Dystopian novels are all the rage. The genre isn’t new of course. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World remains one of the best, prophetic and disturbing, and, if the world lasts till 2032, which it probably will, his book will be 100 years old. Still it’s a rare month now when a new dystopian novel isn’t published, and what was once classified as sci-fi or fantasy has elbowed its way into the mainstream. Writing in the New Statesman recently Erica Wagner (former literary editor of the Times) suggested this might be due to “the pressures of the 21st century.” Perhaps, perhaps, though these pressures may be no greater than in previous centuries; for Climate Change now, read Nuclear Winter 60 years ago. Moreover, no fictional dystopia matches the historical realities of the Nazi death-camps or the Soviet gulag.
CA Fletcher’s dystopia is less ghastly than many and indeed his novel is for the most part a rather cheerful and engaging adventure. The boy Griz,who tells the story, is as bold, resourceful and likeable as Stevenson’s Jim Hawkins. This dystopia was “a soft apocalypse.”
They called it “the Gelding... though what caused that never got sorted out.” It is just that “the world – the human part of it – had been gelded or maybe turned barren – perhaps both – and people just stopped having kids. That’s all it took”. (Not only the human part, as it turns out. Dogs were affected too and now very few bitches are born.)
Only a tiny number of people escaped the Gelding. Griz, obviously, is one of them. “In my whole life,” he says, “I haven’t met enough people to make up two teams for a game of football. The world is that empty.”
He knows about football and a great deal else because he can read and books have survived, as they do, he remarks, if they escape the ravages of damp and rats. Books also of course feed his curiosity about the strangely empty world and life before the Gelding.
He lives with his parents and his brother and sister on the small island of Mingulay, “off the Atlantic coast of what used to be Scotland.” There are also the dogs. Griz has two – terriers called Jip and Jess. Barra is nearby but “we don’t land there… because something happened and it’s bad land… dad says if you set foot on Barra now you get something much worse than an itch.”
That, briefly, is the set-up and it’s persuasive. Then one day a boat with red sails appears. Aman comes ashore. He says he is called Brand and he’s a trader, happy to trade anything really. One of the dogs perhaps? The bitch of course – he has his own dog, a fierce half-breed Husky.
No, certainly not: Jess won’t be traded with anyone. Nevertheless Brand stays for supper, produces a bottle of spirits from his bag. Maybe it’s drugged because they all fall asleep, and in the morning Brand has departed, stealing Jess and making off with her. So he is not only a storyteller but a thief, and Griz is determined to set off, in company with Jip, pursue him and recover Jess.
So the quest begins, taking Griz into unexplored territory, danger and new experiences. Like all the best quest novels, what happens to him is educational. He will be tested and matured – just as Jim Hawkins is in Treasure Island and David Balfour is in Kidnapped. Fletcher writes a good, easy narrative prose. Some scenes are perhaps prolonged more than they need be, but there is a considerable and agreeable variety in the narrative. Descriptions are persuasive and pleasing, and, in the tradition of the picaresque, Griz meets a variety of characters (even in this sparsely-populated world). He sets out with the sole intention of getting his dog back – and the dogs are very well done, without mawkishness – but he finds more than he could ever have imagined or thought possible.
In short, Fletcher has written a fine story, and though it is in the fashionable dystopian genre, one can happily report that his dystopia is less horrible and a great deal less boring than many others. - Allan Massie
A Boy And His Dog At The End Of The World, by CA Fletcher, Orbit, 366pp, £14.99