple of other stragglers, and they set off on a cross-country journey to his brother’s farm, where they hope they will find salvation. They just have to make sure they don’t lose their humanity along the way.

John Christopher (real name Sam Youd) has created here a terrifying world. While the virus is what causes all of the problems, it’s fair to say that the real villain here are humans themselves. As soon as word leaks out that there’s no hope, everyone begins to change. John takes the lead of his group and becomes almost fixated by his role of “tribal chief”. He quickly becomes harsher and more stubborn. His friend, Roger, who has always been very jovial and unable to take much seriously, seems to be sobered up quickly by the events. His sense of humour can’t cope with this new world. Even Ann, John’s wife, changes and becomes unafraid to wield a weapon.

Hands down, though, creepiest character is Henry Pirrie. He’s an older man, a gunsmith, who joins the group with his wife because he knows how to use weapons better than any of them. He is, however, more cunning than they first realise, and uses the new lawless state as an excuse to fulfill his fantasies. He’s deeply unpleasant, but John appears unable to be able to do away with him. Perhaps the most tragic figures are the children, who seem so full of life but the reader knows that there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

The science behind a lot of it seems sound to me. The rise of monocultures and pesticides have led to this virus being able to spread and mutate easily. It does make one wonder whether we’d be able to halt something like this before it got out of hand. The only science that seems particularly dated is the use of atom bombs to destroy the cities. While I understand, theoretically, that a smaller population would find it easier to survive than a large one, it does beg the question: did no one consider that the nuclear fallout would render the entire country sterile anyway?

When the Financial Times reviewed the book (I didn’t know they did that), they said, “of all fiction’s apocalypses, this is one of the most haunting” and I really have to agree. Aliens, zombies and nuclear weapons may be scary, but there’s something insidiously terrifying about this one. I think it’s the speed at which society collapses (an issue I deal with in my second novel, see below) and how soon people are willing to turn on one another. The fact that something like this has already begun to happen – a fungus called Ug99 has been spreading around wheat fields in Africa and the Indian subcontient since 1999 – only makes the whole thing even more unnerving. Brilliant, shocking, and maybe a little too prescient for comfort.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Of Men And Monsters” by William Tenn (1968)

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“Mankind consisted of 128 people.”

Earth has been invaded by aliens so many times in fiction. On most of those occasions, whether first contact is friendly or not, we are equals of a sort, in size, shape and intelligence at least. But what if aliens were to come to Earth that were so enormous, they didn’t even notice humans were here, and just dominated the planet thanks to sheer size alone. What would happen to humanity then? Of Men and Monsters explores this idea.

Eric the Only is a boy in his society of Mankind, but today is the day of his Theft, and if he’s successful, he will come back to be declared Eric the Eye, meaning he’s a full man and able to mate. Under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas the Trap-Smasher, he pledges to steal not food or an item usable by Mankind, but a Monster souvenir. He flees the burrows for the first time ever and makes his way across the treacherous landscape inhabited by the giant Monsters to complete his task.

But when he gets back home to safety, he finds that a rebellion occurred, led by his uncle, as those who want to use Alien-Science tried to rise up against the traditional methods of Ancestor-Science. Now an outlaw, Eric the Eye goes on the run, stumbling across another tribe in another burrow. He joins their number and soon he begins to learn the truth about who he is, where he lives, and what the Monsters are.

You can’t help but think about The Borrowers with this novel. The difference is, of course, that humans haven’t actually changed their size, it’s just that the aliens that invaded were so huge that, to them, humans are merely vermin, living in the walls of their houses like cockroaches or mice, stealing food and potentially spreading disease. The use of scale is impressive, but it’s difficult to imagine something like this. I kept imagining the Monsters to be our size and the humans to be small, but then you get a reminder that if the humans were to go outside, rain or trees would also look tiny compared to the invaders.

It’s clever in it’s use of detail, or rather lack of it. Because the humans can only see on a different scale, they cannot adequately describe the Monsters – we know they are grey, with six legs, tentacles around their necks and small heads – and their technology seems bizarre. Human technology is now quite primitive, with people using spears, but there is evidence of higher technology. For example, when Eric’s name “the Eye” is chosen, it is done so via a mystical Record Machine, which seems to be a television displaying old infomercials.

The human societies that have built up are the most interesting aspect of the novel, even if the individual characters are quite flat. Eric’s tribe, Mankind, call themselves that because they believe they are the most superior of all the tribes. The men are all warriors and thieves, the women have knowledge of healing and history. Days and nights are measured simply by when the tribe’s chief goes to sleep and wakes up, and there is a strict hierarchy. We meet other societies living in the same wall (that’s how huge these buildings are) who have different ways of doing things, and at one point we see humans who have come from the building next door, and they may as well be a whole new species.

It feels like it should be a quick read, but I got bogged down in it trying to work out what some of the technology was, before realising that the Alien-Science is a lot like Gary Larson’s “Cow Tools” – there is no human equivalent. Or maybe there is but it’s being described in such an unusual way that we don’t notice? There’s a satisfying ending, at least, with the realisation that of all the species of vermin on our planet, humans may just be the most successful of them all…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet an entirely different race of aliens as Dexter, who sees himself has the last single person on Earth, flees his home, along with his friends, to escape the invasion. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus (2012)

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“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.”

A week is far too long to spend reading a 300-page novel, no matter how small the text. My friends ask me often how I know whether I’ll like all the books I buy and I have no answer – I’m just lucky. Most of the time, that is. Oh yes, it’s one of those rare negative reviews.

Somewhere in New York state, an epidemic has sprung up that has turned children’s speech toxic to adults. All around the neighbourhood, parents fall ill as their children realise the power they have and begin to terrorise the community. Sam and his wife Claire are left with a horrible decision – do they stay with their teenage daughter, or abandon her to get to the quarantine where they can start to recover?

Sam soon finds himself lumbered with the unwanted company of Murphy, a large man who seems to know too much about what’s going on, though is almost certainly not to be trusted. He knows things that only Sam, Claire and the other Jewish members of the neighbourhood know, thanks to their secret forest synagogues. As the plague worsens, soon it isn’t just children that can cause damage. Before long, all communication becomes nigh-on impossible, and there’s a race on to find a cure, or at least a method of communication that won’t kill everyone.

On the Venn diagram of literature, this book sits somewhere between Nod, Lexicon and Lord of the Flies, all of which are better written and more engaging – and I say that having really disliked Lord of the Flies, too. The premise, that of a toxic language, is really great and I was hoping for a novel that would run with the idea, and while this one does, it feels like it’s going the wrong way. The language is dense and quite pretentious. There seems to be a big issue made of the main characters being Jewish, with an early theory being that it was only Jewish children who were causing the sickness, but there’s never a definite answer as to whether this is how it started or not. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people, especially Sam and Claire’s teenage daughter Esther, who is presumably painted in a negative light so that we don’t feel bad when they plot to leave her behind.

The reviews on the cover suggest that the book is funny, too, but that’s passed me by. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes, it’s just that I couldn’t find any to get. There’s nothing remotely funny here, and if anything I would describe the book with a single altogether different word: harrowing. Ben Marcus has painted a rather shocking world, and the images are very visceral, made more so by the fact there isn’t, by the nature of the plot, much dialogue.

Are there redeeming features? Sure. The scenes where Sam is part of the team of scientists trying to invent a new alphabet or method of communication are quite fascinating, with a lot of imagination used to come up with any number of alternate patterns of speech, such as staining wood with water or constructing letters out of yarn that only form words when the right breeze is applied to them to give them shape. The rest of the time though, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by what’s happening. I felt uncomfortable, and the endless references to the Jewishness of the main characters contrasted with images of emaciated victims is a horrifically stark reminder of the Holocaust. This seems too much, especially for a book billed as “funny”, and which seems, at it’s heart, to be a huge metaphor for the fact that parents don’t understand their children.

I found several mentions online emphasising that Marcus is experimenting with the art of novel-writing here. If that’s the case, then I conclude his experiment has failed. Time to go back to the lab.

“A Planet For Rent” by Yoss (2001)

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“Step on up, ladies and gents, right this way!”

As we sit and watch the world slide further and further into an irreparable state of being (the only thing 2017 has on 2016 so far is the lack of deaths of icons, but possibly only because there aren’t any left), perhaps we’re all just wondering if something is going to come along and save us. The premise of Yoss’s science fiction novel is that Earth was on the brink of ecological and economic collapse, and the watching aliens (“xenoids”) who had been biding their time until it was right to make contact, instead made themselves known earlier than planned to save humanity from its own destruction. When humans did what they always seem to do and fought instead of accepting help, the xenoids nuked Africa off the face of the planet and enslaved everyone that was left. This is the state we find our home in at the start of A Planet For Rent.

Divided into seven main parts with smaller chapters of exposition in between, we now follow along behind some of the humans trying to eke out a living on the Earth without pissing off too many aliens. There aren’t many roles left for humanity now; you can become a social worker (i.e. prostitute) for the xenoid tourists, an artist, black marketeer, security worker, or if you’re talented, become an artist or athlete and have the xenoids admire you for that, if they have the capacity to do so.

The stories are loosely interconnected, with characters and events from each one being referenced throughout, and sometimes turning up in more than one. We meet basically one of each of the categories I mentioned above. Moy is a performer who kills himself nightly for the sake of art, only to be cloned back to life after each performance. Buca is a social worker who will be used as a vessel for a grodo to lay its eggs in. Friga, Jowe and Adam are trying to escape the Earth, which turns out to be an almost impossible feat. And Daniel is one of the greatest Voxl players in the galaxy, headhunted for his skills in the fast-paced sport.

As usual with books that have been translated (this one by David Frye from the original Spanish), it’s hard to know what gets lost in the transfer, but it’s a hell of a task, especially in a book containing numerous invented words for future technologies and alien races. A few mistranslations and spelling errors slipped through, but that hardly impacts the plot.

The book was very unstable in its ability to keep my interest. Some of the chapters were engaging and interesting, but others did nothing for me at all. The idea of a world where humanity has been enslaved by far richer aliens and the planet is now basically an amusement park for tourists is great, but I don’t feel enough was done with it. It’s also a good analogy for how humans have just colonised each other over the years, enslaving people from “newly discovered” countries, and supplanting the natives ways of life with their own. That is why we fear aliens or xenoids so much, because every civilisation is eventually crushed by one more powerful, and we’re just waiting for the next threat to come from outer space.

The thing that really intrigued me about this book, though, was the author himself, Yoss. Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in Cuba, Yoss is not only a science fiction author, but also the lead singer in the heavy metal band Tenaz. Of the two, he looks so much like a stereotypical rocker that it feels somewhat disparate to also equate him with this book. It’s smart, and there are some great ideas in here, but I wasn’t gripped enough by it and feel that so much more could have been done with the concept.

“Ape And Essence” by Aldous Huxley (1948)

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ape“It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness.”

Aldous Huxley is almost certainly best remembered for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he churned out several books on his lifetime. I confess though that until recently I couldn’t have named another one. I stumbled upon Ape and Essence a few weeks ago, received it for my birthday yesterday, and finished it today. It’s a short one, but interesting and engaging. It all begins with a man called William Tallis.

Tallis is a scriptwriter, and when two Hollywood writers find a copy of his film script, the titular Ape and Essence, in a pile of scripts ready to be destroyed, they are intrigued and decide to seek him out, only to find that they are too late – Tallis is dead. This is all we know of these characters, as they merely serve as a framing device for the rest of the novel which is actually the film’s script, presented without annotations, footnotes or edits.

Tallis’s story takes place in 2108, a century after the planet was destroyed by nuclear weapons in the Third World War. Our heroes are the crew of the Canterbury, a ship carrying the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition. New Zealand, it turns out, was just about the only country to survive the war as, due to their remote location, no one ever thought them worth nuking. The ship arrives on the coast of what was once California. Botanist and mother’s boy, Dr Alfred Poole, encounters some of the natives, a tribe of humans who believe that the destruction was the fault of the Devil, whom they call Belial. They now live in a society where sex it outlawed, except on one day a year for breeding purposes, women are seen only as vessels for children, and any baby born with deformities (which is desperately common thanks to all the radiation in the atmosphere) is killed in a religious ceremony. Poole is soon caught up in their activities, but when he falls for one of the tribes women, he begins to hatch a plan.

The title of the novel comes from the vignettes that crop up in Tallis’s script. The film would apparently have featured several surreal moments where baboons are pictured as the dominant race, with scientists like Einstein and Pasteur kept on chains as mascots and pets. At first I thought that Huxley was introducing us to a Planet of the Apes scenario, and perhaps inspiration was taken from here for that film, but the scenes exist simply to show us that we humans are just as primitive and violent as the animals we claim to be beneath us. All societies will, after reaching a certain level of power and arrogance, destroy themselves. There are even suggestions that this new civilization that has built up will go on to do the same again to itself.

It’s primarily a satire of the way that humans continue to conduct war and kill off our own kind for, often, superficial reasons. Huxley had of course lived through both World Wars, so knew from experience how violent and evil our species can be. While not one of his more famous works, and containing a definite thread of pessimism throughout, it’s an interesting look at a world that, like all good dystopian novels, feels impossible and yet all too real.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu (2015)

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time-salvager“A sliver of light cut through the void, shooting toward the center of the battle display.”

An ongoing theme of 2016 has been a fear for the future. Humans have always worried, but this year, with the terror of Brexit, several very high profile tragedies involving people from all walks of life, and a xenophobic madman just a few steps away from taking the most powerful office in the world, it makes anyone stop and think long and hard about what we might be stumbling into. I’ve been trying to give dystopian fiction because it feels too much like fact these days, but old habits die hard and that’s how I ended up in the horrendous future depicted in Time Salvager.

It’s 2511 and we meet James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who is one of an elite band of highly trained individuals who is employed to leap back in time and collect equipment that will help humanity in this future. The species is spread across the solar system, from Mercury to Eris, but it’s rapidly dying out. Heading back in time to collect energy sources and more mundane resources from spots in history that won’t alter the chronostream is the only way humanity is continuing to cling on. The Earth itself is poisoned and almost destroyed, with just a few cities left populated by scavengers and primitive tribes. The land, sea and air of our former home are all brown and grey, polluted and overrun with a plague that destroys everything it comes into contact with.

James is assigned a new task to rescue a power source from an oceanic rig in 2097, the year before World War Three started. If he succeeds in this job, he and his handler Smitt can retire to Europa and never have to work again. However, while there, he forms an attachment quickly to biologist Elise Kim, and when the rig begins to fall into the sea as history dictates, he breaks the first law of time travel and brings Elise with him back into the future to a world far grimmer than she could ever have imagined.

Now considered a fugitive, James must hide on the toxic wasteland that is Earth, in a city that once may have been Boston, and make sure that neither he or Elise are found by the ChronoCom, or worse, the megacorporation Valta. James may have some of the most advanced technology in history at his disposal, but it’ll take more than machinery to stay hidden and survive on that Earth.

Wesley Chu manages to neatly sidestep the question of how time travel actually works in this book, by having James explain that just because he uses it, it doesn’t mean he understands it. This is fair, really, because while I’m typing this on a laptop, I’d never be able to explain to a stranger exactly how it works. The vision of a brown, desecrated Earth is a terribly sad one, and the book suggests that life out among the planets isn’t much better. Humans have continued doing what they’ve always done – fought wars over resources – but we learn through neat exposition that the stakes always got bigger, whether humans were fighting for the rocky minerals of the asteroid belt, or mining the gas of Saturn and Neptune. Our knowledge of what happened between our time and 2511 comes piecemeal, explained to Elise by James. Humanity seemed to go through various phases, including one where the planet turned into something Orwellian for a while. Specific explanations of what the technology used by the characters are also fleeting, but you get the general idea.

James Griffin-Mars isn’t outstandingly interesting as a character. He’s plagued by guilt with all the people he’s left to die (chronmen must take resources from a point where it won’t affect the timeline, so it’s usually just before some major disaster was going to destroy the equipment anyway) and sees visions of some of these people. He’s also something of a cliched alcoholic who doesn’t like authority. He’s not entirely without redeeming features though. He’s brave and he certainly cares about (some) people, just often has a funny way of showing it. He also has the most character development throughout the novel, but it’s not much we haven’t seen before. The best characters are the two leading ladies, Elise Kim and Grace Priestly, the latter being the scientist who first drew up the rules of time travel and is almost worshipped by the chronmen and their organisation. They each lend James a touch of humanity, but in different ways, and allow us often to get a better grasp on what’s happening in this future.

Like most books set in dystopian futures, there is a note of hope in the text, especially towards the end, and a sense that while humans will almost always do the wrong thing first, they will eventually see the error of their ways and try to do the right thing, in their own slapdash, do-it-yourself style. Humans are the great survivors, and once more you get the impression that they’ll make it through this in one form or another.

A nice addition to the time travel canon, and definitely one for those who can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, but full to the brim with science fiction tropes. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

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