LAURIE STERNE feels like he’s been cut adrift in space. His father has been shot dead, caught in the crossfire of a gangland war that has also claimed his boss’s life. Laurie is a refugee who lost his adoptive mum years before and doesn’t know where he was born, let alone who his birth parents were. But he’s not alone in the world: someone is trying to kill him.
This is London, 2050, a dumping ground for climate refugees and dissidents. Gangs rule, murder goes unpunished and the police make sure you can’t escape.
In his struggle to stay alive, he finds an ally: his former boss’s secret daughter.
But with the killer predicting his every move, is the man without a past being betrayed by the woman who seems to offer him a future?
I DON’T know about you, but I like unexpected cheques in the post. Big ones. I like sunny days, smiles, laughter, and happiness for all. So why do I enjoy dystopian fiction? What is it about the dark that attracts this lover of the light? No question, it’s a puzzle.
The power of a good dystopia was born in on me when I was a teenager working in a small electronics factory. Radio One played on the shop floor constantly. One day I begged for the dial to be turned to Radio Four, which was serialising John Wyndham’s novel The Chrysalids, about a bunch of special kids battling for a better future in a post-apocalyptic world. My co-workers were resistant, but I persuaded them to do it just once. They were hooked. They tuned in every afternoon, careful not to miss an episode, and while it was on, you could hear a pin drop.
I was surprised by their reaction and it demanded an explanation.
In the hands of a storyteller of Wyndham’s skill, a tale of underdogs fighting oppression was always going to be alluring. But with that theme by no means confined to dystopian fiction, I suspected other things were at play.
One was that to journey every afternoon from a factory floor to a strange, future world was a release from the mundane. Like travelling to a foreign country.
Another was the more subtle truth that Wyndham, writing in the 1950s, was using future fiction to comment on his own times: on the threat of nuclear war, most obviously, but also on the perniciousness of stifling conformity.
When I was working on The Black Ditch, I was thinking more of action thrillers than Wyndham; all the same, The Chrysalids must have been in the back of my mind. My story is set in the London of 2050, a prison city, and my protagonist, Laurie Sterne, is very much the underdog. He has to battle authority to survive and track down his dad’s killer. His world is strange and perilous. Sea level rises are drowning the city to the point that London Bridge is washed away. But the main peril comes from people who will do any evil deed to survive.
Like David, the protagonist of The Chrysalids, Laurie has gifts. He can see elements of the future. He can see into the hearts of people.
And as much as Wyndham’s novel spoke of the discontents of the 1950s, so The Black Ditch relates to today.
The unwanted of its world are imprisoned, out of sight of the rest of the population who live free but in fear of them. Poverty-stricken Londoners fantasise of escaping to a better life but know they never will.
The middle name of Anna Lewis, the woman who has such an impact on Laurie, is Bluebird. Because bluebirds fly over the rainbow. Bluebird is an embarrassment of a name to Anna, but it speaks volumes about her parents’ yearning.
In a way, novelists can’t help but reflect their contemporary world; it’s all they know. They may create historical fiction or future fiction, but it’s always with reference to now.
In 2019, two best-selling writers, Robert Harris and John Lanchester, both published brilliant, dystopian future novels that serve as warnings about the present.
In Harris’s The Second Sleep, the apocalypse happened long ago, but the people are banned from knowing its cause; the theocratic government has outlawed historical and scientific truth.
In Lanchester’s The Wall, the apocalypse is recent and caused by climate change. The government has built a wall round the coast of the UK to prevent migrants getting in, and young people must work out a miserable military service guarding it.
Echoes of our own times sound loud and clear in the narratives of both stories.
They, as all the best future fictions, provide wild and exotic time machine rides back to the present. Like travelling into space to witness how precious our Earth is, these journeys show the traveller what our current world looks like from the perspective of another, imagined age.
But, of course, the time machines guarantee to return us to our own times, thrilled and entertained in a thought-provoking way.
Enjoy the ride!