Are you living in a dystopian novel?
So there are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”*
One of the reasons I like the above joke is that it’s a good reminder to not take for granted what surrounds us every single day. This is part of dystopian fiction’s seduction: that in projecting terrible imagined futures the writer is also able to tug on our arm and say ‘Aren’t we already living like this in a way?’ When David Foster Wallace wrote in 1996’s Infinite Jest about ‘entertainment cartridges’ that were so addictive and pleasurable the viewer simply expired in a haze of sensory catatonia, he wasn’t wagging a finger at where we might end up, but rather at where culture already was re: addiction to TV. The same can be said of Orwell in Animal Farm, who could already see that the natural conclusion of the Communist experiment (at least in its then-Soviet form) was not freedom from tyranny, but a whole new kind of tyranny calling itself freedom. These two brief examples give me what I call the ‘click’.
The click happens in those little moments of recognition while reading of, ‘Yeah, the world is like that!’ And something like an understanding has passed between you and the author, which can be redemptive, and maybe even morally instructional. And there’s something about the click in dystopian fiction that’s a good deal stronger than regular fiction. Good old ‘regular’ fiction’s click is of a character that behaves in a believable way to you. But dystopian fiction’s click is showing you that entire systems of thought are wrong-headed, or will lead to oblivion (the Greek root of dystopia is ‘not-good place’). Only a cursory look around the bestseller charts these days will tell you how much demand there is from readers in search of their own mega-click. In recent months we’ve already had Station Eleven from Emily St. John Mandel (a Waterstones Book of the Month), Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn, The Bees by Laline Paull, and Michel Faber’s extraordinary The Book of Strange New Things. It appears that we’ve looked into the future. It sucks. And we love it.
So have we become the fish swimming around, so unaware of the water around us we haven’t realised we’re in it? Has ‘not-good place’ become normal for us? You spend an evening sitting on, and surrounded by, IKEA furniture (Fight Club), watching a TV show about people watching a TV show (The Atrocity Exhibition), or slipping on a boxset at 9pm and next thing you know it’s 3am because: You. Simply. Cannot. Stop. Watching. To the point that everything else in your life fades away into triviality (Infinite Jest). You wake up beside your mobile (its content monitored by Nineteen Eighty-four’s Thought Police), scramble onto public transport at rush hour trying to avoid violence (Hunger Games), get knocked over accidentally by a father protecting his son from the melee (The Road), and the subway attendant demands an Accident Report be filled out (The Trial), then get stuck on the subway as you’ve lost your ticket in the melee and when you’re arrested by British Transport Police you realise you have no ID (The Trial again), leading to an interminable process of form-filling-out (still The Trial). But once the police check your Facebook and Twitter profiles and have verified who you are (Neuromancer), you are released. Then you catch the eye of a stranger and you sense there’s some kind of connection there, but can’t figure out what, or where from where, or when (Cloud Atlas), then you find yourself wandering aimlessly down the high street into a bookshop and you realise as long as people are reading books, the relative insanity of the modern world can always be kept at bay (Fahrenheit 451). Because when you’re out there swimming around all day, it’s important to remind yourself where the water is.
* courtesy of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” essay. Look it up. It’ll change you.
Andrew Drennan is a Waterstones bookseller and author whose work has been praised by The Scottish Review of Books and Ewan Morrison. His books are -available on our website