In his “Motto to the Svendborg Poems,” composed in exile in Denmark in the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht wrote: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.” Clearly darkness is relative, and the challenges of the early 21st century pale into insignificance when compared with the chaos that had begun to engulf Europe when Brecht fled Nazi Germany. Still, there is something about the current decade, a sense of the deckchairs beginning to slide, that has caused various media commentators to liken it to the 1930s; and just as Brecht foretold, this sense of impending disaster also seems to be seeping its way into our literature.
Already, 2017 has been quite a year for novels set in a dystopian near-future. February saw the publication of Heinz Helle’s Euphoria, the decidedly un-euphoric story of a group of friends struggling to cling on to their humanity in the Austrian Alps following some unspecified cataclysm. John Burnside’s Havergey, meanwhile, released last month, has as its hero a time-traveller from the present day who fetches up on an unnamed Scottish island in the year 2050, again after a civilisation-ending disaster. (The fact that the island in question may in fact turn out to be a mini-utopia doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans in a world where, we learn, some 90 per cent of the population has been wiped out by disease.)
The future isn’t much brighter in Kenneth Steven’s 2020. Set in the titular year and written from multiple perspectives, it tells the story of a terrorist attack by a group of Islamic fundamentalists on a train travelling from Edinburgh to London, and the bloody aftermath in which the north of England is swept by riots and a man called Eric Semple rides a wave of racism all the way to Westminster.
Some of the things Steven imagines are chillingly plausible, not to say prescient: following the Manchester Arena bombing, it was announced that armed transport police were to patrol train services nationwide in order to “disrupt and deter criminal activity” after the UK terror threat level was raised to critical. But while the premise of the book is convincing enough, the detail frequently lets it down. Part of the problem is that the various different voices telling the story don’t sound distinctive enough. All of the witnesses supposedly giving evidence to an official inquiry sound more or less the same, whether it’s a policeman who has been party to the torture of a terror suspect, a 13-year-old Muslim schoolgirl who is bullied following the attack, or a politician who saw the effect the bombing and subsequent riots had on the Prime Minister’s fragile emotional state. Worse, these anonymous characters frequently lapse into a strange, formal-sounding language that it’s hard to imagine anybody using in real life: “there was no earthly doubt the two were inextricably linked”; “yes, I apologise for digressing”; “don’t get me wrong, the place has been all too harshly maligned for years”. As Jack Lemmon says in Some Like It Hot, “Nobody talks like that!” A few passages have the ring of truth to them, and one or two really come alive, notably a doctor’s account of treating victims of the attacks. On the whole, though, this is an interesting idea, poorly executed.
The contrast between 2020 and Megan Hunter’s debut novel The End We Start From could hardly be more stark. Hunter’s spare, drumskin-tight prose zings off the page, and ingenious descriptions abound: a nurse has “hunched shoulders like the start of wings”; Scottish clouds are “dense as drapery”. Shortly after giving birth, a first-time London mother learns that the city has been flooded, so she and her partner and baby become refugees, travelling from one camp to the next as society collapses and chaos reigns. It may only consist of 127 pages of impressionistic, staccato sentences, but this is a book of wide horizons and big ideas, and it’s no surprise that Benedict Cumberbatch’s company SunnyMarch and Hera Pictures have just acquired the movie rights. For Hunter, at least, the future looks very bright indeed.
*2020: A Novel, by Kenneth Steven, Saraband, £8.99; The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter, Picador, £9.99