Selected dystopias

As I’ve said before, SF is valuable for its freedom to conduct thought-experiments, which often illuminate our present by showing us futures which may arise from it. Utopias beckon us along a particular path, while dystopias hold up warning signs saying, “Wrong way – go back.”

In recent weeks I have read three new SF novels which offer such warnings. I will begin with the one whose setting is most distant from us in time.

Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept (2017)

Here’s the background:

Things weren’t going too well for life on Earth, in the Population Crisis – once known as the Climate Change Crisis, but population pressures driven by climate change had long ago become the really obvious issue. By the dawn of the twenty-third century … all the oceans were rated dead or dying, and a frightening global percentage of agricultural land was useless. Almost the entire human population lived packed into the surviving cities, remodeled and densely stacked: the crumbling “megahives.” … Outside them scavengers eked out short lives in the polluted “Dead Zones,” or in raft clusters on the acidified oceans.

Fortunately for the reader’s enjoyment, the book centres on a secret research project in a vast cavern beneath the mountains of Poland, not the devastated surface world. There’s a full review on Chicago Review of Books so I won’t say any more except I would have preferred the story at full (novel) length rather than sketchily presented, as it is, at novella length.

Jeff VanderMeer: Borne (2017)

Borne is a far better book than Proof of Concept despite a similarly post-apocalyptic setting – a decaying city, in this case, isolated from the rest of the world. The implied time-frame is undefined but would seem to be 50 – 100 years in our future. Mass refugee movements around the world, driven by sea-level rise, are recent history; “biotech” is so common and so poorly controlled that it is a pollution problem; and the city has been split and ruined by two warring power blocs. The protagonist is one of the minority eking out a feral existence between the two, and precipitates their collapse.

The engineered lifeforms lend the novel a weirdness and intensity which reminded me of JG Ballard, but VanderMeer’s underlying vision, unlike Ballard’s, is positive: the slide into savagery can – just – be arrested and reversed. (Read more about it on Goodreads.)

Norman Spinrad: The People’s Police (2017)

Many years ago, I knew Norman Spinrad as a consistently readable SF writer overshadowed by giants such as Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert and Clarke. The People’s Police is better than anything of his that I read at that time, and better than most of what the giants were writing, too.

It is set in New Orleans, sometime around the middle of this century. The Big Easy has been transformed by climate change, in particular by sea level rise and a hurricane season which has become so reliably catastrophic that it has earned capital letters. The lowest parts of the city have been abandoned to the swamps, the very highest parts are still attracting tourists except in the Hurricane Season, and the remainder is seasonally flooded: the Swamp Alligators, the lawless underclass living in its stilt-raised shanties, get about in boats or on foot according to the water level.

A grim reality? Not in Spinrad’s capable hands. One of the commendations on the back cover calls Spinrad, “that most miraculous of creatures, a utopianist’s dystopianist,” and it’s a good description.

His narrator is a venal bordello-keeper, while one of his protagonists is a Swamp Alligator turned cop, and the other is a hippie chick who scraped a living as a busker before the voodoo gods chose to possess her. The People’s Police is a blackly satirical laugh-out-loud romp which cheerfully applies a blowtorch to every level of  government and big business and puts community at the heart of a reborn city.

There’s an excellent full review on Amazing Stories if you want to know more but, really, I encourage you to simply find the book and start reading.

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