While some of us try to avoid thinking about the future, others spend their time asking ‘what if?’ and reporting back with the results. From Briohny Doyle (The Island Will Sink), Marlee Jane Ward (Welcome to Orphancorp) and Justin Cronin (The Passage) come three very different takes on where our flaws (or, well, vampire plagues) will take us. In this episode of the KYD Podcast, we ask them how they construct their futuristic worlds, and why they choose to do so.
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Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hello, and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan and I’ll be your host as we speak to Justin Cronin about coming to the end of the Passage trilogy and to Marlee Jane Ward about the future of Welcome to Orphancorp. But first, we’ll start with Briohny Doyle, whose debut novel The Island Will Sink, is the November Kill Your Darlings First Book Club pick. It’s also the first novel published by The Lifted Brow. In it, Max Galleon, blockbuster disaster movie director, plans the ultimate end of the world narrative while his own memories slip through his fingers.
First off, congratulations on selling out your first print run.
Briohny Doyle: I think it sold out by October, so I think it was, like, two months and we sold it out, and we did a second print run, and we’re coming towards the end of the second print run, and we’re doing a third print run. So it’s pretty crazy.
KYD: Yikes, I need to revise my congratulations – double congratulations then, or something?
BD: (LAUGHS). Not quite, not quite. I’m jumping the gun, I mean, we haven’t completely sold out our second print run, but they did say at the warehouse that the levels were getting low so we should restock, yeah.
KYD: So The Island Will Sink isn’t your only experience with the end of the world narratives, I hear –I think I’ve heard you described as a Doctor of Apocalypses. Would you care to elaborate a tad on that?
BD: Sure. So did my PhD Thesis on apocalyptic narratives, and specifically the function of apocalyptic narratives, like, how they function, how they have functioned in history and different things that they’re used for. So I kind of did more traditional apocalypses, biblical apocalypse, and then I started talking and thinking about contemporary apocalypse, and the function of revelation in the contemporary moment. And also contemporary post-apocalypse – the idea of a post-apocalypse is that it withholds revelation, so yeah, that’s what I was thinking about the duration of my PhD.
KYD: That sounds like it also simultaneously would have been some pretty damn good research for your book as well, which is very sneaky of you.
BD: Yeah, totally!
KYD: So one of the things you probably would have touched on is that novels and things speculate on the future, and particularly, possibly problematic parts of the future are usually shaped in large part by the concerns and preoccupations and technological developments of the present era. Did anything happen in the process while you were writing your book that you then had to sort of revise your idea of this future you were creating?
BD: Oh yeah, I don’t know if you know, but I have been writing this book for almost 10 years. So like, I had my cars started off as being Fleet Electric, and then they were Fleet Hydro, and then they were Fleet Methane, or something like, I had to change it three times because the technology kept being like, ‘That’s not future technology, man.’ And then there was other stuff in the book technology-wise, like there is augmented reality in the book, and there is augmented reality written into scenes, that was quite hard to understand previously. But by the time we were releasing it, it is the year of Pokemon Go, and everyone understands what augmented reality is – it totally makes sense to me to say, ‘and a panda pops up on your shoulders now,’ we wouldn’t have any problem processing that. Because like in 2006, maybe it would have been less easy for us to understand. In terms of political stuff, I mean, when I started writing it – there’s a lot of different layers of what I was exploring in the book, but certainly I was thinking a lot about environmental stuff at that point, I was also thinking a lot – I mean, 2007 was the first year that I was on Facebook. So I was thinking a lot about how technology changes the way we remember and narrate our lives. Which seems kind of blasé now, you know, so many years later. Yeah, there’s heaps of stuff that changed, actually. At some point while I was writing this, I read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and I was like, ‘yeah, that’s exactly the world, the dystopian world I want to have,’ like the world after the shock where everything’s kind of been cleared away and the whole world, or this whole space has been co-opted in this really kind of sneaky way.
KYD: The panda! Every time my little Duolingo owl pops up on my phone, and is like, ‘You haven’t been doing your French language practice today,’ I’m like, ugh, it’s shaming me, the same way as the panda will pop up and be like, ‘you are doing something environmentally unfriendly right now.’
BD: Yeah, wow – I mean, it’s not like I was like ‘Oh, amazing, you predicted these things,’ it is obviously that that was going to happen, but it happened quicker than I could publish the book, unfortunately! Or fortunately. And there was some stuff that came out, like a Black Mirror episode came out a few years ago that I was like ‘Oh, well, that’s that for the book, then, they’ve used up the ideas.’ But luckily I persevered with it.
KYD: It must be quite a hard sort of route to take, you don’t want to be like Jetson flying cars, so far in the possible future that everyone is like, ‘Eh, whatever.’ But you also don’t want to be things that are already happening exactly, because otherwise it’s not weirdly prescient, it is just, oh… but it feels like you hit a very good note.
BD: I think that this was a very good year for it, right up to kind of now, because now I feel like, I feel like the dystopia that I wrote was super plausible in January, and now I feel like the dystopia that we will live in will be like, way worse, and way more kind of 60s, you know, fascist and loud and not really that sneaky, like really blatant, and all of those things are not in the book – like, I thought, oh, it’s a tricksy, like, small-l liberal, capitalist dystopia, but now I think we’re in for something a bit louder.
KYD: A little bit more depressing, in a very different way. Do you think there is an ideal ratio for speculative novels between, sort of, current science and creativity?
BD: I wanted the science, in my book anyway, to be almost unnoticeable but totally plausible. And I am not a sciencey person, really, so… and also lots of years passed, so the times when I was researching stuff and it was like, I had thought, ‘I wonder if this exists, I’m sure it does,’ or ‘I’m sure there’s research into this,’ and research made it a bit plausible in its various different ways. I like books that are more sciencey, for sure, but I’m not that into science fiction that really just nerds out and fetishises the science. I want the stories and the people to be the thing, that’s what I’m interested in.
KYD: As a reader personally, it’s sort of interesting, it’s nice to have that bit of ‘ooh, that’s cool,’ but what’s interesting I find personally is how that changes humans’ experience, and how they react to it, and how that changes.
BD: That’s right, that is the central question of science fiction, right? Like, what is the human, how is it changing. How does it change in relation to technology. If the question is just like ‘What is technology, and what does it do?’ that is a less interesting question, to me anyway.
KYD: James Bradley said of his novel Clade that he wanted to scare people into change with his novel. Do you have any such ambitions for your own work?
BD: No, I’m not much of a moralist actually, and I am kind of, I guess I always knew that about myself, but the more interviews I do, the more I am like, ‘I’m not really a moralist.’ But I did want people to notice things, like… Part of what I wanted to do in my book, successfully or unsuccessfully, who knows – I wanted to draw people’s attention to absences, and the way absences work. So I guess that was important. I wanted people to go away from my book with questions, and hopefully productive questions, like, ‘But what happened, and where are these people, and what is going on here?’ and think about and try to fill those things in themselves. In that way I wanted to stimulate a conversation, and stimulate a conversation with lots of questions, rather than lay out a story that I could resolve or that the reader could resolve. And in that, that’s the kind of moral ground that I want to occupy insofar as ‘OK, it is really important to question everything, it is really important to question how the text is functioning, and what it is performing for you and what, how you are implicated within that.’ But I don’t know if it was, I wasn’t really like, you know, ‘Turn off your computers, ‘cos they’re stealing your memory!’ I just, yeah, it wasn’t that clear-cut, I think.
KYD: No, it sounds like much more of by getting people to ask questions like ‘how they get here’, or about the people you assume start to also have questions like ‘How would we get there?’ Which is interesting. You mentioned that the world that you were creating seemed a lot more plausible pre-this year – if you were to write another, have you any intentions of writing another novel at this point?
BD: Oh yeah, I’ll write another novel, but I don’t think I’ll write another dystopia. But I… I don’t know, I’m kind of drawn to dark subjects, I suppose, so I won’t talk about the subject that I would like to write a novel about next, but it is dark. So I suppose anything dark, anything where there is a world where it’s not great is dystopian. I would love to write, like, something that is not dark, but I just don’t have any of those kinds of ideas. I don’t think I’m a very bleak person, but I don’t have those ideas. If I was writing a dystopia now – I don’t think I would write a dystopia right now, because I just don’t, I think we’re gonna live it and we will be up to our eyeballs in it. There would definitely be room, I think at the moment, for a really great satire of what is going on, but who knows. Someone retweeted a line from my book or posted on Facebook last week, and I was like… (SHUDDERS). It was something about, ‘only catastrophe interrupts continuous history,’ something like that, I can’t remember the exact line. But I was like, ‘that’s such an awful thing to think, and especially right now.’ And it was my protagonist who thinks that way, and he is kind of an awful, trapped person, but I wrote it, so I was like… ugh, I didn’t even want to see it. So I don’t think I would write a dystopia right now.
KYD: That was Briohny Doyle, author of The Island Will Sink. It is out now with The Lifted Brow, they’re rather excellent, and not just because they’re our sponsors for this episode. Up next, Marlee Jane Ward, reading from the sequel to Welcome to Orphancorp.
Marlee Jane Ward: ‘You electronic piece of shit!’ I hiss, as my tablet chimes with that dire low battery warning, a second after I hit Send. The charging pad is plugged into the one point in the room not in use, but it’s all the way over the far side of the room and the only place I get decent wireless signal is this corner.
I have already spent a few long, cold hours by the open window, because of course the window has to be open to receive the signal. My hands are numb, my breath steams. Everyone complains about the open window in the dead of winter, so I’ve got to promise them my rice ration for tomorrow to get them to shut up and let it get on with it. Going hungry for a day is worth it to stop Mrs Gupta from kicking me every time she walks by, or the Pierce twins threatening to slit my throat in my sleep. So do I risk the battery running flat but keep the signal while I upload, or lose the sig, run and slap the tab on the pad for a minute or two? Either way I’m going to bugger up my upload and have to start over.
I’ve got four minutes to the midnight deadline, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it. I watch the upload bar extending as the red-rimmed critical battery icon mocks me from the lower right-hand corner. ‘Faster, you prick, faster!’ I plead softly, but obviously not softly enough because Yu Xiang rolls over on her floor mat and throws a shoe at my head. I’d throw the shoe back but Xiang is pregnant, and I guess it’s probably wrong. Maybe if I aim specifically for her head and not her grotesquely swollen belly… Nah, I’ll just spit in her water jug later on. The upload progress bar creeps through the 90s and I beat the heel of my palm against the aluminium window flame silently.
The battery life on this tablet is a joke. When I got the thing third-hand they told me the charge lasted 24 hours, but I’ve heard that new, the model is good for a least a 14-day charge. The bloody thing is at least three years old, obsolete, practically useless, and the battery life is a few hours at most. The upload bar passes 95%, my butt clenches, teeth too, and I grip the sides of the tablet. If I could power the bloody thing with my rage, the charge would last a lifetime. Why does everything bugger up when it is most important?
At 98 the critical battery tone chirps again, and the symbol changes to the low battery to the no battery icon. ‘Oh, you crump of a thing!’ I hiss, and I imagine smashing the tablet on the window frame, the pieces flying off in all directions. I imagine it sparking, I wish it would set fire to the entire goddamn place. If only I’d charged it just a little longer, if only someone hadn’t stolen my extension cord, and when I find out who was I’m going to strangle them with it. If only one of these bitches would let me use the power point closest to the window, I’m sure they refuse out of spite. If only I was like everyone else, never trying anything and never having to fail. Why do I even bother? All this work, all this time spent wrangling, totally wasted.
Or not – the upload status bar winks out and is replaced with ‘upload complete’. I stare at the words for a second, and the screen goes blank. ‘Ha! I did it! Eat shit all of you!’ I bellow. My glee is then met by a barrage of shoes, pillows and one well aimed saucepan that corks me right in the crown of my head. I’ll probs have an egg there for a week, but I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I did it.
KYD: That was Marlee Jane Ward, reading from the sequel to Welcome to Orphancorp. We’ll discuss the book and the world takes place in later on. But first, Justin Cronin, whose recently released City Of Mirrors is the third book in his post-apocalyptic Passage trilogy.
In it, the story of the survivors we met in The Passage comes to an end, while more is revealed about the circumstances that changed our familiar world into theirs. I asked Justin, did he read books that could be described as apocalyptic as well as writing them?
Justin Cronin: I grew up on a steady diet, actually, of those sorts of books, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go back to that narrative. They were enormously important books to me, actually, as a kid – I was born in 1962, just a couple of weeks before the Cuban missile crisis, so I am a true Cold War kid. And that period of time saw a great many apocalyptic novels and films, it became an important thread in all of science fiction or speculative fiction, and popular fiction in general. And you know, I marinated very profoundly in these books, I think for the same reason a lot of other people did, just for the sort of psychological catharsis – it was a way of exploring it, the tremendous anxiety that everybody had in that period.
KYD: So your previous work before The Passage was more along the veins of literary fiction, it is a very tightly plotted set of novels for a trilogy that is so long, and character is such a key part of it and you don’t sacrifice character development for plot, which can happen sometimes in stories that can focus on that. Do you feel that was your previous experience as a primarily literary fiction author that led to that, or that contributed to that?
JC: I would say it was a habit of mind, as much as a habit of art and craft. I came to being a writer in the first place out of curiosity about human behaviour and, you know, a personal interest in observing the patterns of human behaviour, and trying to make sense out of it. We all spend a lot of our lives trying to figure out other people, and so I became a writer for a variety of reasons, but one of them was simply an interest in human nature, and having noted my own ability to feel profoundly moved by human events in film and literature. And so my first two books had, you know, substantially less urgent plots in them. When I came to writing the Passage trilogy, when I started to work with a very big canvas, with a high concept thriller, sci-fi, apocalyptic narrative engine, the sensibility I brought to it was – I was going to spend 10 years on this, it had be interesting to me. And just the central concept was not enough, it really had to be a novel about people, I thought, if it was going to be, as it was, 3800 pages of manuscript, you know, it had to be about human beings. Otherwise what is the point? So again, it was a habit of mind, but also a question of what is just personally compelling to me, right? And I think, if you’re going to write good books, which is all I want to do – and as I told my wife, I want my epitaph to say ‘good guy, wrote good books’ – and if you’re going to do that, you have to really pay attention to human nature, that’s really the purpose, I think, of the books that interest me.
KYD: There are many appeals of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction, but one of them is to see how people react to that sort of environment, and how they cope and how they reconstruct society or do not. I have heard it mentioned that you want to move around genre wise, and that your next work will be completely different to these ones. There’s almost a campus or class novella set inside City of Mirrors…
JC: There is, there is, yeah!
KYD: Is that something that you would move on to next?
JC: No – I did my campus novel, I think, inside there. I had always wanted to write something set at Harvard, where I went, because its social practices are so particular to the kind of place that it is, and I had an insider’s knowledge of it. But I think what I am going to do in the future, and I am sort of gearing up now for the next project, is both the same and different. I really do like having a strong engine that creates urgency in a story, and there are many different conceits that I found enthralling as a young reader. That post-apocalyptic or apocalyptic narrative being one that was psychologically crucial, just managing to grow up in that time. So I’m going to go back, I think, to the next project that I do, and there’ll be other ones, different kinds of things that are down the road, but the one I’m gonna do next, I think, is going to take me back to another one of those conceits, once again, with the human questions being the ones that are the real subject of the book. But the sort of fantastic conceits like, you know, a vampire apocalypse, are a great way of putting energy into a story, and putting pressure on your characters to reveal who they are. If you are running for your life, you know, you can’t help but be who you are in that moment.
KYD: Speaking of, I suppose, the vampire apocalypse aspect of your books, it is interesting, I kept on finding myself starting to describe it as a zombie apocalypse, which it’s not, obviously, they are not zombies, they are vampires – but I guess the thing is that vampires in fiction generally don’t seem to act in the ways that vampires do in yours. The way that they move, and I am definitely not giving away anything here, but the way they move across the world and the way the plague of sorts is at the heart of it is something we are much more familiar with…
JC: Also they operate in groups, they have the feel of the horde, right. So I mean, there is a million different genres going on in these books, and I had, I confess, a tremendous amount of fun with that. The vampire part of the narrative, the extent to which it is a vampire trilogy, is sort of the least of it, in my opinion. You know, I used the vampire as a bogeyman, I wanted to have some fun with that. I feel like we only have certain kinds of bogeyman, we have about four – the vampire, the werewolf, the zombie and the Frankenstein, and I think the vampire is the most fun, the most interesting, the most rich and the most metaphorically flexible. You can attach it to other genres really easily. And I’d noted that in the past. I started these books before that little vampire bubble that started happening in the mid-2000s, I was unaware that stuff had really happened yet, and I was really operating off the template of my own experiences of the story, when as a kid, in film and in literature and comic books, and all that stuff. But what I was doing with the trilogy was I was basically kind of unpacking a million genres simultaneously. And I thought of the first book, principally, as a road novel, a sort of Western road novel, because its major engine is a bunch of characters travelling across North America in a state of complete innocence, they have never really seen it before. And that’s a Western, that is a classic American narrative of the first Europeans encountering the sublime beauty and danger and wildness of the American West. I thought of the second novel in some ways as a spy novel, it has a lot of tropes of spy fiction. And the third one, there is a bunch of things going on, but as you pointed out, a little bit of Brideshead Revisited dropped into the middle of it. And I wanted it, it is a long trilogy, I wanted to empty all of my suitcases into it, and I did, and I know I am going to need a period of recuperation here, I think having done it.
KYD: That was Justin Cronin, author of City of Mirrors, out now with Hachette. You’re listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast.
Marlee Jane Ward’s novella Welcome to Orphancorp was one of the winners of Seizure’s Viva La Novella prize last year. With the sequel due in 2017, we spoke to Marlee about writing the future.
Books that are set in the future often have a lot more to say about the concerns of society at the point in time that they are written, they are necessarily about things that will happen in the future. Are there any events or aspects of our world today that in the last few years have fed into the world you’re creating in the sequel to Welcome to Orphancorp?
MJW: So in the sequel to Welcome to Orphancorp, the protagonist is leaving the Orphancorp and heading out into the wider world – and I kind of took that whole notion of how young adults, on leaving school, tend to, or I know I did, tend to sort of get lost in that world of work and trying to build a life. So I guess the concern that I am working with in the sequel is, it goes from sort of the rights of the child, which was the main focus of Orphancorp, to the rights of the worker. As well as, you know, sort of a mystery as well, so there is aspects of that, there is exploration of the future world I have created, but a large part of it is the rights of a worker, as well as the rights of people, once again, when corporate interests overwhelm human rights, which is a theme in Orphancorp as well.
KYD: It certainly is – weirdly, while reading Welcome to Orphancorp, I never really considered what it must be like for adults in that particular world, you are so much in the mind of the protagonist that your main concern is, ‘Wow, the situation footage in this sort of circumstance is horrible,’ but given that, I’m guessing that the circumstances for the workers aren’t particularly fabulous either.
MJW: No, and I took inspiration from a few articles that I’d read recently, and obviously I can’t go into what their content is, otherwise it will spoil the surprise – but if you look at, basically, I didn’t have to make it much more dystopian than it already was, in regards to certain kinds of business practices when it comes to their workers. It wasn’t much of a stretch from today, though I’m sure people reading it will think ‘Wow, that’s dystopian’, in actuality, it is happening now. Perhaps not exactly to the extent that it is happening in the book, because I do like to take things to their wildest kind of conclusions, but yeah, I didn’t have to step too far away from the actuality to get to the dystopia of it, which was really interesting to me.
KYD: I think that it’s sort of the strongest, most compelling and the most disturbing futuristic works always seem to only go like one or two steps beyond the situation now, that is kind of what makes them so frightening or so interesting to read. So a lot of the dystopian or futuristic fiction that we would have grown up reading in the 90s was really informed by that growing awareness of environmental concerns – are there any events today, obviously you can only explore so much of our world in your fiction about the future, but are there any events today that you think are going to inform the futuristic fiction that we see in the coming decade?
MJW: It is environmental concerns, so climate change is going to definitely inform, because one way that authors, one way that information and concepts are communicated is by authors creating fiction about them. And we especially need it in this day and age when people, when Australia is having a meeting to debate whether climate change actually exists, we need depictions of what our life is going to be like more than ever, because it is quite simply a reality, and we are going to start living in it, probably sooner than we think. I really like to explore the idea of small changes having big consequences. Like when you look to Syria, the events there started with a drought and the land becoming too arid to grow crops, which led to famine, which led to discord, which led to an innumerable tide of events that ended with a civil war and refugee crisis. That’s what we’re going to be looking at in the future, and I have got ideas that look to sort of explore those small changes that lead to catastrophic consequences. I think the rise of nationalism is something, like on a political scale, that needs to be explored in fiction. And I think that the history of dystopian fiction sort of speaks to that, but I do think we need to explore what will come with the rise of the far right, and you can take it to as extreme a level as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, but you can take it to a lesser level as well in the everyday, and I feel as if we are living in that dystopia right now. It has come about very quickly. If the right wing does continue to gain popularity, and if the nationalism, xenophobia, racism, bigotry, and the reduction of human rights continues in the fashion, we are going to see really interesting and scary future – and fiction, I think, is the canary in the coalmine. When you think about issues like, like nuclear war, back during the Cold War, so Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, I read a quote about On The Beach saying all political leaders should read that book, because it deals with not just the global scale of what a nuclear war would contain, but also on a personal scale of the everyman. And I think fiction, all fiction has the ability to do that.
KYD: Certainly we have a bit of a problem sometimes with humanity that things that seem incomprehensible, we don’t really plan for or act against, and I think one of the things that any work of fiction, whether it is a film or anything can do, is the more that those ideas become comprehensible or become possible, the more people start to think that maybe this is something that can be avoided or that people can plan for, or the decisions they make now can actually have an impact on that. So I think it will be really interesting to see what comes up over the next few years.
MJW: I read an article that was talking about Russian dystopian fiction, sort of from the earlier 20th century, and they have these stories that went along the lines of, the base concept of, ‘if this continues…’ And I think that is what dystopian fiction is continuing to explore at the moment, or has the potential to explore, which is, if this continues, in the way that it’s going, this is what could happen. It is not the job of fiction to predict the future, it is the job of fiction to explore possible futures, and perhaps warn us against them, or perhaps spur us to action.
KYD: That was Marlee Jane Ward, author of Welcome to Orphancorp, out now with Seizure. That is all we have time for today, I’m Meaghan Dew, you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast, and I would like to thank Justin, Marlee and Briohny for the time. You can find issue 27 of Kill Your Darlings out now, so check that out if you can. If not, we’ll be back with another podcast in December. And until then you can visit our website Killings at any hour of the night or day. See you next time!