My bedside table has a small pile of the books that I’m currently reading. I tend to switch between fiction and non-fiction books, but I noticed yesterday that I seem to have been on a run of fictional dystopias.
It kicked off a few months back with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I enjoyed, but which I thought was less impressive than his Cloud Atlas, or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The Bone Clocks uses the device of having different characters tell their story in the first person, and the main character’s voice and wisdom develops from that of a teenager to being an old woman over the course of the novel. I liked hearing the different voices (Crispin Hershey, the English novelist, is not a million miles from a caricature of Martin Amis), and Holly Sykes as the central protagonist is beautifully portrayed. There are explicit references to characters from other Mitchell books (I recall that he said, in an interview, something along the lines of that he’s writing one meta-book). If there’s a weakness (for me) in The Bone Clocks, it was the “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” section, which rather came across to me as in the style of Denis Wheatley’s “The Devil Rides Out” – a rattling yarn, but with rather over-wrought language.
The final section, “Sheep’s Head” stepped back from the pyrotechnics of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” and redeemed the book for me. This is where the dystopian society is portrayed – the Endarkenment – as it is named in the book. We return to Holly as a woman in her seventies, living in 2043 in a world where the chickens of energy-guzzling, resource-stripping and climate change have come home to roost. Darkness descends, but there is a glimmer of light as well.
Next up was Adam Roberts’ Bête. This was dystopia all the way down, but at times very funny with it. It opens with something that is almost straight from Monty Python – a farmer is about to kill his cow, but the animal insists on discussing his right to do so with him. The tale is set in a time not too distant from our own, where artificial intelligence computer chips have been embedded in some livestock by animal activists. The story is once again told in the first person, by Graham Penhaligon, the farmer. He’s irascible, unsympathetic, a Victor Meldrew sort, yet I couldn’t help but warm to him. Roberts has some amazing, and outrageous ideas (wait until you meet the lamb!), but the novel remains very believable. And the ending is a whole new beginning…
I followed that up with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam. This is the third in her trilogy of dystopian novels that began with Oryx and Crake, and continued with Year of the Flood. I read Oryx and Crake a few years back and enjoyed it, but I haven’t read Year of the Flood. However, I came across MaddAddam at the Deventer Book Fair last August, so I picked it up for a song and added it to the pile of books to read.
I have to say that I don’t think it’s one of Atwood’s best works. Where Oryx and Crake resonated, MaddAddam fell flat for me. Yes, there’s a sense (right at the end) of how books and writing will be an important driver to the future post-human society of the Crakers, but most of the book is taken up with providing the backstory of a few characters that I assume were introduced in Year of the Flood, and waving the bogeymen of the Painballers in the reader’s face.
Now I’m on to Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. You might think that this is a strange choice, given that I’m an atheist, and the book’s protagonist is an evangelical Christian minister recruited to do missionary work. It’s true that I view all religions with the utmost suspicion, and I simply couldn’t finish Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (an elderly Congregational minister writes to his 7-year old son). However, Faber also wrote Under The Skin, which engrossed me with its strange atmosphere and other-worldliness.
I’m still reading The Book of Strange New Things (I’m at the point where Peter has just met with a member of his new flock), and the book of the title is, of course, the Bible. Already there is no doubt in my mind that this is a book that I will finish and find just as thought-provoking as Under The Skin. I don’t know yet whether the society of Peter’s new flock is a dystopia or a utopia, but it’s already clear that the society that Peter has left is painted in dystopian hues.
Next up, a change of pace and subject matter; Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass; an exploration of the history of moral thought as it has developed over three millenia, across the world’s cultures…