“The Last” by Hannah Jameson (2019)

Leave a comment

“Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.”

I never learn. Why did I think it was a good idea to read another dystopia during the rise of an international virus that the media are touting as the scariest thing ever? And why did I think that the same book would be a sensible thing to read while staying in a hotel alone all weekend, when it’s also a thriller set in a hotel? Suffice to say, my imagination ran away with me and I did very little actual reading in the hotel, although my podcast consumption shot up. It’s over now, so it’s time to review The Last.

While Jon Keller is staying in a remote hotel in Switzerland, the world ends. Major cities across the planet are hit by nuclear weapons and the Internet quickly goes down. Many people flee from the hotel, hoping to make it somewhere safe, but a handful stay behind. Jon is one of twenty survivors now holed up in the hotel. As a history professor in his previous life, he takes it upon himself to make a record of the end of the world. Fifty days after the bombs dropped, he finds a body.

Convinced that one of the group is a murderer, Jon sets about interviewing the other survivors, not all of whom want to join in with his theorising. As the days pass, suspicion grows and Jon finds that the vital clues he needs are going missing. He doesn’t know who he can trust, and tensions flare as the final pocket of survivors work out how they’re going to stay alive in the long term. But things get worse when they get evidence that they might not be the last people after all. They might not even be the only people in the hotel…

This is one of the tensest books I have read in a very long time. The end of the world is tragically believable, although we never find out exactly who began the bombings, it never seems to matter. The stakes are high and feel real, and you are wrapped up in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel, with no idea what is happening outside. The events of the first day of the end of the world are revisited a few times, as Jon and others remember more and more about it. It’s almost funny when one of the fleeing guests deadpans, “Scotland’s gone”. Is this how we’ll be if it ever happens? The use of social media comes into play as well, from the opening line. For most of the novel, the characters don’t have Internet access, but when they do get some they learn that some people did indeed live-tweet the apocalypse.

The characters are a rich and varied bunch, with some getting a lot of page time and others just shining for a cameo, based on how much Jon speaks to them. He is, however, an unreliable narrator, consumed with toothache and a sense of self-importance. You can’t fault his drive regarding his desire to solve the murder, but there’s another part of you that wonders if he’s just going mad. There’s a sense of insanity about him and an obsession that sees him doing anything to distract from thinking about his wife and children. At first you believe him, but even as a reader you begin to doubt him as a narrator – is all of this just in his head? The others, particularly student Tomi, doctor Tania and head of hotel security Dylan, are shown only through Jon’s eyes, so we don’t know what prejudices he’s putting on to them. We see them as he interprets them, so we can’t know for sure if they really are acting in the way he says, or if it’s just paranoia. From what we do see, however, many of them do seem to be acting suspiciously, but the suspense keeps on ratcheting up and characters motivations seem to change day by day.

I’ve said this before, but I think I need to say it again. Until the news perks up and it doesn’t feel like we’re living in the end days, I really need to stop reading dystopian fiction, especially when it’s this visceral and real. An amazing book, but consumed by a bruised mind. I don’t want to put anyone off, because it’s a brilliant read, but take care.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Fox” by Anthony Gardner (2016)

Leave a comment

“As dawn broke over London, the sound of a horse’s hoofs echoed along Oxford Street.”

As the world continued to fall apart last week in a somewhat concerning landslide election victory here in the UK, I vowed that I’d give up on reading dystopian fiction until things had righted themselves again. I thought Fox might be a welcome distraction, realising only too late that it was just another dystopia. Nevertheless, I was committed and thus began one of the silliest adventures of modern times.

Foxes across Europe are spreading disease. The rabies-like epidemic is incurable and fast-spreading, and there is some concern that it’ll find a way to cross the sea and reach Britain where a paranoid Prime Minister has reintroduced fox hunting to cull the huge population of urban foxes that have caused so much damage in the cities that whole streets in London have caved in. While on a visit to China, the Prime Minister learns of a surveillance system called Mulberry Tree which allows the Chinese government to spy on anyone in the country. Under the guise of protecting the population from fox flu, the Prime Minister sees a way to get this technology into Britain, too.

Elsewhere, a Christian faction called the Brothers of Light are suspected of foul play, two animal rights activists are facing the consequences of trying to free a bear from London Zoo, Frank Smith is relishing his role as London’s Master of Foxhounds and believes that the flu has finally reached Britain, and a university professor has found out the truth regarding Mulberry Tree and is trying to smuggle evidence from China to a medical friend in Northumbria. That’s all still before we get to a lovestruck bureaucrat, two Chinese assassins, the beautiful missionary trying to escape China, and the innovative Pu Dong Pudding Company. As everyone races to their intended happy endings, their stories begin to tangle and merge and life will never be the same again for anyone.

There are so many threads in this novel that, at first, all seem to be so wildly disparate that you can’t begin to fathom what they’ve all got to do with one another. When they begin to come together, then, it gives one goosebumps. While some of the overlaps are down to sheer coincidence, most of them are not, and even though everyone has a very different goal in mind, it’s fun to watch them compromise and help one another in increasingly amusing ways. Gardner is also certainly a man who doesn’t let a plot thread hang. At first you think he has, but as the book winds down, three of them resolve themselves satisfactorily – one of them being something that I’d entirely forgotten about.

The ending, however, leaves a little to be desired. We see vaguely what has happened to the main characters in the interim, but the overarching story line regarding fox flu and the Mulberry Tree project remains a cliffhanger. Was a cure found? Are there other infected foxes in Britain? Is fox hunting banned again if the disease is wiped out? Does China stop using Mulberry Tree technology? We will never know for sure.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. We can guess where it’s going, and we can hope that it’s in a positive direction. The story is still good and it’s tightly-plotted, with throwaway lines and characters suddenly becoming important later on. The writing itself is somewhat reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, and the whole thing is very British with a solid sense of humour and a good degree of farce. Some of the notions are amusing too, such as fox hunters having moved from the countryside into the inner cities, swapping horses for bikes as they seek out foxes around Marble Arch and Hyde Park. None of it makes fox hunting a more palatable activity, but it’s an amusing concept executed well.

While not what I was expecting – the dealings with fox hunters are just one small story of several overlapping ones – it’s still a fun read, proving that Orwell’s thoughts of a government that wants to watch everything its people are doing have never really gone away.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Skin” by Liam Brown (2019)

Leave a comment

“It’s hard to think of you as anything other than an egg.”

I’m quite a tactile person. There’s something pleasant about being close to the people you love, and while these days many of my communications with my friends take place via screens, I’m always keen to be able to see them in the flesh again. There is often talk that people are retreating behind their devices, hiding themselves away privately and not wanting to interact with one another in “the real world”. This is nonsense. People, as a general rule, like being with other people. But what if we couldn’t be with other people anymore? What if it was illegal?

Skin opens five years after a pandemic that saw a curious virus sweep the globe and take out most of the population. While the causes were confused at first, it turns out that the virus rendered humans allergic to one another. Standing next to another person could be fatal, a “kiss of death” no longer a metaphorical term. The survivors have now retreated to their homes and apartments, and even families no longer see one another, instead spending their days in individual rooms, only communicating via phones and computers. In some ways, nothing at all has changed.

Angela Allen is struggling with the new world. Distanced from her husband and two children, all of whom become more and more like strangers every day, her sole distraction is her fortnightly jaunts out into the abandoned streets as part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. As long as she keeps to the path and wears her hazmat suit at all times, nothing can go wrong. That is, until on one of her trips she sees a strange man walking through town. She doesn’t know him, but she does know that the fact he’s not wearing so much as a face mask is strange. Is he immune, or insane? Driven on by curiosity, Angela tries to communicate with him and in doing so threatens whatever stability remained in her life as everything she knew is fundamentally rewritten.

Like all the most chilling dystopian visions in fiction, this one is centred around something that humanity can’t control. It’s not a climate disaster, or a political situation, but rather a disease for which there’s no cure. While the cynicism abounds that the future of sitting at home in front of a screen is what humanity has made for themselves anyway, Angela’s frustration and longing to leave is well displayed. If anything, she still seems too calm. After being in this situation for five years, perhaps everyone has just got used to it now and takes it in their stride. Had we joined the story after a year, things might have been very different.

The main plot is interspersed with what happened to Angela and her family in the immediate aftermath, showing them escaping the city and trying to survive. Here, the family learn who they really are when the chips are down, and they don’t necessarily like what they see. I’m always a bit fascinated by how quickly people lose their humanity in situations like this, and I hope that we never have to find out for real as I don’t think the results would be particularly pretty.

Unfortunately, as the book draws to a conclusion, it leaves us with too many unanswered questions to be entirely satisfying. I’m someone who enjoys an open-ended book, as endings are often a bit too artificial, but here we’re left with no resolution on much of anything. Sure, this is fitting in some ways, as Angela isn’t going to be told what’s happened to the other characters given the nature of her world, but as a reader it feels a bit disappointing. The final reveal as well, which we realise was seeded a long time ago and quite cleverly too, is somewhat depressing as well and a little contrived, and you get the impression that whatever happens next, it won’t be good for anyone involved.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Penultimate Truth” by Philip K. Dick (1964)

Leave a comment

“A fog can drift in from outside and get you; it can invade.”

It’s been a very hot week and I really should have picked up something light and easy to read instead of a dystopian novel from the 1960s with a heavy political bent, but here we are. I’ve enjoyed books by Philip K. Dick in the past, so I hoped I’d get on with this one too, as it had an engaging premise. The reality, however, wasn’t quite like that.

In the future, people are crammed into underground tanks, living beneath the surface while World War III rages on the land above them. For fifteen years, the world’s population has lived like this, with daily broadcasts from government officials telling them what is happening and how the war is progressing, showing them footage of destruction and catastrophe. However, all is not as it seems.

In truth, the war finished a long time ago, and the world is at peace. Those in charge choose to deceive everyone else so they can live with great wealth and prosperity on the planet’s surface, with those who aren’t part of the conspiracy tucked away doing the dirty work and not messing everything up. Is it for the greater good, or just pure selfishness? Things begin to unravel, however, when one of the most prominent tank engineers is dying and desperately needs a new liver. President Nicholas St. James sets out on a mission to the surface in search of truth to the stories of artificial organs being used by the military. When he gets there, however, he learns that his life has been a carefully preserved lie, and he needs to work out who he can trust and fast.

Normally, I get on quite well with Philip K Dick’s work. It’s weird, sure, but there’s something engaging about it nonetheless and he sucks you in to his bizarre worlds easily. This one, however, was nigh on impenetrable. You’re thrown into the world, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the immediate submerging in a text full of neologisms that refer to technology we don’t have, means you’re already on the back foot. Yes, there is a lot in here about the state of politics and how the government will just out-and-out lie to give themselves better lives, talking about sacrifice like it’s something they have to deal with as well as the working classes, but because I’m one of the “little people”, I find absolutely nothing redeeming about these figures and found myself entirely uninterested in what they were doing or what they had to say. Fiction has always been an escape – lying, self-serving politicians is a bit too real in 2019.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because of the oppressive humidity of the last week and having argued with technology all morning and I’m taking it out on the book. But I think that overall it’s just not one of the best books available from the great man. If they taught Dick’s work in schools, they’d probably make you read this one because it’s all political and not very funny. There are much better examples of his fiction available. I don’t think this one has aged all that well, and would be better forgotten.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047” by Lionel Shriver (2016)

Leave a comment

“Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”

Many people have long lived by the notion that money makes the world go round. I’m not sure that’s true, but there’s no denying that if you have money it makes for a more comfortable ride. During the credit crunch last decade, the general population wised up a little to economics and realised that things weren’t necessarily always going to be so rosy. Indeed, with Brexit looming here in the UK, the cost of it and how that money will be raised seems to be a constant topic. Economic destruction is just one of the many negative options for the future of the planet, and Lionel Shriver explores that notion here.

The year is 2029 and things in the USA are bad. The dollar has imploded and is barely worth anything. The national debt will never be repaid. An international currency war is wiping out bank accounts with great speed. The Mandible family are just one of many that are struggling to survive in this world where cabbage costs $38 a head (and rising) and homeless shelters are bursting at the seams. When the family patriarch, Douglas Mandible, sees the inheritance he was set to leave his large family disappear, the whole clan now must deal with disappointment, frustration, and a lack of anything approaching luxury.

Florence works at one of the homeless shelters and is tired of having to turn away people every day because they’ve got a distant uncle with a spare bedroom. Her teenage son, Willing, is precocious and seems to have an innate understanding of economics and the way the world is going. Avery and Lowell are struggling to give up their expensive wines and quality clothes, and their children – Savannah, Goog and Bing – aren’t at all used to going without. In fact, the only one who seems to be doing OK for himself is Jarred, who has disappeared upstate to run a farm, now that agriculture is the only way to make any money.

As prices rise and everyone’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the family find themselves making one compromise too many as they do whatever they can to survive through to a better future that may or may not be coming.

I’m not an economist by any means, but even I can see that the culture of spending money we don’t have is surely going to cause problems eventually. Shriver uses her characters (in particular Willing and Lowell) to explain the fundamentals of interest, taxation and inflation to us, and while these are the clunkier parts of the novel, they’re very useful to have. The first two thirds of the book are set between 2029 and 2032, when the country is falling apart and the final third takes us to 2047 with the surviving characters in a country that has begun to rebuild itself in a new way to aid its survival for longer. During the gap, a number of characters we’d grown to be interested in are wiped out, which is a shame and a bit of a cop out, but I also understand why it’s done.

One of my favourite aspects of dystopian futures, or anything set in the future really, is simply how the author envisions that world. I don’t mean the major details, more the little ones. In this one, for example, most of the technology brands we know have vanished and been replaced by superior models, which is by now a common idea. I do really love glimpses at future politics, too. While the story is set entirely in the USA, it’s mentioned that North and South Korea have undergone reunification, Ed Balls is the current British Prime Minister, the USA has its first Latin American President, and at some point before the story begins, Putin declared himself President for Life, and the USA went to war with New Zealand for some reason.

It’s an intelligent book, and actually quite funny as well, although the reality of what’s happening is perhaps a little daunting. I’m not sure society will ever get to these extremes, but odder things have happened. While the end careens towards a slightly more positive future, the very final paragraphs suggest that humanity, once again, has never learned from its mistakes. If humanity has a fatal flaw, it’s that, and I think it’s important to show it. Maybe one day we’ll pay attention.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

4 Comments

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

2 Comments

“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

3 Comments

“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology are becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

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

Leave a comment

“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 my 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.

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

1 Comment

“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.

Older Entries