The dystopian novel in which a Ballardian deluge or viral illness transforms planet Earth has become something of a sub-genre, and Clare Morrall’s astute and vigorously imagined novel follows on from the best of them, such as Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and (most recently)Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship.
Intriguingly, the future that Morrall imagines very much resembles the past. Following 50 years of climate catastrophe, and the spread of the population-depleting Hoffman’s disease, the only hope for humanity’s survival is to find ways of ‘living with the weather’, or learning ‘skills that don’t depend on failing technology’. Her heroine, the 22-year-old Roza Polanski, ekes out an existence with her family in a blighted Birmingham tower block, a structure periodically surrounded by flood water. Only when the waters recede can she cycle to the decaying Birmingham Art Gallery; fossil fuels having long since been exhausted. There, the broken statue of a 19th-century economist, uprooted from its plinth, suggests that financial collapse might have contributed to the parlous state of the UK, though this is never fully explored. The plot only really ramps up with the arrival of Aashay, a mysterious and intimidating stranger, who tries to entice the family into a life beyond the collapsed columns of Spaghetti Junction — ‘vast chunks of rubble’, like the trunkless legs of Ozymandias, an image of a civilisation that has overreached itself.
Indeed, the novel is full of convincing glimpses of a society that has lived recklessly and suffered as a result. While ‘much of London is underwater’, the Birmingham streets, ‘once house-lined’, are now ‘fringed with encroaching forest’. Objects have lost their functionality: pylons are ‘steel spiders’, and ‘ancient football stadiums’ host travellers’ fairs. There are vineyards in Sweden and snowflakes in August. Pagers are back in use, phone masts having toppled decades ago.
Morrall is at her best when extrapolating the current political and technological landscape into the future. Hers is one where China is dominant, ‘taking responsibility for our health’ with ‘medicines dropped by drone’. The internet, once so powerful, is now monitored by a government (Conservative, we imagine) drolly relocated to Brighton. ‘Unrestricted access simply doesn’t work.’
It’s not exactly an Orwellian hell, but is more plausible for it. Faceless power is enforced by ‘satellites, drones and directives’. And there’s obligatory control on procreation; but, sinisterly, ‘no coercion is involved’. The government merely ‘appoint a matchmaker, arrange introductions. Providing someone is accepted in the end.’ As with Riddley Walker, certain artefacts from the past survive. In this case it’s not just the weed-strewn M40 and nursery rhymes, but the highest value of all. ‘Love,’ ominously, ‘is encouraged.’
While Morrall is occasionally over-demonstrative or expository, she is frequently wise and deeply humane. Roza’s family are drawn with nuance and heart, and the book closes with a warning against a surveillance society: we run the risk of becoming ‘specimens in an aquarium’. After her Booker-shortlisted debut, and two historical novels, Morrall’s accomplished move into speculative fiction marks her out as one of our most dependable writers.