Thinking inside the box | 16 May 2019

These days, a common way of introducing radio news items is with the words ‘How worried should we be about…?’ The trouble with this formula is not just the strange notion that anxiety has apparently become some sort of moral duty — even a badge of honour. It’s also that we generally know what the answer will be: we should be very worried indeed. Now, in Russell T. Davies’s Years and Years (BBC1, Tuesday), the same formula serves as the premise for a television drama. The first episode began by introducing us to three adult siblings, scrupulously chosen to represent modern Britain — at least as seen on TV. (The

Water, sky, wind and cold

Dystopian fiction continues to throng the bookshelves, for all the world as though we weren’t living in a dystopia already, and the latest entrant to the glum-futures category is John Lanchester’s The Wall, about which much can be divined from a glossary of the capitalised nouns that throng it from the title onwards. The Wall encircles the perimeter of a fortified Britain. The Change has caused the sea level to rise, transforming the world forever. The Defenders, a national service now demanded of all young people, protect the Wall. The Guards patrol the coastal waters in boats, the Flight in planes. The Others want to get over the wall from

An act of piety

Census is a curious, clever novel. It depicts a dystopia with a father and his Down’s syndrome son journeying from town A to town Z taking a census. The father, the narrator, knows he is dying. As a retired doctor he can interpret the fatal signs of his disease. His is a bizarre family; his wife, who has pre-deceased him, trained as a clown. Condemned to death and left with his disadvantaged son — ‘Our lives, my wife’s and mine, bent round him like a shield’ — he decides to register as a census-taker in an Orwell-ian state office. He asks questions of those interviewed, to which he sometimes but

Close to the bone

Does J.G. Ballard’s ‘disquieting equation’, ‘sex x technology = the future’, still hold? Not in Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel, which imagines a society better described by the formula ‘the future = technology – sex’. There is no procreation in it, and any manifestation of sexuality is a crime. Its inhabitants have left Earth for a space station, a hi-tech prison only the rich can afford, moving away from ‘a lunar landscape of jagged rocks, treeless mountains, or scorched dirt’, the scene of endless wars fought by child soldiers, where ‘technology is seized by those who kill best’. Both the ruined old world and the AI-ruled new one are frightening, and not

Soft dystopias

Science fiction, as any enthusiast will tell you, is not just about gazing into the future but also about illuminating the present. In a new collection of short stories by the veteran sf author M. John Harrison, lurid visions of aliens and spaceships play second fiddle to melancholic snapshots of plodding suburbia. Many of the tales in You Should Come With Me Now (Comma Press, £9.99) are set in leafy south-west London, amid the banality of modest affluence: from Putney to Chiswick, Twickenham and St Margarets, and along ‘the endless heartbreaking sweep of the A3 to the sea’. In ‘Cicisbeo’, a husband ensconces himself in his loft, and will only

Back to the future | 5 October 2017

Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner first came out in cinemas 35 years ago, which I was going to say probably makes it older than some readers, although this being The Spectator, perhaps not. It wasn’t successful in its day, but has since become a beloved classic (rightly), whereas this sequel, Blade Runner 2049, will likely do great box office today, but no one will give a fig tomorrow, once all the silly hype has died away. This is Blade Runner as a dull mainstream blockbuster populated by men who are the epitome of masculine cool and women who are needlessly sexualised fembots. And Harrison Ford doesn’t even appear until the

1967 and all that

As you may have spotted, the BBC is marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality with an extended gay season. (And if you haven’t, I can only assume you’ve seen and heard no BBC trailers for months.) The centrepiece this week was Against the Law (BBC2, Wednesday), which dramatised the story of Peter Wildeblood, a Daily Mail journalist imprisoned for 18 months in 1954 for the possibly overlapping crimes of buggery and gross indecency. But — double entendre alert — Wildeblood didn’t take this lying down. After his release, he published a book making the case for legalisation. In the central role, Daniel Mays captured Wildeblood’s reluctant

Heaven knows they’re miserable now | 1 June 2017

On the face of it, the two new big drama series of the week don’t have a great deal in common, with one set in a determinedly present-day Britain, the other in a dystopian American future. What they do share, though, is a general air of classiness, some impressively understated central performances and, above all, an almost heroic commitment to unrelenting misery. In the first episode of Broken (BBC1, Tuesday), a typical scene consisted of single mother Christina — who’d just been sacked from her badly paid job and told she was ineligible for benefits — reluctantly selling off her wedding and engagement rings, before returning home to find her

Worse than Big Brother

The California novelist T.C. Boyle has often taken true stories and created alternative histories, from John Harvey Kellog and the birth of the breakfast cereal in The Road to Wellville to Alfred Kinsey and the creation of sexology in The Inner Circle. This might draw comparisons with James Ellroy, Boyle’s exact contemporary, except that where Ellroy aims at the very darkest version of a tabloid reality, Boyle takes a New Age perspective conveyed though whimsy and surrealism. Ellroy, of course, was born in California while Boyle chose to live there. He is a native of the culture rather than the territory. This is a problem in The Terranauts, where the

Lost in translation | 31 March 2016

Trencherman was first published in Afrikaans in 2006 and translated into English for a South African readership shortly afterwards, but has only now found a UK publisher. Eben Venter — one of the notable voices in white South African writing post-Apartheid — has been ‘temporarily’ based in Australia for more than two decades, but returns to his home for stories. You can see why. After Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee emigrated to Australia — and hasn’t published a decent novel since. He evacuated his subject. For Africa-born whites, the one thing worse than staying is leaving. The left brain urges you to settle in a safe economy with prospects, where the right

The heavens are falling

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

A captivating prospect

What could happen in literature to a young couple — or a pair of young couples — who fall off the beaten track and enter a magical place not quite of this world? They might end up, like Adam and Eve, in paradise. Or, like The Tempest’s Miranda and Ferdinand, under the control of powers greater than they can hope to understand. Or, like the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they could find themselves unsure who they love, or whether they can ever trust what they see, or feel. Or, like Charmaine and Stan, the star-crossed heroes of Margaret Atwood’s dazzling and hilarious new novel The Heart Goes Last,

Tracks through the wasteland

Sex, and plenty of it. That’s certainly what Bunny Munro — the titular protagonist of Nick Cave’s second novel — wants. And, in a roundabout way, he gets it. In the very first chapter, he’s cheating on his wife with a prostitute; in the second, it’s a hotel waitress; in the third, he’s given to fantasies about Kylie Minogue; in the fourth … well, you get the picture. Throw in the fact that Bunny is a travelling cosmetics salesman in Brighton, and it starts to sound like one of those dreadful Robin Askwith comedies from the 1970s — you know, Confessions of a Window Cleaner. But The Death of Bunny