Delectable dystopias. Image design: Tina Tiller.
Delectable dystopias. Image design: Tina Tiller.

BooksJune 21, 2024

When the siren wails: The comforts of dystopian fiction

Delectable dystopias. Image design: Tina Tiller.
Delectable dystopias. Image design: Tina Tiller.

On the darkest day of the year, Lucy Black considers the dystopian novels she loves, and why.

When I was 22 I moved to a seaside village. My house was next to the ocean and very near the volunteer firefighters station. Regularly the peaceful rush of waves would be disturbed by the loud, whirring siren calling the firefighters to duty. It would go off at night and infiltrate my dream life; I would conjure natural disasters and wake up expecting a changed world. I remember vivid dreams of tidal waves lapping at my window casing and a post apocalyptic landscape that I would wander around in search of my loved ones. In those dreams, the light was different and everything was dusty, threatening and still.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’ve spoken to others about these apocalyptic dreamscapes – they lack the urgent danger and terror of nightmares, but they’re nonetheless memorable, unsettling dreams. I believe that in our collective consciousness, we all have an ever looming understanding that one day, perhaps in our lifetimes, earth will go through a catastrophic change and only a small portion of us will survive. It seems natural that our subconscious, and sometimes conscious, thoughts ask: What will the world be like? And how will I survive within it? 

I’m not certain what comes first: is my interest in changed-world survival based on the media I have consumed? Or is the media I consume driven by my need to face my fears? You don’t have to look far to find films, television and novels that explore what happens after the end of the world. I grew up in the 80s and 90s and remember a fair amount of talk about nuclear war as well as a growing concern about the climate and environment. Blockbusters like Terminator, the Planet of the Apes films and Blade Runner showcased new worlds with tough, canny men who kept their wits about them to survive. I am by no means tough and I’m a slow processor; I can’t relate to action heroes. Faced with danger and discomfort I am likely to fumble, cry and hide. As a kid my mum wanted me to be sporty and would give me books about hardy tom-boys: I tried to read them but I knew those girls would have no time for me and my overthinking, wimpy tendencies. I have always been drawn to characters more like myself – what happens to the nerds, the femmes and the book worms when faced with harsh dystopias? 

As a teen I liked books like Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden and Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. I liked imagining how I would survive if I found my country invaded or myself homeless. At least I wouldn’t have to go to school. How would I eat on $10 for two weeks? Could I find shelter? 

The first book that really made an impact in my survival fantasies was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien. In this short novel from 1974, 16-year-old Ann finds herself completely alone after a nuclear fallout. How is a teenage girl expected to feed and shelter herself in an isolated valley? I remember the tense fear and curiosity when Ann saw another campfire and the complicated, scary realisation that she had found a grown up man. Z for Zachariah was the first in a long series of books that I sought out and read greedily. They’re about regular people, not action heroes or scientists, but people like myself who would be blindsided and terrified. 

In 1993, the wonderful and underrated Octavia Butler wrote Parable of the Sower, a realistic but bleak novel about society’s collapse. She writes of a world at war, addicted to drugs, dying of strange new diseases and coming to terms with chronic water shortages. Butler paints a harrowing future and worryingly, she sets this novel in 2024. The oppressed protagonist of Parable of the Sower is a working class, black, disabled, teenage girl, called Lauren. The only person that believes Lauren has power is Lauren herself. Lauren is a pragmatic and steady traveller: she tries to find safe haven and create community: “That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.” 

Butler writes beautiful scenes of groups of travellers resting on a beach, hesitantly sharing resources and watching over each other’s drinking water. A lot of the novel is long walks and taking things one step at a time. Parable of the Sower isn’t about heroes, it’s about community and empathy and inner strength. 

Dystopian novels by John Marsden, Octavia E Butler and Rosa Rankin-Gee.

Rosa Rankin-Gee’s 2021 novel Dreamland explores the idea of not being able to leave, of sitting and watching the apocalypse very slowly unfold around you. Sometime in the near future, a working class, depressed and oppressed teenage girl Chance lives in a high rise ghetto from where she can watch the sea levels creep upward. Dreamland is a cinematic novel that highlights how shit it is to be poor and queer with a drug-addicted mum, not enough education and employment, not enough food and love. Then take that already bad time and add scary new drugs, political upheaval, climate crises, lack of access to food and water and waves that periodically wipe out your town. Within this very melancholy novel Rankin-Gee writes in moments of beauty, the joy of stumbling across an unlooted house, a beloved horse and loyal friendships. 

Perhaps the Covid 19 pandemic has made us more aware of how much our day to day lives can change? Of how alone we each are? Since 2019 more and more novels are exploring catastrophic themes. Wellington author Clare Moleta set her 2021 novel Unsheltered in an alternative Australia and follows a mother separated from her daughter through under-resourced refuge camps, ghost towns and drought ridden countryside. Moleta captures the urgency and desperation we all fear and asks the question: How far could you push yourself on a shred of hope?

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch (winner of the 2023 Booker Prize) explores similar themes. While it’s not officially an apocalyptic novel, Lynch cleverly shows how life-changing and destructive civil war can be. Told from the point of view of a mother, Prophet Song is about the rise of fascism. Set in Ireland, middle aged Eilish is left at home with three kids when her husband is disappeared overnight. She watches her son become a soldier and marvels at how powerless she is to keep the ones she loves safe. Lynch writes: “The world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news”. Prophet Song is a post-apocalypse novel because the events are an apocalypse for Eilish and she is left with those same old concerns as all the heroes: How will she feed her children? Where will they sleep? When does she fight and when does she hide?

I recently spoke to a well-read mate of mine about these apocalyptic books and how they affect us. She abashedly admitted that if she sees the word “apocalyptic” or “climate crisis” on a novel these days she will avoid it. She’s smart, she knows about the environment and she knows the threats are real; she doesn’t have her head in the sand. She has kids though, and a lot on her plate. I commiserated with her that reading about the end of the world is frightening and depressing, but admitted that I couldn’t look away. As my friend climbed on her bike to get on with her day, she said, “But I liked Station Eleven.” 

Dystopian fiction by Emily St John Mandel, Paul Lynch, and Clare Moleta.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (2014) was the first of a group of novels that I would class as “quiet apocalypse stories”. These novels are my antidote to the nightmarish action-packed stories of brave strong men persevering in violent new hellscapes. Station Eleven features post apocalyptic life, well after the apocalypse. It centres around a group of travelling actors and musicians and their small life touring and putting on plays. St John Mandel shows the reader how ignorant we all really are about how things work, she shows us how post apocalypse life will involve a lot of learning and starting from scratch: “No one had any idea, it turned out. None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended.”

The Blue Book of Nebo by Mannon Stefan Ros was originally written in Welsh and then published in English in 2021. It’s a short and contained novel about a mother and a son. Something unclear and catastrophic has occurred in their small Welsh town and they are left without power and amenities. Unlike in the films The Last of Us or 28 Days Later, Rowenna doesn’t have to take her kid on the run from zombies or face danger around every corner. In The Blue Book of Nebo, the small family hunker down and survive illness and poverty: they take things slowly, grow food, gently loot stores and read a lot. Told in alternating chapters this concise novel explores what the apocalypse could be like for a middle-aged woman and a teenage boy, I found it to be at once heartbreaking and inspiring, mundane and profound. 

Every summer my best friend and I bemoan the state of things as we drive around in her air conditioned car, often trying to convince a sweaty child to go to sleep. We’re not cut out for the heat and the hot, dry winds rolling across the Wellington hills often inspire conversations about how ill equipped we are for a warmer, harsher climate. “Where will I get my tummy medicine when the apocalypse comes? How will I charge my headphones?” I implore. “Will I still be expected to cook dinner every night?” she replies. We joke about what we will have to offer in a world without the internet and electricity. I would lend out my extensive personal library and she knows many ways to cook lentils. 

Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time was written in 1985, and I feel like this one is often overlooked in science fiction circles. I was pleased to see a new edition in 2019. William Gibson cited this novel as the first occurrence of cyberpunk dystopia but it’s Piercy’s utopia that captured me. Woman on the Edge of Time is about a down-and-out American Latina woman, Connie, who has been sectioned in a brutal mental health facility. Whilst in the facility Connie has visions of travelling into the future and into a world that has survived an unknown slow apocalypse. Piercy writes of new ways of living with nature, new technology and social structures that appeal to me more than any other future I have read in a novel. She highlights the ways in which our current society is deeply flawed and posits that maybe instead of the terrifying dystopia we feel we are careening toward, we can build our own alternatives. 

Woman on the Edge of Time is a radical book and showed me that true radicalism is a long game. Someone I have long admired for gracefully playing the long game is Palmerston North author Helen Lehndorf. Last year she published A Forager’s Life. I wrongly assumed that much of the book would be irrelevant to me: I don’t like sourdough starters and tramping is hard. I was pleasantly surprised to find this memoir was less of a survivalist/prepper handbook and more about anticapitalist mindset and building community. A Forager’s Life is a memoir of a hero who would suggest we don’t worship heroes, someone who is always monitoring the fringe to find growth and beauty and asking herself how she can build on it. When all the lights go out and the world grinds to a halt, I’ll think about the people I want on my survival team. My neighbours down the road that can fish and know about mushrooms for sure, but I’d also really want Helen. 

One nice thing about my best friend (the one I drive around with on hot days to escape warm winds) is that she sincerely believes in community and the goodness of people. As we get older and the world gets harder she carefully observes the weather change, pandemics rising and genocide playing out on instagram stories. While I turn to her in despair she tends to her incredible vege garden and reminds me that we have each other and we have other friends. Although we are soft and confused, we are brave. We have built connections with other soft, confused, brave people and for now and perhaps when the sky falls down on us, that is what will get us through. 

Keep going!