I’m currently Writer in Residence at Waikato University and have been asked to do
a lecture or two. One of the courses looks specifically at dystopias and I thought I
would post the lecture I gave here for those interested.
I’m primarily a writer of novels, currently working on my tenth. My background is
as a teacher, although I have worked as a researcher for other writers, a tutor in
novel writing (my current job) and for four years worked as a non fiction resource
writer for an organisation called the Global Education Centre, tasked with the grand
mission statement of ‘Change for a just world.’ Sadly now disestablished with the
election of the National Government, during those four years I researched in-depth,
and wrote about, all the world’s most pressing global issues, with a particular eye
to the human rights impacts and frameworks, social justice issues, and an
examination of who holds the power and how that power is being used.
These topic included the politics and effects of climate change, colonisation, illegal
trafficking of people, animals and drugs, violence against women, monetary
systems, non-violent resistance, refugee issues, corporations, pharmaceutical
companies, the music of resistance, cultural identity, racism …. You name it! It also
involved presenting possible actions that could be taken by individuals to improve
these situations. It was the perfect job for me – I am, by nature, a wholly political
person, and I have strongly held beliefs about the need for greater transparency,
compassion and generosity in all human dealings.
Eight of my novels to date have been for a crossover YA/adult audience – I like to target YA readers because I feel so strongly about these political, emotional and social justice/human rights issues that I use my writing as an opportunity to open dialogue with young people about the issues raised in them.
Four of these novels have been called ‘dystopian’, although to my mind I was writing what is called ‘speculative’ fiction – in other words, taking a set of issues/factors and projecting the possible consequences of such actions and ideologies to their most extreme possible conclusions, in order to investigate the consequences and complexities that arise.
Three of these novels form my Blood of the Lamb trilogy (you can see the dedicated page on this website here), set in the Pacific several generations in the future after an apocalyptic event that, although only briefly touched on in the books, is the result of a catastrophic event triggered by extreme solar flares – which, apparently, would have a similar effect to nuclear bombs going off all over the world. All communication systems down; oil pipes exploding; massive climate and magnetic driven storms; dangerously high levels of solar radiation; crop, animal and fish stocks destroyed, mutated and so damaged as to render them useless. Billions would be blinded, injured, frazzled or die. This is not just summonsed up out of my imagination – this scenario is the result of careful in-depth research, much of it from NASA.
Why is it so important, and so common, for some kind of apocalyptic event to have either occurred before the start of a dystopian fiction, or to work as the inciting incident of one? I can’t speak for others, but, in my case it provided me with the opportunity to create a world free of technology, isolated from other influences, in an alternative story world where several variables have arisen that produce a very specific set of circumstances which I, as the evil master-manipulator of the story, can now use to my advantage! I suspect this is case for most writers who take this tack. It is a bit like Darwin’s finches, in that if isolated from all other members of the species, in a distinct set of circumstances, unique conditions arise that impact on the inhabitants.
So what is the story of this particular dystopian world, and what lies behind its creation? Here are the book blurbs to give you a little idea of what can be found in each book.
Book One: The Crossing The people of Onewere, a small island in the Pacific, know that they are special – chosen to survive the deadly event that consumed the Earth. Now, from the rotting cruise ship Star of the Sea, the elite control the population – manipulating old texts to set themselves up as living ‘gods’. But what the people of Onewere don’t know it this: the leaders will stop at nothing to meet their own blood-thirsty needs . . . When Maryam crosses from child to woman, she must leave everything she has ever known and make a crossing of another kind. But life inside the ship is not as she had dreamed, and she is faced with the unthinkable: obey the leaders and very likely die, or turn her back on every belief she once held dear.
Book Three: Resurrection Maryam fights for her life, freedom and love in this thrilling finale to the Blood of the Lamb series. When Maryam arrives back at Onewere and tries to loosen the Apostles’ religious strangehold by sharing the miraculous remedy for Te Maate Iai, she finds herself captured once again – prey to the Apostles’ deadly game. Somehow Maryam must get the islanders to listen to her plea that they start thinking for themselves – hoping to stir the independence in their hearts, even as she finds herself on the brink of death . . .
Stories as big and structurally complex as a trilogy rarely arrive fully formed! In my case there were four distinct prompts, and once I had identified that I wanted to use them for a book, it took some time for the story to emerge from the disparate parts. And by time I mean years! From first thinking of the initial prompt to writing the first book was probably three or four years.
The first of these prompts related to my work life. I’ve spent a number of years working as a mentor for the Whitireia writing programme, and one of the students I worked with for two years was a man in his late 60s called Luke, who was a charming indigenous Fijian, sadly now dead. He was writing a very strange, supposedly non-fiction account of a Fijian man called Apolosi Nawai, who Luke (and many others) believed was the Christ reborn – and his book included such details as Apolosi’s ability to travel around on a beam of light, and Luke’s (supposed) first hand account of going to Heaven and also his retelling (within this weird context) of God’s making of the world and human beings. He was absolutely genuine in his beliefs (and quietly confident that as I read his book I would be converted! I was not!)
So, this was my first introduction to what is commonly known as a cargo cult. According to Professor Ton Otto, “cargo cults are marked by a number of common characteristics, including a “myth-dream” that is a synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements; the expectation of help from the ancestors; charismatic leaders; and lastly, belief in the appearance of an abundance of goods.” In other words, they ‘often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a “vision” (or “myth-dream”) of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy (“mana”) thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality. This leader may characterize the present state (often imposed by colonial capitalist regimes) as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down.’ The John Frumm cult, on Tanna Island in Vanuatu is one such an example. It’s a fascinating subject.
I’m sure, knowing this, you can see the connections between the nature of cargo cults and the background world of my story. What really fascinated me was how someone of good intellect could fall so deeply for a premise which to me, anyway, seemed totally unbelievable. And, as a writer, it is often from some question I have posed to myself (i.e. how can someone really believe this?!) that a story idea forms.
Related to this was the second strand of influence into the story idea, and that is about the nature of belief itself. I was not raised in a religious environment and, apart from a 6 month dabble about the age of 10, I have never really ‘got’ religion. (I hope I don’t offend anyone by stating this – just trying to tell you the truth.) I have a dear friend who told me that when she decided to take Jesus into her heart, she made the decision that if she was going to believe that part, she had to believe it all. Therefore she was rejecting the theory of evolution in favour of the Bible version. I just don’t get this. Yet I can see how faith has helped many people I know cope with horrendous difficulties in their lives and I have no issue with that – whatever helps us get through the hard times can’t be a bad thing.
And it seems that we, as human beings, have some kind of innate wiring that prompts us to look for bigger meaning and to believe in some kind of ‘supernatural’ entity – whether the God of the mainstream religions, or the God of cargo cults, or new age spirituality, or the pagan gods of Europe, the culturally indigenous gods, Gaia, aliens, lizard men posing as our world’s most powerful leaders… Why is it we need this, and what does it say about us? I find such questions fascinating, and wanted to explore them within the context of this story.
And, then, of course, there is the history of the various religions, and the evil, the control, and wealth accumulation that has been perpetrated in religion’s name. I see this as hypocritical at best, and criminal at worst. This has more to do with the STRUCTURES built around of religion – a particular religion as corporate entity if you will, and not the essential nature of faith. I wanted to also tie the themes to the on-going atrocities we currently see being committed in the name of ‘religion’ – this dreadful them vs us, Muslim vs Christian, Jew vs Gentile vs Palestinian mentality, on and on… each side claiming the moral high ground and manipulating their core religious texts to serve their needs. Hence my Apostles of the Lamb were born.
There were two other disparate ideas that built on this – and this one is really random, so bear with me! I’m a vegetarian – I made a decision a long time ago that I would never eat what I wasn’t prepared to kill with my bare hands (reason being I think we need to be cognoscente of all our decisions, not hide behind the sanitised glad-wrapped meat packs in the supermarket, for instance.) This leaves me pretty much unable to eat any flesh (although I do eat fish at a pinch, coz I reckon if I was really desperate I could probably stretch to this – and I mean REALLY desperate – I catch bloody flies and release them I’m such a wimp!)
So here’s what I was thinking one day … I think it’s a strange thing how perfectly decent people can raise an animal from birth, nurture it and make sure it gets the best possible start in life, and then kill it and eat it. I figured that if I switched this around, and said that, okay, I’ve got these two gorgeous kids, I’ve nurtured them and made sure they get the best possible start in life – and now I’m going to kill and eat them … I don’t think that would go down so well. And then I thought, isn’t it also strange that we feel no guilt about stealing the milk from another mother’s breast – okay, so she’s a cow or goat or sheep or llama (whatever!) but it’s still essentially what we’re doing – and, again, how would you feel if you’d just had your baby, and I pop in twice a day and steal its milk from your breasts to put into my cup of tea? I know, I’m strange – I’m sure you’re starting to realise this by now! Anyway, THAT got me thinking about blood, and how we also essentially milk people of blood – our vital life source. And what if this ‘milking’ of blood was used to keep alive one privileged group at the expense of another… and so here we have the breeder/bleeder theme of the trilogy. Not so crazy actually, when you look at the current illegal trafficking of human organs and other body parts.
Issues around power and control form the final thread. This is a theme that came up EVERY time I wrote a resource for the GEC. In every situation where there is unjustness or conflict, there is an imbalance of power and control – and over time those who are oppressed often so absorb the powerful’s spin on this, that they become, essentially, brainwashed and willing victims, their identities and self-esteem (and hope) so repressed that they feel too disempowered to fight. It’s like battered wife syndrome on a larger scale.
I think, again, the extremes of religious fundamentalism give us some fairly scary examples of this – but also consider racial oppression, gender oppression, political oppression, economic oppression, cultural oppression… in every case the oppressors rewrite history to justify their actions and their means. (As an aside, don’t think that kind of historical retelling doesn’t happen here. On Waitangi Day our PM declared we had a ‘peaceful’ colonisation of Maori here – total tosh.)
So this focus on issues of power and control underpins the core themes of the trilogy (and, actually, everything I write) – and in the trilogy in particular, issues around oppression of women, of faithful populations, of indigenous people, of refugees. And in the second and third books, I used as my template the treatment of refugees held on Nauru – one of our closest and most current examples of blatant racism and power and control gone berserk.
The thing about so called dystopian or speculative or science fiction, or fantasy (or whatever you want to call it) is – I think – that, no matter how far-fetched the scenario, the core issues are solidly grounded on what’s really going on, or has gone on in the past, or is the terrifying extension of what is going on now. None of the issues I wrote about in the trilogy are so fictional that they’ve never occurred – not even the blood stealing of the Chosen sisters – who, I didn’t find out until I’d finished the books, mirror almost exactly a practice from Mayan culture.
My starting point of my book The Nature Of Ash, a speculative political thriller, also described a dystopian, was my utter disgust and concern about the secret negotiations of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the serious loss of sovereignty we will suffer if it is signed. It’s a truly evil threat to life as we currently know it – and I wish I was exaggerating. I married this together with the situation that we (i.e. NZ) are increasingly finding ourselves in (and, actually, even more so since I wrote the book) – and that’s becoming stuck between the power and resource needs of two competing superpowers – the US and China, leading to NZers becoming disenfranchised from the land and becoming dispensable job fodder for overseas super-corporations.
I contacted Dr Paul Buchannan (who, for those of you who don’t know, is a former intelligence and defence policy analyst and consultant to US government security agencies, who specializes in matters of comparative and international politics and security.) I said, look I’ve writing this book, and have come up with this slightly weird scenario, and I need an inciting incident that isn’t too farfetched and gave him my possible ideas. He came back to me and said that it wasn’t far-fetched – in fact is eminently possible, and he suggested the opening scenario, which he believes is a distinct possibly, which opens us up to having a proxy war between the US and China fought over the top of us, here on NZ soil. Sounds pretty damn dystopian – but this is a possible future – a speculated possible future – and one that is not without significance evidence of a lean in that direction.
It’s a book about empowerment – about the need for ordinary people to stand up for truth and justice and human rights. About raising our voices and speaking out (and, incidentally, it’s also about our attitudes to disability, with a significant character who has Down Syndrome.) In fact, I’m now considering a sequel, because this whole issue of mass surveillance, and our government’s ability to tell brazen-faced lies and get away with it, while stifling all dissenting voices, is something that I feel I can’t ignore, and is a natural extension of this particular story. (that’s now in the line, after the one I’m working on now.)
To me, dystopias are always about the characters fighting their very worst fears – whether disease, war, oppression, climate, violence, lack of resources, reality shows gone mad, or themselves – and the threat revolves around who or what is holding all the power – and how they are wielding it. They’re usually about a character fighting to regain some of that power, or to find the inner power to fight back. And they are mostly always political – because, in fact, EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL! How we structure our systems and lives is political, how we behave towards each other and other groups is defined by politics. The art of politics is all about control, regulation and manipulation of human behaviour and resources.
Dystopia allows a writer to take a consequence to its most extreme possible conclusion – in the Blood of the Lamb trilogy, for instance, it’s about what happens when a group of vulnerable people are confronted by complete catastrophe and then manipulated by a more powerful elite. In The Nature of Ash it’s about what happens if we keep going down this disastrous ideological track. As a writer, I don’t necessarily want you to agree with me (though, of course I’d like it!), but I sure as hell want you to think about the issues and to question your information sources, basic knowledge and core principles. And as I said earlier, that’s my core reason for writing to a YA audience – it’s got a good crossover readership and allows me the opportunity to go into schools and start having some of these discussions. I encourage them to ask some simple questions to unravel situations, for instance: Who is holding the power here? How are they wielding it? Is it fair?
My twitter account describes me as ‘trying to save the world one book at a time’ – and while is a bit of a joke, it’s also deadly serious. I have kids and now a grandson – and I am deeply concerned for the world they’re inheriting. I consider it my responsibility to engage in the political discourse, in order to attempt to bring us back into a more healthy, sustainable and equitable balance.
But there is, also, often a more positive side of dystopias (well, certainly for YA books), and that’s about empowerment, invoking stories of bravery, of standing up against the odds and fighting for the kinds of values that we hold up as the most valuable to a society. It allows us to face our deepest fears (often reflecting our projected fears for the future) as a REHEARSAL – engaging emotionally as a reader to imagine how WE would react in this given situation, what would be OUR bottom lines, OUR goals, OUR weakness and strengths. And, sometimes, it is the only safe way to speak about a situation… fiction allows us disguise the real beneath a mask – and if you are living in a society where it is not safe to speak out on political issues (or sexual issues or gender or anything that is deemed as controversial to that group at that time) then this thin veneer of ‘fiction’ enables people to have a voice and a coded conversation.
It’s also true, with YA dystopian fiction, that there’s an element of Gothic teenage angst at play as well! These kinds of stories appeal to the darkness of the teenage mind – a darkness created from the realisation that not all is perfect, when the blinkers of childhood are removed and we’re suddenly faced with this incredibly complex scary world and now expected to be part of it. And I’m not sure that this is particularly different for an adult audience – I think the same fears and desires for reassurance are at play.
(When I gave this lecture I was asked if I thought dystopias should end on a note of ‘hope’. I’ve thought about this since then, and I think for me – apart from the fact that I think for a YA audience we have some responsibility to take the psychological care of our readers into account and leave them in a safe space – I realised afterwards that I always write in some form of hope at the end of my novels, not so much for any moral or social reason, but because I also write for myself – and I find the world worrying enough and have to actively search out hope so I don’t sink into despair! Therefore I end on hope in order to buoy myself as much as anyone!)
I truly do believe that fiction is one of the most powerful art forms, for it has the ability to tap right into the middle of our hearts and minds, creating a world that our imagination fleshes out with all our own unique subconscious references and motifs. It can create empathy, place us at the heart of a drama, help us understand ourselves. I was raised by very socially conscious parents – and one of the most significant things they did for me as a child was to provide lots and lots and lots of books, of all sorts, from a very early age.
I come with the Dr Seuss stamp of social conscience – Horton the elephant telling me ‘a person’s a person no matter how small’, Yertle the turtle treading on all his fellow turtles to reach the top only to come a cropper, the star-bellied Sneeches teaching me about racism and fear of difference – and as I got older, George Orwell’s 1984 had a huge impact on me, as did his Animal Farm. I read science fiction such as the deep politics of Frank Herbert’s Dune world, Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant attacks on war, weaponry and hypocrisy, Graham Green’s jabs at religion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erewhon, To Kill a Mockingbird, In Cold Blood … and later Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, all books that stare into the face of human darkness and frailty and question our ethical core.
I think these are important types of books to make accessible – and I think any dystopia that brings this kind of critical examination of our world is performing a vital role. Vampires and Zombies? Neh, not so much.