Thursday, 19 March 2020

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel slightly cheated - This week's #ReadItTorial

I honestly can't tell you why I've always been attracted to dystopian fiction. From an early age I remember reading the works of "The Three Johns" (John Gordon, John Christopher and John Wyndham) when I started to cut my teeth on chapter books, and each of them were past masters at describing the end of the world.

In Wyndham's case, "The Day of the Triffids" came fairly close to describing what is going on in the world in the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19, in particular people's selfishness coming to the fore rather than their 'blitz spirit'

Sure there are good people in the world, but there are seemingly more people in the world who will panic buy toilet roll, then sell it on whatever online retail platform they can war-profiteer on for ludicrous amounts of cash (a 12 pack of cushelle being openly advertised on (spit) Amazon for £94.99 by one particular seller just made me laugh, then grimace, then made me extremely angry that Amazon were facilitating this, but then again they're not the only ones seeing an opportunity for huge economic growth in Q1 of this year).

No one really wrote about panic buying or shortages of bog roll in any of the books I grew up with. No one ever wrote about the truly awful measures most employers would stoop to in order to ensure their workforce stay put, stay in work, and in most cases stay in danger of enabling the spread of the virus.

In Stephen King's "The Stand" - a book that dealt with a worldwide pandemic of a virulent killer flu, and the lives of survivors on both sides of good and evil, the breakdown of society was more or less immediate - it almost felt like the novel wanted to get to the nitty gritty of 'what comes after' rather than concentrate on the bits where society unravels like a poorly knitted sweater for want of a couple of packs of dried pasta.

One other thing that most of these books missed was the truly evil depths that news agencies would stoop to as the pandemic grew worse. It's almost as if Randall Flagg (the main evil protagonist in "The Stand") has been granted free reign to incite panic and irresponsible behaviour almost at will.

Max Brooks' sublime "World War Z" did a better job of picking at those details, as things started to really become grim, there were harrowing passage in the book that described a ragtag band of humans trying to make their way to a non-existent sanctuary, banding together but still with the element of self-preservation driving them more than anything else. One passage about 'a bowl of stew' just about finished me off. Let's hope we never get to that stage, though I guess I'm corn-fed so I'll probably taste great, just saying.

For the majority of folk waking up to the news every morning, and wishing they could just go back to bed, it feels like I'm almost coming at this from the perspective of Henry (Hank) Palace in "The Last Policeman" - probably the best piece of 'end of the world' fiction I've read in my grown-up years.

Carrying on as if the world isn't burning around us, dutifully setting off to work every morning (for how much longer, I really can't say - Universities are shutting up shop and moving into online / virtual environments day on day - and in the particular area of work I cover in my day job it's almost like the loo roll in terms of watching people practically knifing each other to grab a piece of online workspace for themselves as cloud services begin to falter and fail globally, completely unable to keep up with the demand).

There have been several folk musing over what children's publishing may look like in a year or more's time, when those first inspired authors begin to spin up their own grand stories about pandemics, dystopias and abject misery at the end of civilisation.

So many launches and events are getting cancelled that it feels like the creative industry is getting a royal kicking, but we so need it - we really do.

If we're all still here once the dust settles and the mania subsides (of course we will be, I hope!) I think I'll have had enough of the world as we know it by then, and may even have to give up my filthy dystopian reading habits and look for happy shiny joyful books instead. So if you're digging into your manuscript pile digging out all those unfinished dystopian novels, shuffle them to one side and look for the happy, positive stuff instead. I have a feeling that's going to end up being what people will want to read, need to read.