It’s not surprising that dystopian futures are all the rage. 2017 has shown us a world in which fingers are poised above nuclear buttons, and angry tweets catapult back and forth. With parts of the world still harbouring ugly tensions, war across many countries, and also the technological advances of artificial intelligence, drones, and robots, there’s bound to be a wealth of material erupting on the subject. Many of the fantasy and science fiction books I’m reading over Christmas for next year combine these elements to give the reader environmental disasters, tribal warfare, and even mind control. But two novels from this year tackle a fictional near future with greater skill than most.
The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell
Not much out-and-out dystopian fiction for younger readers drops through my door, and with the exception of The Last Wild by Piers Torday, nothing else immediately comes to mind, but Zillah Bethell has written a really thought-provoking vision of the future in her latest book for readers aged nine and over.
As with all dystopian fiction, the future doesn’t look bright. There’s some sort of unexplained political situation in which it feels as if the people have little say, and leadership has become totalitarian – the authority figures are harsh and intimidating. But more frightening is that the world is at war over water, because it is now an extremely scarce commodity – no rain falls.
Auden Dare, our protagonist, not only has to struggle with this new world, but he has an unusual take on things – because he suffers from achromatopsia, a condition that means he cannot see colour. His mother has become accustomed to explaining the position of items, or the size of them to describe them to Auden, but others view him as a freak.
When Auden moves to a new town with his mother, and meets Vivi, a sparky girl with an interest in space, he finds out that she has a connection to his late uncle, a professor and scientist. When they uncover the project that Auden’s uncle was working on before he died, they discover a robot with advanced intelligence, and more than a glint of humanity. But the robot isn’t the endgame, and Auden and Vivi have to work closely together to figure out exactly what the robot is, and the truth behind their brave new world.
As well as being hugely entertaining, there is an inordinate amount to admire in this novel. Not only does it take the very real problem (for some) of water shortage and expand it to the whole world, but it also uses Auden’s rare condition to expose a different perspective on the world, and explore those current questions of Artificial Intelligence and responsibility, whether it is robots as soldiers, or automaton taking over people’s jobs. In Auden’s world there are many drones, doing jobs that people used to do, and much more surveillance, but also the perpetual problems of humanity – bullying, seeing difference, knowing the difference between right and wrong or black and white, if you like.
And of course, the overriding theme of taking things for granted – whether it’s water, or colour, or the sun rising every day. As children grow up and move towards forging their own futures, it’s going to be interesting to see what natural phenomena will need to be cherished most. You can buy it here.
We See Everything by William Sutcliffe
In contrast, I would argue there are probably more YA books on dystopia. Sutcliffe’s latest reimagines a future in which London is reduced to a mere strip, a closed-off bombed shell of a place where surveillance drones watch the inhabitants’ every move. People seem depressed, weary, closed-off, struggling to survive, with shortages of food and essentials, but as with Auden Dare, there is no background to the current situation, nor any idea of the current political landscape, other than that there is a resistance group, and there is organised crime – the selling of contraband cigarettes, for example. The one constant is the noise of drones overhead, which occasionally strike the enemy targets (the enemy within). Hence the rubble and ruined infrastructure.
The book focuses on Lex, a 16 year old boy whose father is a key operator in some kind of resistance group, although the politics are murky, and Alan, a video gamer, who is recruited by the military to be a drone pilot. The stories converge because Alan’s target of observation is Lex’s father.
Sutcliffe explores some key issues through the character of Alan: the question of masculinity and self-worth, the point of life, the issues around fighting a war through a screen rather than face to face, male role models etc. There are many interesting facets to his situation, including his low self-esteem, his lack of father, and issues within his relationship with his mother, but, and maybe because of all this, Alan isn’t a likeable character.
The chapters in which the reader follows Lex are easier to read – ultimately the boy is suffused with sympathy because of the very fact of where he lives, and his relationship with a girl, which humanises him even more. He is also shown moving through the Strip, and Sutcliffe draws out the sense of claustrophobia, but also shows off his ability to transport London to this future dystopia, in which the British Library’s basements house refugee families between the bookstacks.
In essence, though, this distils into a thinly disguised critique of what’s happening in the Gaza Strip, with the political situation so thinly layered or non-existent that it feels as if Sutcliffe is reducing it to a black and white commentary rather than exploring any shady grey areas. Is it a polemic on modern warfare, about how dropping bombs as if playing a video game is morally wrong and that the lesson is if we knew more about someone or saw their face we might be a little more reticent about taking them out? The whole reads like a metaphor for the stripped down parity of the characters’ lives, but I couldn’t help feel that there might be a bigger novel hidden inside. That this skeleton of a novel could be fleshed out with further characterisation and political nuance and depth, so that the denouement when it comes is even more devastating.
It’s ironic, that although the book is well-written and clever, it feels too distant and cold for the reader to get the message that the future of humanity is about human contact – because the characters are kept too far away from the reader. It certainly gives food for thought, even if just like in the Strip, it gives enough for philosophical thought but not for an emotional response. You can buy it here.