What I absolutely love about this feature is the responses we receive are so terrifically varied. Even knowing that authors are individual and unique, you never know what to expect… and that aspect delights me.
Opening this feature for 2021 is Iain Kelly, whose dystopian work The State Trilogy, I reviewed last week. Ever wanted to know how do you come to be an author of dystopian novels? Well, let Iain explain…
When Debs and David asked me to contribute a guest post for their Fiction Can Be Fun blog, I was delighted to accept. But then I had a moment of pause.
They were looking for a piece about Dystopian Fiction for their #NowWithAdded strand and, as I had written a dystopian trilogy – The State Trilogy – it seemed a sensible request. Why my hesitation?
Because I have never thought of myself as a dystopian writer, or a science fiction writer, and I certainly never set out to be one, or claim to be one. I’m not a futurist, I have no expertise in what the world might look like in the future, and I have no diploma in the study of dystopian writing. In the end, I decided this post to try and explain one simple rule about dystopian writing, which is: there is no such thing as dystopian writing.
That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of dystopian novels and stories, and the thing that they all share in common is their setting in a future world (or worlds) that, for one reason or other, looks pretty bleak. But the key thing about the best dystopian novels, and the best advice I could give to anyone looking to set a story in their vision of a dystopian future, is that dystopian novels are not really about the dystopian worlds they describe.
The central topic of the most famous dystopian novel – George Orwell’s ‘1984’ – is not the political and social structures of the world that Winston inhabits. Orwell is fundamentally writing about the human condition: freedom, oppression and, ultimately, love. Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is about the role of and oppression of woman in a society in the future, but it is also about the role of woman and the problems of the patriarchal society that exist here and now. Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ is about what it means to be human, set in a world where androids outnumber humans on Earth. Dystopian novels at their best use a bleak future world as a backdrop within which they can shine a light on our own world and ask questions about what sort of society and world we want to live in.
I started writing my own dystopian novel – A Justified State – in 2017. I didn’t want to write a dystopian novel. I wanted to write a novel set in my home country (Scotland) and my home city (Glasgow). The plot I had in mind involved some sort of political scandal. With the independence referendum still a hot topic and Brexit around the corner, it became almost impossible to foresee what the political landscape of Scotland and the UK would look like over the coming years, so I was left in a quandary. The solution was to set the story way in the future, in a dystopian world, and that’s how I came to be a writer of a dystopian novel.
I didn’t do much research other than having a keen interest in the news. By doing that you can take some things and extrapolate them into what impact they might have on the look and feel of a future world. Some things are straightforward and will almost certainly come to pass: electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles are on the way; climate change and the future source of energy from fossil fuels to renewables; overpopulation of the planet with some continents continuing to increase in population size, while others decrease, leading to mass immigration. Other things can be more speculative: there is a lot of chatter about a universal basic income for all people in some countries, to end inequality; nuclear armament seems to continue; food shortages or a switch to less meat and more vegetable-based diet. And so on. Select which ones you want to focus on and create your world. Easy. But be consistent and be believable. A lot of the things I decided to include in my novel have turned out to look like pretty good bets, even just a couple of years later. One example – at the end of 2020, ‘Brexit’ finally occurred and Great Britain separated itself from the European Union. That thread of isolationism runs through my trilogy of books and I always intended it to be a comment within the text, even if it is not central or blatant.
Other things you can’t foresee. I had no idea in 2017 that a global pandemic was on the horizon. I invented a world where mass gatherings were banned due to the threat of terrorism and a global war. I had no idea that 2 years later they would be banned thanks to Covid-19. Although Donald Trump was US President already, I had no idea how devastating his term would become including the explosion of the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Immigration has been and is and always will be a topic that engenders strong opinions, so that was always part of my story. Perhaps I could argue that racial inequality in the distant future is either a thing of the past, or is still there, but unspoken and ignored once more? Either way, the point is your dystopian world will never be able to cover every detail of what may or may not happen in the future.
It’s not a great time to write a dystopian novel when the real world we are living in has resembled something just as bleak, if not far worse. I completed the final book of my trilogy during 2020, while in lockdown, and managed to squeeze in a couple of references to include the pandemic. Corrupt politicians and failed political systems are a staple of the dystopian world – it’s just hard when your bad guys are being outshone by someone in the real world. It’s hard to write a believable character that deliberately incites race riots for political gain or nakedly owns their own corruption in the full glare of the media, but there he is, alive and real and occupying the White House (or Downing Street, take your pick). I tried to make my bad politicians at least have some decency. They may be doing the wrong thing, but perhaps for the right reason. And they weren’t always bad. Often the governments in a dystopian world are right-wing conservatives. I decided to go the other way. A socialist government that ends homelessness and poverty and food shortages. Good guys doing good things, before it all goes wrong. The summation: power corrupts absolutely (one recent review decided that my book was some sort of denouncement of Soviet and communist politics, which I never intended it to be, nor think that it is, but there you go). The good thing about dystopian novels is that you get to bring down these bad guys however you want to.
But my books are not anti-Trump, or anti-Brexit, or anti-anything specifically. They are about the people that live within the world I have created and that to me is the key to dystopian novels, and of course, to most novels. It’s the characters that matter. It’s the characters that your readers will either love or hate and hopefully care about. Whether you’re an expert on future technologies or energy crisis or climate change or flying electric cars, or not, the important thing is to place into your world the sort of characters that people can relate to. They must have the same feelings we would have if we lived in such a future world. They must have lives that we can relate too. My main character – Danny Samson – starts out as a police detective, a staple character of fiction. He has lost his wife and children in tragic circumstances. He is disillusioned with his job and his life and cares little for the world around him. Hopefully, he is someone the reader comes to care about. My other main character – Gabriella – is an ex-military assassin, something a bit more dystopian for my world. But she is also a daughter of immigrants who has lost her family. She is someone who cares about those that have nothing. She seeks to fight injustice. I threw in some elements of my own life to make things feel real – a child with type-1 diabetes was introduced as my way of writing through my own anxieties when my own son was diagnosed with this disease; Danny has lost twins at child birth, which we so nearly came close to having to live with too; people have lost fathers and mothers and children in the same way many readers will have and hopefully will relate too.
So there it is, my advice to anyone writing a dystopian novel: Don’t write a dystopian novel. Write a novel about characters that you care about. Then, if you want to, set them in a dystopian world and see what happens. And to emphasise my point, I’m now editing my next book which has nothing to do with a dystopian world and is in a completely different style. I’m writing in the first-person rather than the third-person. It’s set in the present day and in the past and in the real world. But it still has a lot of similarities to my State Trilogy dystopian books, because the characters at the heart of the story are real people with the same worries and fears and ambitions and regrets. It’s just not set in a dystopian world this time.
© Iain Kelly, 2021