Well, this year sure escalated quickly.
A long, long time ago in November 2014 (I feel like I've aged a million years since 2014), I took a third crack at writing an original book-length story for Nanowrimo. It didn't get far, because my completion record for Nanowrimo tends to be quite hit and miss at the best of times: November happens to be peak video game release season. Over the years, the story eventually became the seed concept for CRADLE AND GRAVE, a novella that, 6 years later, is coming out in a year where Obama is no longer President, the Australian bushfires only just stopped burning, the various refugee crises around the world are escalating rapidly, climate change is accelerating, and we're now also in the middle of a pandemic.
Given everything that's happening right now, it's tempting to curl up under a blanket and never come out again. Only two months ago, I was planning for my mum's visit over Easter. As I'm writing this, Australia has closed its borders to all non-residents. It's unprecedented, but now everything is unprecedented. For those of us who like writing dystopias, or have a dystopia story seed in mind, it can also feel like reality has already so overtaken fiction in its strangeness, venality, cruelty, and scale that there's no point writing, reading, or engaging in any dystopian worlds.
If you feel that way, your feelings are valid. Engage in self-care, in anything you need in this dark timeline. Skip to the bottom of this post for some of the things I'm doing for myself to reduce my daily anxiety. If you don't, read on.
Bias disclaimer: Yes, CRADLE AND GRAVE is a dystopia. It's one of my favourite genres to read, write, and play video games in.
Writing disclaimer: This post contains some thoughts about writing / reading dystopias. It isn't writing advice, which as a full pantser of a writer, I never really know how to give. Things may work for me that might not for you and so on. YMMV.
Lawyers, Guns, And Money: Worldbuilding
I'll admit, I did not expect the toilet paper apocalypse. I'm still bemused. People are attacking each other over it in Australia. I guess you could talk about how fear of scarcity plays into human nature and all that, but really? Having to be tasered over toilet paper? I don't even.
When I think of worldbuilding for dystopian fiction, I think of Dmitry Glukhovsky's Metro 2033. Published in 2002, the books are set within the Moscow Metro, where survivors of a nuclear apocalypse have hidden and set up different societies in different stations. The station lines are haunted by monsters. Your exploration between stations in the game is limited by the number of air filters you have in your possession. It is, in a way, both an immersive dystopian world and a political statement – Dmitry is a Russian journalist – and it is unrelentingly grim, unlike the Fallout, the game series that inspired Dmitry. As Dmitry noted in an interview:
“In Russia, [optimism in dystopia] doesn’t make much sense, as we are living in a zombie land,” Glukhovsky says. “It was in a bigger zombie land in the 1990s when everything was possible and people got tired by that very soon. This incredibly nostalgic, bleak, regretful tonality of the Russian post-apocalypse stems from the fact that we had this feeling – just like people in the Dark Age and medieval times – that the Golden Age of civilisation was long gone and you were looking into the past with a great nostalgia thinking that the higher the paramount of culture and science and civilisation was already gone. You fear the future because you know for sure that every tomorrow is going to be worse than every today. You look back with awe and admiration and nostalgia and you miss all these days. You understand they are gone forever and you have no hope or future.
“In the ‘90s everything collapsed and people were basically left alone and ceased to exist, per se. Just the penitentiary system and the police kept on existing, but they turned into private businesses and the police started to earn money from squeezing people. People looked into the past, into this collapsed huge empire that was no longer, that collapsed politically, geographically, financially, and people were left all in their own in a decaying urban environment which is precisely the description of what’s going on in the Metro books where the great awe, inspiration and nostalgia weren’t willing to come back. In this regard, you can understand the feelings of Russians and the euphoria they had following the annexation of Crimea because Putin simulated for them the restoration of this former empire to its greatness. This was, of course, an illusion and I’m totally personally against that, but if you regard this total popular euphoria from the viewpoint of psychoanalysis, this is where it’s getting you.”
Dystopian stories are stories about social collapse. It's why the ones that are near-future feel so disconcertingly intense, like Ling Ma's SEVERANCE or Emily St John Mandel's STATION ELEVEN. It's why the opening sequence of THE LAST OF US is so upsetting to play. Where we are now, we can see the cracks forming. Story settings where they're widening fast, and where they've already shattered into something new, drive the most interesting narratives for me. Rebecca Roanhorse's TRAIL OF LIGHTNING is a great example of this, looking at how her characters navigate and interact with the new normal of a setting where most of the world has been destroyed by a supernatural disaster.
One of the most memorable parts of Max Brook's WORLD WAR Z, which I listened to in 2008 while trying to get a job as a baby lawyer, was a throwaway mention in a later section about how lawyers and accountants pretty much had to retrain into primary production jobs. It was hilarious. Details like that can make a book for me. Speaking of which, I recommend listening to the audiobook of WORLD WAR Z rather than reading it if you can. It's so good, and the format works better in audio form for me.
That being said, as a reader or gamer, it doesn't take much to pull me into a dystopian 'verse. Having a few familiar reference points goes a long way. One of my favourite parts of playing Fallout 3 / New Vegas / 4 is the absurdity of its currency. Nuka Cola bottle caps have taken over "pre-war currency" as the new credit system, as absurd as it is to be carting thousands of bottle caps around and exchanging them for ammunition. Though, if you think about it that way, isn't the concept of currency in itself absurd in many ways? Having a new system of currency – or not – is a great part of dystopian worldbuilding. In Metro 2033, it plays into survival in a more intrinsic way: the currency of choice is Kalashnikov bullets. You can choose to have ammo for your weapons, or you can eat. Every decision within the world feels precarious, which is what makes the game so great. I try to keep that same sense of precariousness in the characters who live in the dystopias I write.
Those Who Cancel the Apocalypse: Characters
It's hard to talk about fictional apocalypses without also bringing up this iconic speech. For people who don't– okay, look, if you haven't watched Pacific Rim (2013), close this tab and watch it. It's silly in many ways, immensely fun, has Idris Elba, and most importantly, a story centered around Rinko Kikuchi's fantastic Mako Mori. Check it out.
I love character-driven stories, and dystopian stories for me are driven by how interesting the characters are. There are exceptions – I personally don't find Metro 2033's Artyom a compelling character – but only for worlds where the worldbuilding is so immersive that I'm willing to forgive it. The more invested I am in a character, the more likely I'm going to burn through it, even if I can't pinpoint what exactly is interesting about the character for me. The first few dystopian books I read a long time ago in high school were the MEGA CITY ONE stuff, featuring a grimdark murderous cop, Judge Dredd, in a post-nuclear megapolis dictatorship ruled by the Justice Department. To this day, I'm not sure why I kept reading Dredd stuff. The books and comics were pulpy, violent, often bizarre reads, but at the same time weirdly compelling, sort of like the first film, which contained this unintentionally hilarious and now iconic scene:
Sometimes characters are so good – and settings so intense – that I have to take breaks from the book. In Waubgeshig Rice's MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW, you follow Evan and his partner Nicole, who live in a small northern Anishinaabe community that goes dark. The community is so isolated that they don't realise it's the result of world events and not a usual power outage, until people return, and a heavily armed outsider appears. I was reading this book on public transport when Justin showed up in the book, and when he did, I had to close the book and take deep breaths. I knew what was likely coming, and I had to take a break from the book to find the emotional bandwidth to read on so I could see what happens to Evan and his family. Another book which I took a break from (and haven't returned to... it's too depressing...) is Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. After a few chapters, I couldn't take watching both characters slowly starve to death any longer.
Being a pantser, I explore the world I'm writing just as I'm writing it, often at the same time as my characters. It does mean that the occasional odd throwaway fragment shows up during editing that has to be pruned (usually by Dave: sorry Dave). I try to give my characters enough agency to be compelling, but not enough agency that the dystopian world they live in feels easily navigable.
I Didn't Mean It That Way: Tropes
Kingsman is not a dystopia, but don't tell me you didn't enjoy watching that bar fight all over again. Colin Firth has aged like a fine wine.
I do have a few issues with the film: one of which is Richmond Valentine's solution to saving the world – by drastically reducing overpopulation. Yes, he's the villain, as is often the case in other "intentionally reducing overpopulation through mass genocide" plot device things I've seen. Yes, I know that David Attenborough himself has talked about overpopulation being a problem. It'd be nice to see an actually nuanced take on the population issue for once, though. People can start by reading maybe this Vox article:
I don’t doubt that it’s possible to be concerned about the environmental stresses population brings without any racism or xenophobia — I’ve met many people who fit that description, and there were well-meaning (if quite mistaken) population-focused groups in the ’70s and ’80s — but in terms of public discussion and advocacy, anyone explicitly expressing that concern starts out behind the eight ball. The mere mention of “population” raises all sorts of ugly historical associations.
Public health groups have largely cottoned to this. Even the ones that have “population” in the name focus on family planning rather than population as such. They’ve figured out something important — something not all greens have figured out — which is that the best ways to address population don’t necessarily involve talking about it at all.
So what are those ways?
There are two ways of looking at the problem of growing population on a finite planet. Depending on which you think is most important, there are different ways to address it, none of which require discussing population.
Stories with drastically depleted / depleting populations aren't inherently problematic. Stories that look into how trauma from fracturing societies tends to play through along stratified lines of privilege, class, and race are great. But if a story implies in any way that population reduction is a solution – even if it's from a villain – it'd be nice to see pushback over the science, and at least some mention of historical associations.
Over the years, I've become increasingly conscious of the importance of sufficient framing in my own writing. I'm still learning. I hope everyone else does too – especially on issues like this. Time's already running out on the Doomsday clock. It'd be nice if popular media didn't laser focus on bad solutions, and the things we create can help move the needle.
If you feel like adding to your reading / watching / gaming list, I'm here for you.
B O O K S
Claire G Coleman, TERRA NULLIUS: Inspired by the colonisation of Australia, this is a brutal, highly relevant read that as a hell of a twist in the centre. This books makes you contemplate human nature itself – and what constitutes human nature. It's a hard, confronting read. Worth it if you have the emotional bandwidth (CW: Rape, sexual assault, torture, child abuse).
Samira Ahmed, INTERNMENT: A near-future dystopia where Muslim Americans are put into internment camps in USA the way Japanese Americans were, this YA story is a compelling story with a message for the times. Such internment camps already exist in China. Refugee detention camps exist in Australia and the USA. Reality, tbh, is more depressing than this book: it's frightening to see what people soon forget.
Shookofeh Azar, THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF THE GREENGAGE TREE: An unusual story set in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this book about Iranian life and family is described by the ghost of 13 year old Bahar, written in the magical realism style of classical Persian storytelling, with mermaids, jinns, and spells. Original version is in Farsi.
Behrouz Boochani, NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS: This is nonfiction, about the Kurdish journalist Behrouz's experience about his journey to Christmas Island, then of being incarcerated in a detention facility by the Australian government in Manus. It's a powerful, poetic read. Behrouz is now living in New Zealand, but the issues continue. Further, refugees living in Australia are now experiencing shortages thanks to food hoarders. If you can spare a bit of money in this dark timeline, donate to foodbanks like the ASRC. They're going to need it.
David Wallace-Wells, THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: This nonfiction book scared the hell out of me, and I already knew what was coming. It's worth a read, but make sure you have the bandwidth. I think I spent the week after reading this book in a daze.
F I L M
KINGDOM: This high budget, colourful Netflix production about zombies in Joseon-era Korea is highly entertaining. The drama! The politics! The hats! Season two is out.
ZOMBIELAND: I confess, this is one of my favourite films. Tallahassee's dedicated pursuit of the perfect edible Twinkie is an inspiration for the ages. Also, the Rules.
BOOK OF ELI: Possibly the closest thing to a Fallout movie, even if it is about a bible. Denzel Washington carries this film on his shoulders, he's magnetic on the screen.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: I felt exhausted after watching this film, it was that full of energy. Watching it again, I can't believe how many things in the film were real stunts.
ANNIHILATION: Immensely beautiful film about a changing environment warping the people within it. This kind of thing is my jam, as you can see from my novella.
G A M E S
FAR: LONE SAILS, Various platforms: A short, atmospheric, simple game where you have to move your landship from one end of the world to another. It's a gorgeous, oddly calming game.
FALLOUT SERIES, Various platforms: Do I really need to recommend this series? If you haven't played it, now's a great time, since they've likely fixed all the bugs.
OUTER WORLDS, Various platforms: I'm playing this game right now, and it's immense fun, though I hear it's very short. Set in the distant space future, within late, late, late stage capitalism.
DEATH STRANDING, Playstation 4: You play a DHL person in a world of preppers, and you have to save them by connecting them to the internet. The acting and motion capture is top notch, even if the script can be silly at times and... tbh, if you're not familiar with Kojima games, maybe read this article first.
THE LAST OF US, Playstation 4: One of the best games I've ever played. It's so immersive, I played it for such a long stretch that I dehydrated myself, got an infection, and had to go to the doctor. True story.
Yes, I haven't actually finished the Metro games. I'm afraid of spiders, and in one of the games, you meet spiders that can't be killed unless you shine a light on them... but you can either shine a light or use your weapon... [ /shudders ]
One More Thing
If you've read this far, maybe you love dystopian fiction as much as I do. If so, and if you'd like one more thing to read, my novella CRADLE AND GRAVE will be out this year via Neon Hemlock Press. There are two more days to go on the Kickstarter, if you're looking for a pre-retail copy. Help us get to $5k!
Self-Care in Lockdown
My anxiety's been steadily increasing since November 2016. It got to a point that in 2017 I started to wonder if I was having some kind of low grade heart attack. Went to the doctor and everything. I try to scale back on reading the 24/7 news cycle nowadays, though lately that's hard to avoid. It helps that I have two cats, both of whom are absolutely obnoxious about demanding my attention. Here are some other things that help me:
A N I M A L V I D E O S
Now that zoos are closed, Melbourne Zoo has joined the animal live stream parade, and I find the videos calming. Snow leopard cub!
R E T A I L T H E R A P Y
Due to a number of conventions having to cancel worldwide, a lot of artists are now facing a huge challenge to pay their bills. If you have a bit of cash and want to shop, check out Artist's Alley Online, Convention Prime, and other stores.
That's all I've got so far, feel free to share yours. Be kind to yourself, and stay safe out there.