Category Archives: dystopia

Writing dystopia: The authors who walk beside me

For an academic turned novelist, the habit of acknowledging my sources is one that I find hard to discard. So ingrained is the habit that my last novel included endnotes. That story was rooted in historical events, while my work in progress is set in alternate worlds. There’s no history to guide the story, no need to get the dates and facts right. Or is there?

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST OF THIS ARTICLE HERE

With my manuscript half finished, I recently found myself reflecting on how the work has been shaped by an unlikely miscellany of writers over the last eighteen months. The book is a dystopian novel set in Australia and England more than a hundred years into the future. There are two dystopias: A post-apocalyptic Australia, and a post-Enlightenment England, by which I mean a society in which most people have given up thinking for themselves.

A major challenge of writing dystopias is that they must be plausible: My invented futures must contain the pathways by which they have come from their pasts. In the early stages of imagining the novel, I consulted Futurevision, Scenarios for the World in 2040 by Richard Watson and Oliver Freeman to get an idea how professional futurists think, which pretty well confirmed my plausibility theory.  Some time later, I read Rhonda Roberts’ Gladiatrix (Kannon Dupree: Time Stalker), a terrific lesson in the importance of making alternate worlds coherent. Rhonda gave me some feedback on an early draft that got me repairing holes in the back story. Around the same time, I spotted Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die at my local library, thinking that it would give me some clues about how my dystopias got where they are. It was broadly useful, but its main impact was its persuasiveness: Ferguson is way to the right of me in his political views, but by the end I was eating out of his hand. I wriggled out of his clutches in the last chapter (no spoilers). The last word goes to Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. It’s a lumpy compilation of a book in my view, but it answered a question that had been plaguing me: Why do my dystopias echo The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other works in the canon? The answer: This is a genre with its conventions and tropes. Get over it. (At least that what I got from Atwood; I’m not sure she actually said that.) I had a quick detour through H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau to wrap things up.

My book has multiple voices, one of which comes up in fragments of a popular history written decades into our future. I originally drafted these as (fake) academic history, but my friends in our writers’ group in Sydney got a bad case of lexical indigestion. One or two of them suggested I try using a popular history approach  – that odd variety of writing that turns dry history into page turners. While not exactly history, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism gave me a useful stylistic model. Paul Ham’s The Target Committee showed me how much historical content you can load up into a paragraph without it turning to sludge. In the end, I found my own style of fake popular history, which turned out to have a satirical thread in the weave. Bonus.

Reading Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, it struck me that dystopias can be defined in terms of their relation to the rational thought that is the hallmark of the Enlightenment. If I imagine a bell-curve where the top of the curve represents the pinnacle of Enlightenment thinking*, then the two tails are post-apocalyptic Australia (where people are slipping back into the Middle Ages) and post-Enlightenment England (where other people do your rational thinking for you). But the main lesson of Pinker’s book is its stunning optimism: It’s packed with graphs to convince the reader that we’ve never had it so good. Sometimes I wondered why the world needs dystopian novels when we’re already in Utopia.

Now for some specialist influences. I’m a linguist by profession, so it’s not surprising that I have a lot of fun with language in my books. My dystopian Australia has creole languages, and I turned to Derek Bickerton’s Roots of Languageto check the authenticity of the speech I was putting into my characters’ mouths. I rank Bickerton’s book among the top five scholarly works I have encountered in my entire career. Vale Derek Bickerton, who passed away in March 2018. Another Professor, Ted Bryant, was my source for technical detail on tsunami. Bryant’s Past tsunami in Australia gave me the idea of a tsunami triggered by a piece of the continental shelf slipping off the east coast of Australia. The New South Wales State Emergency Service tsunami web pages filled in more detail. And let’s throw in some religion: My two dystopias handle faith in quite different ways, and I had to read up on vernacular religion to get a sense of how an isolated post-apocalyptic society would handle these things: Marion Bowman’s journal article Vernacular Religion, Contemporary Spirituality and Emergent Identitiesgave me some directions, but I shied away from going in too deep into what looked like a controversial field. On the question of freedom of speech, I carefully read The United States Constitution; my specific question was the extent to which the First Amendment could be used to constrain artificial intelligence. And many hours were consumed in following – and not properly documenting – leads on such subjects as accounting, climate change, pre-industrial economics, and post-polio syndrome.

I should also not forget three books that are in a sense characters in the novel: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the King James version of the New Testament, and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

Perhaps the sweetest hours of my background reading were spent during a balmy trip to Far North Queensland, where I visited Cairns and Kuranda, two of the locations of the novel. My unlikely reading material was The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, edited by Janet Croon. LeRoy was a teenager, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, who spent the war years crippled and suffering from spinal tuberculosis in Macon, Georgia. The diary is an account of daily life as the Confederate cause slowly collapses, and LeRoy’s health deteriorates. As I read, I realised that living conditions in 1860’s Georgia were not unlike those I was trying to depict in Kuranda in 2126: Constant sickness, extreme summer heat, intermittent supplies of basic commodities, plagues of insects. This, by the way, was by far the best book I read in 2018.

And of course, walking alongside Atwood, Bickerton, Shakespeare and all the others are the members of the Write On! writers group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre here in Sydney  – Sarah, Garry, Karen, Michele, Nore, Julia, Rhonda. Stick with me till the last page, my friends!

*I place this at about 1975, but I’m happy to argue the point.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE.

Advertisements

So who’s Mr. French, and why is he unmasked?

Like most writers I know, I have voluminous files of old drafts, abandoned chapters and even abandoned novels. It’s all part of learning the craft – knowing when to let go of something that just isn’t working.

Last year, I began writing a complicated dystopian novel. My writing critique group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (I couldn’t live without them) gave it a big thumbs down.

Undeterred, I brought it back a few weeks ago with a new beginning. Thumbs down again.

Another beginning. Another thumbs down.

But last week, with beginning #3, I got the seal of literary approval. The corpse has risen from the dead. It is walking. A twisted future world is under construction.

To celebrate, I dusted off a short story I wrote a while ago, did some more work on it, gave it a new title Unmasking Mr. French, and posted it on this site as the prize for signing up to my newsletter. I even invested in a Shutterstock image and made a ‘cover’. (My regular professional cover designer is  busy right now, and will probably shriek in horror when she sees my work!)

Because I’m still in celebratory mood,  I’m giving you the story  without making you sign up since you managed to find my website. Just click here and pop in the password FREE.

Have a read and let me know what you think.

Stu

Requiem for scholarship in a world of designer barbarism

Three pieces of news in recent weeks convince me that scholarship is being devalued faster than last year’s smart phone. The first was the fullsizeoutput_cd0claim that hate sites are gaming Google so that mundane searches return results that reflect right-wing extremist views. The second was that the Australian senator who flabbergasted the noted physicist Professor Brian Cox with his climate change denialism is to travel to the US to confer with President-Elect Trump’s advisors. And the third was an Australian cabinet minister who declined to express confidence in the government’s own Chief Scientist.

Perhaps the news about Google is the most distressing. Forget the extremist views: The crucial point is that the more we click on a specific topic, the more our supposedly neutral social media tools will feed similar stuff back at us until we are drowning in a pool of our own distilled personal opinion. Worse still, despite the teaching of critical literacy in our schools, the internet seems to have gained the authority of the encyclopedias we used to have on our shelves.

Remember that encyclopedias contained curated knowledge based on scholarship; social media contain knowledge curated by popular opinion and algorithms. I am constantly staggered by the recycling of discredited pseudo-knowledge through sharing, tagging, liking, and emoticonning. This way lies designer barbarism.

My career as academic was based on the notion that knowledge was built on the foundations laid down by the scholars who preceded me. The crucial tool was falsificationism – the technique by which you stress-test existing knowledge with the aim of disproving its validity or improving on it. You gather evidence. You evaluate it. You weigh up competing models. You make the best-informed conclusion that you can. That’s why we have cancer drugs, mass transport, clean water, and of course the internet.

And that’s why stunts like sideswiping our top scientist and claiming that NASA is faking climate data devalue the scholarship that separates us from the barbarians.

 

Emeritus Professor Stuart Campbell is a novelist and higher education governance expert.

Climate change and language change?

stu angled trim
STUART PONDERING …

Climate change and language change: That’s the issue I’m pondering as I embark on my fourth novel. Having written two books with contemporary settings and one set in 1973, I’m launching myself into the future with a dystopian story.  Without revealing too much, my new book (working title The Twilight Principality) is set in Australia and England, and has a climate change theme.

One of the challenges is dealing with the language spoken in my dystopian world in 2065. Well, it’s only fifty years from now – my grandchildren are more than sixty years younger than me and they understand me perfectly. So why is there a language issue?

The reason is that part of my story is set in an isolated enclave around a town in Australia inhabited by descendants of local townsfolk and climate refugees from Vietnam and the South Pacific. I have engineered this micro-world so that a generation of children have grown up speaking a creole language based on English, Fijian, Fijian Hindi, and Vietnamese.

There is a long tradition of constructed languages in literature and film: The Game of Thrones’ Valyrian and Dothraki are widely known contemporary examples. Tolkien’s Elvish languages were created over a century ago.

I chose to create a creole language to suit the special circumstances of my imagined micro-world. I’ll resist the urge to give a lecture on creoles, other than to say that linguists find them especially fascinating because they seem to develop similar grammar systems even when they develop in different parts of the world. Readers who want to follow this up should have a look at Derek Bickerton’s bioprogram hypothesis.

My micro-world has a growing vocabulary, including zazzy (stomach), doublegranny (two-roomed house), and larka (boy). And I’ve written the basic grammar rules so that I can make sentences in past, present and future time.

But the other challenge is not to bore my readers stiff! You’ll only get glimpses of my creole language in the novel, but you can be assured that like Elvish, Klingon and Valyrian, there’s a linguistics expert toiling in the background to make sure that it is plausible. The real point of the exercise is to add authenticity to an imagined world in which global warming has passed the tipping point.

As I write this, I note that every mention of Australia has been deleted from a recent UNESCO report on climate change: Another reason to write this book.

###

Click here to receive my newsletter.

Read about Stuart Campbell’s novels here.